Third Ear Band

Released 1970 on Harvest
The Seth Man, November 2020ce
“Musica expels the spirit pythonis which belongs to witches and sorcerers, it also takes away the spirit afernoch which inspires all those melancholic sectarians who think they see a heaven and the god therein. All these are the diseases of the brain and of reason.”
– Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim (aka: Paracelsus) 1490-1541

Utilising esoteric quotations by leading alchemists of the 16th Century for LP advertisements was nobody’s idea of a successful public relations campaign in 1970 but then again, it well suited the hermetic singularity that was Third Ear Band. Assembled by percussionist Glen Sweeney, by the time of the recording of their second album in April of 1970, Third Ear Band’s core ensemble consisted of Sweeney, Paul Minns (oboe), and Richard Coff (viola, violin) joined by Ursula Smith (cello) after the departure of two previous cellists -- Mel Davis (never to return) and Paul Buckmaster (soon to return).

What would become their self-titled second album (alternatively known as “Elements”) was recorded by the group under the influence of LSD and the self-imposed condition that all the material should be improvised. The sessions commenced at Abbey Road Studios while Harvest was beginning to wonder what they’d signed on for. Meanwhile, the recording engineers were so perplexed by Third Ear Band’s approach and electro-acoustic stylings that they refused to work on some of the material they found intolerable while producer Andrew King was perplexed by the quartet’s incessant bouts of laughter in between takes. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA...

What eventually was improvised, collected, mixed and then released was a stunning album. The only thing it had in common with their previous “Alchemy” album was that it was an album that sounded like no other. The sleeve displays a landscape photograph in lavender with green highlights bedecked with Keltic illuminations of human and animal figures while comprising the album were four group compositions named after the four alchemical elements: “Air,” “Earth,” “Fire,” and “Water.” Leaving for a moment the concept of the fifth element, Aether (or not and just treating it as the culmination of the aforementioned tracks drifting in your head forever), the pieces are four separate and entirely different facets of Third Ear Band’s music. In turns usually plaintive with occasional flashes of joy, riled or calm, and/or hectically complex and/or meditative, it could cast a singular eye on the flame of reality, the patterned shadows of un-reality, or the combinatory depths of both interacting together. Or perhaps it’s only the shuddering glimpse of Albion awakening, Atlantis’ reemergence or the all-seeing eye of Horus blinking in twilight. But whatever it is that they created, it is adrift on a sea of imagination as sublime vibes issue forth in a free exchange that produced an evocative sonic environment like no other.

“Air” opens the album with windy FX and a subtle, gradual fade-in of the players. Oboe reaches through the dark while both string players, Richard Coff and Ursula Smith, free-form quietly with tuning up vignettes. Soon, the ever-persistent pulse of Glen Sweeney’s hand drumming throbs throughout as Coff’s viola winding runs and stabbings intertwine with Ursula Smith’s striking and plucking of cello strings while Paul Minns’ oboe punctuate the proceedings...Whew. As the longest track on the album at ten and a half minutes, it has the longest period of time to expand and weave its spell, much as “Ghetto Raga” did on their previous “Alchemy” album. Unassuming wind FX closes in until finally shrouding it in silence.

“Earth” shares the other part of side one, Slowly building as some mythical mélange parfait of music that, played in any part of this world, could achieve the same effect in human hearts. Equal parts High Medieval sonata and raga, Serbian dowry celebration and Balochi birth blessing instrumental, it builds up as a knees up supreme to raise the roof and scatter the chickens. Halfway through, the dance kicks up more frenetically falls off the face of the sonic world. Returning in slowly grasping paces, the celebratory instinct of the song can’t help but kick in once again, complete with oboe trills and ever-quickening violin pizzicato that leads to the end of side one.

Side two opens with the volatility of “Fire.” A fractious exercise, the agitated strings of violin/violas rage with the constantly darting oboe lines against the low, undertow pull of Ursula Smith’s bowed cello. Meanwhile, Sweeney maintains a pace on congas so measured and of such absolute stillness it’s as though he’s straddled some rhythm that came calling via some wormhole from a different dimension altogether. The entire piece spends its nine minute duration in lurching dissonance whose clustering is nonstop until even Ursula Smith’s cello starts gently swamping the proceedings with an ever-darkening shade, until...all jarringly stops dead. (Apparently, this was one of the problematic tracks that the Abbey Road engineers refused to work on so it’s quite possible it was engineered by some of the band members themselves.)

The album ends with the soothing relief that is “Water.”1 Its cyclical oboe melody bobs upon the surface while viola, cello and hand drumming create an elegiac mood at the speed of slowly sculling upon the stilled waters of eternity. This is possibly the most affecting piece of the album, and is perfection as its closing track.

In 2018, Esoteric Recordings released “Elements 1970-1971,” an outstanding 3CD compilation that collects Third Ear Band’s second album, a pair of BBC sessions, and four incredible tracks recorded for their abortive third album, “The Dragon Wakes.” But best of all is Third Ear Band’s soundtrack for a 1970 West German television production of “Abelard & Heloise,” which shows the “Elements” lineup at possibly their best form, ever. Although first issued in 1997 on CD as “Necromancers Of The Drifting West,” it’s a massive sonic improvement here and besides, surrounded by other such high achievements as the 1971 BBC version of “Druid One,” makes it essential.

Soon after the completion of their second album, the quartet played on Glastonbury Tor at the Beltane ritual of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids on May 3, 1970 with a 10 minute long improvisation called “The Tor Raga,” playing to the assembled believers and the sunrise.

  1. For decades I listened to the last track, “Water” on the double Harvest sampler “Picnic” and thought it the best moment of the album outside of the already known and loved tracks by Syd, Floyd, Pretties, Kevin Ayers and Deep Purple. It not only beat the representative Bakerloo, Tea & Symphony, and Panama Unlimited Jug Band tracks by a progressive underground mile but its undulating cast into the future was a constant and singularly moving thing. For some perplexing reason, the low string playing on the track somehow made me think -- no, know -- that it was that of Graham Smith (String Driven Thing, Van Der Graaf). I believe I was confusing Glen Sweeney’s gnostic elder statesman looks with those of Graham’s, as I fell into a vertigo of Charisma Harvest back catalogues overlaid with several Pete Frame Family Trees, logic escaping me as I’d fall deeper and deeper into the buoyant bliss of “Water” with a re-forgotten mental note to get my head around Third Ear Band my only earthbound conclusion. Not only was Simon House on their third album (during the period in between his tenure with High Tide and Hawkwind) but so was -- of all people -- Paul Buckmaster. The same guy who Bartok’d like hell on cello on Mick Farren’s proto-Pink Fairies underground classic, “Mona—The Carnivorous Circus,” and better known to people of my older sister’s tribes as “that guy on all those Elton John records.” Man, but he was so much more. Like on side 1 of SECOND CONTRIBUTION (1970) by Shawn Phillips. The way Buckmaster’s string sectioneering smooths over, under and all around the incessant wordiness of it all while the horns claw at the corners elevates it beyond mere autiobiographica into a highly compelling trip beyond singer-songwriter-dom. Among dozens of other things, Buckmaster also did the completely sublime arrangement for The Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” Bowie's "Space Oddity," Nilsson’s “Without You,” Miles' ON THE CORNER and even the rousing themes of Julian Cope’s very first solo single, "Sunshine Playroom.” I believe the man was a genius who inhaled inspiration and exhaled music until the day he died.