Third Ear Band , 9/10
Abelard And Heloise , 6.5/10
Macbeth , 7/10
No band of the 1960s and 1970s achieved the degree of ethnic fusion that the Third Ear Band achieved on Alchemy (1969), one of the albums that invented world-music". An acoustic chamber ensemble of (essentially) tablas, oboe, viola and cello performed Indian, medieval, native American, gypsy, middle-eastern, minimalist, jazz, classical and folk music, all within the same song. The four suites on their second album, Third Ear Band (1970), pushed the idea even further: the ethnic sources are not recognizable anymore, and the music flows like a stream of consciousness, a spiritual experience, a daydream. De-contextualized, the "third ear" music is closer to Buddhism meditation than to western composition. The band was equally successful on Macbeth (1972), that added electric and electronic sounds to their ethnic stew.
(Translated from the original Italian text by Troy Sherman)
Third Ear Band was not the first band to compose an entire disk that merged Eastern music and Western music (Paul Butterfield had already done so with his East-West, 1966), but its members were the first to merge the light spirit of hippiedom and psychedelia with western traditions, and formed a radical breakaway from the stereotypes of popular music (blues, jazz, rock). The ensemble perfected that blend even more completely than anyone else because, upon closer inspection, their sources stretched from Irish Celtic Folk to Chinese Opera, and beyond. Their main merit was their use of these elements as inspiration to coin a new language, a language that aspired to be universal (and not just create a collage of languages).
Third Ear Band was born in 1967 in the milieu of the psychedelic UFO Club, initially under the name Giant Sun Trolley, and then Hydrogen Jukebox. Its permanent lineup consisted of tablas (Glen Sweeney), oboe (Paul Minns), viola (Richard Coff) and Cello (Mel Davis). This abnormal conglomeration was the product of a hippe culture that had discovered eastern spirituality and sought new means of expression.
The band's music originated from an esoteric world concept, and was intended as an attempt to discover the meaning of the universe going back to the roots of human experience; in doing this, the music and the philosophy harked back to ancient civilizations. Occult mysticism and exotic folklore are among the subjects of the band’s interpretation. The alchemy of civilization through space and time are peeled apart and evoked through their explorations of arcane ceremonial magic lost in prehistory.
At the same time, though, the operation was more "cultured" than it seemed. The Third Ear Band, using completely acoustic techniques, married repetitive techniques from the minimalist school (a few notes repeated incessantly overlapping through improvised variations) with hypnotic ragas and the Eastern practice of transcendental meditation and inner relaxation.
The sources of Alchemy (Harvest, 1969 - Dropout, 1999 - Gottdiscs, 2005) are still explicit: the raga, the "Book of the Dead" of the ancient Egyptians, Jewish litanies, and Celtic legends.
It opens with the solemn, pulsating ceremonies of Mosaic, which draws on Native American tribalism, phases of string chamber music, and Arabian oboes. Area Three is an exercise in totally abstract world chamber music, with a freely improvising violin set over a crowded landscape, comprised of growingly dizzy Jew’s harp, viola, and cello.
The disc plunges straight into more religious topics with the Ghetto Raga, powered by oboe and violin cadenzas reminiscent of Terry Riley. The intensity of the transcendent hymn’s harmony is due to a dense and fluctuating rhythmic progression, almost to the step of a tarantella. This percussiveness is opposed by cello improvisations, sometimes strummed in utter agony.
The song Egyptian Book of the Dead is more atmospheric. It opens with an anemic improvisation, coming from cool jazz, on the oboe, backed by a small drum beat and mowed by the intermittency of a hissing cello. The key points of Dragon Lines are percussion (gong, table, bells), while the other instruments proceed to go crazy in ringing registers. Each piece on this record adapts its instrumental score to the theme of the title, thus passing from a sense of mystery and fear induced by the "Book of the Dead" to the colorful masks at Chinese festivals and carnivals.
