on 20 December 2012
These five albums are among the greatest musical creations of the 'hippy' generation and certainly the best work of the band. However, a caveat, this is strange and magical music, but not everybody will get it so listen to the previews first. The 'band' comprised two core members, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron with a third core member, Clive Palmer, on the first album. Friends (e.g. Danny Thompson) and girlfriends augmented the line-up.
Robin Williamson is a brilliant whistle player and fiddler, but it was his remarkable guitar work that first captivated me; listen to 'First Girl I Loved', 'October Song' (The fallen leaves, they jewel the ground; they know the art of dying.) or 'Womankind' for examples. His singing became very influenced by melismatic Arabic styles; try 'My Name Is Death' for example.
Mike Heron is an accomplished folk guitarist and singer who augmented his sonic palette with Sitar, harpsichord, and other instruments.
Mike's songs tended towards the whimsical and romantic, `Little Cloud' and `Gently Tender' (Gently tender falls the rain; washing clean the slates again.). Robin's songs could be romantic too but were often darker or with a more spiritual element, `Maya' for example. He could also be very funny as in `The Smoke Shovelling Song'.
With their Celtic, Blues, Middle Eastern and Asian influences, they may well have been the first World Music exponents. But these influences were fully assimilated by their own creative muse, not merely superimposed. You could describe the result as acoustic hippy psychedelic folk, but that hardly does it justice. I had these albums all on vinyl when fist released and now have them all on individual CDs.
These days Robin plays more harp than anything else. His singing is still remarkable and he still tours. Catch him if you can, especially when teamed with John Renbourne. If you do get the magic, this is sublime music, as remarkable in its own way as, say, Jefferson Airplane or early Country Joe and the Fish. If you don't, well it's not for everybody and there's a world of other great music to explore.
B. Arthur is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher active in Northumberland UK.
on 18 November 2013
If I was to try and describe this I'd suggest this is what Dylan might have sounded like if he had gone into the Basement to make his Tapes with the Bonzo Dogs rather than The Band. When I first heard this I honestly thought some of it was a joke; the singing and playing is, to my ears, as flat as flat can be. But after a few plays I am finally beginning to understand why the ISB have such a strong following. This music is whimsical, eclectic, funny, strange, mystical, beautiful and probably unlike anything else you've heard.
In their day the ISB were very successful ,filling out the Festival and Albert Halls in England, and The Fillmore in the States. Listening to it now it amazes me that this strange music had such a significant following. Maybe its strangeness was, and is, its appeal.
I certainly can't imagine this kind of music ever getting a foothold in today's music business, but thankfully the late 60s was a more tolerant and experimental era. If your ears are open and you want to enjoy something that'll lighten your day, then get this brilliant box.
If I`d thought it through, and if I`d heard the last three LPs in this treasure trove of ISB booty more recently, I would have bought only their first two albums, as that is where you`ll find the very best of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron (with Clive Palmer on the self-titled debut).
That first record heralded the arrival on the scene of something so fresh, vital and witty - not quite folk, not really pop - that, if you weren`t around in those heady days in the late sixties, it`s difficult to describe the unique spell the ISB wove.
I love the first two LPs, so many really good songs, catchy as the Beatles or the latest Donovan hit (oh, he was worth a listen once!) with Robin & Mike showing what truly fine musicians they were, and remain.
Highlights on their debut are Clive`s mournful Empty Pocket Blues, Robin`s lovely October Song, and Mike`s warm and wonderful Everything`s Fine Right Now - why wasn`t it released as a single? Could have been a big hit: the ISB in the charts! (Mind you, it might surprise some to learn that some of their LPs did indeed make the Top 20.)
Their masterpiece, in my view, is the second album. By this time Clive had departed for more modest musical shores, leaving the Heron & the Robin to twitter and chirp together - and solo - on a set of songs so strong and coherently compiled that they never quite equalled it on any of their later records.
