The Syn Flowerman: Rare Blooms from The Syn, 1965-1969 Grapefruit/Cherry Red CRSEG0103
Best-known as a staging post on the way to the progressive rock behemoth Yes, The Syn made their name on the late sixties London scene with a few singles released on Deram. The thundering bass of future Yes member Chris Squire will be familiar to all, while future Yes guitarist Peter Banks also joined the band during their revolving-door period.
Fronted by vocalist and guitarist Steve Nardelli, and with Andrew Jackman on keyboards, The Syn had several different drummers (including Chris Allen and Gunnar Hákonarson). This new collection, containing nine previously unreleased tracks, wraps up all the Deram singles, two tracks recorded in 1974 by Squire, Jackman and Nardelli, and a re-recording of Grounded taken from The Syn’s return in 2004. Due to the archival nature of some of the material, particularly the latter tracks, the sound quality isn’t as great as it could be. However, the recordings have been sourced from Nardelli’s own archive and are important to the band’s story.
Two singles in particular (Created by Clive/Grounded and Flowerman/14 Hour Technicolour Dream) showcase the band at their finest in the studio. Although they never quite broke into the big time, they had built up a strong reputation through headline sets at the Marquee Club, charting a course from soul and rhythm and blues to psychedelia. Their big break was scuppered when Deram released, on the very same day, another single version of Created by Clive by The Attack. As the sleeve notes testify, both bands in fact hated this track, a rather corny pastiche of swinging London which The Syn refused to perform live. However, Grounded was a different affair, obviously a band favourite —the group’s 2004 incarnation re-recorded it, giving Peter Banks’ guitar a chance to really shine. Along with Squire’s distinctive bass, it of course provided the underpinnings for Yes, but the distinctiveness of The Syn should not be overlooked —Nardelli’s soulful vocals and Jackman’s keyboard playing, which benefited from his classical training and would be given greater prominence on Squire’s solo album Fish Out of Water, rounded out a mighty sound.
Flowerman, as performed live, was arguably the first psychedelic opera (before the Who’s Tommy or the Pretty Things’ S. F. Sorrow) and the extracts on here are superb. An even earlier piece written during The Syn’s Motown phase, called The Gangster Opera, is released here in a five-minute demo tape recording.
By 1967 the end was in sight. Nardelli had moved into fashion and Squire and Banks were rehearsing with the musicians who became Mabel Greer’s Toyshop and, eventually, the first line-up of Yes. Squire and Banks are sadly no longer with us, but this is the perfect introduction to their first band. As the unreleased tracks, demos, and singles show, The Syn were far more than just a footnote in the history of Yes. Cherry Red/Grapefruit are promising more material from their successful return in 2004, which should be worth looking out for. For now, however, let’s enjoy this excellent anthology that shows where it all started.
Barclay James Harvest Time Honoured Ghosts Esoteric/Cherry Red Records ECLEC22778
Part of Esoteric Recordings’ remastering of the BJH back catalogue, this release sees them turn their attention to the band’s sixth studio album, 1975’s Time Honoured Ghosts.
Their second studio album for Polydor saw the band start to reap the rewards of 1974’s Everybody is Everybody Else and the subsequent live album (imaginatively called Live) that capitalised on the band’s success across Europe, particularly Germany. It also allowed them to expand their horizons with legendary producer Elliot Mazer, who had asked to work with them. The album was recorded in San Francisco (a far cry from the band’s Oldham roots!)
It’s said that a change of scenery does you good, and the band’s abandonment of the Harvest label for Polydor was a great move —the songwriting purple patch on Everybody is Everybody Else carried over onto Time Honoured Ghosts. The nine tracks are evenly split between John Lees (electric and acoustic guitar and vocals) and Les Holroyd (bass and acoustic guitar and vocals), with Woody Wolstenholme (keyboards, vocals) contributing the wonderful Beyond the Grave. Familiar BJH topics are covered throughout the album: the opener is one of John’s ruminations on life and the music biz, whilst the live favourite Jonathan (by Holroyd, inspired by the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull) is another standout. As a bonus, there’s a stunning alternative version of the John Lees classic Child of the Universe, radically reworked for the single release. Titles (credited as trad arr Lees) sees John cleverly writing a song about the break-up of The Beatles using nothing but Beatles song titles, whilst the music includes several nods to different Beatles songs throughout, an alternative approach to song-writing that would also feature on the later album Eyes of the Universe). The song Hymn for the Children is a follow-up to Child of the Universe. The band work well together, anchored by the standout drumming of Mel Pritchard. The hard yards that they had put in touring Europe pay dividends —guided by Mazer’s superb production, this can rightly be regarded as a classic BJH album.
This edition supersedes the earlier 2000s remaster, and the scaled-up 5.1 mix by Ben Wiseman sounds sublime. I am a massive fan of 5.1 as a format: it allows you to pick up on little musical motifs and ideas that are sometimes buried in the mix. Although the original masters are lost, Esoteric sourced an original stereo master from the US, which makes this remaster the closest equivalent of the studio recordings. As a result the album really leaps into life: it feels as if BJH are performing in the room with you. Five superb examples from the earliest days of promo videos are also included, demonstrating Polydor's faith in the band.
