New Syd Arthur album – Apricity

syd-arthurIt’s not an exaggeration to say that in the last 5 years, I’ve spent more time listening to Syd Arthur than any other artist. The initial link might have been a geographical one to Canterbury, plus the fact that their music in the past has doffed its cap to the likes of Caravan et al, but they have been such a tight, innovative, folky/jazzy entity in their own right that they  quickly generated a identity in their own which made any pigeonholed comparisons irrelevant.

On ‘Apricity’, their third full album (after ‘Sound Mirror’, ‘On and On’ and a couple of stunning earlier folk-based EPs ‘Moving World’ and ‘Kingdoms of Experience), it’s clear that something fairly major has happened: maybe it’s the departure of original drummer Fred Rother (apparently through tinnitus), the fact that maybe the band have become tired with trawling around low-key venues to little acclaim,  possibly something to do with their regular touring the States as a support act, who knows?

Anyway, prefaced by their recent singles ‘Apricity‘ and ‘Sunrays’, Syd Arthur appear to be morphing into a keyboard-based, somewhat funkier outfit than their folky roots: still peddling extremely catchy tunes, but with a couple of key changes: Raven Bush, a superb violinist who also did much to create the trademark Syd Arthur sound through his blistering electric mandolin solos, now appears to spend most of his time resident behind the aforementioned keyboard, whilst the arrival of a third Magill brother, Josh, on drums, appears to have had the effect of straightening out the rhythms – this despite plenty of live videos on Youtube of him thrashing around dervish style on tracks from ‘Sound Mirror’, or even the subtlety I’ve heard in him backing more jazzy Canterbury outfits.

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And so, at this stage, a day or so into listening to ‘Apricity’, for me the jury is still out. The album appears to have lost a lot of the intricacy of previous excursions, and that’s a real pity – the Syd Arthur of old appeared to routinely pack in the diversity of a 10 minute prog track into 3 or 4 minute popbites. On the other hand, the songs (witness ‘No Peace’, ‘Apricity’ and the hypnotic ‘Evolution’) are  as insanely catchy as ever and will have you waking up in the night with Liam Magill’s melodies going round your head. Syd Arthur are immensely talented – it will be interesting to see what the setlist blend is on their current tour – will they still perform their classics like ‘Ode To The Summer’ and ‘Pulse’? And will the change in direction pay off  – witness them being album of the week in Mojo – (and by the way, I’ve just read their review, and there appear to be lots of common threads with this piece – coincidence, not plagiarism) and bring them the audience they deserve? Let’s hope so…

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Rejoice I’m Dead! – New Gong Album

rejoiceIn one of those bizarre coincidences, Gong and Van der Graaf Generator released new studio albums in the same week in September, in both cases 45 years on from their breakthrough albums ‘Camembert Electrique’ and ‘Pawn Hearts’. But whilst VdGG soldier on (magnificently) with a stripped down version of their seminal four-piece line-up, Gong, on the other hand, find themselves breaking out afresh with a set of musicians all of relatively recent vintage. The late Daevid Allen always flirted with concepts of re-incarnation and invisibility (witness their live album ‘Gong est Mort, Vive Gong’ when things fell apart in the late 70s, closely followed by ‘Daevid Allen N’Existe Pas) as well as a collective umbrella approach to band identity  and so it’s maybe not entirely a surprise that not only is the first post-Daevid album called ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’, but it emerges that as his health declined, he effectively passed the baton of bandleader on to Kavus Torabi, Cardiacs and Knifeworld frontman, who appears to have enough vitality and panache to carry it off.

Gong’s new dispensation may not be an entirely new project  as such, given that this band toured sans Daevid a couple of years ago when he became seriously ill. However as a recording entity in its own right, ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’ treads new ground.

I saw the band headlining at Kozfest back in July, announcing themselves with the crash-chords of “The Thing That Should Be”, Kavus Torabi stalking the audience with his eyes and generally putting himself around the stage in a very Allenesque manner. This track too opened the BBC6 radio session a couple of days later, a 3 track showcase which also included ‘Kaptial’, a spiky ‘Camembert’s-style thrash  which apparently was co-written with Daevid before his death. In fact the BBC6 session version of ‘Kaptial’ probably fares even better than the album track, with vocals untreated and much more to the fore. These two tracks were good choices for the BBC session, being immediately hooky and DJ Marc Riley’s stunned reaction helped the impact, but sandwiched between them on the album is the title track, which behind its slightly awkward chorus reveals itself to be a fairly wigged-out opus: pounding tomtom drums, thundering bass line and wonderful glissando work recalling ‘Fohat Digs Holes in Space’. Kavus Torabi delivers a monstrous, meticulously constructed solo using tortured minor-key themes as mucky as those peddled by guitarist Phil Miller (is that enough ‘m’s in a sentence for you?).

Elsewhere, ‘Model Village’ treads similar ground to Daevid Allen’s many 3/4 ballads (I’m suspecting Fabio Golfetti had a major hand here), whilst also sampling the Allen voice, which Beatrix also does, somewhat more disquietingly. Then, after a rather pleasant glissando interlude on ‘Visions’, the theme extends to perhaps the most sophisticated track of the lot, ‘The Unspeakable Stands Revealed’ with guitar and sax weaving in and out of a Howlett-like undulating bass theme. ‘Through Restless Seas I Come’ starts off like another classic gentle Allen ballad before crescendoing gloriously in more complex band interplay which in strange way reminds me of Pierre Moerlen’s tuned percussive work.  This track is genuinely moving and uplifting and possibly the album’s highpoint. ‘Insert Yr Own Prophecy Here’ rounds things off.

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What strikes you about the album is its overall cohesion – there are few tracks which dip below a really excellent standard, and the subtle carving out of a new Gong style, containing recognisable elements of Gong past (dissonant, angular guitar work, a glissando backdrop, spiky sax and also blending in some guest incursions from Steve Hillage’s aquatic guitar sounds and Didier Malherbe’s doudouk), but also something fresh, particularly with Kavus Torabi’s superb guitar soloing. I was genuinely excited by seeing them live back in the summer and whilst the autumn tour looks to be somewhat pared down in size and scope from previous Allen-fronted excursions, the chance to see a very tight and exciting band in a few lower-key venues is really something to look forward to.