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The Incredible String Band - The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion CD (album) cover


The Incredible String Band

Prog Folk

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Sean Trane
Prog Folk
3 stars And what a difference one album makes: still the Heron/Williamson (but Palmer-less) team, the Boyd/Elektra connection, but 5000 Sprits is definitely the birth of acid folk with all the possible ramifications possible, including a completely freaked out artwork (done by a Dutch couple in vogue in London's Swinging Sixties), going even a bit pagan with the leafy (druid) duo's back cover pictures, this is a pure hippy product instead of a pure traditionalist album, which of course will enrage the purist corner still not forgiving Dylan's treachery of going electric. The duo is now coming out with a couple of guests, including Pentangle's bassist Danny Thompson and a girl called Licorice (who would move into their beds before securing a permanent spot in the band. The duo is also now multi-instrumentalists including percussion, flute and a bunch of Eastern string instruments (already present on the previous album), but were not exactly on friendly terms and apparently only agreed to a song from the other if they could arrange it. In some ways this cooperation seemed to work fine, although producer Joe Boyd remembers walking on hot coals and having lengthy negotiations.

Starting on the medieval-sounding Chinese White (where they approach Third Ear Band's soundscapes a few years later), and following with the phantasmagorical No Sleep Blues (my fave on the album) and its deep flutes and multi-layered guitars, we are light years away from their debut album, an album sprinkled with eastern spiritualism and Indian influence as the sitar and tale drums indicates. Yes a Mary Jane and LSD-induced trip, a nice mellow one. But one of the reason this is called acid-folk is partly due to the high- perched, almost squeaky voices .While there are groundbreaking songs (in its genre, the semi-lengthy First Girl I Loved), there are also a few of them where it just smells the hick's barn wrestling with his animals and the straw picking and string plucking gets mixed-up very easily (Hedgehog's Song).

An album that musically speaking was at least as important as the Beatles Sgt Pepper or The Nice's Thoughts, ISB's sophomore album is a good step forward but more and better is to come in further albums. An interesting album for progheads, but I wouldn't call this essential and I will refrain from adding a bit to the rating for an historically important album, but I can find 6 Pentangle albums I prefer to any ISB. .

Report this review (#173416)
Posted Tuesday, June 10, 2008 | Review Permalink
Prog Folk Researcher
3 stars The Incredible String Band saw founding member Clive Palmer depart before this release on a journey of personal discovery in India (and later to form both the Famous Jug Band and C.O.B.); but they would add Robin Williamson’s girlfriend Licorice McKechnie and take on help in the form of the Pentangle’s Danny Thompson, Eastern instrumental guru Nazir Jairazbhoy and Joe Boyd’s UFO Club manager Hoppy Hopkins on piano for an overall much more robust, psychedelic and modern sound than anything on their self-titled debut. Hopkins would be in jail for possession of marijuana by the time this record released, and the recently-deceased Jairazbhoy would be off to complete his PhD in folk music and on his way to a lengthy professorship at UCLA in the U.S. For the band’s third album they would add Shirley Collins’ sister Dolly briefly, as well as jazz harpist David Snell, but the rest of their guests would be gone (although Thompson would have a longstanding relationship with the band).

In my opinion this record represents the peak of the band’s creative period, which arguably lasted only until around the time they appeared for a disappointing and delayed set at Woodstock. Williamson and Mike Heron split the songwriting almost evenly with Williamson penning seven of the tracks finally included versus six for Heron. Boyd wrote in his ‘White Bicycles’ biography that there was a lot of dissention and disagreement between the two over which songs to include and how each should be arranged, but in the end the creative tension would produce something of an acid folk gem and possibly the first truly folk-tinged progressive psych album of the era.

Williamson displays his measurable talent for turning traditional British-inspired folk arrangements into wandering and intricate acid-dripping vignettes, complete with fanciful and ethereal themes and clever lyrical twists; while Heron ended up contributing the more memorable tracks including an incredibly innovative and almost calypso-sounding "The Hedgehog's Song" as well as the brief but tightly-constructed folk icon "You Know What You Could Be".

