The Incredible String Band - The Circle Is Unbroken [Talking Elephant Records - 2018]The Circle Is Unbroken highlights two distinctively different sides of Scottish psychedelic folk/ haphazard genre blenders The Incredible String Band. This two-CD set appeared last year- and features demo sessions from 1967, and a full live show from 1972- with the release shifting between stripped-back creative, and quirky, to decidedly more formulaic and a little tired- so it’s certainly a more 'for fan' type release.
The two CDs come in a fitting psychedelic & colorful fold-out digipak- this features the releases full track listings/ timings, a very brief write up about both discs, and of course a few band pics from 1967 and 1972. I believe this is a relatively large/ unlimited pressing- so you’ll still be able to pick this up direct from Talking Elephant Records, or at all good record shops.Roger Batty
The first disc here is entitled The Chelsea Sessions 1967- this originally surfaced back in the late 1990’s getting releases on the likes of the wonderfully named Pig Whisker’s Records, Moon crest Records, and Trojan Records( which is a surprise as normally this label focus in on more reggae related fare). So it’s been out of print for a while making this reissue worthy/ needed. What we have here, as the title suggests, is demo tracks from 1967- just before they went onto release classic & celebrated chain of albums taking in the likes 67’s 500 Spirits Or The Layer Of The Onion, 68’s Wee Tam & The Big Huge, and possible the bands most influential/ near-perfect album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter- also from 1968. This recording takes in fourteen tracks, which finds the band as just the classic key songwriting partnership of Mike Heron & Robin Williamson. The release features early takes of classic songs like "The Mad Hatters Song", "The Eyes Of Fate", and "Little Cloud" ( from The 500 Sprits), "The Iron Stone"( The Big Huge). Along with a good selection of never-released tracks like hop sided-yet- melodically charming “Alice Is Along Time Gone” with strum 'n' dart acoustic guitar, and warbling-yet- rewarding vocals. Or the playful "Frutch" with its jiving blend of tight strumming guitar, manic harmonica honks, and playful/ silly wordplay vocals about meeting women with strange names & strange stories. The jaunting organ & piping joy of “God Dog”- with its wonderfully wordy, cryptic and playful lyrics. Though-out fifty-seven-minute release the performances from both Heron & Williamson are both passionate, creative, and at times daring- you really feel both a feeling of keen-ness, chemistry, and flare between the pair- as they conjure up some great sonic magic.
The second disc is entitled Live In Canada 1972- and this originally appeared on the 2006 Castle Music release The Circle Is Unbroken- which this release is a reissue of. It's a fourteen track/ sixty five minute live album with the ISB as a full band of Williamson & Heron, joined by Gerard Dott( Clarinet & Keyboards), Stan Lee( bass), Jack Ingram (Drums) and Malcolm LeMaistre( Vocals). By 1972 ISB had morphed more into a more folk/ rock venture with elements of trad jazz and darts at other genres- the bands all over sound had become a lot more formal in both the guitars, bass, and drums setting- with the bands past use of more quirky world music instruments dieback, as did the more daring and unpredictable song structures too. Yes, 1970’s ISB had its moments, but it was a very different and less unequal band from what it was. So, as a result, this live set is decidedly mixed- when it’s rewarding, mostly in the showier & jazz-tinged moments- it’s a lot of fun. But when the band clicks into more formal folk/rock moving towards prog setting- the results are less consistent & special- and sadly on a few occasions very lacklustre and uninspired. As a long term fan of the band, it’s certainly interesting to hear a live recordings from this period, and there are moments of greatness here, it’s just decidedly mix in both song and playing quality.
In conclusion, it’s good to see this double CD release back in print once more- and if you’re a big fan of ISB, and missed out on this first time around it’s well worth picking up. But as mentioned in my introduction this is very much a fan-focused release so if you're new to the band I wouldn’t recommend this…and instead suggest picking up one of their classic albums instead- which are all in print at present.