Synanthesia: A surprising rediscovery
When the original LP by Synanthesia was released in the late sixties, the album cover gave no information about the band: sleeve notes had already become a thing of the past. Happily, the 2006 re-release on CD includes a little booklet which explains a little bit more about Synanthesia, how it came together, and what the group was trying to do.
The late sixties were a time of change in the pop music scene in England. The beat period of the early sixties, when a specifically English beat sound emerged to dominate pop music, came to a close. During the mid-sixties, after the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, itself the culmination of more original ideas flowing into the Beatles' music, flower power took over. This started a wealth of new groups (or as they started to be called, bands), some of whom departed from rock-and-roll and beat, some leaning more towards folk and jazz. At the time, this music became labelled "underground" or "progressive". Among the most successful at that time were bands such as Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, and King Crimson. Three-guitar-and-drums groups gave way to more varied instrumentation, with the introduction of wind instruments, especially sax and flute, and, to a lesser extent, strings.
London had become the centre of a new-style folk scene. Bob Dylan had introduced the idea of the singer-songwriter and inspired a whole range of this kind of artist in London, notably Bert Jansch (later to team up with John Renbourn in the acoustic band Pentangle) and another visitor from America, Paul Simon. The doors were open to music which was original, breaking away from the standard formulas of yesterday. Outstanding in originality was the Incredible String Band. Playing a multitude of instruments, the two musicians in that band, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, drew on all sorts of different traditions, from Scotland to Afghanistan. The music was poetic and romantic. In the sixties, we allowed ourselves to dream.
In 1968 I started working in the small ad section at Melody Maker, at that time London's leading music newspaper. The paper went to press on Tuesday and Monday mornings always saw a never-ending procession of people coming to the office to place last-minute ads, looking for gigs, musicians, etc. Like many bands at that time, Synanthesia came together through the small-ad columns of Melody Maker. Dennis Homes, who brought the three of us together, placed an unusually long advertisement under "Musicians Wanted". What was he looking for? A second guitarist and a flute-player. Unusually, he listed all his musical preferences. I noticed that he was living in the same unfashionable part of London as I was: the working-class East End. We met.
Dennis had already been in the music scene for quite some time, playing bass guitar in a soul band. He played me some of his original songs and I was struck by their complexity and unusual quality (and the fact that they had nothing to do with soul music). I remember him saying that he was interested in doing something really different. Only 18, I was then more or less a beginner on the guitar, but already had a distinct preference for acoustic fingerstyle playing. At that time the only things I could play, like many other players at that time, were songs I had learned listening to records (in those days the more interesting ones were harder to find and much more expensive!) and trying to work out what how the guitarist was getting his sound. I had also started to make up some songs of my own, initially very influenced by the style of Bert Jansch. In this I was inspired by Richard Carlton, a schoolfriend who taught me how to read music and who composed two of the tunes included on the Synanthesia LP.
The third member of the band was Jim Fraser. Jim was from the North of England and had just arrived in London. Unlike us, he was a jazzman through and through and had spent many a night blowing away in jazz sessions. He had an amazing gift for tasteful flute, sax and oboe improvisation around the tunes that Dennis and I played to him. With me on vocals and guitar, Dennis added his guitar or vibraphone, an instrument completely unheard of in "progressive" music. With Dennis on guitar and vocals, I accompanied on guitar or bongos and even ventured out on violin and mandolin.
We set out to be an acoustic band. We recorded a demo and Dennis hawked it around. This resulted in interest from an agency, Chrysalis (later to become a huge record label), and led on to gigs, mostly at colleges and universities. The setting in which we presented our music was not always the ideal one for us. Most of the other groups were amplified and loud. We played music which needed to be listened to: the aim was not to blow people over with a wall of sound. Still, it was an interesting experience.
After one concert, our agent told us that a guy was interested in recording us. The following Monday we were to go to a recording studio in Chelsea, a fashionable part of London. Another interesting experience. A visit to the toilet revealed a part of the studio with shelves stacked with master tapes by musicians I admired: the Incredible String Band, for example. I recall that at our second session (we only did two for the whole album!) we saw the gear that Fairport Convention had left lying around.
The album completed, we had to wait for its release. This proved more difficult. None of the record companies seemed to be interested. It was only after a long wait that we were signed up to RCA and the record came out. Unfortunately, RCA was not prepared to invest much in getting the public's attention. In those days, when the Home Service had recently been re-named Radio 1, local radio was in its infancy. Practically the only way of getting a hearing for our kind of music was by being invited to appear on Top Gear, John Peel's radio programme. We were not invited.
And so, the Synanthesia album flopped. The inevitable followed: we disbanded. It was impossible to keep on doing gigs in faraway towns and continue our day jobs. But we all needed the income from our day jobs.
