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The Incredible String Band The Incredible String Band
Album: Changing Horses
Label: BGO
Tracks: 6

This marks the long-awaited final instalment of BGO’s admirable programme of reissuing the entire original ISB catalogue; it’s the ISB album that’s been least-reissued on CD and which has been unavailable for some years. Dating from 1969, Changing Horses marked the start of a period of transition for the band. This transition was musically prefigured during 1968’s landmark consciousness-raising double album Wee Tam & The Big Huge with the introduction of girlfriends Rose and Licorice into the lineup to augment and balance the core duo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. In another important respect though, the transition was heavily linked to band members’ introduction to, and subsequent wholesale immersion in, the principles of the Church of Scientology, which was not only to greatly influence the band members’ interpersonal communication but also the band’s increasingly communal approach to reaching its audience.

The lyric writing continued to explore philosophical and mythological issues in a life context, but at times arguably more obtusely, with an increasing polarisation between the ethereal and the mundane; to an extent this was reflected in the music on Changing Horses, which (rather like its cover portrait) seemed to pull in two directions – further towards ethnic eccentricity and exotica and further towards electrified rocky-folk with more conventional instrumentation. The album itself was a tip-of-the-iceberg studio product that picked a mere selection from the band’s enormously fertile creative output of that key year (a great number of other excellent songs remained officially unreleased). What finally emerge on the LP was a bewildering and disparate six-track menu containing – often within the space of a single track – music that was by turns heart-stoppingly beautiful and crazily ramshackle, intensely and unforgettably melodic and wildly experimental, knowingly esoteric and strangely normal. Quite often frustrating in the extreme, but almost always compulsive listening, at times much like a misty-eyed late-night jam session or weirdly induced dream sequence.

The album contains two “epic journeys of songs” and four more conventionally-structured shorter numbers, and the share of compositional credits is equally divided between Robin and Mike. The latter’s gorgeous 14-minute composition White Bird can be regarded as the album’s jewel, a masterpiece of sweeping grandeur despite the occasional mild longueur, although Mike’s heavily tradition-influenced hymnal Sleepers, Awake!, sung entirely unaccompanied (without a string in earshot!) in both unison and glorious harmony by all four of the band, has always been my own personal favourite track. Elsewhere, we’re treated to the more earthbound strand of the group’s predilections with the then-vogueish country-ragtime-jugband fun/pastiche of Big Ted and the curiously-structured Dust Be Diamonds, both festooned with glimmerings of primitive electric guitar and noisy kazoo-raspberries, while the sardonic character study Mr & Mrs still feels too self-consciously quirky in its amplified setting and uncertain structure. Robin’s magnum opus, the 16-minute Creation, is arguably the most puzzling item on the disc, a game of three halves that shape-shifts from florid Eastern-style myth-retelling to programmatic depiction to maddeningly illogical 20s-vaudeville; it has to be heard to be believed!

The new BGO reissue of this pivotal ISB album comes complete with original artwork and credits and a marvellous booklet essay by John O’Regan. Interestingly, the package also bears the legend “mastered in high definition”; I’ve always felt the general sound quality of this particular album to be a touch opaque, even slightly cluttered at times, with a distinct lack of presence in the vocals at times compared to almost any other ISB record, and even after some detailed replaying I’m not convinced that this new remastering represents any significant improvement, although some instrumental parts and nuances seem clearer and better defined. So this latest reissue is still recommendable, not only since it fulfills the “missing link” between early and mid-period ISB but also since it contains some of the band’s most intriguing musical adventures (although by full admission not representative of the band’s very best songwriting or of its finest hour in the studio). Better than the proverbial curate’s egg, then, and surely worth your investigation.

David Kidman