Third Ear Band (Harvest, 1970 - Gottdiscs, 2005) was the band’s second album and one of the greatest masterpieces of psychedelic and progressive rock. It goes even further than the first record, scaling down the “ethnic” feel and creating more “abstract” compositions, which in fact seem to belong more to chamber music than to popular music, and more to jazz than rock. The disc’s four suites (each one dedicated to one of the four elements of ancient Greek philosophy), through the ensemble (which replaces Davis for Ursula Smith on cell), arrive at a formulation of pure music. Their spiritual labors contextualize all of the involved ethnic sources, eliminating any ingenuity still present in Alchemy. This record is a masterpiece, a torturous trace of a journey through sound and avant-garde primitivism.
The album starts with Air, whose ethereal and uncoordinated quality is due to the fragile framework lain by the harmonic oboe, while a viola and cello weave a convoluted counterpoint akin to the praxis of the dodecaphonic avant-garde of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Equally abstract and inconclusive is Water, although this time the improvisations avoid angularity. Ecstatic oboe melodies are embroidered on a counterpoint of vibrant reflections from the cello and viola. Building on those practices, Fire becomes a sabbatical of chaotic and continuous noise, with stringed instruments and oboe prostheses working together to issue dissonances more or less at random. Earth is the most martial and aggressive piece on the album, and it borrows from popular gypsy dance progressions, swirling with stringed instruments flying in crescendos, while, as always, the oboe and viola alternate, running in vaults gradually increasing in ebriosity. The disk’s only constant is the stubborn rhythm of Sweeny, which is the true ancestral call that holds together the incessant improvisations of the other three. These four pieces are the prime leaders in the concept of the music of the “third ear,” a concept whose limits are insuperable, marked by exotic fusion and free experimentation. The mission of the group is divided into two steps, one propaedeutic to the other: the first is the courage to wander outside the barriers of gender, and the second is a determination to enhance the moral function of music. Their orgiastic style lends itself to a cathartic cancelling of the hypocrisy codified by Western music. In this way, the music harks back to an age where music was primarily a vehicle for meditation and prayer. Finally, their music exposes the bright, inherent duality of all things; closer inspection into the band’s music reveals light and dark, interior and exterior, introversion and extroversion.
In the same year, Third Ear Band created the soundtrack for a television program about the famous love story, Abelard and Heloise (Blueprint, 1999).
The third and final album of the Third Ear Band was the soundtrack for a production of Macbeth (Harvest, 1972 - Blueprint, 1999) by Roman Polanski. For this record, the group was comprised of the regulars, Sweeney and Minns, and joined this time by the violinist Simon House (formerly of High Tide), cellist Paul Buckmaster (who had already been an arranger for Elton John and David Bowie), and guitarist Denim Bridges. The use of electrical equipment and electronic effects broadened this project’s horizons.
The disc, divided into sixteen short panels, each lasting several minutes, traces the events of Shakespeare's tragedy, with its carousel of witches and ghosts. The ensemble abandons all commitments to the archaic and the ethnic, and instead focuses on creating a complex and daring score of pure avant-garde. It lacks the intricate counterpoint of oboe and violin from their masterpiece, it is missing the increasing rhythm of the tabla, and it lacks the dimension of free jaz improvisation. The best results are the pieces that are inspired by medieval dances (Inverness, Court Dance, and Dance Groom), but all in all it is small change compared to the notes of the previous albums.
The group was dissolved in 1972. Despite having run the course of one of the most original and evocative collectives of British rock, they simply vanished into thin air after their dissolution. They were rediscovered decades later, with the grandchildren of their new age music finally realizing the extent of their ingenious ethnic fusion. Reformed by Sweeney and Minns, with Mick Carter on guitar and the Samuel Allen on violin, Third Ear Band recorded Live Ghosts (Maso, 1988) live in Italy.
The Third Ear Band's fourth album, The Magus (1972), would not be released for 30 years. Upon its unearthing in 2005, it introduced electronic instruments and singing.
