March 11, 2020

The first thing to get straightened out before diving into this particular artefact is not the question ‘who are Ars Nova?’, but rather ‘which Ars Nova is this?’ as, strange though it may seem, there have been two bands both laying claim to this fairly unlikely title. The ‘other’ Ars Nova are a Japanese progressive rock band, formed in 1983, who are now into double figures in terms of albums released, whereas the Ars Nova we are looking at here were a proto-prog/psychedelic/downright strange band of Americans who convened in New York City in 1967. It’s clear to see how fans of the far longer lived Japanese mob could be confused here! The name isn’t entirely random, as it does mean ‘New Art’ in Latin, but it still seems a less than likely name to be fighting over!

Anyhow, let’s look at this album. Subtitled ‘The Elektra And Atlantic Recordings 1968-1969’, this 2CD collection is precisely and simply that, consisting as it does of the band’s two albums, the first of which appeared on Elektra, and – well, you can take a wild guess at the second. The first album, the self-titled Ars Nova, is a patchy, slightly gimmicky and, at times, fairly unhinged affair. The six-piece band, including trumpet and bass trombone in addition to the more usual rock suspects, blast with abandon through ten tracks, all fairly brief in length, boasting such titles as General Clover Ends A War and March Of The Mad Duke’s Circus. Conventionally structured tracks, such as the mellow, classically influenced opener Pavan For My Lady, rub shoulders with such bizarre flights of fancy as the aforementioned General Clover extravaganza on an album which is bursting with ideas and promise, but relies too much on tricks such as repeated ‘false endings’ in tracks, disrupting the flow. The band themselves believed it was too early for them to have entered the studio to record an album, and seemed to endorse this by splitting up immediately, while Elektra doubled down on the decision by terminating their contract. A successful start, then…

And yet things were not over. Recruiting four new members to join just two who remained from the debut, Ars Nova arose from the ashes, amid some surprisingly enthusiastic comments from admirers and an equally surprising offer to record a second album from industry giants Atlantic Records. This may have been aided by support from the likes of Roy Wood, who was impresssed enough to cover the track Fields Of People on the 1970 Move album Shazam! The resulting Sunshine And Shadows is a much more confident and cohesive affair, and a substantial leap from its predecessor. There are still extremely left-field selections, such as Rubbish, the story of a garbage man which could almost come from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band had they been American, but there are no throwaways or space-filling experiments here. Of particular note are the two longest tracks, Walk On The Sand and Please Don’t Go Now, both of which see the band confidently and easily stretching out to around the six minute mark.

Sadly, as is often the case in these rags-to-rags non-fairytales, this excellent album was not to be the springboard it should have been, but instead the band imploded for good not long afterward. Not to be reincarnated as a Japanese prog band, of course, as any resemblance there is purely nominal! Sunshine And Shadows is clearly the hook here, but take a listen to the first album as well and marvel at just how far a band could come in just a year in those crazy times. They were ‘new art’ while they lasted, indeed.