September 15, 2021

Overall, clearly, this is not music aimed at the masses. It never was. But that excellent second album, and to a lesser extent the Macbeth soundtrack, are worth your investigation.

The first question here, starting at the very beginning, is ‘are you familiar with the Third Ear Band?’ If the answer is yes, you have some kind of idea what you’re walking into with this box of music from a parallel dimension. If the answer is no, then let me get you up to speed. The Third Ear Band were strange. Let me give you some further context. The Third Ear Band were very, very strange indeed. Okay, now you’re ready to find out more.

The origins of what would become the Third Ear Band began in 1966, with an outfit going by the bizarre yet tremendous name of The Giant Sun Trolley. Their aim was, effectively, to produce sounds that had never been heard before, at least under the guise of ‘music’. An electric and eclectic ensemble, to give you an idea of what this lot sprang from, one of their compositions was called Eternity In D, a piece designed exclusively to allow the band to play the same note for as long as possible. This was often used as a means to clear a venue of stragglers in the early hours, as The Trolley were sent on to play until the place was empty and the remaining audience had fled. This often took very little time. However, there were exceptions, as the enormously entertaining booklet with this collection informs us that one night they went on at 3am, and proceeded to play two notes until seven. That’s four hours of two notes. However, by 7am on this occasion a number of audience members were still there. Asleep. They would periodically wake up, hear the same two notes, and drift off again. That’s a pretty unsuccessful way to clear a club, but not unrelated to what would become the Third Ear Band.

By the time they changed the name (probably because of a science fiction concept of hearing with the ‘third ear’, but also claimed by one band member to be named after someone they knew who carried around a spectacle case with an ear in it, which he claimed to be Van Gogh’s ear. Which I would love to be true!), they had coalesced around ever-present Ear men Glen Sweeney and Paul Minns. Initially an electric, amplified band, delivering terrifying avant-garde insanity to whoever wished to listen, one night something happened which would alter their destiny. After a show all of their instruments were stolen. Now, in that position most bands would firstly check their insurance and secondly replace their instruments and resolve to employ greater security measures. Not so the Third Ear Band. They interpreted it as a sign from some higher power that they should henceforth play only acoustic instruments, and thus they did. So they changed their approach to being an acoustic band delivering terrifying avant-garde insanity to anyone who would listen. Which, by 1969, as a sign of those most different of times, was actually quite a lot. At least their guitarist left, as he is described as being ‘good, but having no awareness whatsoever of what a group was’.

By the time they were signed up to EMI’s progressive label imprint Harvest for their first album, the band’s sound had apparently streamlined itself into a more conventional entity. Which raises mind-boggling questions about how those earlier gigs must have sounded, because the resulting album Alchemy is about as far from a conventional album as you are likely to get without being John Lennon and Yoko One recording a baby’s heartbeat for 20 minutes and calling it Unfinished Music Number Two: Life With The Lions. It was a very different time, kids. Ask your grandad, and find out what drugs he was taking at the time. It will influence his answer. Anyhow, I digress. The eight tracks here can loosely be described as a sort of Indian-influenced mutant druidic folk music. But not as structured as that sounds. The instrumentation consists of oboe, percussion, violin and cello, with occasional recorder and ‘wind chimes’. It’s the most difficult listen of the three albums here by some distance, though there are moments of clarity. The opening Mosaic, for example, with its frightening rhythmic intensity could easily be imagined as a film soundtrack piece, accompanying something like the infamous scene in the Wicker Man, in which Britt Ekland (or a body double as it actually was) writhes frantically against a door. The other standout is a near-ten minute excursion entitled, cheerily, The Egyptian Book Of The Dead. Miraculously, everything works on this one, as the atmosphere of brooding menace and terror conjured by a cursed Egyptian tomb is somehow invoked so successfully that you find yourself drawn in, and amazed when the whole thing has gone by so quickly. Elsewhere are stretches of meandering formlessness where the opposite is true, however, and pieces seem to go on forever. The track Area Three features John Peel twanging away randomly on a Jew’s Harp, and is not improved by the addition. It’s a fascinating listen, made all the more so by comparing it to the positive reviews from the time quoted in the booklet, but apart from that marvellous Egyptian composition, to these tender ears it largely reverses the conventional idea of Alchemy, and turns gold into base metal…

