As regular customers of theirs will know (or indeed regular visitors to this very website), Cherry Red manage to put out a huge amount of obscure or at least half-forgotten nuggets via the progressive Esoteric label, and consistently excellent they are too. Once you move onto the slightly more niche Grapefruit imprint, however, the signs are often there that you may be wandering so far off the grid that you may need a compass and a good supply of Kendal Mint Cake to get back within sight of the mainstream again. No-one reading this will be surprised to know that this is very much the case with the rather unjustly ignored (in their time) and forgotten (ever since) Byzantium. This five-disc set is a remarkably comprehensive and painstakingly researched release considering that the band only released two major label albums, and further still none of this collection resorts to reams of unnecessary demos. You get the lot here, but it’s all professionally recorded stuff with very little repeating of material – and even then only in decidedly different form. That’s all well and good, I sense you muttering, but who the hell were Byzantium, and why should I care about them? Well, read on and we’ll look into it.
With most releases of this type, the material veers between the ‘good grief, why were this band never more successful??’ reaction to the ‘ah, I see why this band were never more successful’ one, often within a couple of songs. And yes, those extremes, plus all points in between, are present here. In the middle ground is the first disc of the collection, the self-titled album by Ora, who were a pre-Byzantium band featuring the writing, playing and singing talents of Jamie Rubinstein, who would walk out of the door after the album’s release just as his future Byzantium colleagues were walking in, though he would be back for good before the first Byzantium record proper came out. But we get ahead of ourselves. The Ora album, originally on the small Tangerine label, is certainly formative, and clearly date-stamped ‘late ’60s’ in its often whimsical psych-pop approach, yet hints of greater things crop up throughout, such as the slightly eerie opener Seashore, the longer, heavier and almost-prog Whitch and the closing The Seagull And The Sailor. Ten unreleased bonus tracks are added, interestingly recorded just as the band were morphing into what would become the first Byzantium line-up. It’s interesting, but this disc is the appetiser before the main course, for sure.
The self-titled Byzantium album, released on new label A&M, sees the newly christened band (including future Ian Dury sideman Chaz Jankel, trivia-fans) expanding their sound and producing a record which is perhaps a little too eclectic for its own good from such newcomers, containing elements of folk, jazz, prog, funk and a good amount of breezy West-Coast style vocal harmonies. Highlights here include the Man-meets-The Average White Band opener What Is Happening and the closing, ten-minute Jankel-penned Why Or Maybe It’s Because – the first real sign of the band stretching their ambitious and imaginative muscle in a recognisably ‘prog’ way, even though it is a little awkwardly put together at times. Three decent bonus tracks are included to complete a nice disc, as the quality improves.
Disc three gets to the real meat of the collection, however, with the band’s crowning studio achievement, their second and final A&M release Seasons Changing. An album of two halves, the first side of the original vinyl contains five relatively concise songs, with the Wishbone Ash influence of opener What A Coincidence standing out. Other more laid-back, almost Crosby, Stills And Nash type material includes I’ll Always Be Your Friend and the excellent side-closer October Andy. The second half of the album is a different beast, however, with the whole of the second vinyl side occupied by the 20-minute Something You Said, in three sections. This is the band’s best recording, being a superbly developed extended piece with no padding from drum or bass solos, or departures off into unrelated tangents to fill up its allotted space. It’s quietly, unfussily superb, with Caravan a good reference point, as is the slightly more obscure Capability Brown, with the track bearing a strong stylistic similarity to their Circumstances epic, from the Voices album. This is the point where Byzantium really showed what they could do, and began living up to the majesty of their name, which makes it even more of a shock that A&M dumped them after it came out. With Jankel also leaving, the bottom had rather fallen out of the Byzantine empire, and the end was inevitable.
That wouldn’t be quite yet, however, as the band put out a small run of a self-released album made up of half live and half studio recordings, imaginatively titled Live/Studio. It is highly sought after by collectors, and is also sometimes known as ‘The Black And White Album’ apparently. Go on, guess what colour the sleeve design is. These were not names requiring much in the way of lateral thinking. While the album as presented here (with the live tracks first rather than the studio tracks, as the original back cover claims) opens with a real classic, the lengthy and quite brilliant Flashing Silver Hope, the band reveal themselves to be increasingly confused about their direction at this time, as that very impressive piece is immediately followed by two excursions into alarming faux-country-rock territory in the shape of Cowboy Song and Feel It. These tracks can not decide whether they want to be country-influenced rock songs or full hayseed barn-dance hoedown tunes. In the end, they are neither, as they fall disastrously between the two stools, with hesitant and halfway unintelligible vocals betraying a possible lack of confidence in the material. The studio tracks continue the country influence a little less overtly, but fare better as there is more of a resemblance to the polished sound of the early Eagles. There has since been a reissue of the album on CD and double vinyl which includes What A Coincidence and the whole Something You Said suite added (as three individual tracks), but these are not doubled up here. This came out in early 1974, and after a further year of live shows and four more unreleased studio recordings (included here), the band folded without many people noticing.
But wait, however, for we are not done and all is certainly far from lost, as there is a fifth disc here containing an album of ten live tracks recorded from the mixing desk during that final year, titled High Time for its first ever release. And against all expectations, it is mostly superb. Much of it consists of previously unissued songs, but when past tracks are revisited the results are generally spectacular. Flashing Silver Hope stretches out to an even longer fifteen minutes, containing some irresistible guitar interplay, while October Andy is extended to twice its length and totally transformed into a veritable tour-de-force. There’s yet another epic in the shape of the 12-minute Gypsy Man, but there isn’t really a poor track on this disc. As the very honest new sleeve notes from Rubinstein admit, the mix has the vocals rather high and the guitars too low, meaning that the performances are robbed of some of their power, but nevertheless this is no bootleg recording. It’s a fine way to demonstrate how much Byzantium still had to offer on stage at that time, and throws prior efforts a la Cowboy Song into frustrating relief. This was a great band when they got down to it and wanted to be.
As alluded to earlier, and unsurprisingly, it’s a patchy collection at times – though how could it be anything else with such an unheralded outfit having their entire output so thoughtfully curated? There are two discs out of the five which are essential – Seasons Changing and High Time, of course – and the self-titled Byzantium debut is also strong. The Ora release and the Live/Studio album are curios from which to cherry-pick the best material, but taken all-in, that’s a pretty good hit-rate for a band few people even among rock fans will be aware of having existed. No, they weren’t ever contenders for Pink Floyd levels of stardom, but they deserved more than what they ended up with in terms of audience and label support. Finally with this release they have the quality of product (great booklet and individual album sleeve reproductions) that they always cried out for. Maybe, just maybe, a few more people will also sit up and take notice that here is another fascinating stroll down an early 70s country lane away from the motorway network of the Zeppelins and ELPs of the time. Give it a try, and have a nice day!