Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Incredible String Band
The Big Huge

Released 1968 on Elektra
Reviewed by argyle_heir, 16/05/2004ce

The late 1960s were an ahem, incredibly prolific time for unconventional psych-folk minstrels Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. 1968 in particular was a rich year for ISB releases- as well as the magnificent and mystical LP "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter", they also found time to write, record and release the sister albums "Wee Tam" and "The Big Huge" (released in some countries as an authentic 'double LP' set, and as single discs in others.....how confusing).

After finally getting to grips with the aforementioned "THBD" and it's even more wondrous predecessor "The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion" I felt it was about time I checked out the more underrated corners of their vast catalogue. "The Big Huge" seemed like a natural choice for investigation.

As I do with all unfamiliar material by such oddballs as TISB, for the debut listening of this album I made sure I was otherwise unoccupied in order to try and make sense of the 50 or so minutes of dense, rambling music about to enter my ears. To my surprise, however I noticed as opener "Maya" crept from the speakers how 'direct' the song was. Robin Williamson's melody was simple and beautiful and didn't stray off into the ether after a couple of bars, the musical accompaniment was uncluttered with just sparse guitar picking and the odd boing from Heron's sitar. The mood too was a lot lighter than on "THBD". If the band's surroundings on the cover to "THBD" were indicative of it's musical content (think of the songs as the leafless trees- ancient, creaky, gnarled, towering creations which ooze mystery- strange, dark corners never too far off....) then this is also the case with "The Big Huge" (on the sleeve the duo are sat in a glowing field on a summer's day in full on psychedelic clothing with smiles on their faces).

This is not to say the band had lost their edge- later in the album there are songs which evoke the dark majesty of 'old'- "The Iron Stone" being one example. A tremendous song with some creepy, well placed diminished chords from Williamson's spindly sounding guitar, a truly haunting melody and some effective Irish harp from Robin's girlfriend, Licorice. After a few minutes the song breaks off into an inspired raga 'jam' with solid percussion work from Rose, Heron's then-girlfriend! It's one of many aural delights from Robin, which brings me onto the one fault I find with this LP......

By scanning the writing credits it's not hard to see which of the duo was the most prolific at this point in their career- he of the goatee beard and nasal voice, Robin Williamson with Heron making do with the silver medal in the writing stakes. To be fair on our Mike, I'm sure any person working alongside Robin would struggle to come up with work as odd as his, leaving any rival's compositions sounding um.....rather ordinary and unremarkable in comparison. This is even more evident on "The Big Huge" as it was on "THBD" (discounting the awesome "A Very Cellular Song" obviously).

The first Heron song we hear, "Greatest Friend" is a pleasant but uneventful Dylan styled waltz with absolutely no exotic instrumentation whatsoever- just guitar, voice and harmonica. The penultimate track "Douglas Traherne Harding" is more satisfying with a more unconventional structure and some lovely droning violin. But, at six and a half minutes with little variation, the song becomes a little boring.

All's not lost for Heron on The Big Huge though- "Cousin Caterpillar" is a superb slice of whimsy which brings to mind gems of his such as "The Hedgehog Song" and "Little Cloud" from 1967.

One senses, however, that Heron probably wasn't too fussed about letting Williamson dominate (come on, only the harshest of souls would be sniffy about letting such free flowing wonders as "Maya" and "The Iron Stone" onto record). There are also several Heron delights to be found on "Wee Tam".

Back onto the subject of the darker end of TISB's music, "The Big Huge" saves it's best moment 'til last- the ghostly "The Circle Is Unbroken" is an even more effective closer than "Nightfall" from "THBD". Over the top of Mike's spectral organ chords, Robin sings of changing seasons, summer stars, the always island and cold rain made of blood. Quite what he means by all of this is unclear (as is always the case with ISB lyrics) but when this imagery is coupled with a melody as haunting as "My Name Is Death" from The 5000 Spirits... and as beautiful as the aforementioned "Nightfall" it becomes almost unbearably poignant.

So, to the casual String Band fan, if you've picked up "THBD" don't stop there- make sure you investigate at least "Wee Tam" and "The Big Huge" as there is so much fantastic material to be found on both which rewards more and more after each play.

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