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19 October 2017

The Incredible String Band - 'The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion' (Elektra)

Talk about a shift in marketing - the cover alone would suggest that Messrs Heron and Williamson, reduced to a duo here, majorly 'turned on' after their first album and in their cosmic dialogue with the universe decided to reinvent the Incredible String Band as a fully psychedelicised wonder. I don't know if the music carries through on this promise, though it's a huge step forward in confidence and originality, and furthermore the duo plays together as a band on almost every track, making this feel much more cohesive. I'd say its more a step towards pop accessibility than drugged out wonderbliss. One can hear this from the get-go, on 'Chinese White', where Williamson's bowed gimbri adds a thick drone behind the song, sounding a bit like a Dylanesque harmonica only with a fourth dimension added. That's maybe the psychedelic-influenced ISB in a nutshell - or maybe the confident production of Joe Boyd is to thank. Danny Thompson guests on a few tracks and hand drums are occasionally present, though it's hardly a rock and roll ensemble; the presence of sitar (or guitar affected to sound like a sitar) and flute, weaving through the melodies is a bigger presence throughout. Without any traditionals here, the songcraft feels more akin to the 60s Village scene than to Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins, with only their accent really linking things to any UK folk movement. There's a syncopated quirk to some of the tunes, like 'No Sleep Blues', others look to jazz and blues for direction. Heron's tunes in particular have the hooks, like the indefatigable 'Hedgehog Song' and 'Painting Box'. If I try to imagine this accompanying a late 60s psychedelic/mystical 'trip' I'm sure there's some great psychedelic value; 'Little Cloud' is whimsical and jaunty but lyrically about floating to distant lands; 'My Name is Death' can be the bummer note or the key to understanding the whole experience, perhaps. The closer, 'Way Back in the 1960s', takes a fun, tongue-in-cheek look back to this time, and holds up well as a quasi-novelty number. I realise that writing about so many records here runs the risk of being pointless or uninsightful, and I can't think of what I can personally add about these mega-famous ISB albums, since I have little personal connection to them beyond just enjoying them now and then. The best I can do is to try to relate it to other music experiences, but apart from the resurgence of interest in 60s folk in the 00s noise 'underground', I couldn't think of music further away from the current Now/zeitgeist than this. And even within that decade-past underground, ISB was way too well-known to be seen as cool, when there were an endless stream of obscure burnout loners to discover instead. Still, this album and their next one have gotten many a play, not just my beaten copy (whose lifespan was already worn down long before it entered my possession) but among people in general, as these records remain immensely popular for good reason.

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