One of my uncles used to have a farm in the state of Hidalgo. The first time I saw it (and to be honest, the only visit I remember), I thought it was a strange sight: one side was extremely green and vivacious, the other side was slightly grimy.
The grimy side had a pile of ears of corn. We all had to sort them out and in order to keep the morale high, my uncle brought a group of classically trained Kobolds*. They played acoustic prog rock and it made us work fast and open our ears to new sounds.
Flashforward a few lifetimes and it’s 2012. Syd Arthur have an album called On and on and although it doesn’t sound like fictional creatures, the sounds they create are deeply embedded in the realm of fantasy and magic. How so? They mix folk with jazz and prog, skipping the effects pedals and instead layering their sound with a lot of orchestral sounds. So, it’s folk, jazz, prog AND chamber pop. It’s a full plate and they balance it well, oh so well.
The first notes of ‘First Difference’ owe more to the pentatonic than to the chord progression of G, A, D. Easy going, ‘Edge of the Earth’ leaves prog aside (but just barely) and embraces the powerhouse that is chamber pop, a genre perfect for storytelling and one wonders if the members of Syd Arthur are that much into literature, as they tap that book atmosphere here.
Remember what I said about effects? ‘Ode to the summer’ brings out a slight distortion, adding a warm feeling to this track that feels like a lost gem from vintage 70s MOR/AOR, you know, when they added a lot of extra chords to make the transitions smoother, interesting and pleasing. Equally smooth talking (and in a well fitting leisure suit), ‘Dorothy’ is simply class, whereas ‘Truth Seeker’ is grimier, trippier and a quick trick that Syd Arthur pulls on you. They had you in a comfort zone and they pulled the chair. ‘Truth Seeker’ rocks, damned shame it’s so short.
Before you think this is easy listening, I need to remind you that there is a healthy dose of dissonance (which comes with the jazz skills). ‘Night shaped light’ is the technically interesting track; an instrumental gem that seems to deftly split On and On in two halves with a killer solo.
This second half is like a mirror image of the first half, but somehow feels a little darker (but still quite pleasing to the ear). ‘Black wave’ is simply magical, ‘Moving word’ is as seedy as they come (but still with a touch of class) and ‘Paradise lost’ is the sound of prog, jazz and folk jumping at the same time for the same purple ear of corn. It’s a severe punch (that’s how you make your bass punchy – with elegance!) and it’s amazing how the song sheds its skin and stops being like any of the other songs from the album. Does it stick out like a sore thumb? Not at all, it’s different but it’s certainly the moment when the progressive rock spirit decided to possess the band and do a showstopper. All those teasing moments that came before, they were leading to this.
Prog rock and folk had a bad reputation for a while. Prog for being self-indulgent, folk for being too twee. I think those two are terrible preconceptions and it seems that Syd Arthur thinks too, as they’ve taken those two genres, added a healthy dose of jazz, and created a mean machine called On and on.
And I lost the purple ear of corn. I was a wimp.
Words: Sam J. Valdes Lopez
*Actually, it was a ghetto blaster with a mixtape that had Led Zeppelin, Hawkwind, Quatermass, 13th Floor Elevators and Fairport Convention. You don’t know life unti you pick corn while listening to ‘Meet on the ledge’. No siree.