CD Review – Third Ear Band – Mosaics: The Albums (1969 – 1972)

Out of the great swirl that was 1960’s psychedelic London emerged a number of bands that were something of oddities. In a nice way that is, pushing and prodding music into areas where it really hadn’t fitted before. What these bands created was not even considered by many contemporary commentators to be rock music at all, just mindless hippies making noise. A few bands though settled into such a consistency of style that a genre was attached. Hawkwind would be one of these with the spacerock sound, and Third Ear Band, many believe, forged what is now known as world music, particularly an area often referred to as Indo-rock or Raga Rock. It drew its influences from far and wide – Eastern raga music, folk music, medieval music, and experimental music too, given some members backgrounds in free-form jazz and associations with the London Free School. A lot of the music was improvised, Baroque and decidedly gothic at times.

It wasn’t so unusual for somewhat eccentric bands to be offered contracts by quite well-known record companies in those days and the Harvest label took Third Ear Band on to its roster. Having DJ John Peel as an early champion wouldn’t have done any harm either.

This release, Mosaics: The Albums (1969 -1972), includes three of the albums they recorded for Harvest, now newly remastered and presented in a clamshell box including replica sleeves. For each album there is an illustrated booklet and essay.

The band had actually coalesced in 1968 around a core membership of Glen Sweeney (percussion), Paul Minns (oboe), Richard Coff (violin, viola) and Mel Davis (cello), although many musicians and guests came and went in the course of time. This quartet opened for many of the legendary Hyde Park free concerts by Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Blind Faith.

The group’s debut album, Alchemy, was released in 1969 and was largely improvised. It has seemingly simple percussive rhythms over which an array of cello, oboe, recorder, violin and viola are played maybe with more of an eye on spontaneity than on melody. The music is instrumental and delicate, but largely unfocused and lacking energy. John Peel actually takes a bow playing Jew’s harp on the track Area Three. It is perhaps not a surprise that he did so much to publicise the band then. The next album, an eponymous one, managed to grab wider attention. It was vaguely a concept album, with the instrumental tunes relating to the elements and consisted of four improvised pieces. Cellist Ursula replaced Mel Davis for this album. It was still a little unfocussed with a tendency to be a little rambling. But that was the nature of much music of this era, musicians were left to experiment, to invent and extemporize but there was an audience prepared to listen.  The music this time had greater maturity and remains incomparable and inventive.

The band were getting noticed though. It was approached to create soundtracks for films, probably most notably for Roman Polanski’s gritty interpretation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. There had been personnel changes during this period. Ursula Smith and Richard Coff left, and following a brief period of musical chairs the line-up that made Music From MacBeth in 1972 saw Denim Bridges recruited on electric guitar along with former High Tide member Simon House on violin and VCS 3 synthesiser, who many will know from his association with Hawkwind. As you might expect of music for a film, it is something of a move away from the band’s typical sound and to one that meets the demands of the movie. There is even a song, and there is a more medieval air to proceedings. The band seems to benefit from having to focus on a narrative. Listening to the album without having the visuals can be a frustrating experience though. The music is good but not really strong enough to carry the story in itself.

Third Ear Band had released another album in 1970 for Harvest called Abelard & Heloise, but it is not included in this set. After MacBeth the band left Harvest and ceased to exist until a comeback in 1990, then drifting along until finally disbanding in 1993, partly driven by on-going health problems for percussionist Glen Sweeney.

Overall then, this release highlights both the good and the not so good for Third Ear Band. On the evidence of these three albums the group was innovative, creative, artful, and skilled in creating colourful, atmospheric, intelligent music. But it is undoubtedly true that it was very much a band right for its time. The instrumentals could be quite rambling and ill-defined, the intricacies often lacking energy or momentum. All the musicians involved were unquestionably skilful musical personalities given the room to display their wares. But there is a lack of dramatic impact and at their worst the albums just become pleasant background music. The boxset is an intriguing, unique enjoyable listen though, in spite of the foibles. It certainly highlights the other side of progressive rock, away from the bombast of many of their contemporaries.

Disc One: Alchemy

1. Mosaic

2. Ghetto Raga

3. Druid One

4. Stone Circle

5. Egyptian Book Of The Dead

6. Area Three

7. Dragon Lines

8. Lark Rise

Glen Sweeney / percussions

Paul Minns / oboe

Richard Coff / violin, viola

Mel Davis / cello, slide pipes

DJ John Peel / jaws harp

Dave Tomlin / violin

Disc Two: Third Ear Band

1. Air

2. Earth

3. Water

4. Fire

Glen Sweeney / percussions

Paul Minns / oboe, recorder

Richard Coff / violin, viola

Ursula Smith / cello

Disc Three: Music From Macbeth

1. Overture

2. The Beach

3. Inverness: Macbeth’s Return / The Preparation / Fanfare / Duncan’s Arrival

4. The Banquet

5. Dagger And Death

6. At The Well / The Princes’ Escape / Coronation / Come Sealing Night

7. Court Dance

8. Fleance

9. Groom’s Dance

10. Bear Baiting

11. Ambush / Banquo’s Ghost

12. Going To Bed / Blind Man’s Buff / Requiscant / Sere And Yellow Leaf

13. The Cauldron

14. Prophecies

15. Wicca Way

Glenn Sweeney / drums, percussion

Paul Minns / oboe, recorder

Simon House / violin, VCS3

Paul Buckmaster / violoncello & bass)

Denim Bridges / guitars

Keith Chegwin / boy soprano vocals on ‘Fleance’

Label: Red Cherry Records

Release date: 30th July 2021

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