Album of the Day: Syrinx, “Tumblers From the Vault”

After a tumultuous decade of musical experimentation lead by Cage and Boulez in the concert hall and the Beatles on the radio, the ’70s lurched forward. Enter John Mills-Cockell, a Toronto-born synth explorer blessed by contact with the electronic avant-garde early in his teens, and his cohorts: the freeform saxophonist Doug Pringle and mystic/percussionist Alan Wells. The trio emerged piecemeal and coincidentally: cross-Canadian train trips, visits from the good doctor Timothy Leary, work with Cream producer Felix Pappalardi, interdisciplinary coffeehouse happenings. And yet, a peaceful, studied stillness emanates from the spare output of their group, Syrinx.

The RVNG label collects both of the group’s albums and a smattering of live recordings and other ephemera on Tumblers from the Vault: a sumptuous feast for curious listeners. In the handful of non-album material we find the group’s one claim to fame: the song “Tillicum”, commissioned by the CTV television network as the theme for a Dateline-esque current affairs program called “Here Come The Seventies.” “Tillicum” is a pithy introduction to Syrinx’s ambitious music; bookended by coast-to-coast washes of oscillating waves, the song races on a track of vaguely robotic, bubbling rhythm, with Pringle’s sax calling Reveille over top. You can easily imagine the accompanying bustling montage of industrious Canadian life, ushering in the churn of a new decade. The single charted briefly (an instrumental made up of keyboard noise, drum machine, sax and no vocals!) and there’s probably Canadians of a certain age still humming it to this day.

Plunging into the rest of Syrinx’s discography, one finds far more pastoral pleasures. RVNG has seen fit to sequence the group’s second album first; it’s the lone album they recorded outright as a unit and the most powerful evidence of their power as a band. “Long Lost Relatives” finds the group already in flight from the start, with Pringle’s ochre-hued sax introducing the proceedings on “Tumblers,” before Mills-Cockell’s curlicues of synth tangle with Wells’ charging bongos. “Syren” runs Pringle’s sax through a synthesizer, encrusting it with a bit of jurassic might recalling “Lark’s Tongues”-era Crimson, before “December Angel” provides one of the set’s high points. After a cacophonous minute of scrapes, clangs and insect-like wails, Mills-Cockell’s Moog keys appear, Verne-like, far beneath the Earth’s surface. Slowly, the strings of a borrowed orchestra emerge, as cascading plucks, bells and gongs melt together in a tectonic fluid, thrumming and huge, buoyed slowly back to the surface by bubbles of Arp and sax, and the call of some synthetic seagull. It’s a breathtaking piece, and it’s hard to say just what it is. Jazz, classical, prog rock, new age? It’s not altogether clear if the members themselves knew.

The songs that close disc one come from the group’s 1970 debut, and contain the most delicate Syrinx output, culled from Mills-Cockell’s solo sessions on organ and synth, with Pringle and Wells later adding sax and hand drum overdubs. These uphold the RVNG reissue ethos of rescuing lost relaxation music. “Chant for Your Dragon King” is a stately processional with an overwhelming sense of wistfulness, like Mike Ratledge playing a funeral march in 14th century Wallachia. ‘Appaloosa-Pegasus’ channels Riley, hitching buzzing synth to Wells’ galloping tabla, while ‘Hollywood Dream Trip’ evokes the woozy, implacable bliss-state of Woo. Syrinx may have only blessed the world with two LPs, but they didn’t waste a moment on each.

—A. Evan Woodward

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