Magic Music (Maso, 1990) was their true plunge back into their old style, with five suites worthy of their past, with just a breath of electronics (including Third Ear Raga, recorded live, New Age Raga, which acts as a manifesto of the new times, and Behind the Pyramid, which is still very impressive). Alongside the two leaders were saxophonist Lyn Dobson (a veteran who had played in the 60s for George Fame, Manfred Mann, Nick Drake, John Martyn, and even on the legendary third album of Soft Machine) and violinist Neil Black.
Live (Voiceprint, 1999) captures a 1989 concert.
Prophecies (Blueprint, 1991), released under the name Hydrogen Jukebox, contains eight tracks recorded in 1972 by a quartet led by Sweeney.
Psychedelic Trance Dance of Brain Waves (Maso, 1993) shows them ready to jump on the bandwagon of ambient music, but elsewhere (Midnight Drums, Spell of the Voodoo, Alchemical Raga) the sound turns into the jazz-rock, thanks to the successful counterpoint between the saxophonist Lyn Dobson, Mick Carter's guitar, and the violin of Neil Black.
New Age Magical Music (Blueprint, 1997) contains refined and majestic episodes such as Dance of the Elves, Atlantis Rising, and Midnight on Mars. It recalls a kind of ambient polyrhythmic jazz, but it basically targets the audience of New Age music.
Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox (Blueprint, 1998) is a strange anthology album of the 90s.
La Third Ear Band non fu la prima formazione a comporre un disco intero che
fondesse musica orientale e musica occidentale (almeno
Paul Butterfield lo
aveva gia` fatto con la sua East West del 1966), ma i suoi membri
furono quelli che
lo fecero alla luce dello spirito hippie/psichedelico, ovvero con un radicale
scollamento dagli stereotipi della musica popolare (blues, jazz, rock).
L'ensemble fece anche piu` che fondere Oriente e Occidente, in quanto, a ben
guardare, le loro fonti si estendevano dal folk celtico dell'Irlanda
all'opera Cinese. Il loro merito principale fu quello di usare queste
ispirazioni come elementi per coniare un nuovo linguaggio, un linguaggio
che ambiva ad essere universale (e quindi non soltanto un collage di linguaggi)
anche se fini` per essere cosi` astratto da rappresentare una Metafisica per
La Third Ear Band nacque nel 1967 nel milieu psichedelico dell'UFO Club, inizialmente con il nome Giant Sun Trolley, e poi Hydrogen Jukebox. L'organico di base era composto da tablas (Glen Sweeney), oboe (Paul Minns), viola (Richard Coff) e violoncello (Mel Davis). Questa anomala formazione era il prodotto suggestivo di una cultura hippie che aveva scoperto la spiritualità orientale e che cercava nuovi mezzi di espressione.
La musica del gruppo traeva origine da una concezione esoterica del mondo e si proponeva come un tentativo di scoprire il significato dell'universo risalendo alle radici dell'esperienza umana, e quindi alle civiltà più antiche. Misticismo occulto e folklore esotico si compenetravano. L'alchimia di civiltà distanti fra loro nello spazio e nel tempo evocava arcani cerimoniali magici andati perduti nella preistoria.
Al tempo stesso l'operazione era più "colta" di quanto sembrasse. La Third Ear Band sposava in maniera del tutto acustica le tecniche ripetitive della scuola minimalista (poche note ripetute incessantemente a cui si sovrappongono variazioni improvvisate), le tecniche altrettanto ipnotiche dei raga, le prassi orientali della meditazione trascendentale e del relax interiore.
Le fonti di Alchemy (Harvest, 1969 - Dropout, 1999 - Gottdiscs, 2005)
sono ancora esplicite: i raga, il "Libro dei Morti "
gli antichi Egizi, le litanie Ebraiche, le leggende Celtiche.
