❉ Stuart Douglas on Cherry Red’s definitive document of the forgotten English prog pop band.
One of the great things CDs offer, which tends to be overlooked as the vinyl resurgence continues unabated, is the ability to collect entire back catalogues in a format which don’t take up half a record rack. Fortunately, Cherry Red haven’t forgotten this important fact, as their new anthology of English prog pop band Byzantium amply demonstrates.
You perhaps haven’t heard of Byzantium, which is a shame, as they recorded a small collection of solid albums in the 70s, without really gaining the accolades they deserved. Their story is one of gradual but impressive evolution, combined with unfortunate and inexplicable lack of major success.
If this is your first exposure to the band, then this is definitely the release to get. It really is almost everything (all it’s missing is a couple of BBC sessions, and God knows if they even exist any more!), stretching from the sole album by pre-Byzantium quartet, Ora, through the two main studio albums, the peculiar live/studio private label promo album and a collection of live tracks.
First out of the natty clamshell box is Ora, by the band of the same name, featuring future Byzantium song-writer, Jamie Rubinstein. It’s quickly evident that this is an album by a band unsure of their sound. Largely composed of the sort of whimsical fey psychedelia which most frequently ends up as tracks on compilations called things like Introducing The Cosmic Teapot, there are also signs of a song-writer being held back by a lack of direction. There’s shades of CSN on the album opener, Seashore, while the rockier tracks Whitch and Fly are both anchored by excellent looping bass and driving drums, and feature some nice guitar work. But there’s an overly studied feel to many of the songs, marrying a self-consciously English vocal to fairly trite lyrics (‘Deborah come back to me/I’ll bring you up your morning tea’). It’s an interesting album, and there are occasional glimpses of better things to come, but it’s most definitely not the finished article, or anywhere near.
Byzantium are a better band than Ora, but one that suffers from the same lack of focus. Anyone listening to the first track of their eponymous debut album, the tight, funky What is Happening is likely to be disappointed by track two, I am Stranger to my life, which, almost perversely, is a downbeat soft rock ballad with a slice of jazz guitar noodling at its centre. Next track up, Come Fair One, returns to the multi-voiced CSN-influenced sound of Seashore from the Ora album – and so it continues, song by song. It’s all good music and it’s all worth a listen, but it’s such a grab bag of influences and styles that it lacks a firm identity of its own. Maybe that’s the problem, actually – every idiom the band tries, they basically pull off, but there’s nothing really exceptional about any individual song, a fact made most clear by the sprawling ten minute album closer, Why or Maybe it’s Because which contains everything bar the kitchen sink, but still fails to stick in the memory for long once it’s finished. The fact that most of the songs were written by Rubenstein, but he had stepped away from playing with the band by the time they were recorded doesn’t help.
Seasons Changing is a far more assured album, as what previously seemed a lack of direction now comes across as a welcome versatility, with Rubenstein back as an active member of the band. The CSN harmonies remain in place, but now there are added hints of Mott the Hoople (on I’ll Always be Your Friend in particular), Supertramp and even the mighty Byrds. The album concludes with the superb side-long Something You Said suite, with Rubenstein on lead vocal, which flirts with a mid-70s Floyd sound, providing a pleasingly tidy referential journey from the whimsical Barrett-era sound which dominated the Ora album to the final guitar heavy notes of the band’s last release on a major label.
I’m picking my words carefully here, because though Byzantium departed A&M in 1973, Seasons Changing wasn’t their last release. Shortly afterwards, in what was apparently a tiny run of only 100 copies, the band issued a private pressing of the less than imaginatively named Live and Studio, in a bid to get a new deal elsewhere. Based just on the name, you’d expect it to be a pretty formulaic and pedestrian release, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s their best album. Contrary to what you might expect from the title, everything was recorded in the studio, but half the tracks were played there ‘as live’, which provides the listener with the opportunity to enjoy a really tight band at the top of their game. More importantly, there’s not a bad song to be heard, and the album includes the medley from Seasons Changing as individual tracks, meaning you can skip straight to Morning, their greatest song, an eight-minute long masterpiece of guitars and top notch vocals.
Wrapping up the collection is High Time – 10 tracks of proper West Coast-influenced live grooviness which, like the ‘live’ tracks on the previous album, demonstrate just how good a working band Byzantium were. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that every CD comes with appropriate added content, in the shape of live cuts, outtakes and variant versions. As with all these things, not everything is essential but the Ora demos, and an entire unreleased EP are very welcome additions to the set.
Rubenstein remarks in the detailed booklet which is included in the clamshell that ‘there was a moment when it seemed like there could have been major lift off’ – and, on the evidence of these five albums, the only thing that stopped that lift off was too wide a musical palette, making the band difficult for the A&M marketing team to promote. It’s a real shame that Byzantium have remained sidelined for so long, but well done to Cherry Red for presenting them to a modern public who are likely to appreciate them more than that in the mid-70s.
❉ Byzantium: Halfway Dreaming – Anthology 1969-75 (Grapefruit CRSEGBOX082) released January 29, 2021 from Cherry Red Records, RRP £23.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas