The Kingsbury Manx
|Summer Teases||Single Wish (compilation)|
|Pelz Komet||Aztec Discipline|
|Dinner Bell||Aztec Discipline|
|Harness And Wheel||The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South|
|1000 8||The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South|
|Animations||The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South|
|Well Whatever||Ascenseur Ouvert!|
|Clean Break||Ascenseur Ouvert!|
|Custer's Last||Bronze Age|
|How Things Are Done||Bronze Age|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
Note to readers: I am aware that Toppermost likes to produce a playlist for each of their Top 10s if possible. The first three Kingsbury Manx records – two albums and an EP – are unavailable on spotify and other streaming services so I have chosen songs that are available. Earlier Manx songs are on youtube though, so links are provided within the text for key songs within that period. Yes I know it’s cheating but I’m making the rules today.
The Kingsbury Manx are one of the finest bands of the 21st Century, yet have slipped between the cracks of the world. They are a secret known to a select few, the kind of band who proceed along at their own leisurely pace issuing an album every three or four years, whenever it’s ready, whenever it’s just right. They’ll never be huge, but they’re much loved by those who know them and maybe by writing this and hearing their songs, I might persuade you to give them a listen too.
The Kingsbury Manx were formed by singer/guitarists Ken Stephenson and Bill Taylor in 1999 in North Carolina and emerged quietly into the world with their eponymous debut album which was issued in the autumn of 2000 on Overcoat Records in the US and City Slang in the UK. There was little information about them at the time; the album sleeve was discreet and didn’t give a lot of information about the band leading to speculation that they were an indie supergroup masquerading as a bunch of unknowns. Such was the accomplishment of their debut that anyone could think this. In the UK, the NME gave a little bit of attention to them, and the album ended up in their Top 50 of the year. I first encountered them when the album was highlighted in my local Our Price with a blurb making comparisons to George Harrison, Simon and Garfunkel and early Pink Floyd, alongside The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Village Green era Kinks. “Can it be that good?” I asked myself. I was intrigued enough to buy it and never regretted it for a moment.
The Kingsbury Manx is a typical debut album, clutching at styles to see if they fit. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does work it is tremendous stuff. One point to note is that they know the art of sequencing albums, they know how to open and close their records. I could easily pick a top 10 just from their album opener and closers. Pageant Square starts their run of perfect album openers; an organ drone, softly brushed drums, a mix of acoustic and chiming electric guitars, and intriguing words and harmonies. Other highlights of that first album include Fanfare which is the Manx at their most early Floyd-like – Syd styled glissando echo slide guitar and a swinging rhythm (and one of the best opening lines ever), and Silver Trees which is a shimmering haze of slow motion guitars and harmonies.
A year later The Kingsbury Manx issued their second album, the brilliantly titled Let You Down and this was their first masterpiece. The album sounds of a piece – 42 perfect autumnal minutes of gentle brushed drum rhythms, a delicious mix of electric and acoustic guitars, a little organ and odd shadings, a flute on Arun, waves of distortion breaking through on Patterns Shape The Mile, there’s an intimate campfire atmosphere on Sleeping On The Ground and a peculiar slightly freaked mood on the instrumental, The New Evil. My personal favourite on the album is Simplify, taking the Floyd stylings of Fanfare in another more unique direction, more their own style now. Sadly neither of their first two albums are available currently in the UK, or on any streaming service, but you can find second hand copies cheaply online. As a slight recompense, I’ve included Summer Teases on the topperlist – a song recorded during the second album sessions which is on the Single Wish compilation. It gives a glimpse of their early style, and is slightly spooked too.
The Manx went silent for a little while after their second album, leaving City Slang in the UK but gaining distribution through Cooking Vinyl. Their next releases came in late 2003 – Afternoon Owls EP and Aztec Discipline LP. There had been a slight change to the line-up with the addition of a keyboard player and they had a more muscular sound, though in places it didn’t sound like the keyboards were as integrated as they should have been. Most of the time the change in direction worked well and in retrospect it may have been better to combine the fifteen songs across the two releases into one killer twelve song album but then we’re getting into “What if the White Album was a single album? What would you pick?” territory. Afternoon Owls has two highlights; the brooding opener Half Man, quiet moodiness exploding into technicolour choruses, and Perfect Record, the first song to be sung by drummer/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Richardson. Aztec Discipline is three quarters great, and I’ve chosen the opener Pelz Komet, and Dinner Bell from the album. Pelz Komet is one of those remarkable songs – like Defecting Grey by The Pretty Things – which manages to cram three songs into the space where one should be. It’s a more powerful sound than previous Manx records and twists and turns like the race track in Monaco. Dinner Bell is slower and more deliberate, and utterly beautiful – it moves between major and minor keys deftly and has strange lyrics which sound like twisted proverbs.
The Manx went quiet for a while returning in the Autumn of ’05 with a new album, The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South, on another label (YepRoc) and with another slight line-up change – the departure of singer/guitarist Ken Stephenson, taking his glissando guitar along with him. Under normal circumstances it would be missed badly, but the remaining members stepped up and made their second masterpiece. The whole album sounds relaxed and happy, easy going with gorgeous attention to detail through the songs – the little instrumental touches here and there which make each successive listen a new pleasure. The songs are all of a high standard and some are amongst my favourites of all time. It’s an album that brings all their influences together to coalesce into their perfect shape. Harness And Wheel is another perfect opener, 1000 8 is the kind of pop song that most indie bands would kill to have in their songbook and when they start jamming at the end they truly rock out. Finally, Animations. What can I say that I haven’t said already? It puts a spring in my step, it puts a smile on my face, it is like an injection of pure joy into my bloodstream. It’s one of my favourite songs ever. I’ve danced around various workplaces to this song – and I don’t dance. But hell, that’s just me, it might not mean anything to you. But if you want to listen to a whole album of Manx music, The Fast Rise And Fall Of The South is the best place to start. It also has a beautiful cover – in fact all their album art is real art, as they are paintings by their original bass player, Scott Myers.
Again there was a break until 2009 before their next album, Ascenseur Ouvert!, was issued, this time on their own label Odessa Records. It couldn’t live up to my expectations, but was still excellent. Well Whatever is speedy, bouyed on a bed of frantically strummed acoustic guitars with some added mellotron for good measure, alongside a delightful electric guitar solo, and some unexpected melodic twists. Clean Break is lightly psychedelic – a hint of electric sitar in the arrangement – and is a bittersweet kiss-off to someone.
Another four years would pass before their most recent highly anticipated (by me, anyway) album Bronze Age released in March this year. Another end-to-end great album from The Kingsbury Manx, each song offering a captivating new turn on their familiar patterns. This time there was more urgency, more distorted guitars and more harmonies, plus some fantastic jamming and codas. There’s so many good songs on the album; the gentle swing of Lyon, the string driven Glass Eye, the cheeky lift from ‘The Joker’ in Handsprings. I’ve picked Custer’s Last as it has all of these attributes in spades, and How Things Are Done which is a contender for my favourite song of the year – a graceful mid-tempo swing with more intriguing lyrics: “Two would-be lovers who never held one another” – then turning motorik at the end. A wonderful song to conclude this Topper Ten.
I hope I’ve given you an insight into the music of The Kingsbury Manx and that you’ll give them a fair hearing and will be interested enough to want to hear more from them. Thank you for reading and thanks to Toppermost for allowing me to ramble. My name’s Rob and I ramble about music and memories on my own blog. I’d be happy to see you there.