Hitting number 32 in the UK album charts, and backed by another expansive (and, as the sleeve notes confirm, gruelling) European tour, this release cemented the band’s position as one of the country’s finest progressive groups, as well as enhancing their reputation and popularity across Europe —a popularity that shows no signs of fading, as both the current versions of the band, fronted by the two surviving members (John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest, and Barclay James Harvest featuring Les Holroyd), demonstrate by their successful tours.
The Third Ear Band Mosaics – The Albums, 1969-1972 Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red ECLEC32771
Following similar boxes from Curved Air, Patto and Greenslade, Esoteric have taken their remastered editions of the Third Ear Band’s albums originally recorded for Harvest and compiled them into a neat set, with replica LP slipcases and a comprehensive booklet that contains the edited versions of the sleeve notes.
First of all, this box does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s the albums only, so the debut album Alchemy loses its bonus BBC tracks and second disc of demos and live recordings, Elements loses two extra discs of live performances and the ‘lost’ Abelard and Heloise soundtrack, whilst Music from Macbeth loses three alternative mixes. If you’ve already got the expanded editions this box is superfluous to requirements, but if you’ve never heard the Third Ear Band before and aren’t a completist, it is as good a place to start as any.
Formed in the late sixties underground (like so many bands), the Third Ear Band mixed traditional instrumentation with atmospheric contemporary improvisation and experimentation, marrying the freewheeling spirit of jazz to chamber music. After performing at the UFO Club, the group got a deal with EMI’s alternative label Harvest Records.
Their debut album Alchemy, released in July 1969 and produced by former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner, has an eclectic and dense sound led by Glen Sweeney on tabla, hand drums and wind chimes, and expanded by Paul Minns on oboe and recorder, Richard Coff on violin and viola, and Mel Davis on cello and slide pipes, featuring (of course) the ubiquitous Radio 1 DJ John Peel on Jew’s harp. As you can probably tell from the instruments, this is not your traditional psychedelic underground music; the striking Olde Englishe design of the artwork hints at the record’s contents.
Despite the chamber music instrumentation, this is more ‘uneasy’ listening. It is very Gothic and macabre in its sounds and textures, mixing the traditional with more freeform, Indian raga workouts to create an exotic and also atonal impression, from the slow build of Mosaic via Ghetto Raga to the more pastoral Lark Rise. This is a whirling, tumbling mix of the unfamiliar, esoteric, and English, in sections that are by turns playful and intense, quite unlike anything else on the contemporary scene.
By the time their second album Elements was released in 1970, the lineup had solidified around Glen Sweeney, Paul Minns, Richard Coff, and Ursula Smith on cello. A more conceptual piece than its predecessor, Elements featured four tracks --Air, Earth, Fire and Water— and was overall a stronger album than Alchemy. Taking as its starting point a particular element, each individual piece blends English classical influences with denser instrumentation. Since there are only four tracks on the album, each has the time and space needed to breathe. The band were, by this point, a tighter unity who had honed their skills by touring. The sounds and musicianship on this release make it probably the strongest work out of the three albums.
By the time Music from Macbeth (released in 1972 and recorded specifically for Roman Polanski’s film version of the Shakespeare play) had hit the shops, the band had split up, after several abortive sessions. The line-up that was asked by Polanski to score his vision of the Scottish Play included Minns, Sweeney, Paul Buckmaster on cello and bass guitar, Denim Bridges on guitar, and future Hawkwind and David Bowie collaborator Simon House on violin and a VCS 3 synthesiser. With the addition of conventional instrumentation like bass and electric guitar, the band’s sound moved closer to the nascent folk-rock scene, reminiscent more of Fairport and Steeleye Span than of Third Ear Band’s own starting point. Since the music was a soundtrack, designed to fit specific scenes, the compositional skills required were profoundly different: there was less of the previous improvisation and much more focused material.
As a result there are elements of traditional English folk music on this album, as well as the haunting Fleance, sung by a young Keith Chegwin (who played the character of the same name in the film). Since the music was for a Polanski film, it’s far more folk noir than the group’s previous work. The darkness that runs through Macbeth is reflected in this score, which to my ears has much in common with the soundtrack of The Wicker Man (released two years afterwards), particularly in the denseness of some of the arrangements. The VCS 3 synthesiser adds uneasy undertones, and with the atonal violin and cello work, this is far more disturbing than any of the band’s earlier albums.
Third Ear Band were a group with a unique sound, producing incredibly different and atmospheric music compared with the normal psychedelic fare of that era. In fact, it signposts the sort of music currently being produced by artists like Richard Wileman’s Karda Estra. Its lack of contemporary musical trappings and fads makes the music timeless.
This is not the easiest listen, and certainly one that you have to be in a certain mood for, but if you like to experience dramatic musical journeys, this box is the perfect introduction to Third Ear Band. --James R Turner