What constitutes a musical scene? Its geography? A conflation of specific musical influences? The physical settings in which it is conceived and performed that shape it, that it reacts to?
Is it lazy journalists' arbitrary way of grouping regional bands together?
Or all of the above?
I've been thinking about this an awful lot of late, because it has been all but impossible not to note some seismic shifts in our own music scene over the past 18 months or so. (More about this – much more – in the coming weeks.)
There is a desire, if not a downright human need, to group objects and ideas together under a specific rubric, as a way to understand and describe them. In the world of music, this may be even more so the case. Sometimes, this can be close to an artificial construct – "grunge," the "Seattle sound," or the "Athens, Ga., sound." There are conceptual flaws in these descriptives – does Soundgarden really sound like Screaming Trees, and do either of them really sound like Pearl Jam or King's X?
No, in a word – but the genre tags endure because they have a certain utility. Even if the artists themselves don't have much in common, we still know what someone is talking about, generally at least, if they say "the Seattle sound." Annoying, but true.
I fell deeply in love with a new band recently, and in my obsessive need to learn everything I can in short order about bands I've fallen for, I discovered that this particular quartet, known as Syd Arthur, is widely held to be emblematic of "the Canterbury sound." That small-ish city in the southeast corner of England is, in popular parlance, said to be the home of an identifiable strain of progressive music, much of it boasting elements of jazz improvisation and folk instrumentation.
Here's how ProgArchive.com defines "the Canterbury sound:" "Most bands [in the genre] will be found employing a clever fusion of rock rhythms and jazz improvisation with intellectual songwriting and varying strengths of psychedelia," which is groovy and all, but might just as easily describe tenets of the contemporary American jam-band scene.
Perhaps a simple listing of the bands involved offers a more accurate snapshot: Soft Machine, Gong, Caravan, National Health, and Egg number among them. All of these bands emerged from post-"Sgt. Pepper" England to create brave, adventurous, often virtuosic music. They sound only vaguely like each other, though you can indeed tell that they emerged from a specific milieu.
Syd Arthur, by comparison, sounds a little bit like each of these bands, but in reality, the group's appeal for me lies in the unique way its members interpret their influences. Listening to the band's full-length debut, "On and On" – out now and available through Amazon and iTunes, or through SydArthur.co.uk – one is immediately struck by the unusual grooves, unexpected time signatures, the astute musicianship, the use of electric violin and amplified mandolin in conjunction with more standard rock instrumentation.
This description might fit any number of modern prog-rock bands, and indeed, fans of those bands have already glommed onto Syd Arthur. (The band's profile may also have been accelerated by the fact that violinist/mandolin player Raven Bush is the nephew of alternative music icon Kate Bush.)
Yet, tossing this group into the company of, say, Flower Kings or Spock's Beard doesn't make all that much sense. Syd Arthur's music is song-centered, and even if "On and On" boasts the flow of epic songwriting, it is not packed with 15-minute, multipart mini-symphonies. That oft-cited "English whimsy" said to be emblematic of the Canterbury sound isn't really a part of the mix, either.
As befitting the band's name – which I'm assuming is a tongue-in-cheek nod to "Siddhartha," by Hermann Hesse or Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the Buddha – Syd Arthur's sound conjures a general image of spiritual searching through the contrasting of restless musical motifs and more languorous, spaced-out and trippy movements. I hear in this sound a commingling of jam-band/prog-rock from this side of the pond, and the more pastoral, relaxed and blissed-out vibes of early (late '60s) English progressive music.
Most significantly, there's plenty of contemporary alt-rock in the sound, too. Fans of newer bands like Black Mountain, Tame Impala, White Hills, Wolf People and Gnod should find the more musical and musicianly strain of psychedelia and "stoner rock" that Syd Arthur conjures attractive.
Is this sound specifically a byproduct of the guys in Syd Arthur having grown up in Canterbury, in the shadow of Soft Machine, Gong and the like? Who knows? Does it matter? You tell me.