The joke surrounding Men Singing is that there aren't any. This long-in-the-making sophomore album by the prog-rock alliance of keyboardist Stephen Bennett and guitarist Tim Bowness is entirely instrumental. Nonetheless, its four compositions — some bursting with melodic color, others luxuriating in states of stoic gray — are fascinating platforms for stylistic time-tripping.
Ground zero for the group's explorations seems to be the mid-'70s — an era when a dying prog-rock movement that ruled earlier in the decade intersected with a booming jazz-rock fusion generation. But one of the initial distinctions of Men Singing is the absence of the earlier era's excesses. Instead of wayward noodling on synthesizers, Bennett employs the keyboard sounds more as orchestral and textural devices than as a lead voice. Assisting is Jerrod Gosling, who mans that most antiquated of modern keyboard instruments, the string-like Mellotron, on all cuts.
But there is an organic flow to this music as well, thanks to the modest use of saxophone and flute by Myke Clifford, and on the album closing Chic Hippo, a bit of reedy ambience by Bennett, credited as a Miles Davis "impression." But Clifford adds considerable depth to these tunes, investing the sax with a choppy, almost percussive sound one minute and a sort of rhythmic stride in background passages the next that mimics vintage soul sing-alongs.
There is star power, too. Given prominent billing is Roxy Music guitarist/co-founder Phil Manzanera. But there is nothing poppish about his playing. Henry Fool's bio materials wisely point out that Manzanera's contributions to Men Singing are mostly in line with the music of his side band, Quiet Sun, a product of — what else? — the mid '70s. Mostly though, Manzanera calls precious little attention to himself on the album. During Men Singing's title tune, his guitar work is antsy electric chatter, a counterpart to the tune's dominate sweep of Mellotron, synth and flute.
'70s prog and fusion influences abound throughout Men Singing. The 14-minute album opener, Everyone in Sweden, bursts forth with the bright fusion cheer of Talespinnin'-era Weather Report crossed with the rhythmic muscle of the veteran Brit prog pack National Health, while My Favorite Zombie Dream discreetly darkens the tempo (and mood) to recall latter-day Soft Machine. Once the song intensifies, though, we are reminded of the more spacious-sounding side of Hatfield and the North, and the first few post-Peter Gabriel albums by Genesis.
But schooling in the specifics of '70s prog is by no means a requirement for enjoying Men Singing. Instead, just power up this glorious sleeper of an album and let Henry Fool take you on a 40-minute joyride. It's one of the great instrumental chill-outs of the season.