Live Review: Syd Arthur with Weird Shapes at Newcastle Cluny 2 – 25th September 2014

By on Tuesday, 4th November 2014 at 2:00 pm
 

Syd Arthur have arguably the best, and most relevant, band name in the business. One half of it is evocative of Syd Barrett, the tragic genius who created Pink Floyd. Regardless of the lumpen cash cow that band have evolved into, early Floyd were genuine psychedelic pioneers, as a casual listen to ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ will reveal, a state of affairs largely thanks to Barrett’s influence. That, and a cupboardful of psychoactive drugs. And the other half of the name may well be interpreted to imply Arthur Brown, a less tragic and more alive fellow practitioner of ‘60s psychedelic music, this time with a side order of proto-glam rock. Brown is still active, releasing records and touring, and if Syd Arthur are indeed paying respect to him in their name, and Brown’s career receives the shot of popularity it richly deserves because of that, then they will have done a very fine thing indeed. For Arthur Brown, read the English Tom Waits. He really is that good.

But, whoa! What’s that you say? Siddhartha is the birth name of the founder of Buddhism? “The awakened one” himself? He who preached the ultimate goal of attaining the sublime state of nirvana? So by clever wordplay, the band announce themselves, before nary a note has been played, as being familiar with psychedelia’s back story, by way of ancient, peaceful religious practice, and, by implication, a decent amount of long hair, paisley throws, and incense. Pretty clever.

Stockton’s Weird Shapes are up first. They could be described as a “kitchen sink” band – there’s two guitars, bass, keyboards and lots of vocal harmonising. Their songs share the same wide ambition – there’s touches of ’80s electro-pop in the staccato arpeggiation ‘Clouds’, and nothing so mundane as a conventional arrangement, as the song gently bobs along without a recognisable chorus. What doesn’t come through in their recorded material is their fondness for a bit of funky math-rock – when they want to they can wig-out with abandon, if with their characteristic inscrutable song structures. Perhaps a band to learn on record before their live show can be completely appreciated.

Syd Arthur are three albums into their career now, and in that time they have achieved a maturity that puts them firmly in the same league of any psychedelic band one would care to mention. They are capable of recreating that heavily-reverbed, mightily-phased, British late-‘60s wall of sound, as on ‘Garden of Time’ from latest collection ‘Sound Mirror.’ Conversely, they can do a decent stab at airy, laid-back funk. Singer and guitarist Liam Magill looks like he aspires to a psychokinetic relationship with his voice and instrument: small, instinctive flicks of his guitar’s vibrato arm and subconscious vocal inflections portray a man at one with his music. His voice has a classic folk tremolo, and his spidery finger-style guitar technique mirrors his slight frame; the whole effect is both delicate and impactful, a description which neatly sums up the band’s sound as a whole.

Just as compelling are the activities of multi-instrumentalist (and nephew of Kate) Raven Bush. He’s in charge of a lovely retro-looking synth, he twists a violin’s squalls into beautiful harmony with the rest of the band. But best of all, he plays a mandolin as if it were an electric guitar: lithe, overdriven lead lines pour out of it in ways which surely no luther ever intended. All three guitarists have an extensive pedal board, which arouses much geeky interest in the post-gig aftermath.

But the best compliment that can be paid is this: despite the extensive use of effects, nothing of the sound is forced, there is no pretence at faux-retro here. Syd Arthur are the genuine article, both in terms of their extensive catalogue, and of their sound, which sounds nothing so much as if it’s being played from a vinyl record. In many ways they are the British version of White Denim: a lithe, virtuoso outfit purveying a style which is at once indebted to the past, respectfully referencing those who have gone before, whilst simultaneously sounding utterly modern, and like nothing other than themselves. And I can think of no higher compliment than that.

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