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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

The Syn

Original Syn 1965-2004

Review by Gary Hill

This compilation is a bit of a mixed bag. The first CD is composed of songs from the first era of The Syn, while the second disc are tracks created by the 21st century rendition of the group. For those who don't know, The Syn were a band that Chris Squire and Peter Banks played with before Yes. The group's sound in their original incarnation was, as you might expect, heavily influenced by the sounds of the time - psychedelia, '60's rock and roll. I have to say as a huge Yes fan that I have been trying to get my hands on early recordings of this outfit for a long time. This collection is, from that point of view, a wish come true. That said, it has to be understood that much of this material is very dated in sound and also the production on a lot of it is rough - to say the least. Still from a completist's (like myself) point of view, this is a long-time wish come true. The truth is, though, even without that material, the music on the second disc makes the collection worth having. The opening number is possibly the strongest track from the band ever, and they close it out with a three-part suite rendition of the early Yes number "Time And A Word." The two of these (without anything else present) make this a collection that prog fans in general, but definitely Yes fans should have in their collection. Don't get me wrong, this is not Yes by any means, but it is definitely interesting and entertaining. I doubt most people will spin the first CD all that often, but as good as the second one is, who cares?

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Mallard Way
This short cut is a piano solo that seems pretty well based in classical music along with playful pop. According to the liner notes, this one is Andrew Jackman solo and is named after the street in North London where he lived with his family.
Grounded
This track has a pretty strong psychedelic rock texture. It also feels a bit like punk rock, mainly because this type of song had a pretty heavy influence on that musical style. It's a little bit of The Animals, too.
14 Hour Technicolor Dream
Starting with vocal harmonizing that reminds me of '50's music, this becomes a bouncy Animals type rocker. The psychedelic tinges are again all over this. This turns into a killer jam that feels a lot like The Who - particularly on the instrumental segment. The vocal arrangement that comes out of that is very typical 1960's, but also done exceptionally well. This is a great track!
Created By Clive
A bouncy, playful sound seems to combine the more psychedelic side of early Pink Floyd with The Kinks. This one is a bit odd, but also a lot of fun. 
Flowerman
Chris Squire's bass starts this, and as it moves into the psychedelic jam that creates the song proper it feels like a cross between early Who and early Yes. This is definitely one of the stronger songs from the band in this era as the arrangement is both dynamic and creative. This one gets pretty powerful at points. According to the notes, this one was originally part of the "Flowerman Opera."
The Last Performance of the Royal Regimental, Very Victorious and Valiant Band
Well, first off, this has to be one of the longest song titles of any review I've ever done. Secondly, the links to the Beatles' Seargent Peppers is not only all over the title, but in fact the song. With its symphonic instrumentation and bouncy, but unusual arrangement, this feels a lot like that album, but also a touch of The Monkees. It's pretty cool, if very dated in its approach. At times it feels like you are at a marching band competition here. It even drops to a segment that is only those instruments. 
Mr. White's White Flying Machine
Starting (appropriately) with the sounds of an airplane, this one starts with Squire's bass. As it moves into the song proper, though, the female vocals and the overall arrangement remind me a lot of "Up Up And Away." The horn section certainly contributes to that sound. The song definitely turns weird later what seems like the outro - a piece of psychedelic strangeness. I say, "what seems like the outro" as it is really a false ending that gives way to a reworked variant on the chorus of the track. That takes it to its final segment, a piano solo that feels much like the opening cut on the disc. The song is not actually done by Syn (although they used to perform it) but rather recorded after they broke up by Ayshea Brough. Andrew Jackman arranged the number and Squire provided both the bass and backing vocals.
Cadillac Dreams
This is one of the strongest of these original Syn cuts. It's sort of a bluesy jam that feels just a little like a cross between early Beatles and Bob Dylan with maybe just a touch of Bowie thrown in for good measure. Piano dominates this one, and it's a shame that the vocal line wasn't a bit higher in the mix. The production on this one is rather weak. That should be expected, though, as it was strictly a song writing demo recorded at Chris Squire's house.
Sunset Boulevard Lament
An acoustic guitar based rocker, other than the change from piano, this one feels a lot like the last song. Perhaps this change gives it more of a Kinks texture, though, than the leanings of the other one. Still, Dylan remains in the house here. If the production was lacking on the last one, it's nearly non-existent here. Another song-writing demo, interestingly enough Squire provides the acoustic guitar on this track. 
Merry-go-round
With a song structure that is constructed around the bass line, this one has an intriguing stuttering sort of texture. It feels a lot like a more psychedelic take on the early Rolling Stones. While the production is still a bit on the poor side with this track, it is better than the last two, and in fact, this intriguing '60's rocker is one of my favorites on the disc. The guitar solo is quite vintage and quite tasty. This was actually The Syn's first ever recording and was taken from the only surviving copy, an acetate - hence the quality issue. 
