Third Ear Band—
Music From Macbeth

Released 1972 on Harvest
The Seth Man, November 2020ce
Third Ear Band spent the better part of 1970-1971 recalibrating and pursuing different directions after several personnel changes. The “Elements” lineup fragmented by the end of the summer of 1970 with the departure of both Richard Coff and Ursula Smith, leaving Third Ear Band comprised only of percussionist Glen Sweeney and oboist Paul Minns. With their violinist and cellist gone, the band reassembled non-acoustic players Denim Bridges (electric guitar) as well as the return of Paul Buckmaster (electric bass, cello.) Joining them was ex-High Tide violinist and synthesizer player Simon House while Glen Sweeney returned to the drum kit and the group was briefly renamed The Electric Earband as they began recordings for their projected third album, “The Dragon Wakes.” 1 Instead, they were derailed by the promise of a high profile soundtrack for a film version of Shakespeare’s play, “Macbeth.” Its director would be Roman Polanski.

It was to be Polanski’s first directed work since 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and a symbolic return to form after the brutal loss of both his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child in August of 1969. Co-produced in conjunction with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Enterprises and with secured financial backing from a close friend, Polanski would inevitably struggle to complete “Macbeth.” Shot primarily on location in Snowdonia and Northumberland, chosen for their suitably Shakespearian qualities as well as for their natural beauty, the accompanying inclement weather of those regions was not. This invariably caused considerable delays in the film’s shooting schedule, causing “Macbeth” to run over budget by approximately $600,000. Spectres other than those of Shakespeare’s creation were also present, causing several strange events during filming. A fierce wind nearly killed a cameraman by blowing him into a crevice; Polanski, reassured a little girl when applying fake blood to her lips, asked her name and received the response, “Sharon.” Polanski also freaked out on actor Terence Bayler as they argued how Macduff should react to the murder of his wife, screaming: “No, you’ll do it this way. I KNOW.” Finally, when a member of the film crew remarked on the film’s excessive gore, Polanski replied: “I know violence. You should've seen my house last summer.”

Despite its well-chosen cast, locations, attentions to detail and its sumptuous photography, “Macbeth” would dramatically underperform at the box office with final losses exceeding $3,000,000. As for Third Ear Band’s contribution, it too was as thoughtfully constructed, intimately brushing against both darkness and light while empathically reflecting with exacting precision the variable moods of over two dozen scenes. Whereas Third Ear Band’s previous album was constructed of only four songs, “Music For Macbeth” held four times the amount, albeit in far shorter length as they were made to conform to the syncing by the band to the daily rushes observed in the studio. Composing as they viewed each scene, Third Ear Band worked an exhaustive twelve hours a day for six weeks on the soundtrack at AIR Studios. Despite their brevity, each resultant piece was comprehensive, holding the fullness of emotional depth and Third Ear Band’s usual attentiveness to detail and skilled clarity of performance.

With its predetermined subject matter, Third Ear Band generally favoured medieval tones and rhythms but other parts remained just plain mysterious. “Music From Macbeth” is characterised by primarily darkened moods flanked by a pair of rare uplifting of spirits to strange and violent strikes within their exotically textured sounds. With the band’s arsenal now a mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation, Simon House’s subtle use of VCS3 synthesizer harmonised certain elements whilst making others discordant, as Sweeney’s assortment of percussive oddments created creeping dread while Paul Minns’ oboe was ever agile and alert. Paul Buckminster doubled expertly on both electric bass guitar and cello to bring great heft and swing to the proceedings while the overall effect was different from all previous Third Ear Band incarnations...Yet, it was oddly the same, in terms of its improvisational freshness and the sensitive interactions of its players.

Despite Third Ear Band’s appearance in the film as minstrels in the gallery during the party scene, the majority of tracks recorded did not appear in the actual film itself. Of course, “Fleance” is present (its vocals sung by a pre-adolescent Keith Chegwin) but many of the shorter instrumentals are missing, muted or highly edited. Luckily, they all appear on “Music From Macbeth,” ensconced in a textured sleeve resplendent with a beautifully moody Roger Dean painting based on the opening scene of three witches converging together on an overcast beach like carrion crows.

