The shifting time signatures of Syd Arthur’s latest psychedelic album, Apricity, testify to the tight musicianship and broad influences of this band of brothers from Canterbury. By Dave Faulkner.
Syd Arthur’s ‘Apricity’
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Apricity is defined as the warmth of the winter sun on a cold day. It’s an obscure word that was given new currency by British band Syd Arthur when they used it as the name for their new album, released a few weeks ago. The title is entirely apt, too – the band’s wilfully idiosyncratic music is as fiendishly complicated as ever, but this time with a stronger emphasis on melody, giving the songs a warmly benign feeling. While they haven’t completely come in from the cold, Apricity is the most satisfying album of Syd Arthur’s career. This is music you can admire and enjoy.
The album begins with “Coal Mine” and straightaway we are confronted by one of this band’s most rhythmically daft songs. The song’s introduction, which later is transformed into a triumphant finale, is based around a simple 4/4 pattern, something that is actually quite rare in Syd Arthur’s work. The thing is, the intriguing chord pattern doesn’t sound 4/4. Its chords seem to jump in at random points of the bar, discombobulating the feel. But that’s nothing compared with what happens in the verses, which are based around a Brazilian-inspired guitar figure. Mostly in 6/4 time, there are odd bars of 3/4 and even 4/4 that chop up the rhythm track. Syd Arthur don’t mean to stymie their audience; it’s just the way their music comes out. For the listener, the best approach is to just focus on the melodies and the musical phrases, which is actually what the band members themselves do.
Track two, “Plane Crash in Kansas”, is a much more orthodox track rhythmically, being a straight 6/8 and happily one without any hint of waltz oompah-pah. The song was inspired by a newspaper headline the band saw on a recent US tour. Ostensibly about a tragic aircraft accident, the lyrics also capture the rootlessness and culture shock a troupe of travel-weary English musicians might experience in the American Midwest.
All gone quiet. The smoke was thick.
Debris was scattered across the windswept fields.
Lonely wasteland passing by.
Looking for something you recognise.
“No Peace” is Apricity’s third song and was, coincidentally, the third single taken from the album. It’s a pop gem in mostly straight time, with a genial swing emanating principally from Joel Magill’s loping bassline. Raven Bush’s string arrangement adds a captivating touch of Bollywood while Liam Magill sings about the pitfalls of excessive connectivity. “No Peace” also features one of the album’s prettiest vocal melodies which, as I mentioned, is a notable feature of the entire album.
Syd Arthur is one of the most talented groups of musicians I have heard in a good while. Each member displays exceptional skills on their chosen instruments, and the intuitive musical dialogue they share appears effortless. Syd Arthur is a classic example of four individuals slotting together to create a merged identity greater than themselves. That said, it is undoubtedly true that the band is centred around two members in particular: vocalist and guitarist Liam Magill and multi-instrumentalist Raven Bush, who plays violin, guitar, mandolin and keyboards. They are the principal songwriters and together they provide the musical kernels that are fleshed into complete arrangements by the band during rehearsal.
I interviewed Bush recently and asked about the bewildering time signatures that feature so prominently in their songs. He was keen to stress that it’s not something they ever think about, and that it is the musical phrasing that is the key to everything they do. That was a lesson they took from listening to non-Western music. “If you think of Indian music, like, if you were to try and digest their time signatures with a Western mind, you’d have a fucking massive headache, right?” Bush laughed. “But they’re just thinking about it in phrases, you know, like different groups of things that are linked together, and actually you can make something that you can’t mathematically understand… but if you listen to the phrasing it becomes very easy, you know?”
The fourth track on the record, “Sun Rays”, is a perfect example of their cavalier approach to regular timing, with bars clipped and extended as demanded by the melody. That Syd Arthur can make such unorthodox rhythm patterns sound like pop music is a testament to the strength of their musicality and the boldness of their vision. “Sun Rays” is almost beatific in its mood, though there is a sombre edge to the accompanying lyric:
The hero of today’s a drunken fool.
Brother, don’t you cry. Said it’s gonna be alright.
I’ll meet you on the other side.
“Into Eternity” sits at the halfway point of the album and I suspect it has been placed there deliberately as a “closer” for side one in the vinyl edition of the record. Its lyrics about a humbling view from a bridge are practically zen-like in their brevity but the drama of the musical arrangement gives them additional intensity and import. The song feels climactic, even though it maintains an even temper throughout. Stately is probably a good description.
Raven Bush first met Liam Magill at a clandestine forest dance party outside Canterbury, in rural Kent, England. They were both still high school students and they’d become fascinated by the communal spirit as well as the cloak-and-dagger nature of the woodland rave scene. When I spoke to Bush, he was excited to recall these formative adventures. “Sometimes there’d be three raves a week – one on a Wednesday, one on a Friday and one on a Saturday,” he said. “Yeah, it was fucking amazing ’cos obviously they were underground parties and they were illegal. You had to call up a number at one o’clock in the morning and be given the directions.”