The Gangster Opera (excerpts from the rehearsal tape)
As one might imagine from the title, the production here also leaves a lot to be desired. That said, this is a cool Dave Clark Five / early Stones / Kinks type rocker -at least in the early section. They show it composed of three sections, ("Chorus," "Legs Diamond," and "Reprise"). If I'm reading it right, the "Legs Diamond" segment feels more like a '50's doo wop song - a style I've never really liked. Still, as that type of music goes, this is rather cool. There is a bit of conversation, and probable confusion separating that segment from the "Reprise" section - this is a "rehearsal" after all. I wish there was a better recording of this one because it's really pretty distorted here and shows a lot of promise. As it sits here it is a collection of edits of recordings produced with a single microphone on Peter Bank's tape recorder.
I Can't Explain
Showing their roots, the band puts in a nice, if not exceptionally original take on the Who number. Both this song and the next were actually recorded by a precursor of The Syn known as The Selfs. 
Love You
This is another pretty well stripped down, a bit rough around the edges rock and roller.
Flowerman (Original Recording)
A somewhat different version of the earlier cut, this one is still relatively the same. I can't help it, but every time I hear this (and the other version) I think of "(Listen to The) Flower People" by Spinal Tap.
Disc 2
Illusion
Keyboards that feel like they would have been right at home on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon start this and carry it forward for some time. Then the rhythm section hints at an explosion of sound in much the same way it does on Yes' "Mind Drive." As the song does eventually it explode out it's in a killer prog rock jam that is part psychedelia and part modern prog. The guitar soloing over the top at points on this is exceptionally tasty. The main structure of the song does such a great job of combining a killer hard rocking groove with progressive rock and psychedelia to create a motif where all the parts are nearly inseparable from one another. Mid-song it breaks into a slightly chaotic sparse arrangement. Then a new element, a ballad like, extremely lush and powerful mysterious section takes it. This even has some minor elements that feel a bit like Emerson Lake and Palmer, and even just a bit of Welcome To My Nightmare era Alice Cooper. They move it back towards more sedate with a keyboard based mellow ballad section. There is just a touch of Beatles elements on the vocal line in this section, but I also hear a little Nektar. This gives way (after a transitionary section) to a new acoustic guitar and keyboards oriented motif that creates the next musical landscape here with vocals coming over the top after a time. Then hard-edged crunchy guitar with hints of Hawkwind like keys come in later. Eventually this winds up, through the course of another killer jam, turning around into a re-energized take on the earlier prog groove. They end it with a quick section of guitar that seems right out of Yes' first album. This 14 minute plus epic is incredible modern prog right up there with anything Yes has done in recent years. I'd have to say that in some ways I feel this song is stronger than most (if not all the material) on the Syndestructible CD. This one alone is worth the price of admission here.
Grounded 2004
The modern version of the band takes on their earlier track. This still has the psychedelic hard rocking elements, but with a killer modern sound.
Time And A Word
This is an epic take on the track that was recorded by Yes as the title track to their second album. It is divided into three segments - each given their own track here.
Time And A Word
A psychedelically tinged keyboard structure starts this off. Then something that is a bouncing, slow groove with only hints of the Yes take on the track starts it. The vocals come over in a mostly spoken manner. For fans of Yes, this version should make for an interesting reworking of the track. As it carries forward, more of the familiar themes show up, but certainly no one will ever mistake this one for Yes' performance.
A Tide In The Affairs of Man
As this segment comes out of the previous one, piano carries the familiar themes and then begin building a rather Rick Wakeman like jam out of this. The rest of the band eventually join in, and they work and rework the musical themes in a very pretty and captivating way. This feels in many ways like what Going For the One era Yes might have done with the track. It eventually becomes a smooth flowing jam that has its own lyrics, but still seems to tie into the original song. Squire lays down a rubbery sort of bass line throughout that works very well here. It is amazing how much this feels like Yes, even though the vocals are very different. It seems to encompass various eras of the band's history - and yet this is Syn and not Yes. The lyrics even feel like Anderson could have written them. This is a mellow sort of classically tinged balladic structure through most of the track, but it's also very dynamic and carries through a lot of varying themes. Some jazzy guitar wanders over the top at points. Eventually in this segment the lyrics from the original cut begin to come over the top and eventually there is a merging of the two in the song structure. Overall this segment really has a smooth jazz feel to it. Although, later some harder rocking guitar elements come in, somewhat in the backdrop. This composition is pretty amazing in both its originality and its creativity. Peter Banks like guitar work comes in later, still in the backdrop.
Time And A Word (Reprise)
Eventually they pull it back out into this reprise of the main themes. Here it seems to be closer to the Yes take, but with a lot harder rocking take on that song. This is pretty strong stuff here, and makes for a great close to the set. The killer instrumental jam near the end is very tasty. They turn it towards the more sedate to truly end the cut.
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