Right from the start, Third Ear Band set a bleak scene with “Overture.” Looming apprehension hangs throughout this elongated opening track as Sweeney’s tiptoe tablas sneak past Minns’ darting oboe, Bridges’ guitar expressionist klang, and the loping gait of Buckmaster’s bass lines. What follows is the eerie and foreshadowing trepidation of “The Beach,” the first of what “Music From Macbeth” is comprised of in the main -- brief studies and vignettes based on short scenes, threaded like pearls on their Shakespearian strand. Here, VCS3 seagull sounds FX wheel and cry behind stringed instruments bowed tortuously slow as all shifts in a nightmarish fog with dim and distant laughter. “Lady Macbeth” is a sad and beautiful portrait, quietly rendered with oboe, violin and cello. It builds haltingly as if to echo the fragile sanity of Shakespeare’s lost woman. Following this is the first of three four-part tracks, the “Inverness” suite comprised of: “Macbeth’s Return,” “The Preparation,” “Fanfare,” and “Duncan’s Arrival.” These are as brief as they are of profound depth, describing a variety of scenes and moods. Sonic storms collecting in eddying pools that rise and fall with the wind until the respite of “The Banquet,” all languid violin playing against that rarest of Third Ear Band features, acoustic guitar. But even this brief interlude is disturbed not only by a violent thunderclap but the follow up piece, the sinister psychedelia of “Dagger And Death.”

A second medley of themes, “At The Well,” “The Prince’s Escape,” ”Coronation,” and “Come Sealing Night” begins and continues in chamber music quietude, soon swelling into a vertiginous swirl that starts to whirl with ever-increasing intensity. The side concludes with VCS3 birdsong and oboe line intertwining then parlaying into the diginified paces of “Court Dance”

“Fleance” begins side two of the album and distinguishes itself as the first and only non-instrumental by Third Ear Band during their era on Harvest. (By all accounts, Sweeney and Minns hated it and probably for that very reason.) Sung by a pre-adolescent Keith Chegwin portraying the son of the doomed Banquo and whose lyrics are based on a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer entitled “Merciless Beaute,” it has the same charming effect as the young diplomat’s son recititng “Loud, Loud, Loud” off Aphrodite’s Child’s “666” or “Le Petit Chevalier,” sung by Nico’s young son, Ari on her 1970 “Desertshore” album.

The lively (and unlikely upbeat) paces take hold with “Groom’s Dance” but since “Macbeth” is a tragedy it doesn’t last long and soon into the short, cruel reverie of “Bear Baiting.” Pairing the expressionist strikes and acoustic freeform freakery of “Ambush” with the low threshold of madness and bowed cello of “Banquo’s Ghost” signals the quickening spiral and rising omnipresent grasp of the maelstrom. After the final segue of “Going To Bed,” “Blind Man’s Buff” [sic], “Requiescant” [sic], and “Sere And Yellow Leaf” comes the eruption into the swirling psychedelic vertigo that is “The Cauldron.” Turning sideways through portals of time and space accompanied by dizzying cellos and violins scantly playing a minor chord dirge to reality, out of nowhere it trills quickly then abruptly cuts off. “Prophesies” continues the procession through the gloomy dark and dank while croaks in the background mix with grokking in the foreground that something is amiss as the oboe darts, the cello bows deeply, and clanging percussion rages on. A whistle in the dark, sticks gently clatter until supernatural swirling effects build into an unearthly climax where the cutlery drops to the kitchen floor, cutting off into silence.

The final piece, “Wicca Way” occurs in the final scene of the film as, sayeth the liners: ‘Donalbaine, King Malcolm's younger brother chances upon the witches, and goes to see them.’ As the events of one set of characters have been laid bare, events are perched to continue their rotations -- and into a set richly baited for future tragedy. Third Ear Band’s “Overture” is repeated on this last scene as if to underscore this tragic cycle in a way not even prophesy could foretell. Expressing the cyclical trap of corruption, paranoia and superstition of the usurper and the spirit of witchiness of the final scene, the sound is brutally cut off for the final time and the record is extinguished.

  1. When their work on “Macbeth” was completed, Third Ear Band turned to pursue completion on “The Dragon Wakes” but sessions came to a sudden halt when, according to an interview with Paul Minns: “...Paul Buckmaster drove some tracks manically on bass and flipped during the session. On acid, he ran out in the street screaming about the Gurdjieffian Eye and I believe stripping off his clothes. He was never the same person afterward and the recordings went no further.” Dropped by Harvest, the band soon ground to a halt when a final attempt to record an album for Island, “The Magus,” came to a standstill. These sessions eventually saw release in 2004, with outtakes from “The Dragon Wakes” appearing on the 3-CD “Elements 1970-1971” compilation as well as a companion CD that accompanies the recently released book by Third Ear Band aficionado Luca Chino Ferrari: “Glen Sweeney's Book Of Alchemies, The Life And Times Of The Third Ear Band 1967-1973.”