If you want to get a good idea of what the music of Jonas Munk, aka Manual, sounds like, all you need to do is look at his album covers. Into Forever, his collaboration with Icebreaker International, had a swirling galactic cloud, and appropriately enough, the music had a very cosmic feel to it. His last two albums, Golden Sun and The North Shore, had decidedly warmer climes on their covers, which were full of tropical and ocean imagery awash in golden sunsets and sparkling waves. Needless to say, the music on both CDs was, well, warmer and more oceanic in sound.
Azure Vista, Munk’s latest full-length (and his 4th in 3 years) also has rather tropical, beachfront imagery on the cover, with palm trees, breaking waves, and city scenes that look like they were taken from downtown Miami or Los Angeles. And rather obviously, the sound is quite similar to both Golden Sun and The North Shore. Although not quite as beat-centric as the hip-hop flavored Golden Sun, Azure Vista is nowhere near as ambient and blissed out as The North Shore.
Even so, it’s unmistakably Munk. And although the sounds he uses are as lush and gorgeous as ever, it seems apparent that he’s settling into somewhat of a rut. As lovely as Azure Vista is at times, such as the early standout “Summer of Freedom,” I can’t help but get the distinct impression that I’ve heard that particular guitar phrase or rhythmic progression, that particular shimmering wall of guitar or clipped breakbeat somewhere else in Munk’s output. Which means that there’s often very little to differentiate one song on Azure Vista from the next.
What keeps disc from feeling like a complete refurbishment of Munk’s sound is the sense of wide-eyed wonder and naivete that he brings to his music. Even though I feel like I’ve heard some of these sounds a dozen times, they still manage to work from time to time because it’s easy to imagine that Munk is still quite enthusiastic and excited about them, even after all of these releases.
This is quite clear on the aforementioned “Summer of Freedom,” which builds up slowly from various layers of chiming guitars, Don Henley-esque keys, and various drum machines into a climax of searing guitar riffs (at least, as “searing” as Manual gets), and fades into an extended denouement of echoing voices, guitar solo ghosts, and other sounds that bring back all sorts of 1980s nostalgia.
However good that might be, and however much Munk might enjoy his particular sound palette, the feeling I’m always left with after hearing Azure Vista is one of “been there, done that” — especially on more ambient tracks including the aptly-titled “Twilight” and the shimmering, somnambulistic title track, songs that come close but don’t quite measure up to the ambient beauty Munk achieved on The North Shore. While, in theory, I like all of the sounds he uses on the disc, I’d hate to think that he continues to stick with them again and again with each album (which is doubly true considering how prolific that man has proven to be).
Azure Vista isn’t a bad album, but it does feel lacking simply because it sounds so familiar. If nothing else, the disc does prove that Munk has a very solid sonic base from which he can move out to other sounds and textures and I, for one, hope he chooses to do just that on future recordings.