Syd Arthur – On and On (Album Review)

Electrified and whimsical, Syd Arthur’s debut pins folk-psych flights to the mast of Brit-rock grit. Tapping into the Cosmic Albion that their Canterbury base was such a vital part of, the band are well schooled in the craft of fusion.  Comparisons have been made with the cathedral city’s former luminaries, Caravan and Soft Machine.  Syd Arthur stir up a similarly heady brew, succinctly dipping between a wide array of styles. Much has been made of stringman, Raven Bush’s famous relative, Kate and the band share a knack of making unusual meters and chords communicative while their micro-industry (self-produced/engineered/released) enables them to be similarly untainted by music biz machinery.

Their name carries not only suggestions of interstellar Floyd originator, Syd Barrett & Arthurian legend but also puns Herman Hesse’s 1922 tale of a journey towards self-discovery, Siddhartha. Unsurprisingly, On & On’s vignettes are full of ruminations about ‘winding roads’,’ chasing lost, distant dreams’ & ‘staring into skies with sunken eyes’.   Pungent with more than a whiff of mysticism and a scintilla of funk, early commentators dubbed them ‘Jethro Tull jamming with Jamiroquai’ but don’t let that dissuade you from delving deeper into this euphonious platter.

Despite their obvious debt to prog/psychedlia/jazz, idioms rooted in lengthy excursions, Syd Arthur ‘s songs zing by with clipped assurance. Complex time signatures are condensed into palatable brevity. First Difference opens the album in 7/4 time, festooned with pizzicato strings while Edge Of The Earth feverishly builds on scything violins, rimshots and chiselled guitars. Heavy stints of touring and appearances at Glastonbury and Secret Garden have rendered them a well-drilled machine. Ode To The Summer alloys Led Zep riffage to jazzy flutters and fleet-fingered mandolins.  Throughout they play with a time-worn virtuosity that belies their years.

Vocalist/guitarist Liam Magill surveys the world from lofty altitudes, part hippy seer, part chorister, drummer Fred Rother and Joel Magill (owner of deceased Soft Machine man Hugh Hopper’s 1968   Fender Jazz bass) provide a rhythmic lynchpin, simultaneously a foundation and fellow pilots. Near instrumental Night Shaped Light foregrounds Raven Bush string skills. Another zesty hybrid, it channels both Zappa’s avant-muzak circa Hot Rats and ELO’s classical rock wig-outs.

A tight unit whose dexterous chatter can seem breathless at times, On & On really beguiles when it opens up & slows down. Dorothy is an astral slow dance, all torchy stargazing and jazzy guitar tendrils. Bathed in an ambient half-glow, the band’s subtle use of digital technology keeps accusations of stodgy retrogression at bay.  Truth Seeker swiftly follows, a looser and more roughly hewn beast that still manages a folky clearing amid its dense foliage. Highlight Modern World forges a similar path, feather light melodies and blues rock shade.

There is the feeling that they’ll make slightly bolder records in the future. When Promise Me reaches its radio static music box coda, sweetly reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s intro to Wish You Were Here, a glimpse is offered of the outer limits the band may well subsequently explore. In fact, Paradise Lost ends On & On with an uncharacteristically extended workout. Nine minutes of visitations to their constituent parts: ambient noodling, maypole-dancing folk jig, hefty hard rock with Hendrixy interjections. Far from being a protracted indulgence, the Miltonic closer allows the band to flex its considerable musical chops. As it ends in a wash of digital reverse effects, it’s clear the band are as plugged in to the future as they are to the wayfaring spirits of British Arcady past.