“Alike or Unlike as Trees”: Third Ear Band – ‘Alchemy’

❉ As a breakthrough piece for Third Ear Band, Alchemy truly lives up to the promise of its title, writes C.J. Newman.

“Alchemy constantly challenges the listener and demands both constant attention and interpretation. There is a free-form, improvised feel across the piece.”

One of the great joys of dipping into the progressive music of the late sixties and early seventies is the sheer eclecticism of some of the collectives. The progressive movement drew in creative artists from folk, rock, blues and jazz traditions. The release, by the always excellent Esoteric Records of Alchemy, the debut album by Third Ear Band, provides an exemplar of the fruits of such inclusive collaborations and the difficulties of trying to categorise work from this period.

Third Ear Band has its roots firmly located within the underground creative scene of mid-1960s London. Founder Glen Sweeney took part in free-form jazz sessions at the almost mythical UFO club where he jammed with a wide range of artists. Although these collaborations were short-lived, the seeds of these relationships bore longer term fruit. In 1968, oboe and recorder player, Paul Mimms, and violinist Richard Coff coalesced around Sweeney to form Third Ear Band. This first incarnation of the band (like so many collectives of the time, membership was somewhat fluid) also saw Mel Davis (from The People Band) join in on Celle and Dave Tomlin violin play with the band on his own track Lark Rise.

Of course, this potted summary does not do the origin of the Third Ear Band any real justice. The true musical journey is captured in a wonderfully illustrated booklet contained within this special edition CD. One of the consistently wonderful aspects of releases by Esoteric is the provision of these detailed and insightful essays. As well as the comprehensive booklet, this release has the debut album, 24-bit digitally remastered, and ten bonus tracks which comprise unreleased recordings and John Peel BBC ‘Top Gear’ sessions. (Peel was a fierce advocate and supporter of the band, promoting the debut album and even contributing on the Jaw Harp for one of the album tracks, Area Three).

As a breakthrough piece for Third Ear Band, Alchemy truly lives up to the promise of its title. The instrumental sound of cello, violin, reed and percussion provides a unique and stark tapestry of sound with Eastern themes set against the obvious psychedelic influences of the time. Uncoupled from conventional approaches and rooted in the improvised tradition of the underground scene, the album provides an often discordant and unsettling journey into a very British mysticism interwoven with an Indian raga sound.

This release by Esoteric Records, as well as being beautifully packaged, is wonderfully remastered. Each instrument has a penetrating clarity and the recording now sounds crystal clear. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the first track, Mosaic, which provides an uncompromising opening. Coff’s harsh, staccato violin plays alongside the oboe of Paul Minns to provide a stark primer for the forthcoming tracks. All the while, the drumming of Glen Sweeney gives the piece a primal and dangerous feel. This is an overture filled with portent and a clear statement of intent: this is not a casual listen or a disposable moment.

Indeed, the whole album is not a musical safe space; Alchemy constantly challenges the listener and demands both constant attention and interpretation. There is a free-form, improvised feel across the piece. If any part of the work can be called accessible, it is the second track Ghetto Raga in which the tabla playing of Sweeney provides a clearly Eastern influence underneath the almost hypnotic violin rhythms and exotic sounding wind instruments. Stone Circle similarly provides a bucolic yet slightly forbidding undercurrent. The sound is evocative of ancient rituals and one can almost smell the wild garlic and pungent incense of a pagan rite as the unnatural and slightly discordant recorder ratchets up the tension.

When asked about the album, Sweeney once replied that the songs are ‘as alike or unlike as trees’ and that captures the essence of the work perfectly. The natural, organic feel to the music produces unpredictable and not always pleasing results. “If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”, so goes the famous abductive reasoning test. Yet it is almost impossible to say fully what this album is, and no amount of inference can assist in categorising Alchemy. It is experimental, it is innovative and not immediately accessible: the work has a harsh edge to it. There are clear nods to chamber music, and this is a truly distinctive piece of work that rewards the persistent listener. The starkness of the music and the simplicity of the instrumentation means that the work has an ageless quality.

As an album, therefore, Alchemy is both the perfect period piece and a template for the future of the band. It is, above all else, a perfect illustration of the way in which a collective of musicians, each rooted in their own distinct tradition, can come together and produce something of rare interest and significance. Sometimes, the need to engage in a logical categorisation of music must yield to the art itself. Alchemy defies categorisation and provides a beautiful, chaotic and discordant introduction to one of the great experimental collectives of the progressive era.

❉ Third Ear Band: “Alchemy” 2CD Remastered & Expanded Editionis out now from Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99.

❉ CJ Newman combines a lifelong love of music, science fiction and cult movies with his alter-ego, as an academic writer on space exploration. He can be found on twitter as 

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