Over the years, various friends reported that they had seen the Synanthesia LP on sale for 50p at Woolworth. It was only this year, 37 years later, that I suddenly heard the record was being sold on E-Bay for surprisingly large sums of money, that some time ago there had been a bad quality bootleg version, and that Sunbeam Records had been in touch with Dennis about a re-release. And that also, even more unexpectedly, one of the songs from our one and only album had been included on an anthology of British Folk music, called Anthems in Eden, on the Sanctuary label. This is very gratifying, especially in view of the fact that the other artists on that collection include many of those who influenced us.
One big plus about all this is that the three of us are now back in touch. Dennis tells me that up to the end of March 2006, the Synanthesia CD has already sold 632 copies. Not enough for platinum, but also not bad for a 37-year-old album.
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Things People have said about Synanthesia
London trio Synanthesia were only together briefly, but in that time they made an album that has subsequently been hailed as a lost classic.
Synanthesia existed for a year and a half at the tail end of the '60s, released one impossible-to-find LP, then sank without a trace. Pity, as the ground they trod on this reissue was fairly fresh at the time, and still resonates with lysergic psych-folk abandon. Wispy, faerie-prince style lyrics are framed properly against acoustic guitar, sax, bass flute, vibraphone and percussion, in a dynamic mix of melody and dissonance, breaking some boundaries of form for the genre and adhering closely to others. Inspired and lush, this is one of the finer titles to spring up from the new Sunbeam label and should appeal to most latter-day folk/psych/drug music enthusiasts.
A unique album that has little comparison with others but is highly worthy of praise on its own. It's consistent throughout and in this you will either enjoy it from the start and completely, or not get it at all. For this reviewer it is fantastic and returned to regularly, especially late on strange nights when sleep is out of reach and a spider crosses the floor thinking itself unseen.
Originally released in 1969, this album, a mix of folk, jazz & psychedelia, is a lost classic and copies of the 60's release change hands for hundreds of pounds. A must for all lovers of folk.
Synanthesia are a band with a sound that links soft jazzy melodies with folk music, if you can imagine Pentangle and the Modern Jazz Quartet playing Tudor jazz together it may have sounded like this. A mixture of delicate acoustic guitar, fluttering flute and shimmering vibraphone gives the music a distant, late night quality that draws it soothingly into the background.
I'm not sure if the name is a variation of synaesthesia, but according to the definition - a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color - it would have been fitting, and at the time, for most of their followers, probably quite accurate. Going beyond the traditional guitar strumming and vocals many associate with folk, Synanthesia incorporated flutes and other horns along with vibraphone, bongos, violins and mandolin to create a richly textured take on folk that was ahead of it's time.
A highly eclectic album, this effort ostensibly draws upon sources from Greek and Roman mythology and history, as titles like Minerva, Morpheus, Vesta, and Mnemoysne readily testify. The music is very gentle, with mostly flute, vibraphone and guitar accompanying the melodies. Again, this has nothing to do with "acid folk", but stands well on its own as a mildly unusual and pleasant collection of songs. Stand-out track: the Fresh Maggots soundalike Fates, with brilliant wind instruments.
Most Unusual Blend of Instruments Are Featured Here by this Mellow Trio Including Vibraphone and Flute as Well as Guitars, Oboe and Mandolin. Recorded in 1969, it is a Highly Eclectic Album and Draws Upon Greek Mythology for Inspiration and Direction. Quite Beautiful and So, So Timeless. Recommended.
London trio Synanthesia were only together briefly, but in that time they made an album that has subsequently been hailed as a lost classic. With original copies (from 1969) changing hands for hundreds of dollars, Sunbeam comes to the rescue to give it its first official reissue, showing it to be a great lost British acid folk gem and an absolute treat for all lovers of acid folk and psychedelia. Think of a less trad. Incredible String Band and you're close.
This London trio (named after the Yusef Lateef track on the Cannonball Adderley Sextet's "In New York" album - Riverside, 1962) formed out of a 1968 Melody Maker ad placed by guitarist/vocalist Dennis Homes, and answered by Jim Fraser, a 28-year-old central heating fitter from Bolton, who also happened to play sax, oboe and flute, and Leslie Cook, an eighteen-year-old office worker from Hackney in London, who loved the Incredible String Band and played bongos, violin and mandolin!
Their lone album (originally released in September, 1969 on RCA) was recorded at London's Sound Techniques in February, 1969, and is a wistful, flowery collection of Donovanesque folk rock that Homes says was originally intended as a concept album called "The Gods" that would "take all the different ones as starting points for the songs. It seems pretentious to me now, but psychedelia was all about creating a mood with words and music, being suggestive and not literal."
