Justin Wierbonski’s “Manasota”: Music review

Prolific musician Justin Wierbonski’s “Manasota,” featuring acoustic guitar, acoustic drums, electric bass, synthesizer and percussion, is dedicated to “mother nature, the small island of Manasota, and to all of those who have struggles with addiction in their lives.”
Justin began recording the Manasota songs last summer and started a Kickstarter campaign to fund their release on vinyl. It’s a testament to how well respected he is as a musician that the campaign was successful and the album was duly pressed and released. As part of the project, Justin has been working with musicians in his network to perform the songs on Youtube to promote the album, and the accompanying “Manasota Project” series, a kind of behind-the-scenes/making-of is a fascinating and entertaining look at, as Justin aptly puts it, “a musician who never gives up.”
Justin brings his usual musical mastery and multi-instrumental proficiency to this record: in addition to playing almost every instrument (the 0.1% not played by Justin is a little charango line), Justin was also responsible for the recording, mixing, and mastering of the LP.
The Manasota project has a particularly special background which is worth talking about for a moment.
‘In the year 2005 I was in a really tough place in my life. I was just about to turn 30 and The 10 years leading up to that time I had become heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol. Near the end of 2005 I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. I was drinking heavily and the doctor told me that because of my liver I would need to change things or there would be serious complications.
So that’s what I did.
Immediately after that appointment I quit drinking. I started removing unhealthy items from my life and replacing them with healthy ones. One of the healthy things I started to do was riding a bicycle. At the time I was living in a very small town on the West coast of Florida and nearby was a small island called Manasota Key. I would ride my bike down to the key and wonder slowly up its beautiful tree covered coastal road on my bicycle alone. I found Manasota Key to be a very healing place.
I was very troubled at the time but kept riding my bike, and started meditating, reading books about different spiritual philosophies and kept at it. One by one I removed all substances from my life within a 2 month period. My brain wiring was a mess, but I just kept riding, going to Manasota, and working on music.
3 Months went by and I went to see a liver specialist about my disease. Much to my surprise the doctor came in and said, “well, you don’t have it.” He said that I either never had it, and it was a mistake, or somehow it just went away. I really felt blessed and that some type of miracle had just happened. I took that as a sign and never went back to drinking or taking any type of drugs. It has now been nearly 10 years and I have never gone back to my old lifestyle.’
The generous percussion and acoustic instrumentation lend many of the tracks an airy breezy feel. There’s a Brazilian and a Tropical element, with careful and smooth touches of synth to add texture.
The moods range from upbeat, resolute, like staring at a beautiful sunrise over the sea on a brisk early morning, to plaintive and yearning, like looking back on all the lost years (“Maze”).
The opening track, “Manatee” is a pacy floating number with intricately layered percussion, drums, synth, bass and guitar.
“Maze” makes you sit back and breathe, staring into the spaces in your memory with its placid open guitar chords and careful drum rhythm.
“Beach Never Fades” features lonely echoey acoustic arpeggio, slide guitar, something that sounds like one of those ‘güiro’ wooden frog-shaped percussion things, and sounds of the sea. It’s a reflective and poignant track.
On “Water Reflection” the slide guitar of the previous track makes way for a slide synth lead that, with its ticking-clock feeling, conjures those interlude tension builders in the middle of a Pink Floyd album. The steady straight line bass and the tap tap tap of the drum beat builds the tension.
“For Tuca” has perhaps the most Brazilian and Tropical feel of all the pieces on the album, opening with percussion while the backing guitars form a hypnotic drone.
“Osprey” has a bassline worthy of a classic New Order track.
I was honored to appear on the surf-rockish “Canopy Road,” adding that little charango melody.
“Manta Ray” is perhaps the darkest track on the album, swimming deep and menacing like a sea creature in the unlit cellars of the ocean.
“Moai And Jellyfish” returns us to the upbeat flavor of the earlier tracks before the quirky “Africa” with percussion and animal sounds ends the album on a quasi psychedelic note.
“Manasota” shows Justin accomplishing his aim of capturing “the essence of a peaceful but mysterious and isolated place.”


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