Release Date: May 19, 2014
Record label: Harvest
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Neo-Psychedelia
Psych rock is a term that has been tossed around loosely in the new millennium, often applied to an otherwise straightforward act who punctuate their songs with the occasional vintage synth or a well-placed tape echo. Similarly, as a style, prog rock usually tends to refer to bands boasting a higher concept or an aesthetic of high-minded, improvisational musicianship. Canterbury quartet Syd Arthur comes by both of these labels honestly and academically, taking the most positive attributes from both while keeping a strong focus on quality songcraft.
Syd Arthur, a youthful quartet from Canterbury on the southeastern peninsula of England, has a long lineage of psychedelic progressive rock to live up to: groups like Camel and The Soft Machine, who helped define those genres as they cross-pollinated in the early 1970s, also originated in that area. Syd Arthur have plenty of direct competition from contemporaries like Tame Impala, and artists from country standout Sturgill Simpson to indie-folk crooner Ray LaMontagne are reexamining classic psych, but the group stand strong on their sophomore LP, Sound Mirror. “Psychedelia” has a wide array of definitions, from surreal pastoral folk to kaleidoscopic pop doused in electronic effects to heavy rock that shimmers like a foreboding mirage.
These psychedelic rockers build up the sparse folk experiments of their 2012 debut, On an On, into lavish odysseys on their follow-up. Now with trippier violin filigrees, they sound even more like the offspring of groups like Soft Machine and Caravan – the similarly minded rock alchemists who populated their native Canterbury, England, in the late Sixties. On catchy standouts like "Autograph" and "Chariots," the band settles into entrancing, sometimes repetitive grooves.
With their Floyd meets The Kinks name, monolithic sleeve art and home on revived prog imprint Harvest, Canterbury’s Syd Arthur ring plenty of retro alarm bells. Earnest fan Paul Weller tipped the group for 2014 on NME.COM and, although there’s more 21st century-sounding records reviewed in these pages, ‘Sound Mirror’’s mix of jazz rhythms and psychedelic funk cuts a distinctive, if unfashionable, path. Buoyant string arrangements and swooshing synths add a cosmic soul sheen to the soaring ‘Hometown Blues’ and ‘Chariots’, while Liam Magill’s lyrics (“The garden of time will unfold”) pay homage to the Arcadian hippy dream.
First, let’s get a few things out of the way, for those who may be new to Syd Arthur. The name comes from the title of Herman Hesse’s spiritual journey novel Siddhartha. Or else it’s an homage to Syd Barrett and the Kinks’ 1969 album Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Accounts differ.
On their 2012 debut album, On An On, the Canterbury four-piece flaunted their love for all things psychedelic and progressive rock. Almost too much, in fact. The band — comprised of Liam Magill (vocals, guitar), brother Joel (bass, vocals), Raven Bush (violin, keyboard, mandolin), and Fred Rother (drums) — stretched to a near breaking point, their sheer desire to cram in everything from ’60s psychedelia, blues rock, jazz fusion, folk, and more ultimately served as the LP’s Achilles heel.
There’s nothing about Syd Arthur that screams “contemporary.” The Canterbury band draws from the late 60s and early 70s music of its birthplace, that quirky, jazzy psychedelic pop that unsurprisingly found favor with prog rock audiences of the time. Hell, the quartet is even signed to revived British prog rock label Harvest. But that’s the group’s advantage.