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Date: October 18, 2005

Review: The Syn, _Original Syn 1965-2004_ (Umbrello Records, UMBRCD001)

http://groups.google.com/group/alt.music.yes/msg/163f980ac9069259?

By Henry Potts

There is a trend with a number of acts in the late '60s and early '70s. They begin as covers bands, develop their own style through the psychedelic period before emerging with what became known as progressive rock. For some, that transition is well-documented in contemporary and archival releases. The transition from Giles, Giles & Fripp into King Crimson or the development of Soft Machine can be heard across a number of albums. For most, however, these developments came before they were regularly recording material and often happened on stage rather than in the studio. We may get only part of the story as, for example, with Caravan, where one can hear the last stages of their evolution in their first, eponymous album.

The same has been true of Yes. We can hear the end of the beginning, so to speak, on albums like _Yes_, _Time and a Word_ and the BBC recordings collection _Something's Coming_ (re-released under numerous different names). However, Yes also have a pre-history and there are two significant bands here: Mabel Greer's Toy Shop and the Syn. The Syn were the first time two members of Yes worked together -- Chris Squire and Peter Banks -- but more than that, it was with the Syn that we first hear the adoption of progressive influences. That process came perhaps most from neither Squire nor Banks but keyboardist Andrew Jackman, someone better known for his orchestral and choral arrangements on later albums like _Tormato_, Squire's _Fish Out of Water_ and Rush's _Power Windows_. Jackman sadly passed away in 2003. _Original Syn 1965-2004_ is the story of the Syn and of Jackman's early work.

Disc 1 of _Original Syn_ brings together just about everything existing by the band and one of its predecessors, The Selfs. (Tantalisingly, a late Syn piece called "Sunshine and Make Believe", with session appearances by Tony Kaye and Davy O'List, could not be located.) This is a comprehensive collection, nicely presented with lengthy notes. The sound quality is variable but that reflects the source material with some of the later tracks pretty rough: what we hear is as good as it is ever going to sound. For those sad music buffs who like archival collections, like me, this is top notch stuff. (It is a significant improvement on Peter Banks' _Can I Play You Something?_ compilation, the previous best source of Syn recordings, although _Can I Play You Something?_ remains valuable for its coverage of Mabel Greer's Toy Shop.)

But let us not get entirely bogged down with a history lesson. There are some good tunes here, well worth listening to in their own right. The two post-Syn tracks, "The Last Performance..." and "Mr White's White Flying Machine", are great slices of '60s psychedelia, although I wonder whether they sounded dated by the time they were released (early '70s). The four contemporary Syn singles, which have been released on several compilations and are the most familiar material here, have their charm too.

The second half of disc 1 delves deeper into the archives. We move into "historically interesting" territory and there is less hear that I want to keep coming back too. However, it is still historically interesting.

_Original Syn_ was first released as a limited edition, Internet-only purchase in 2004. That version came with a lengthy interview with Squire and singer Steve Nardelli, removed from this full retail version. However, the retail version has some extra tracks. To start with, there is a second Narsquijack demo and an alternate recording of the band's single "Flowerman". This brings us to Narsquijack, a grouping named after its members, Nardelli, Squire and Jackman. An on/off affair over several years, there are two demos here probably from late '60s recordings (but wrongly credited to 2004 in the liner notes). They are very demo-like in arrangement and sound quality, both typical Nardelli compositions.

"Merry-Go-Round" is the Syn's first ever recording. "I Can't Explain" (cover of The Who) and "Love You" are by the Selfs, a predecessor band to the Syn including Squire, Jackman and Syn drummer Martyn Adelman and these are the first ever recordings by any of them. All three tracks come from acetates, so sound quality is not great, and The Selfs' performances aren't stellar, but they were only 16. Listen to this disc backwards and you can hear the development in Jackman's work from the simple "Love You" to singles like "Flowerman" through to pieces like "The Last Performance..." and "Mr White's White Flying Machine".

It was live that the Syn moved beyond the pop of their singles and, led by Jackman, started developing longer pieces. Unfortunately, no live recordings exist. (Well, there is a report that Banks has located a tape of a full Syn live show, so we await developments there.) When this collection was first being assembled, I spoke to Peter Banks and he mentioned that he had a recording of a rehearsal session, but my excitement was short-lived when he described how there were no complete performances on it, nothing of use. However, Banks handed the tape over and, after a valiant editing job by Johnson, enough was found for this, excerpts from "The Gangster Opera". It still is patchy and again the audio quality is poor, but there is enough here to hint at what the piece was like.