However, by the time the self-titled follow-up arrived a year or so later, things had changed. The basic line-up of instruments remained the same, but the personnel altered as Ursula Smith (the manager’s wife in fact) had come in as the new cellist, and the band also, amazingly, got the support slot on a nationwide tour with Al Stewart. Around this time they began playing more and more extended pieces, though heavily improvised, and this led to the direction they took for the self-titled second album, which is often known as Elements, owing to the fact that it consists of just four lengthy pieces entitled Air, Earth, Fire and Water. The band’s goal was to create four pieces to embody the spirit of the element concerned, in real time without rehearsals. One would expect the result to be a car crash of disastrous proportions, but incredibly it worked, and the result is easily the strongest record here. Essentially, the name of the game is creating tone poems, a technique long used by classical composers such as Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Vaughn Williams and, perhaps most notably, Vivaldi with the Four Seasons. Indeed the latter work is the one which springs to mind most when listening to this album, as they really do manage to invoke the elements, for the most part at least. The second side of the album is the most successful, with Fire being a brilliant conjuration of the power and liveliness of flames, with the violin dancing around like a rapidly spreading blaze and the increasingly manic percussion giving the feeling of it sweeping out of control. By the end, it is exhilarating and almost exhausting, and Water is a perfect calming piece to close the album, being ushered in with real wave sounds and almost anticipating Mike Oldfield’s more ambient moments, in mood if not in content. The opening Air is also an excellent evocation of its chosen subject, which is a difficult one to pull off, while Earth is the least successful – not because it is musically poor, but more because it seems to miss its objective, with a middle section sounding very like a sort of Turkish or Greek wedding dance leaving the conjuration of the Earth element bafflingly lacking (Incidentally, for some reason the titles of Fire and Water are mixed up on this pressing, but the music is in the correct order, you may be assured). Somehow, against the odds, the Third Ear Band had crafted something with just the right balance between the avant garde and real musical structure, while retaining their mystique, and come away with a triumph..

This being accomplished, they proceeded to split up.

Happily, reconvening with new members once again accompanying Sweeney and Minns, they recorded a third album not included here, as it remained unreleased for decades, before releasing their third album proper, the soundtrack music to Roman Polanski’s startling adaptation of Macbeth. This time there was a slight move to more modern instrumentation, with a guitarist under the unlikely name of Denim Bridges entering the scene, as well as, on violin and also some synthesizer, none other than Simon House, before his stint with Hawkwind began. This doesn’t change the music overmuch, but it does take it in a slightly different direction, as the album (this time made up of sixteen shorter pieces matching up with scenes from the film) brought together a mixture of utterly avant-garde, atonal pieces, almost sound collage in places, alongside medieval-influenced music matching the time period of the film, and likely to appeal to fans of the likes of Gryphon. There are also nods to almost conventional compositions, with one in particular, a Bridges composition entitled Fleance, actually covered by other musicians down the years. It is also the only track with actual words, which are in fact sung by none other than a twelve-year-old Keith Chegwin, in what must be the most random and unlikely collaboration of the whole decade. His later children’s show Cheggers Plays Pop may have been an unremarkable affair, but the idea of Cheggers Plays Medieval Avant-garde Folk would probably have been a more niche proposal…

Overall, clearly, this is not music aimed at the masses. It never was. But that excellent second album, and to a lesser extent the Macbeth soundtrack, are worth your investigation. And when it comes down to it, even their more left-field improvisations are no more extreme than many of King Crimson’s efforts in that area – tracks such as Moonchild and Providence have their share of devotees, and the hideously fearsome Thrakkattakk album in particular makes the second Third Ear Band record sound like Abba’s Greatest Hits by comparison. If you are one of those who loved this fiercely iconoclastic outfit back in the day, or even a devotee of the aforementioned King Crimson works, this is easily the best way to get hold of these albums. The individual sleeves are faithfully reproduced, gatefolds and all, and the booklet is lengthy and fascinating. The first album remains largely impenetrable and the hardest of work to get through – but as someone else once said, two out of three ain’t bad…