Saturday, November 18, 2017

Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies - 1969 [2015] "The American Metaphysical Circus"

The American Metaphysical Circus is a 1969 psychedelic album by Joseph "Joe" Byrd. It was recorded after his departure from the band The United States of America, and featured some of the earliest recorded work in rock music utilizing extensive use of synthesizers and vocoder, along with an extended group of West Coast studio musicians Byrd named "The Field Hippies".

As a "conductor" and organ/electronic synthesizer player, Byrd is very much the leader of this circus. With a couple drummers, a half-dozen horn players (including a young Tom Scott), three female vocalists, and a half-dozen or so other musicians popping up over the course of the album, there are a lot more people involved in this project than there were in the (relatively) stable lineup of the United States of America. Despite the ambition of this LP, it ultimately serves to illustrate just how Byrd benefited from the unique synergy provided by the other members of the U.S.A. There are all kinds of adventurous electronics and eclectic ideas bouncing back and forth, but the songwriting is simply not as strong as that of Byrd's previous group. The best songs are the ones which most strongly recall the U.S.A. in their spacy melodicism ("Moonsong: Pelog") and driving psychedelic pulse ("You Can't Ever Come Down"). Unfortunately, the female singers on these tracks are no match for The U.S.A.'s Dorothy Moscowitz, although they seem to be aspiring to the same dreamy, icy quality. Byrd himself is quite a mediocre singer, as his attempts at taking the lead on straightforward rock material prove. Otherwise, there are some bad takeoffs on gospel and old-time music, haphazard primitive early synthesizer, and dated social commentary/satire. As ambitious in its scope as Byrd's first rock project, this album is not nearly as successful.

After his first album with a band called "United States of America," Joe Byrd released this, his masterpiece, in 1969. Even without the aid of mind-expanding drugs it is obvious that metaphysics is central to the overall theme of this great concept album.
The first section, "The Sub-Sylvian Litanies," is an attempt to turn reality inside-out. Literally meaning "beneath the forest," its three odes get right to the core of our very existence. It employs themes built upon the fourth degree of the octal scale, a Greek mode called phrygian.
The middle section, "Four Songs for a Departing President," are a slap in the face to former president Lyndon Johnson. It is a condemnation of both his "Great Society" movement and his perpetuation of the Vietnam War. "Gospel Music" is a tribute to Byrd's brother, Ruddell, who was imprisoned at Leavinworth for evading the draft.
Finally, the third section deals with aging under the sub-heading "The Southwestern Geriatrics Arts & Crafts Festival." Often morose and overly nostalgic, it nevertheless presents a clear view of the way our elders are shuffled off to nursing homes to await death.
The song writing and arrangements are superb, the use of synthesizers is tasteful and the theme is awesome. You have to get out of the box to receive the full experience this album has to offer.

This album did a great deal to change my brain when I was in high school in the early '70s. Concurrent with ingesting a multitude of substances that shall remain unmentioned, this album saw many, many spins on my and my friends' turntables. It was always a significant experience. There is literally EVERYTHING on this record. Vaudeville, jazz, electronic, psychedelic powerhouses, acid rock, spoken word, and much more. Joe Byrd was an unrecognized genius who put out two incredible, ahead-of-their-time records (The United States of America being the other). Sometimes our minds were expanded. Other times our minds were blown. But our minds always received an EXPERIENCE listening to this fine, unique, well-produced and well-composed music. There is nothing else like it. Nothing!

I originally owned this album as a vinyl record when I was in high school. I bought it for the wrong reason - purportedly the first part of the recording is like an LSD trip. This album kindled my lifelong interest in "new" music. I literally wore the pressing out, I liked it so well.

The pioneering use of a quality synthesizer arraignment superimposed on lyrical vocals. The composer, Mr. Byrd, obviously wrote and orchestrated each piece as though it were a symphonic work. This album is not for people who hate experimental music. John Coltrane's Africa Brass, or Ornette Coleman Shape of Jazz to Come are similar artistic endevors in the jazz vein.

