Third time seeing Syd Arthur in Manchester for me last night, but after a blinding gig at the Band on the Wall a few years back, followed by a less memorable low key gig at the Night and Day a few months later, it’s clear that things have changed. Back then, they were trying out new tunes to be heard next on the “Sound Mirror” album, now they are promoting ‘Apricity’, 8 months or so after its release.
A few obvious differences first – Josh Magill is now the drummer, replacing Fred Rother, apparently now out of music completely due to tinnitus, and last heard of carving out a living cultivating mushrooms. A shame, as Fred brought a texture and sensitivity to the sound fully in line with those early folk and jazz-flecked albums. Josh joins his brothers Joel and Liam in the band, alongside the multi-talented Raven Bush.
The second obvious difference is that Raven appears to have downed his violin completely, alternating between a heavily treated electric mandolin and a bank of keyboards. At times, marvellously wild-haired as he is and cranking up various effects on his soundboard, he generates a convincing mad scientist vibe. The story appears to be that he was struggling for a decent sound with his violin in some of the stadium gigs Syd Arthur did in the States, particularly whilst supporting Yes. Us lesser mortals who scratch, scrape or blow our way unconvincingly for years on end on one instrument can barely comprehend a virtuoso abandoning an instrument he was so proficient in, but Raven softens the blow a little by being a highly convincing pianist.
The third difference, no doubt influenced by the first two, is a new ‘sound’. It’s more straight ahead, more overtly poppy, more electronic and one would hope, for the band’s sake at least, capable of widening their audience. That said, the Deaf Institute was far from sold out, even though this was a double header with stablemates Morgan Delt.
The band’s strengths are not just an ever expanding repertoire of short sweet tunes with a twist, but their incredible tightness as a unit, honed without doubt by repeated tours in the States, and strengthened by those familial links. Liam Magill, stick-insect-thin and stooped over his microphone is very much the focal point, despite the obvious talents of the rest of the band – as a presence he puts me most in mind of Richard Sinclair. This is less for the pitch of his voice (he can switch into a falsetto at the drop of a hat) but just as a naturally gifted, understated musician who should have the world at his feet. This was a truncated set, clocking in at around an hour and mainly featuring tracks from ‘Apricity’ and whilst this album is very much their most straight-ahead album in terms of composition, there’s still an overall hint of deviance, almost menace in their live set, particularly some of the token olden numbers – witness the noodling, tempting intro to ‘Hometown Blues’, or the sonic assault of the wigged out ‘Singularity’ as it breaks out from the anthemic ‘Chariots’ – a very fine set-ender. Good to hear also that tracks like ‘Seraphim’ and the single ‘SunRays’ have a bit more impact live than on the album. Highlights for me apart from the above was the classic new pop tune ‘No Peace’ and the encore ‘Apricity’. I’m still hoping that at some point Syd Arthur will return, or at least give more reference points to, their folky roots, but their songwriting talents are so apparent they could still plough whatever furrow they wish and still have me wanting more. Roll on the new material the band mentioned during a brief chat afterwards, and here’s hoping for a few last minute festival bookings over the summer…