Third Ear Band (Harvest, 1970 - Gottdiscs, 2005), secondo album e uno dei grandi capolavori
della musica psichedelica/progressiva, si spinge ancora oltre, ridimensionando
l'aspetto "etnico" e conferendo un carattere ancor piu` "astratto" alle
composizioni, che infatti sembrano appartenere piu` alla
musica da camera che alla musica popolare, e piu` al jazz che al rock.
Nelle quattro suite del disco (dedicate ai quattro elementi dell'antica filosofia greca)
l'ensemble (a cui si e` aggiunta Ursula Smith al violoncello al posto di Davis)
pervengono a una formulazione pura, anti-spettacolare e anti-enfatica, dei loro
travagli spirituali, una formulazione che decontestualizza le fonti etniche,
eliminando le ingenuità ancora presenti in Alchemy, e traccia un
tortuoso itinerario sonoro attraverso primitivismo e avanguardia.
Nello stesso anno i Third Ear Band realizzarono la colonna sonora per un programma televisivo su Abelard And Heloise (Blueprint, 1999), che verra` pubblicata soltanto trent'anni piu` tardi.
Il terzo e ultimo album della Third Ear Band fu la colonna sonora per un
allestimento del Macbeth (Harvest, 1972 - Blueprint, 1999)
da parte di Roman Polanski. A Sweeney e
Minns si aggregarono questa volta il violinista Simon House (ex
High Tide), il violoncellista
Paul Buckmaster (già arrangiatore di Elton John e di David Bowie)
e il chitarrista Denim Bridges.
La strumentazione elettrica ed elettronica ampliano gli orizzonti del progetto.
Il complesso si sciolse nel 1972, e svanì nel nulla, nonostante avesse percorso una delle strade più originali e suggestive del rock inglese. Vennero riscoperti soltanto vent'anni dopo, dai nipotini della musica new age che finalmente aveva capito la portata della loro fusion etnica. Riformati da Sweeney e Minns, con Mick Carter alla chitarra e Allen Samuel al violino, i Third Ear Band registrarono Live Ghosts (MaSo, 1988) dal vivo e in studio in Italia.
The Third Ear Band's fourth album, The Magus (1972), was not released for 30 years. It introduced electronic instruments and singing.
Magic Music (MaSo, 1990) segno` il vero ritorno in grande stile, con cinque suite degne del loro passato e appena un soffio di elettronica in piu` (fra cui una Third Ear Raga registrata dal vivo e una New Age Raga che funge da manifesto dei nuovi tempi e una Behind the Pyramid molto suggestiva). Al fianco dei due leader c'erano ora il sassofonista Lyn Dobson (un veterano che aveva suonato negli anni '60 per George Fame, Manfred Mann, Nick Drake, John Martyn, e persino sul mitico terzo album dei Soft Machine) e il violinista Neil Black.
Il Live (Voiceprint, 1999) cattura un concerto del 1989.
Prophecies (Blueprint, 1991), attribuito a Hydrogen Jukebox, contiene otto brani registrati nel 1972 da un quartetto guidato da Sweeney.
La Psychedelic Trance Dance di Brain Waves (MaSo, 1993) li presenta anche pronti a balzare sul carro della musica ambientale, ma altrove (Midnight Drums, Spell Of The Voodoo, Alchemical Raga) il sound vira verso il jazz-rock, grazie al felice contrappunto fra il sassofono di Lyn Dobson, la chitarra di Mick Carter e il violino di Neil Black.
New Age Magical Music (Blueprint, 1997) contiene episodi raffinati e maestosi come Dance Of The Elves, Atlantis Rising e Midnight On Mars, che richiamano una sorta di ambient jazz poliritmico, ma sostanzialmente prendono di mira il pubblico della musica new age.
Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox (Blueprint, 1998) e` un'antologia (quantomeno bizzarra) degli album degli anni '90.
Minns, uno dei suonatori di oboe piu` originali di tutti i tempi, e` morto nel 1997.