Manual: Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides

Collections of rarities, remixes, covers, unreleased pieces, and brand new tracks often come across as calculated ploys by artists or labels to lazily dispose of leftovers or milk profits on the cheap, but Manual's Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides is clearly an exception to the rule. The two-disc set is filled with so much high-grade material, it rivals (if not threatens to supplant altogether) other Manual releases by being such a definitive portrait. Interestingly, nearly half of its two-hour content is previously unreleased yet none it feels sub-par; despite having amassed an impressive discography in the years since 2001's Until Tomorrow, Jonas Munk somehow has managed to also stockpile a motherlode of quality material that easily justifies its current presentation.

The album's material, which encompasses the period from 2002 to the present, is packaged into two halves: the first features shorter pieces of about five-minute duration on average, and includes the two pieces Munk contributed to the magnificent Slowdive tribute Blue Skied an' Clear (“Summer Haze” and the title track), remixes of songs by Port Royal (“Karola Bloch”), Antenne (“Black Eyed Dog”), and Suvome (“A Real America”), plus a collaboration with Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins fame and a treatment of an old Miami Vice theme by Jan Hammer (“Crockett's Theme”); disc two is devoted to Munk's ambient style, with the jewel in its crown a twenty-three minute, previously unreleased epic titled “The River.”

The first disc is filled with numerous blissed-out mini-symphonies of the kind Munk perfected on Azure Vista and Ascend where grandiose mixtures of guitars, synths, breathy female vocals, and electronics conjure brief glimpses of paradise. The Murakami-inspired “Wind-Up Bird” starts things off on a high, and the material pretty much remains there thenceforth, with “Marbella,” the Munk-Guthrie set-to, a particularly mesmerizing excursion (especially during its shimmering choruses) and “Blue Skied an' Clear” an equally awesome example of Technicolor brilliance. It's not totally perfect—the drum sounds in “Karola Bloch” and, though well-intentioned, “Crockett's Theme” sound too indebted to the mid-‘80s—but such imperfections don't leave too horrible a stain on the otherwise solid opening half.

Apparently, the oceanic ambient side of Munk's music is less celebrated than the more accessible shoegaze-influenced style documented on disc one. But the second half is as arresting and, in some ways, seems an even more perfect distillation of his talents. How startling, then, to learn that “The River,” composed in 2003 for a Danish release, was never released due to financial reasons. The epic center of Lost Days, Open Skies and Streaming Tides, the piece's extended duration enables Munk to develop it at a carefully measured, incremental pace so that the first eight minutes are spent working up to its magnificent rolling themes. Best of all, the grandeur Munk achieves early on is sustained throughout, resulting in a listening experience that is truly transporting. Shifts in character maintain interest too: treated guitars alone resound at the fifteen-minute mark, followed by a gradual swelling of symphonic haze and bell tinkles when the piece moves into its final stages. Predictably, the subsequent shorter pieces may seem overshadowed by the long work's towering presence but they're powerfully evocative nonetheless, especially when each flows into the next, making them appear as if they're parts of a large-scale piece. There are contrasts here, too: “Open Skies” is dominated by chiming guitar cascades while “Andaman” concentrates on becalmed ambient tones. This superb Manual primer closes with “Dizzy Sun” and “Seleva,” ambient pieces previously issued on separate Little Darla has a Treat for You compilations. The multitude of treasures captured on these discs suggests that if sonic splendor has a name, it very well may be Manual.

October 2007