Recorded hastily in two days, Homes was disappointed in the results, claiming, "I thought it was rushed, under-rehearsed and done almost live." This original concept, however, did manifest itself in tracks such as the Crimsonesque "Minerva" (realising that the album was recorded several months before "In The Court of The Crimson King" hit the shelves), "Morpheus" (a cacophonous, avant skronk, theatrical, almost spoken word shouter featuring Fraser's insanely divergent sax wails), "Vesta," "Aurora" and "Mnemosyne."
But order is quickly restored on the tender, delicate, Simon & Garfunkle-ish "Trafalgar Square" and "Rolling and Tumbling" caresses the ears, like a gentle, laid-back Traffic. "Fates" is another suite-like charmer with unusual time changes reminiscent of early Incredible String Band, while the soft, childlike "The Tale of The Spider and The Fly" wouldn't have been out of place on Donovan's "Gift From A Flower to A Garden" collection of children's fairy tales. Fraser's lilting flutework is the star here, and Homes recounts that he "loved the flautist Harold McNair's contributions to Donovan's 'Gift from a Flower to a Garden.' What appealed to me were simple folk-type songs played on acoustic guitar and augmented with jazzy touches from flute and vibes...."
Strangely, it's the original mythological tracks that detract from the album's overall good vibrations, adding an uncomfortable, theatrical edge to the album that suggests they may have been better suited to a stage play than a folk-rock album. To me, they are the weakest tracks on the album, but I can hear how they would probably be the tracks that would appeal the most to fans of ISB's more adventurous flights of fantasy. Even album closer "Just As The Curtain Finally Falls" sounds like Robin Williamson struggling with one of Leonard Cohen's oblique, morose ballads, with Fraser's crying sax wringing every last drop from our tear ducts.
The equally rare bonus track, "Shifting Sands" (from the "49 Greek Street" compilation - the title refers to the address of London's legendary folk den Les Cousins - featuring contributions from their producer, Sandy Roberton's stable of artists from his September Productions company) enthralls the listener with its droning, raga-like tuning (Homes tuned his bottom E string down to a D). Cook's violin plays counterpoint to Fraser's flute, and Homes plays a bowed double bass to maintain a prolonged D throughout the song, which all adds up to a haunting experience that would definitely make a welcome addition to Ben Chasney's Six Organs of Admittance repertoire.
Though recorded quickly over two days -- and indeed, literally recorded live in the studio with no overdubs -- Synanthesia's sole album from 1969 is a gentle treat for anyone interested in the obscurer realms of late-'60s U.K. folk and its descendants. It's always a pleasure to hear something that did not deservedly go out of print -- and therefore get an unnecessary reputation.
Instead, the combination of bandleader Dennis Homes' gentle vocals and delicate guitar work, Leslie Cook's equally strong talents, and the ace-in-the-hole performing of sax and flute player Jim Fraser is often quite magical. That the band openly has a debt to the Incredible String Band and Bert Jansch practically goes without saying, but there's a difference between mere aping and finding a particular spin on a sound, and Synanthesia firmly comes down on the side of the latter. For such a rushed and in-the-moment album, the sound is often quite rich -- credit not only to Vic Gamm's inspired engineering, but to the band's clear abilities as a solid live act.
Hearing Homes' gentle vibes work on "Peek Strangely and Worried Evening" or Cook's flourishes on mandolin for "Fates" shows how well each complements the other songwriter's work. Yet Fraser in many ways is the key throughout -- clearly picking up on jazz influences as much as folk ones, much like his bandmates, and the result is a detailed, fluid series of performances on his chosen instruments, ranging from the restrained then strutting sax parts on "Morpheus" to gentle background flute on "Rolling and Tumbling." The band's weakest element might be the lyrics, but nothing is outright bad, just sometimes awkward.
Sunbeam's 2006 re-release, in keeping with the label's similar work, features not only excellent sound but winning, retrospective liner notes from Homes and a slew of rare pictures, plus a bonus track, "Shifting Sands," that originally appeared on an obscure compilation album from 1970.
Synanthesia, trio de Londres, se distingue des autres groupes par un folk simple teinté de Jazz avec l'emploi d'un saxo qui tend à créer une atmosphère onirique comme sur le magnifique "The tale of the spider and the fly".
Some 10 (?) years ago Synanthesia was reissued on Elegy, but it seems like this is the first official re-release, with a 10-page booklet with extensive background notes and pictures.
Synanthesia were a London-based trio. Their fusing acid folk style was distinctive from all other bands. The songs were kept relatively simple, but there was great attention to delicate, slightly progressive and original arrangements, with unusual instruments for an association with acidfolk (like some improvisational sax in dialogue with guitar and the melody on "Morpheus"), which makes the group sometimes less easy to place (-musicians in those days didn't care much for categories, but just wanted to be expressive-). This is generally accepted as being a top album and is considered a classic for acid folk lovers.
Look at the current playlist at Last.fm.
Buy the CD/Venyl here directly: at Sunbeam Records