Magill and Bush reconnected a year later when they found themselves enrolled at the same college. It wasn’t long before they discovered they shared similar tastes in music. “I’d never met anyone else under the age of 30 or 40 that knew about the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” Bush says. “That was the first band that we connected over, probably at age 17 or something, and then Queens of the Stone Age and stuff like this.” Magill had already started a band with his older brother, Joel, playing bass, and Fred Rother, a friend from high school, behind the drums. They asked Bush to join the band and Syd Arthur was born. Rother had to retire from the band two years ago after he developed hearing problems during the tour for Sound Mirror, their previous album. Luckily there was a perfect replacement in yet another Magill brother, Josh. The youngest brother enabled the band to keep working without missing a beat, apart from the ones dropped by intention. Funnily enough, Bush is also a member of an extended musical family in that his aunt is Kate Bush, another celebrated Canterbury original.
The second half of Apricity is just as strong as the first. “Portal” is an instrumental that the band has dedicated to their recently departed drummer, Rother. Something about its contemplative groove seemed to capture a bit of his essence. As the track percolates smoothly, the guitars and synths gently shimmer through cascading echoes. Nevertheless there is a sense of stillness at its centre, like a kind of musical mantra.
“Seraphim” is another standout cut on the album, and its lyrics imply a deeper awareness of spirituality. All of the band’s lyrics are written by Liam, so it’s only natural that they often deal with his personal concerns. However, Bush says the closeness that has developed after all their years of playing together means that often other members can see their own lives filtered through. Certainly “Seraphim”, “Sun Rays” and the title track, “Apricity”, appear to deal with issues of mortality and grief, something that touched Bush’s own life when he lost his mother to cancer three years ago. “Seraphim” is probably the most overtly prog-flavoured song on the album, with multiple shifts of texture and changes of tempo, but Syd Arthur’s economy of expression and their pop sensibility, as unconventional as it may be, keeps well away from extravagance and self-indulgence.
Syd Arthur have often been described as a prog-rock band by journalists, but that’s a misnomer that fails to encompass the enormous breadth of their influences. Though their roots are in psychedelia, Syd Arthur’s music also draws heavily from jazz, classical and world music traditions, as well as a plethora of other musical styles. For example, modern electronic artists Dorian Concept and Floating Points are two of their favourites, along with artists such as Tinariwen and Bassekou Kouyate from Mali. Influential Scottish folkie Bert Jansch is another, as are guitarists Ebo Taylor from Ghana and Hermeto Pascoal from Brazil. Even Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have been name-checked by the band in interviews. Syd Arthur often label themselves as psychedelic rock with jazz influences, but that still limits them. Liam put it more simply in another interview, when he said, “We’re a bit of an outsider band.”
The musical palette they’ve used for Apricity is as colourful and as broad as ever but the results are much more concentrated, as if their musical spectrum has blended into one rich hue. That might be partly attributable to the band working with an outside producer for the first time. Jason Falkner has had a long association with Beck and was a member of ’80s Paisley Underground band The Three O’Clock and, later on, Jellyfish. It’s clear that his partnership with Syd Arthur has been a fruitful and positive experience for all concerned. It’s enabled them to make the most accessible album of their career while letting them stay completely true to their vision.
Apricity’s title track is also the album’s closer and that is a statement in itself. “Apricity” describes a yearning for love by someone who keenly feels its absence. The band sound almost sprightly in their playing but there’s an underlying sense of melancholy just below the surface. Stylistically, the song embodies all the best traits of the album. Catchy, resonant and powerful, with an unforced driving energy, it’s a musical signpost that shows how much progress they’ve made as artists and perhaps a portent of many more good things to come.
From the moment they first got together there was little doubt among the members of Syd Arthur that they were in it for the long haul. As Bush told me, “We just committed and said, ‘Right, this is what we wanna do – we wanna be musicians and we wanna be in a band.’ And we just stuck at it and that’s what we’re still doing now. We just couldn’t see living our lives any other way than playing music. So music just became the thing you did all the time, every day. Forever.”
DANCE NAISDA Celebrates 40 Years: Circle of Cultures
Carriageworks, Sydney, November 15-24
MUSIC Melbourne Music Week
Venues throughout Melbourne, until November 19
VISUAL ART David Hockney: Current
NGV International, Melbourne, until March 13
CABARET Benn Bennett: Occasional Suburban Witch
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, November 16-20
THEATRE Don't Dress for Dinner
Arts Theatre, Adelaide, November 17-26
VISUAL ART Making History: Charles Blackman
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until May 21
FESTIVAL Highland Bushfest
Bothwell Recreation Ground, Tasmania, November 19-20
THEATRE Uncle Vanya
Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, November 15-December 17
CINEMA German Film Festival
Chauvel and Palance Norton Street cinemas, Sydney, November 15-29
Palace Cinemas, Melbourne, November 17-30
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2016 as "Shift machine".
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