I stumbled across them last summer. On and On was a refreshing collection of prog-tinged tunes held together by asymmetrical time signatures and complex textures. They were accessible, however, in a way that set the more conservative prog community ill at ease. I hoped that the band would not submit to the expectations of this sometimes insatiable audience. Fortunately, as I had hoped, the band stuck to their original mission statement. Their sophomore release Sound Mirror is more of the same, only done better. It is a deep exploration of the territory staked out by their debut that avoids exactly retracing its exact successes.
In addition to the artistic success of Sound Mirror, Syd Arthur served as the opening band for Yes on their recent tour. Considering Syd Arthur’s clear regard for prog days gone by, they could not have asked for a better venue. From what I have seen, Syd Arthur was relatively well received, winning over new fans at every show. I don't find this particularly surprising. Fans of the current, non-traditional iteration of Yes are more likely to be more open minded progressive listeners. Predictably, however, the positive response has not been unanimous. In particular, I was taken off guard when an old college friend whose musical opinion I value saw them on this tour and thought that they “had no songs.”
As much as I love Syd Arthur, I can see how it might seem that way, especially at first glance. It took me some time to decide if I liked the sounds or the songs from On and On. Viewed superficially, the ostinato riffs that serve as the foundation of their songs can seem a little jam-bandy and, by traditional progressive rock standards, a little repetitive. On the other hand, these riffs are pretty complex, and constructing memorable melodies over this texture takes more than just an ear for a tune.
It is common for contemporary progressive rock bands to lose sight of accessibility for the sake of complexity. The melodic nature of Syd Arthur's music allows them to dodge this issue nicely and in doing so, cuts through the hazy space between progressive rock and more contemporary
alternative rock styles. Although they exhibit a clear nostalgia for 70s psychedelia, they also a connect with more recent experimental rock. The opening riff of Sinkhole, for example, would have fit nicely on any album released by Radiohead in the late 90s.
Syd Arthur's navigation of these closely intertwined styles makes it tempting to engage in the increasingly threadbare "what is prog?" debate. I'll save you the trouble: the distinction is subjective. For some, like myself, Radiohead, Muse, and other adventurous acts are the next logical step in the ongoing evolution of progressive rock. For others, the style is strictly defined by characteristics that were set in stone nearly forty years ago. Syd Arthur, however, draws a straight line between these two conceptions of the genre in a way that challenges the boundary between them.