When Joseph Byrd was fired from his previous creation, the United States of America, he could well have called it a day, secure in the knowledge that he had produced one of the most important, but underappreciated albums of the sixties. But Byrd didn't feel like he'd fully accomplished what he'd set out to do, so he gathered this astonishing collective together, and produced an album that has always been overshadowed by its more lauded predecessor, but arguably is a far more successful synthesis of his experimental spirit and pop sensibilities.

"The American Metaphysical Circus" is not an easy album. It's also not an album that is easy to assimilate in part. For the full effect, it really needs to be listened through from the first second to the last, and this is perhaps part of the reason for its lesser reputation. Although it does have many highlights which could potentially have been lifted for singles/compilation appearances/radio play etc. they gain so much from being heard in their proper context.

Split into four separate suites, there's a lot going on here. Too much for some people, but Byrd's compositional skills ensure that the disparate instrumentation, and musical styles flow smoothly together.

Opening suite "The Sub-Sylvian Litanies" is the trippy highlight for me, with Victoria Bond's electronically treated voice leading into an explosive revisit of "You Can't Ever Come Down", with searing lead guitar. "Moonsong: Pelog" winds it down nicely, with Susan de Lange's vocals venturing into Grace Slick territory without her sounding out of her depth. This mini suite has enough ideas to sustain a whole album, but there are three others to follow, which veer all over the map, from acid-rock ("Nightmare Train") to cocktail jazz and prominent early use of synthesizer, via the pointed social commentary of "Leisure World" - an extremely interesting, orchestrated piece of what we'd now call Hauntology. Its presence near the end of the album likely left listeners a little baffled at the time, but we live in more open minded, enlightened times now right?

Esoteric's new reissue sounds absolutely fabulous, with fascinating accompanying sleeve notes. One of the reissues of the year so far.

Track listing:

The Sub-Sylvian Litanies

01.  "Kalyani" – 3:52
02.  "You Can't Ever Come Down" – 3:02
03.  "Moonsong: Pelog" – 3:47

American Bedmusic - Four Dreams For A Departing President

04.  "Patriot's Lullabye" – 2:49
05.  "Nightmare Train" – 3:20
06.  "Invisible Man" – 3:33
07.  "Mister 4th of July" – 1:48

Gospel Music For Abraham Ruddell Byrd III

08.  "Gospel Music" – 4:29

The Southwestern Geriatrics Arts and Crafts Festival

09.  "The Sing-Along Song" – 4:05
10.  "The Elephant at the Door" – 5:13
11.  "Leisure World" – 2:36
12.  "The Sing-Along Song (Reprise)" – 0:48


    Pot - Piano, Conductor, Harpsichord
    Ed Sheftel - Trumpet, Flugelhorn
    Christie Thompson - Vocals
    Ernest "Ernie" Anderson - Voices
    Fred Selden - Clarinet, Saxophones, Flute
    Ted Greene - Guitar
    Joseph Hunter Byrd - Organ, Producer, Vocals, Keyboards, Conductor, Synthesizer
    Larry Kass - Tabla
    Michael Whitney - Guitar (Classical)
    Chuck Bennett - Bass Trombone
    Victoria Bond - Vocals
    Bob Breault - Engineer
    Ray Cappocchi - Tuba, Tenor Trombone
    Dana Chalberg - Flute, Piccolo
    John Clauder - Percussion, Drums
    Susan de Lange - Vocals, Electronic Voices
    Meyer Hirsch - Flute, Saxophones
    Don Kerian - Trumpet, Cornet
    Gregg Kovner - Drums, Percussion
    Tom Scott - Clarinet, Saxophones, Flute
    Harvey Newmark - Bass (uncredited on album)
    Harihar Rao - Percussion (uncredited on album)


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