[23 May 2014]
First, let’s get a few things out of the way, for those who may be new to Syd Arthur. The name comes from the title of Herman Hesse’s spiritual journey novel Siddhartha. Or else it’s an homage to Syd Barrett and the Kinks’ 1969 album Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Accounts differ. The moniker works both ways, though.
In addition, violin/mandolin player Raven Bush is art rock legend Kate Bush’s nephew. Not that that’s here nor there, except it maybe sheds some light on his and the band’s musical leanings.
And what of the music? The music is damn good. In simple terms, it’s an updated take on classic psychedelic rock, akin to what bands such as Dungen and Tame Impala are doing. Yet, while Tame Impala may have a more modern sheen to their brand of psych, Syd Arthur are unabashedly old school. Playing the kind of music they do, and hailing from Canterbury, U.K., comparisons to the bands of the ‘60’s and ’70’s Canterbury Scene (Gong, Soft Machine, Caravan, etc.) are unavoidable. Yet Syd Arthur isn’t as avant-garde as most of those bands. They’re more grounded in folk and conventional song structures. Their folk is a very funky, jazzy folk, however. The band is also on the revived Harvest record label, known in its early 1970’s heyday as the home of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Roy Harper, and the aforementioned Syd Barrett. Syd Arthur is just the type of band that would have been on the roster then, as well.
Sound Mirror is the quartet’s second full-length, and it finds them mining the same cosmic yet earthy sounds of their previous album and EPs. Lead track “Garden of Time” sets the tone and is particularly strong with a memorable melody line, jazzy guitar textures, and chanted vocal passages mixed with lyrics like “Garden of time will unfold / The garden of time you behold / Counting the days till your surrender / Our journey step into forever” and a stormy, effects-laden instrumental break.
Complex band interplay drives most of the tracks, at times bringing to mind Close to the Edge-era Yes. Things are much more concise here, though, with the majority of tracks clocking in at under four minutes (a trait that’s very unusual for a band in this genre). And, though the songs often feel as if they’ll fly off into untethered phantasmagoric journeys, they always return quickly to the structural backbone.
A departure from the general business is “Backwardstepping”, a bare-bones singer/songwriter number with a vaguely bossa-nova acoustic guitar backing and tasteful, subdued violin adding just the right amount of color.
There’s a bit of a nasal whine in Liam Magill’s vocals. He isn’t the strongest lead vocalist, but he’s also the lead guitar player and it’s there that his talents most shine. “Chariots”, in particular, has a gloriously fuzzed-out, lysergic guitar solo. Perhaps because they’re such a focused, unified band, the solo is a bit short, ending just when it’s starting to get interesting. Luckily, the song flows into “Singularity”, a guitar heavy instrumental.
While Syd Arthur still sounds young, mainly in the lead vocal department, with each release they sound a bit more weathered and assured. This latest statement shows that psychedelic, progressive rock can still sound fresh, while also drawing from past trailblazers. Sound Mirror is the mark of a band in it for the long haul who will undoubtedly get better and better as time goes by. One to watch.