Third Ear Band—

Released 1969 on Harvest
The Seth Man, November 2020ce
“Third Ear Band music is a reflection of the universe as magic play illusion simply because it could not possibly be anything else. Words cannot describe this ecstatic dance of sound, or explain the alchemical repetition seeking and sometimes finding archetypal forms, elements and rhythms.”
- Glen

Third Ear Band were an ensemble that created instrumental music of somber timelessness. Unparalleled and sounding unlike anything else, despite the word ‘raga’ appearing in several song titles, their singular approach was more than mere ‘east meets west’ exoticism. It bore a distinct lack of provenance as its mysteries have now stood for half a century -- and probably will forevermore. Gnostic chamber music of the highest degree, Third Ear Band’s textural and rhythmic qualities emerge from a flourishing interplay of oboe, viola, and cello intrigue that trance-induce as it all melds together with hand drumming as consistent as it is seemingly absent of all human intervention while contradictorily retaining the pure, wordless expressions of humanity. Organically it all unfolds in familiar improvisation, weaving in turns between the textures of Medieval Central Europe to the mental drone projections of the subcontinental drift studies of Classical India which later informed the ancient music of Upper and Lower Egypt. Little wonder they named their first album “Alchemy,” for Third Ear Band’s arabesques in sound that emerged from their collective acoustic emanations was the result of an extraordinary chemistry that allowed them to elevate themselves and their music into deeply transcendental levels.

Third Ear Band was the vision of percussionist Glen Sweeney, and the imprint of his hypno-repetitive hand drumming on the band is one of the strangest, ever. The emphasis is not on the beat but maintains a somnambulistic pulse and whether striking tabla or conga, Sweeney achieved a timbre so dead that its finality is underscored by the forward motion of its waking trance. Meanwhile, his assembled cohorts -- Paul Minns (oboe, recorder), Richard Coff (violin, viola), and auxiliary cellist Mel Davis -- succeed at winnowing all personal traces out of their music to yield a flowing tapestry of tightly improvised and nimble, nuanced displays of timbral elegance as well as intensity of the highest order. Although produced by a collection of acoustic instrumentation so small it could all be carried by one person, there are sounds within “Alchemy” whose instrumental sources are mysterious and not immediately identifiable. But as they wend throughout successions of ever-unfolding passages, their adroit qualities maintained and kept their levels of group consciousness set on constant expansion as the longer they played, the more expansive it became.

Third Ear Band’s roots trace back through Sweeney’s musical odyssey which included an endless procession of skiffle, jazz, and R&B bands he’d been passing through in the London club scene since the fifties. In early 1966, he was invited to join Giant Sun Trolley by woodwind player Dave Tomlin. Alongside bass guitarist Roger Bunn, the group would appear at formative London underground events that would flank the second half of 1966 with “A New Moon Carnival of Poetry In The Round” at The Royal Albert Hall in June, and the opening of the UFO Club Presents Nite Tripper on December 23. The latter-named venue would quickly become a regular gig not only for the emerging Pink Floyd and Soft Machine but for Giant Sun Trolley, as well.1 Although the following year saw them appear at the legendary 14 Hour Technicolor Dream held at Alexandra Palace, London on April 29, 1967 alongside The Pink Floyd, The Soft Machine, The Pretty Things, The Move, and many others, Tomlin soon extinguished Giant Sun Trolley by embarking on a Moroccan sojourn. Simultaneously, Sweeney was offered the drum spot in an anonymous free-jazz group, which he accepted on condition they change their name -- which they did and The Hydrogen Jukebox was born. With Sweeney on drums, the quartet was rounded out by Barry Edgar Pilcher (saxophone), Clive Kingsley (guitar), and Dick Daden (trombone) but after a handful of live performances at clubs and happenings, The Hydrogen Jukebox folded by mid-summer ’67.

It was at this time that the first Third Ear Band lineup began to coalesce around Sweeney and his pared down kit of tom-toms and cymbals with Clive Kingsley (electric guitar), a series of several electric cellists, and most significantly, classically-trained oboist Paul Minns, who brought a high degree of musical acumen to the proceedings. The new group secured live performances throughout the London underground’s main venues from UFO, Middle Earth, to All Saints Hall in Powis Gardens. Posters for the last-named venue at this time were designed by Sweeney with his friend, Chief Druid Dave Loxley, and bore tantalising headlines such as: “Albion Awakening,” “Four Dimensional Happening,” “Has The UFO Invasion Begun?” and “Time Travel Is the Alchemical Third Ear Band.” In the new year of 1968, the band were invited by to play regularly at the Drury Lane Arts Lab by its co-founder, Jim Haynes. Performing three times weekly at this epicenter of the London alternative culture allowed the band to hone their skills of time travel to a fine point in a suitably relaxed and encouraging environment.

After a gig in Notting Hill Gate in June 1968, all of Third Ear Band’s instruments were stolen, an event whose significance Sweeney could only take on an occult level as a sign to switch the group’s approach to an entirely acoustic one. With this decision, electric guitarist Clive Kingsley departed, Minns was retained on oboe and newcomers Richard Coff (violin) and Ben Cartland (viola) were added to complete the newly acoustic quartet. Judging by the subsequent events, it was a prescient decision on Sweeney’s part because by the end of the year, they were approached by ex-Pink Floyd co-managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King with an interest in signing the band to EMI Records’ new underground label, Harvest. They were also introduced to radio DJ John Peel, soon thereafter securing a recording session for his Night Ride radio programme on New Year’s Day 1969.

