[16 May 2014]
Let’s face it, mainstream rock music has played it safe for far too long now. Few artists (and even fewer well-known artists) approach the genre with sufficiently original ideas and techniques; instead, most just plug in and play the same archetypes, and while that may work for some people, others yearn for a more ambitious and atypical variant. Fortunately, On and On, the debut LP by Canterbury quartet Syd Arthur, provides a bold solution. An accessible yet virtuosic collection of alluring and involving gems, the album is immensely refreshing, as its instrumentation, rhythms, and melodies are as distinct as they are engrossing and joyous.
Blending a bit of jazz, psychedelia, and prog into its core foundation, Syd Arthur manages to feel new and relevant while also capturing perfectly the production qualities of late ‘60s/early ‘70s influences. In this way, they have as much in common with, say, Wobbler, Little Tybee, Tame Impala, and the Galactic Cowboy Orchestra as vintage acts like Soft Machine and Camel. There’s something quintessentially English and retro here, yet the record also has a modern day polish, making On and On feel like a humble and charming attempt to recapture a classic era for a new generation.
“First Difference” and “Edge of the Earth” immediately set the stage for a unique experience, as violins pave the way for counterpointed guitar arpeggios and hypnotic rhythms. It’s as if all the sounds are filling in each other’s spaces, like a wondrous puzzle bursting with flair and drive. Vocalist Liam MaGill sings with an endearing blend of youthful tone and confident delivery; he sounds like a quirkier and more vulnerable Ray Davies. Violinist Raven Bush (nephew of Kate Bush) provides some lovely complements throughout, decorating the landscape with mimicry and drama with subtle yet vital plucking and speed. The latter track even ups the ante with sublime harmonies and more intricate movements.
The band gets a bit funkier on “Ode to the Summer”, a riff-driven excursion packed with sincere lyrics and appropriately dynamic breaks. Multiple instruments play the same pattern several times along the way, showcasing how strong their musicianship really is. Afterward, “Dorothy” provides a nice contrast, as it’s much more spacey and downbeat. It even feels dreamy, and in a way, it’s the most inviting and pleasing track, as its mellow layers are quite calming and cheerful. Like with everything else on the record, it’s damn near impossible not to be seduced by it.
Syd Arthur really pulls out all the stops on tracks like “Night Shaped Light” and “Paradise Lost” (which closes the album). The former is an absolutely brilliant experiment in controlled chaos, as its juxtaposed textures and rhythms somehow blend into an addictive sound. It feels like the most intricate piece here by far, although it’s also very welcoming and celebratory. As for the latter track, it’s nearly twice as long as any of its predecessors (nearly nine minutes), which is due to the quiet middle section. It lulls the listener with soft guitar work and harmonies, and it serves as a nice way to connect its more hectic bookends, during which Bush, drummer Fred Rother, and bassist Joel MaGill (yes, Liam’s brother) work in tandem expertly, dancing around each other with malicious arrangement and beautiful results. It’s a great way to end.
On and On is an incredible way to start off a career, as it offers a bold aesthetic that few others are still attempting, not to mention the vision and musician prowess to pull it off in an equally identifiable way. The group manages to implement constant trickiness and surprise without ever losing sight of the most important part: the songwriting. MaGill and company should have a bright future ahead of them, and I for one can’t wait to hear what Syd Arthur does next.