Syd Arthur is more a prog-pop band than traditional prog rock group.
Contemporary bands coming out of Canterbury face a formidable legacy of artists that have come before. So much so that the term “Canterbury Scene” was once enough to serve as shorthand for a particular brand of jazz-informed progressive rock and folk that forged an entire scene of impressive art rockers. From Robert Wyatt to Kevin Ayers, Caravan to Soft Machine and beyond, the artists of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s Canterbury Scene formed a loose collective of like-minded musicians whose talents and musical aspirations were generally above and beyond those of their prog peers. And while not every member of the Canterbury Scene was technically from Canterbury (Wyatt in particular, often viewed as the unifying force within the Canterbury Scene, was actually from Bristol), there was a shared aesthetic that required a heightened level of musicianship and experimentation to pull off.
Heirs to the Canterbury Scene throne, Syd Arthur seem well-versed in their city’s musical heritage. And while they don’t necessarily sound like any of the original Canterbury Scene bands, the members of Syd Arthur follow a similar stylistic template, relying on jazz progressions, intricate arrangements and impressive musicianship to create a sort of 21st century prog rock in miniature. Rather than using a multi-suite format or seemingly endless soloing, Syd Arthur’s Apricity condenses the genre’s best elements into an easily digestible whole. With the help of West Coast pop royalty Jason Falkner behind the boards, Syd Arthur manage to reign in their proggier tendencies in favor of a more pop-centric luster.
Opening track “Coal Mine” kicks off with appropriately bombastic fanfare that gives way to an odd-meter groove that still manages to keep heads nodding. Part of the appeal, in addition to the group’s clear musical proficiency, is vocalist/guitarist Liam Magill’s smooth, unobtrusive vocal presence. Much like Wyatt, his is an instrument that functions to complement the music rather than rise above it. This cohesion helps with the album’s fluidity and pop sensibilities, the sound and arrangements never once becoming too overly ostentatious or noodle-y – two complaints often leveled at those who identify as prog.
Indeed, Syd Arthur is more a prog-pop band than traditional prog rock group. This deviation from the norm was what set their Canterbury predecessors apart and serves them well here. “Plane Crash in Kansas” again features several odd-meter passages, but they come about so seamlessly and organically as to be entirely unobtrusive. It’s an impressive feat for a genre known more for its overwrought approach than its mindful restraint. Similarly, “Sun Rays” toes the line between prog and synthpop to a surprisingly effective degree. Were it not for the genre tag already thrust upon the band, they could easily wend their way into the fray of modernist synth pop groups.
Yet it’s their general avoidance of such modern stylistic tropes that adds to Syd Arthur’s appeal. Like their predecessor’s, they take just enough contemporary elements to pass for a progressive group, filtering them back through their own idiosyncratic sensibilities. “Rebel Lands,” with its squelching synth lead line, could just as easily pass for the likes of Passion Pit were it not for the odd-metered structure and emphasis on organic instrumental interplay. Loaded with hooks, compositional intricacy and pure musicality, it’s an excellent entry point for those who generally scoff at the artier elements of pop music.
Similarly, the instrumental “Portal” relies on a far more modern, polished sound – one that would not sound out of place on any number of contemporary college or alternative radio stations – that belies the band’s art rock proclivities. It’s a level of accessibility that often eluded their predecessors, lending the band a greater chance of commercial success despite the stigma often associated with the dreaded prog tag.
Restrained in the best possible ways, Apricity is a fine next step for a band content to do its own thing. Much like the Canterbury bands of the past – not to mention those who represent the Harvest Records legacy – Syd Arthur are content to follow their own muse to its (il)logical conclusion. Whether or not anyone else catches on is of little consequence, as they’ve clearly staked a claim for themselves as one of the more interesting acts coming out of the United Kingdom in 2016.