Third Ear Band - Elements 1970-1971 [Esoteric Records/ Cherry Red - 2018]Appearing from the prog/experimental rock scene of the late 1960s/ early 1970’s Third Ear Band where a British collective who centred their mostly instrumental, often fairly free-form & experimental sound around the core use of violin, cello, oboe and percussion. Here on Esoteric Records is a three-CD disc release of their second 1970 album Self-titled/Elements, & recordings from the time- expanding the original 35-minute album to three-plus hours of material.
The release appears in a fold-out ten-panel digipak- featuring the original album purple, white & green artwork which takes in a photo of dense cloud-bound landscape. We get a twenty-page booklet, taking in a new eight-page write-up about the album, the band & the period of 1970- 1971 where all the material comes from.
The band were formed in London in the mid-1960’s- starting off from early morning jam sessions at the notorious UFO club. The bands wider collective taking in twenty members- with it centred around the key members Glen 'Zen' Sweeney- hand drums, wind chimes, percussion. Paul Minns- Oboe & Recorder. Richard Coff-Volin & Viola. Ursula Smith-Cello & Violin. In all the collective released around eighteen releases- taking in around ten albums, with most of the body of the work coming from the late sixty-to-mid seventies...
The first disc in the set focuses on the Elements album, and different versions/takes of album tracks. Fitting its title each of the albums four original tracks is named after one of the elements- the sound here is best described as a swooning avant classical & rock cross-breed, with elements of wailing & angular world music, and subtle traces of primal experimentation & seared avant jazz touches. The album opens with it’s longest track "Air"- this comes in at just shy of the ten & half minute mark, and it really doesn’t gently easy you into bands sound. After a minute or so of swirling wind recordings- this awkward & limping collection of string work fades in, which is fairly soon added to by pitter-pattering percussion pulse that hints at eastern mantra. As the track progresses the urgency & detail of the searing, sawing & picking string layers & percussion detail grown & build- I think the nearest comparisons would be the more angular & un-harmonic jams of someone like A Silver Mt. Zion.
The Elements album finishers off with "Fire"- and this seven-minute journey into more haunting–to-dramatic side of the band's sound. It begins with a mixture of distant crushing sea noise, and slurred harmonic string stretchers. At around the two & a half minute another pitter-pattering rhythmic pulse comes in, and this is joined of darkly swooned drones & piping semi-bright/ harmonic oboe march- the blend of harmonic & unharmonic elements here work well to create a nice unease vibe. On the whole, each of the four tracks on the original album fairly nicely fit with their elemental themes- and I guess it doesn’t really sound like much else from that period in the early ’70s.
The rest of the first disc is taken up with alternative versions/takes from the Elements album, and personally, I found these a little un-needed, as none of the version are either rewardingly different from the album version or particularly well tooled- coming off, as well, rough & rather bland jams.
The second disc opens with the six tracks that made up Abelard And Heloise album- the soundtrack the collective did for a short film about the love story between 12th-century philosopher and theologian Abelard, and his young student Heloise. For me the material on these tracks is the best of this collection- as they manage to effectively blur & blend together elements of mystic world music focused mantras, moody & dramatic classical music, with droning rock sensibilities- equally the tunes & the structures of the tracks feel so much more vibrate & urgent, yet memorable & atmospheric. The six tracks are simple titled "Abelard and Heloise parts one to six", and each is worthy going from sprightly & darting, onto the epic & building, though to brood & darkly swooning.
The rest of this second disc is taken up by three unreleased tracks from 1970’s Abbey Road Sessions- these move from layered & unbalanced vocal chant meets circling psychedelic string buzz & drone of “Very Fine…Far Away”. Onto lose honking & pared back twanging avant string, meets wondering cymbal shimmer of “The Dragon Waits”, which later cracks open into string seared jam rock. Through to the spacey simmering & electro buzzing mantra of “Sunrise”- with its blend of spiralling & lose guitar work, wondering & honking pipes, trippy electro textures, and abounding cymbal-heavy rhythm. This second disc is certainly the most consistent of the three discs.
Lastly we, of course, we have the third & final disc- and this features fifty-five minutes of previously unreleased tracks. In all there are five tracks here- and this is the most mixed & varied of the three discs- we go from buzzing & churning groove meets amassed chanted throb, tick-tock percussion & off angular string wonder of “Mistress Of The Son”- which can’t seem to decide what wants to be, and in the ends lands up as a mess. The moody & fairly eventful "Evening Awaking" which builds from tolling percussion with wonky honks, onto groovy bass runs & string swoons- coming off like a more out there & less structured instrumental version of Gong when they had a more rock funk focus. Onto the rather shapeless drum, bash 'n' crash meets wailing untended string scrub & bays of “Druid One”. This disc is very, very unpredictable in quality- with some of it been near unbearable to listen to, and this is coming from someone who regularly listens-to/ enjoys both noise & difficult improvised material.
There’s no doubt that this three-disc set is an extremely thorough look at the Third Ear Band output between 1970 & 1971, and if you’re a hardcore fan of the band I think you’ll find this most rewarding. Personally, I found that around half of what was here, was both worthy & creative, the remaining 50 per cent was very unpredictable in quality- going from passable & interesting, to indulgent & a decidedly pretentious. The Third Ear Band where most certainly one of the more out-there/ experimental bands from within the prog/ art-rock scene- so if your interested in investigating this side of things further Elements 1970-1971, is certainly worth a look- just don’t expect three discs worth of top-notch/ focused material.