For his part, Williamson leverages Jairazbhoy’s Indian strings and percussion for the spiritual and laconic "The Mad Hatter's Song" as well as the wordy but beautiful ballad “First Girl I Loved”, a song that challenges even today the notion of what a folk ballad should be capable of. His unrhymed poetry and jangling mandolin on that offering fit neither an Eastern nor a psychedelic mold, but instead stretch acoustic folk into something that approaches an almost American sound (especially the vocals) and I suspect is imbued with more of Joe Boyd’s production influence than Williamson would care to admit.

The last parts of the album are somewhat disjointed in their sequencing, with the recorder and percussion laden “Gently Tender” falling between a staid folk tune (“My Name is Death”) and the hippy anthem “Way Back in the 1960s”, which today probably belongs on some flashback documentary of the late seventies (and maybe someday will be used that way).

Overall there aren’t any weak songs here, although a couple like “The Eyes of Fate” and “Blues for the Muse” are not quite as strong as the rest of the songs. I’d say this is a very solid three star record, but I can’t quite come to bring myself to give it four as much as I’d like to. This is my most recommended album for anyone new to the band though, followed immediately by “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” which isn’t quite as strong folkwise in my opinion but will likely have the broader appeal between the two. Well recommended to prog folk fans as well as people who just like late sixties music in general.


Report this review (#231293)
Posted Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | Review Permalink
Eetu Pellonpaa
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars The second album of this band is in my opinion their best. This decision grew after I had listened these records independently for some years, I think here the average song quality is best, nearly all really mind blowing and only few last songs not so good, they being really fine too. The lyrics are understandable and wise, and music interesting but not trying to be experimental for sake of being it.

This marvelous album opens with raw violin, guitar and voice delivering "Chinese White", a beautiful ballad with thoughtful lyrics, crystallizing major key elements of the group right away. "No Sleep Blues" is more traditional folk song with surreal lyrics, funny feeling and some subtle sitar lines. "Painting Box" is then a true classic, with exceptional melody and lyrics that really grew to my mind, creating thoughts which I could identify with in bad times. There's a nice film of this song which was performed in Julie Felix show with her. Following "The Mad Hatter's Song" has interesting ancient sound in the melody, strong wailing vocals included and also really powerful lyrics. The song structure alters, there are wonderful moments of silence, and changes which do not return to previous themes. "Little Cloud" opens interestingly with weird vocal harmony, changing then as really playful and happy, healing song. "The Eyes of Fate" is a Slowly rolling and quietly opening kaleidoscope of religiously-scoped thoughts, with holy moment of chanting as verse. "Blues for the Muse" is then a happy world-hugging bluesy folk tune with accordion and sitar ringing in the background, fine twist in the lyric at the end, heh. "The Hedgehog's Song" is a really peculiar small song, with funny lyrics of a metaphorical hedgehog arriving to tell the same universal truth applicable to all possible events. Following "First Girl I Loved" is another melodically suberb and strongly personal classic song for long wailing voice and guitars. Next "You Know What You Could Be" is circled by ancient sounding sequence with tablas, pipe and guitar studying the chords. The the song starts to roll happily forward, building quite nice logical melodic folk song. Powerful "My Name Is Death" has really wonderful lyrics, and is a sad quiet contemplative song so true (optimal for ruining teenage parties). "Gently Tender" is a happy tune for flute, tablas, voice and guitar with slightly experimental sequences in the end. The album closes with "Way Back in the 1960s", a raw descriptive rant for guitars and vocal with some sitar. I usually skip this song when listening the album, as it is the least best when compared to others, which are in my opinion exceptional, creating an album difficult to match in quality or emotional sincerity and richness. That doesn't mean that it would be a really poor song though! The other tunes of this record are just so much better and form a different feeling for me. These songs have been big solace for me and the record has grown as personal all-time favorites. I would recommend this psychedelic gem wrapped to a nice dualistic hippie drawing for anybody open for thoughtful and sincere European acoustic music.

Report this review (#243388)
Posted Tuesday, October 6, 2009 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion is the 2nd full-length studio album by UK folk rock act The Incredible String Band. The album was originally released by Elektra Records in 1967.

