Words by Gareth Thompson
Back in 2010, emerging Canterbury psychsters Syd Arthur joined forces one night with hybrid-jazz band Jack Hues And The Quartet. A stone’s throw from Canterbury Cathedral, in the Orange Street Music Club, the two acts played a medley of Soft Machine pieces, rearranged part of a Stravinsky violin concerto, then took on Beck’s frazzled bruiser ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’.
At this point you’re dying for MOOF to relate that someone had the foresight to record the whole caboodle for posterity. Alack and a day, the answer is no. Unbelievably! However, such was the interest in their collective spin on Beck’s song that both bands regrouped in 2012, inside a barn, to rework the experience. And this time someone remembered to press ‘record’. And now they’ve finally released it.
Across their three cerebral albums since 2012, Syd Arthur have emerged as a counterculture force pitched somewhere between Teleman, Peter Hammill and Caravan. Led by Liam Magill’s twangy vocal, with its shamanic shiver, they delve subtly into Canterbury’s kaftan lineage. But check out their 2016 offering, Apricity, to hear tightly focussed songs that are potently brewed for freaky dancing. As for Jack Hues, the guitarist was in ’80s new wavers Wang Chung (‘Dance Hall Days’) before heading into soundtrack work for The Exorcist director William Friedkin.
So, meanwhile, what’s going down in yonder barn? Initially there’s lots of shuffling and jostling like the sound of old friends getting reacquainted, which is essentially what they’re doing. Tentative sax breaths, tingling cymbals, guitar noodling – all akin to twittering birds getting loose for a full chirrup. It ignites an aura of expectancy and proves that ambient noise in itself can become an ensemble of sorts.
Liam Magill and Jack Hues soon trade guitar glints and sax-like skronks, then slur the chorus lines in swoony harmony. Paul Booth pipes up on tenor sax with melodic balsam for the soul. Later he thrusts out probing refrains that fairly poke you in the ribs. This is music so full of abstract shapes and vivid patterns it’s almost a full colour experience. At just over twenty minutes long it fills one half of an album – your stylus skates across the blank side – yet the full episode feels timeless.
With sudden declamation there’s a manic drums, bass and keyboard passage that peels away layers of Canterbury music history in each psyched-up vamp. The bygone greats and ghosts of Gilgamesh, Soft Machine and Hatfield & The North all crowd in.
Like an art historian you search Syd and Jack’s version for fragments of Beck’s original song, with its ragged raga, ominous acoustics and shattered chorus. But as soon as anything sounds too familiar, the collective musos are off and strumming down another avenue.
As an immersive encounter the whole workout has echoes of early Pink Floyd or mid-’80s Mahavishnu Orchestra. It might well be a trip into the soft machinations of Canterbury’s past, but that’s the whole thing with heritage – it’s there to be inherited time and again. Syd Arthur and Jack Hues offer a devotional psych-jazz session of quirk, strangeness and charm.
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