Saturday, October 15, 2011
Third Ear Band - Alchemy (1969) / Elements (1970)
The Third Ear Band is the fortuitous result of a struggling group of rock musicians having most of their instruments stolen. Left with no amplifiers, guitars, keyboards or drum kits, they were forced to make do with a violin, a cello, an oboe and some hand percussion and assorted other small noisemakers. The ensuing sound came to earn them some unexpected popularity and record deals were soon forthcoming.
This release combines their first two studio albums, "Alchemy" from 1969 and a self-titled release commonly known as "Elements" for reasons that will soon become apparent, from a year later. The music is very loosely structured, and the melodies and instrumental palate create a sound that is somewhere between the music of medieval Europe and the more exotic textures of Indian classical music. The band have managed to capture a feeling of mystery quite well both with their sound and cover art littered with alchemical symbols and imagery from the dark ages.
The first album contains many short pieces of different character and energy levels, while the second has four long tracks, each named for the four elements of classical antiquity: earth, air, fire and water. These last are accompanied by appropriate sound effects, which may seem a bit silly and over the top to some, but I find it enhances the mood nicely. On the whole, it's hard to say which album I prefer. They are both enjoyable in different ways. When I want to here a theme fully fleshed out and developed over the course of ten minutes, I turn to "Elements," but when I'm in the mood for short bursts of contrasting styles "Alchemy" suits me just fine.
It is unclear how much of the material here is improvised, but I suspect that the answer is "most of it." There seems to be some general plan as to themes and structure, especially on "Elements," but the individual parts do not have the feel of careful composition, which I think lends an authenticity to the music that is quite exciting. The melodies are not the kind that western ears have become accustomed to, and these albums would doubtless prove too dense and inaccessible for many people, but those who enjoy Indian ragas or medieval polyphony should find plenty to love in the Third Ear Band.