The music on the album is acoustic psychadelic folk with some progressive elements. The instrumentation is varied throughout the album and in addition to acoustic guitars, which are the dominant instrument on the album, we are treated with mandolin, oud, gimbri, flute, assortive percussion, harmonica, bass and double bass, tamboura, piano, violin and sitar. The two main songwriters, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, handles most of the vocals on the album. Licorice McKechnie sings some additional female vocals. The vocals are warm and at times quirky and humourous. There are lots of harmony vocals in the songs which adds an extra dimension. The atmosphere in the songs are mostly jolly but there are darker moments too which gives the album good variation. As for progressive elements they are mostly present in the longest song on the album The Mad Hatter´s Song. With its 5:40 minutes long playing time the song is given time and space to develop in unpredictable directions. Other than that most of the tracks are actually pretty straight forward, but minor progressive ideas appear from time to time. The overall quality of the songs on the album is very high. I enjoy each track on the album and haven´t found anything I would call sub par. The lyrics are warm and humourous and songs like The Hedgehog's Song, No Sleep Blues and Little Cloud make me smile and wish I could make something that brilliant.

The production is warm and suits the music perfectly.

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion is my first encounter with The Incredible String Band, but it won´t be my last. I think it´s an abslutely brilliant acoustic psychadelic folk album and a 4 star rating is fully deserved.

Report this review (#283364)
Posted Tuesday, May 25, 2010 | Review Permalink
5 stars In fact, this album should deserve five stars and it would have them had we been in or Actually, this is a seminal album. Its originality, novelty and absolute freshness would infect a host of folk musicians and bands. This album and the rebirth of The Incredible String Band after the leaving of Clive Palmer would set the rules and canon to a new genre, the Acid Folk.

Some may say there was also the contemporary The Pentangle, but they were more jazz/ blues based and asumed a different direction.

The Incredible String Band brought a new way of doing things to the average folk musician, both to writers or performers. The main influence was East and modal music, with its melismatic chant and a tight connection between text and music. But the Middle Ages were at hand, too. The sixties were the time when Ancient Music came up to find its place in the world of music and has never quitted since. Folk and Rock were not insensitive to that. Great musicians and investigators searched the old churches and colleges archives to find out what and how the music in the Middle Ages was. Names such as David Munrow, René Clemencic or Gregorio Paniagua are among the most important restorers of a genre whose patrimony has not ceased to grow since.

It is not strange that in this ambient people like Williamson & Heron, John Renbourn, Alan Stivell, The Chieftains brought a Renaissance of traditional music.

But what TISB made was setting it into the very core of the pop-rock music of the moment and that was: psychedelia. This, added to an open structure in the compositions; to a melodic line which fluctuates together with the emotions provided by the lyrics; to an oriental-oriented way of playing the string instruments, including the very oriental ones, mainly the sitar with its caracteristic sound; to an impressionist writing and arranging... makes of the TISB's music one of the most original artistic works

It is also true that, in spite of a long career, the quality of their production is not always at the same level but, because of their novelty and creativity, they deserve your listening, at least, to this 5000 spirits that lay in the layers of a both sweet and acid onion.

Four and a half stars or 9 out of 10.

Updated to the fifth star (17/07/2014)

Report this review (#620222)
Posted Thursday, January 26, 2012 | Review Permalink
4 stars The Incredible String Band - The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967)

Raw creativity, sprinkling all over the rather amateurish - yet enthusiastic - songs. Many will discard the Incredible String Band at first listen, but when you get to know their style and intention it is really a joyfull experience. On this second album Mike Heron and Robin Williamson really found their sound and the flow of inspiration seems endless on these journey of thirteen songs. The Incredible String Band is a multi-instrumentalist group using acoustic instruments like guitar, flute, percussion, harmonica and many more, singing with untrained English folky vocals that show real dedication. The performances are much more 'in the moment' and fresh then almost all folk acts I know of - as if the song was written before your eyes. some songs are folky in a happy crazy way (Syd Barret comes to mind), whereas others are more pastoral and intimate. Because of the amount of songs the album takes a while to get into (like eight spins) but is very rewarding.

Together with 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter' the best works of the band I'd say. Four stars, recommended to folklisteners and those in search of free flowing inspiration. Defenitly among the most enduring acts of the sixties.

Report this review (#1340910)
Posted Tuesday, January 6, 2015 | Review Permalink

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