1. First Difference (3:18)
2. Edge of the Earth (3:40)
3. Ode to the Summer (4:10)
4. Dorothy (4:25)
5. Truth Seeker (3:06)
6. Night Shaped Light (3:38)
7. Promise Me (2:40)
8. Black Wave (2:40)
9. Moving World (4:08)
10. Paradise Lost (8:22)
Liam Magill – lead vocals, guitar, flute, percussion, effects
Raven Bush – violin, mandolin, piano, percussion, vocals, effects
Fred Rother – drums
Joel Magill – bass, vocals, percussion, effects
For all my familiarity with the current progressive rock scene, English band Syd Arthur took me completely by surprise, as I had never heard their name prior to receiving On And On, their debut album, as a gift from a friend. Though very few albums make a deep impression on me on first listen, On And On was one of those rare cases, and one of the strongest releases I have heard in a year that has not been at all stingy with interesting music.
In the past couple of years, Syd Arthur have received extensive coverage on magazines and websites dedicated to non-mainstream music, and on February 15, 2010 were featured as New Band of the Day by British newspaper The Guardian, notoriously harsh towards old-school prog. While most of those articles mentioned the “P” word, the numerous webzines and blog sites specializing in the genre seem to have been largely unaware of them – which is not the case with other bands associated with the psychedelic rock revival, such as Dungen or Black Mountain.
Syd Arthur (whose name was inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddharta, one of the iconic texts of the hippie era, and also the inspiration for Yes’ Close to the Edge) are a quartet hailing from the historic English town of Canterbury – a place synonymous with one of the most distinctive strains of the multifaceted progressive rock universe. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to call them the direct heirs of the scene that developed in the late Sixties, producing highly influential bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong. In many ways, Syd Arthur are deeply rooted in that scene, pursuing the path laid out by Caravan and Soft Machine in their early albums before both bands took a more “progressive” direction. In addition, the “Syd” part of the band’s name evokes the spirit of psychedelic rock icon Syd Barrett, who was also an important influence on the original Canterbury bands.
While Syd Arthur’s music may not be the most ground-breaking on the market, it undoubtedly modernizes a sound that is all too often prone to showing its age. The four band members, in spite of their obvious youth, have been together since 2006, and have already accumulated enough experience to set up their own recording studio and independent label (named Dawn Chorus Recording Company). Their recording debut, the EP Moving World, was released in 2010, followed by the single “Ode to the Summer” in the following year, and finally by On And On in the summer of 2012. Like most progressive bands that shun the “prog” tag, they also have an impressive record of live performances in the UK and in other European countries. Interestingly, violinist Raven Bush is the son of writer and photographer John Carder Bush, Kate Bush’s elder brother, and – though Syd Arthur’s music as a whole might not immediately recall Kate’s – some similarities can be noticed, especially in terms of approach to the traditional song format.
With their distinctive configuration – which gives violin a starring role in conjunction with the guitar, while keyboards are used very sparingly – Syd Arthur play music from a bygone era with a contemporary flair, blending psychedelic folk with funky jazz-rock suggestions and some heady spacey nuances, both acoustic and electric elements well in evidence. The eclectic inspiration – so often resulting in a mishmash of unfinished ideas – is instead handled skillfully, and the songs have an easy, natural flow, their delightful musical texture enhanced by Liam Magill’s unique vocal delivery – a 21st century take on Robert Wyatt, a tenor imbued with a gentle wistfulness and innate sense of melody, yet never whiny or overdramatic.
Clocking in at a mere 38 minutes, On And On is a short album, and – with the sole exception of closer “Paradise Lost”, its songs are also short (3 minutes on average). However, the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure is often cleverly disguised or understated, and the appeal of the melodies is never made too obvious. Opener “First Difference” blends the airy lyricism of the violin and acoustic guitar with the slight edge injected by the electric guitar, and a hint of reggae in the song’s easy mid-pace. Liam Magill’s voice follows the musical line, never dominating the instruments though not taking a back seat either. The following two songs are variations on the same theme, but with enough personality of their own to stand individually – the changes in pacing within each piece handled with subtlety, allowing the music to flow naturally without ever sounding strained or contrived.
“Dorothy” (recently released as a single), on the other hand, is a slow, nostalgic number – almost a jazzy torch song, while the uptempo “Truth Seeker” introduces a vein of psychedelic electricity, which in “Night Shaped Light” coexists with a samba-tinged saunter. “Moving World” brings back echoes of early Soft Machine, though with a folksier flavour softening the psychedelic edge. The 8 minutes of “Paradise Lost” come almost as a surprise, as the track diverges noticeably from the rest of the album – not only in running time, but also in its looser structure and in the different role of the vocals – mostly present in the form of chanting, or else treated as to be almost unrecognizable. The heavy, distorted guitar-violin interplay in the middle of the track hints at stoner rock, or even Jefferson Airplane at their most experimental. All of this, as well as the recourse to atmospheric sound effects, hints at possible future developments in the band’s style.
Unlike other bands that tap into the rich vein of the psychedelic rock tradition, Syd Arthur do not indulge in lengthy, hypnotic riff-feasts, and introduce elements of “prog” complexity with admirable lightness of hand – much as Caravan or Soft Machine did in their early stages, or Hatfield and the North when blending catchy tunes with intricate jazz-rock patterns. Highly recommended to to fans of the Canterbury scene and early Pink Floyd, as well as to anyone who does not equate progressive rock with 30-minute epics, On and On is a surprisingly accomplished production, and a genuinely delightful listen.