The Syn ended with the '60s. Some of the band went on to fame with other projects, some of the band left music altogether. With disc 2, we jump forward nearly four decades to three songs recorded in 2004 with Banks, Nardelli and Adelman. The reunion of Syn and subsequent developments, including the creation of Umbrello Records, has sparked much discussion. (Having played a small part in the process myself, I cannot claim to be entirely objective here.)

Unfortunately that discussion has been more for what hasn't happened than for what has with a number of abortive projects and band bust-ups. Much could be said about all the drama, but it has also overshadowed that the band has recorded some exciting new music. Unfortunately, events have moved faster than releases were arranged, so the Syn has been through two more line-up changes since the tracks here were recorded and, as with Yes' _Keys to Ascension_ albums, new recordings are buried at the back of something else.

"Illusion", a major re-working of an old Syn number, is for me the highpoint of the entire release. Pete Banks brought in keyboardist Gerard Johnson to the band: the two had worked together on a number of projects before, but had never perfected their combined style. Here, it feels everything falls into place. This is quintessential Banks and something that harks back to the '60s Syn band while being entirely modern. Listen to this and you too will lament that we aren't hearing more recordings with Banks these days.

"Illusion" was on the original Internet-only release. The main addition for the retail version of _Original Syn_ is 21 more minutes of 2004 recordings. "Grounded 2004" sticks more closely to the original, but has some modern touches. The much vaunted 16-minute epic version of "Time and a Word" is a real oddity. Suggested by Banks, but not finished in 2004 before the line-up broke up, it was finished this year by Johnson and guitarist James Nesbit (who, coincidentally, is the son of a former manager of Pete Banks). The thing about "Time and a Word" is that it isn't a cover of "Time and a Word": the heart of the piece is the new composition, "A Tide in the Affairs of Man", with the "Time and a Word" cover sort of an extended introduction. "A Tide in the Affairs of Man" has similarities with the first of the 2005 Syn recordings with Chris Squire, "Cathedral of Love". Nardelli's writing style is recognisable from the Syn and Narsquijack material on disc 1, but the surrounding arrangement has been updated. The band's press releases call them 'prog modernists', which sounds good, but I don't think it means anything! However, the band does have a style, a sound of their own, and I enjoy "A Tide in the Affairs of Man" and "Cathedral of Love". "A Tide..." would perhaps have done better not being housed inside "Time and a Word", a song outside Nardelli's range. The "Time and a Word" cover is best when most distant from the original and compromised when it gets closer.

As I mentioned, 2005 saw Chris Squire re-join the band, which is now without Peter Banks. Adelman is still associated with the band, but has decided to stick with his day job as a photographer (you've seen his work already: he did photos for the _Close to the Edge_ cover), having never wanted to return to full-time drumming. Steve Nardelli and Gerard Johnson remain, joined by Paul Stacey on guitars and twin brother Jeremy on drums. (Yes, they do look pretty similar.) While Gerard, Paul and Jeremy have have worked with the likes of St Etienne, Oasis and Sheryl Crow respectively, all three grew up loving prog. Their new album, _Syndestructible_, is out in November. Live dates may or may not follow.

In the mean time, _Original Syn_ is well worth getting. There is some classic '60s music, there is some great new music, there are some historical oddities and it is all put together behind a great cover.

CD1 (all tracks by the Syn unless otherwise indicated)
1. Andrew Jackman: Mallard Way
2. Grounded
3. 14 Hour Technicolor Dream
4. Created by Clive
5. Flowerman
6. The Last Performance of the Royal Regimental, Very Victorious and Valiant Band
7. Ayshea: Mr White's White Flying Machine
8. Narsquijack: Cadillac Dreams
9. Narsquijack: Sunset Boulevard Lament
10. Merry-Go-Round
11. The Gangster Opera (excerpts from the rehearsal tape): Part 1: Chorus / Part 2: Legs Diamond / Reprise
12. The Selfs: I Can't Explain
13. The Selfs: Love You
14. Flowerman (original recording)

CD2
1. Illusion: Part 1: Illusion / Part 2: Something's Going On / Part 3: Illusion (Reprise)
2. Grounded 2004
3. Time and a Word: (i) Time and a Word
4. (ii) A Tide in the Affairs of Man
5. (iii) Time and a Word (reprise)

Musicians:
Andrew Pryce Jackman, Gerard Johnson: keys
Steve Nardelli, Chris Slater, Denny Ward, Ayshea Brough: vocals
Martyn Adelman, Gunnar Hákonarson, John Bowring: drums
Peter Banks, James Nisbet, John Wheatley, John Painter: guitar
Chris Squire, Steve Gee: bass

 

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