By the end of January, Third Ear Band entered Abbey Road Studios to begin recording their first album when after the first session, the volatile Ben Cartland suddenly disappeared. Now a three piece, the group were augmented by cellist Mel Davis, while the return of Dave Tomlin yielded a contribution, and even John Peel sat in one track on Jew’s harp. The album was completed over a weekend in six hours’ time, with every track a first take. However, the group remained unwaveringly stubborn when it came to suggestions of placing echo or phasing on their instruments. They felt they had already distilled their trip down to such a point where the pure qualities of their improvisations were allowed to proceed organically in terms of intervals and embellishments that to add sound effects upon the resultant pieces would be ruinous and upend the timeless qualities of the album.

Fortunately, nothing was added to the completed tracks so that what was eventually released in July of 1969 as “Alchemy” was nothing sort of a mesmerising work of esoteric beauty: Lattices flow into ripples upon the surfaces of mental rivers, ebbing in the furthest corners of your mind while the warp of the oboe and the weft of both violin and cello bowing entwine within and without Sweeney’s hand drumming pulses.

“Mosaic” opens the album with plucked notes, stitched with woodwind telegraphing throughout the spaciously layered instrumentation. Oboe snake charming lines dance all about Sweeney’s linear hand drums that pound out a linear branch for the violin and cello to alight upon. Meanwhile, in the distance, percussion like rusty pulleys on shiny chains continue to shimmer high-pitched but just at the absolute threshold of hearing. Treading on a high wire without a care in the world, the oboe, viola and cello continue their dip and rise, supplying each other with all the space in the world.

“Ghetto Raga” is a woven display of patterns intersecting, cross-hatching itself into rhythm, into colours, and into an ever-continuous interplay between the players’ improvisations, pulsating with the quietly plodding patience of Sweeney’s hand drumming. At ten and a half minutes, it’s the longest track on the album and therefore, has the longest period of time to expand and enthrall. The pulse of the hand drums against the cross hatching of Coff’s viola and the keening patterns of Minns’ oboe paint imagery of pipes greeting the morning sun as birds fly then hang high and still against the sky. When it gradually settles and the hand drums finally fall away (exactly how long they had remained in that semi-conscious state?) the subsequent silence is shattering.

As Sweeney pounds at the doorway to the underworld, the brief reflections of “Druid One” features Paul Minns’ oboe against the understated pull of Richard Coff’s viola, sending up filigree wisps of smoke that curl to write cursive maxims in indigo and pink across a silver sky. Creating an unsettling calm about to break yet kept oddly in balance is maintained and only disturbed once all folds into silence. Following this is the harmonising and far calmer emotions of “Stone Circle.” Prominent plucking of strings and high-pitched oboe trim the edge of the percussive pulse laid unyieldingly by Sweeney’s solid direction. Oboe lines continue to ebb and flow alongside the viola weaving floral patterns held in the beak of sunny late morning.

Side two begins with the mystic waking dream that is “Egyptian Book Of The Dead” and at just under nine minutes, is the highest point of intensity of “Alchemy.” It builds ever so slightly until before you know it, it’s curling in on itself, building just ever so slightly that one can barely tell when Sweeney’s tortuously dead and persistent hand drumming kicks in to summon up the spirits of Hermopolis. Oh, but the creeping dread only continues to spread and build, ever so slightly: Minns’ oboe attack is merciless, spitting sparks in a reed-shredding display of venom while the violin and/or viola weave to cause the 4-color printing of this reality to separate into overlays of cyan, magenta, yellow and black which unfurl, wave, offset and then dissipate while this dimension shudders from side to side. Thoth appears and winks, causing a dark cloud to assume a position overhead and all ceases. The spell is broken, the vibrations remain, and reality just moved back to its previous position.

Continuing down the path of sober reflection is the equally mystifying “Area Three” and the continuing flat line thud of Glen Sweeney just continues onward, allowing for the fluttering of oboe notes to dart quickly against its languid paces. Meanwhile, John Peel ably assists and fits in nicely on twangy Jew’s harp. Suddenly, dark banks of overcast clouds and the wind suddenly picks up, rendered here by several violins and cellos. The sky darkens, the temperature cools, and their sudden descend on the afternoon play brings the piece to a close.

The far more affable “Dragon Lines” appears as a thousand gongs resound haphazardly random to tear at the loping rhythm which is at once haphazard yet maintains a semblance of structure. Like playing hide-and-go-seek one late summer afternoon in an overgrown field and uncontrollably laughing because it’s so ridiculous and everyone gives themselves away because they’ve all consumed bottles of wine, various herbal mixtures, and gone giddy from the sun, and yet: they strictly keep to the rules. With The quiet whimsy of “Lark Rise,” a tune brought in by the prodigal return of the ever-questing, Dave Tomlin, the album ends on a note of unusual lightness and calm as “Alchemy” closes its Gnostic gates into silence.

  1. Although hired to appear early mornings mainly to clear the club of languid patrons, Giant Sun Trolley were able to achieve this with a repertoire that included the Tomlin-composed “Eternity In D,” a two-note piece that allowed for near endless improvisation which, under the proper influences, probably did sound like an eternity, indeed.