5000 Spirits opens with one of Mike`s best songs, Chinese White, then we get a blinder from Robin with No Sleep Blues (another possible hit that never was!) and then the beautiful Painting Box from Mike:
When the morning of your eyes
Comes waking through my shadows
Leaving just a trace of twilight sleep
This is also the LP on which you`ll find Mike`s amusingly daft but unforgettable Hedgehog`s Song, and fey but fun Little Cloud, alongside Robin`s suitably bonkers Mad Hatter`s Song, and one of his loveliest creations of those years, First Girl I Loved, later covered (with a lyrical sex-change) by Judy Collins. Hearing Robin sing this again after so long - reader, I actually wept. Nostalgia, poignancy, lost love, age...
All the songs on 5000 Spirits go to make up one of the finest LPs of the period, as inventive, and as influential, as the contamporaneous Sgt Pepper.
I shan`t detain you much longer, as I find the ISB`s move into more esoteric, exotic, too-often twee, musically meandering songs on their following two albums (Wee Tam & the Big Huge originally being a magnificent fold-out double LP) a little hard to take now.
There are excellent things on `Hangman` such as Witches Hat and Mercy I Cry City, but all the songs succumb too much to the idiosyncrasies of both Robin and Mike`s growing preference for wandering vocals and random rambling. Harsh? All I can say is, listen for yourself. I loved and still love the ISB, but one`s critical faculties tend to sharpen over the years, and I simply don`t find much of the music on the later albums stands up to too much scrutiny. There are of course one or two gems on Wee Tam/Big Huge, for example Robin`s superb closing song The Circle is Unbroken, but they`re too few and far between.
Mike, with some success, went on to make his own records (and proved to be a lovely, friendly guy when I met him after a reformed-ISB-without-Robin concert ten years ago) while Robin went from strength to strength, both with his Merry Band (their records are quite wonderful) and on numerous solo albums, becoming an authentic contemporary bard and storyteller (even my mum liked him).
Their `ladies` (as we would faux-gallantly say back then) Rose and Licorice stayed with the band for further LPs, then Rose, unlikely as it may sound, turned up as Mayoress of Aberystwyth, with Licorice disappearing into the sunset, never - so we`re told - to be heard of again.
This slimline box of wonders is of course a blazing bargain, which happily I highly recommend to all, while my regretful qualifications remain.
I`ll sing you this October song
for there is no song before it...
on 6 October 2013
I stumbled on this 5 disc set almost by chance, and must admit my to delight with the product. It represents, in my opinion, incredible value for money and replaces my original and rather tired 33 rpm albums. If you enjoy the band, buy this set and you won't be disappointed. The music is, however, something of an acquired taste and those not influenced by the ISB the first time round, may have difficulties coming to terms with the music!
on 23 May 2014
Far out, man! The first four ISB albums in one budget package- great value at least. The disappointing first album's fairly humdrum folk without much of the groovy eastern, jazz and even bluesy vibe. The next three are hit and miss and at times channel Donovan but more often feature Williamson's warbling vocal, usually accompanied by twanging sitar. Think George's Maharishi-influenced Beatle's tracks and then some. There are decent tracks from the 5000 Spirits album up to the end of The Big Huge. I liked The Eyes of Fate, the lovely First Girl I Loved, The Circle is Unbroken and Waltz of the New Moon among others, but some tracks drift too far from the 'folk-rock' template to be enjoyable listens. Having heard The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter years back and found it interesting but challenging I prefer the more restrained if lyrically far out Wee Tam/The Big Huge. Perhaps I'm too keen on the more conventional folkies Joe Boyd produced - Nick Drake especially - to appreciate the more spaced-out hippie musings of ISB? ISB are very much a matter of taste and very much of their era.
on 24 October 2012
Great value package of the first 5 ISB albums - and probably the best ones they did. ISB are pretty quirky, they always were and they sound even more unusual now. However, this is because they are true originals. If you are unfamiliar with their material it is probably best to try a compilation album first, or just buy The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, which is probably their best album.