MUSIC

ELECTRONIC POP THAT BORDERS ON JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING

DAVID MCCAUGHNA May 1 1972

MUSIC

ELECTRONIC POP THAT BORDERS ON JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING

DAVID MCCAUGHNA May 1 1972

MUSIC

ELECTRONIC POP THAT BORDERS ON JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING

DAVID MCCAUGHNA

The most intriguing sound in Canada’s self-proclaimed Golden Age of pop is the spaced-out music of a unique group called Syrinx. Their sound has been described as "mindblowing,” “weird” and, sometimes, “incomprehensible.” Whatever, their whirling electronic compositions are reverberating across the country and are also the most original being produced here. Indeed, what Syrinx plays is so original that you’re taking a liberty even putting it in the pop category. It’s been tagged as “cosmic jazz,” “heated Afro pop” and “Canadian futuristic rock,” but most everyone agrees that Syrinx’s electrically synthesized sound is quite stunning and that the public is developing a passionate taste for it. Can Future Shock be so horrific, Syrinx fans ask, if it’s accompanied by music like this?

You can switch on to Syrinx with their two albums, Syrinx and the more recent Long Lost Relatives (both on True North), but to get the full thrust of their music you should really see them live, cozy coffeehouse on the edge of Toronto’s skid row, where they were playing for a week.

“I really go for this music,” said a fan with a profile of Rudolph Valentino knit into his sweater. “I mean it’s .. . well, it’s apocalyptic.”

He thought for a moment:

“It’s religious, ya’ know. I get the same feeling I had when I first heard The Who do their rock opera Tommy.

It kinda renews my faith.”

But don’t get the idea that Syrinx is an electrified Salvation Army band.

“This music does strange things to my headspace,” murmured a girl at another table.

Syrinx sounds a bit like early Moody Blues one minute and the sound track of an old Tarzan flick the next. Or the progressive jazz of Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis. One observer says that Syrinx’s music is “ultimately human music,” and in it “pop meets the avant garde and wins most of the round . .. No one, absolutely no one, has ever sounded like them before.”

So much avant garde music suffers from a bad reputation. A rightly won reputation since it’s often jarring and harsh, an assault on the senses. But the Syrinx sound, which seems to have drifted in from the year 2001 is lilting and mellow. The group's not up to any tricks with screeching noises or prolonged silences. The music isn't freaky. In fact, Syrinx has a sense of order that borders on the classical. Their music hisses and curls. It’s often downright romantic.

It’s music created by a highly unorthodox blend of instruments. The most unusual is the synthesizer, a true child of this electric age. Although the synthesizer has been in use for a couple of years now, Syrinx is one of the first groups in the world to make it a regular part of their music. The machine has been featured on many albums, from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to Dory Previn, but only for mere cameo appearances. To create that momentary hint of mystery. With Syrinx, the synthesizer is the star. A bulky, boxlike apparatus, it can perform the most extraordinary acts. Producing no sound on its own, the synthesizer must be fed sounds made by other instruments. The sounds are pushed through an intricate setup of electric oscillators, filters and sequencers. They can be altered or enriched in a vast combination of ways until they’re light years away from the original. The results can duplicate the awesome strains of a church organ or the more prosaic bark of a car exhaust. For pop music, the synthesizer is the electric guitar of the 1970s.

If so, then John Mills-Cockell may very well be the Canadian answer to Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. He’s the leader of Syrinx, the man who articulates the moods of the Arp synthesizer. Thin and intense at 28, Mills-Cockell has an impressive background. From playing bassoon in a suburban Toronto high school he went on to the University of Toronto’s respected Royal Conservatory of Music where he developed an interest in electronic music and eventually taught it. After stints with the nationally known Kensington Market and Vancouver’s Hydro Electric Streetcar, MillsCockell formed Syrinx in Toronto a couple of years ago.

“Our music can go anywhere,” says Mills-Cockell. “Eve just touched the surface of possibilities with the synthesizer. Nobody knows its limits. That’s what we think is exciting about this kind of music. Anything could happen.”

What’s been happening so far has been very well received. Both of the albums are selling well. Radio stations are playing a healthy quantity of the Syrinxed-out sound. Thanks are due, of course, to the CRTC. It was most appropriate that Syrinx was chosen by the CTV network to produce the music for their show Here Come The Seventies, a program that aims to pose Very Significant Questions about man’s future on the planet. Syrinx came up with Tillicum. As the show ends, the group is seen playing the piece against the downtown Toronto cityscape. The network was deluged with nationwide inquiries: “What is this music?” “Where can I get a copy?” Syrinx, who had never thought of doing singles, released a 45 of Tillicum. In Edmonton there were 6,000 orders before the record had left the factory, and in many cities Tillicum reached Number One on the Top 40.

Three others help Mills-Cockell create his electronic collages. There’s congo drummer Alan Wells, with his interest in primitive musical forms, saxophonist Doug Pringle, who gives Syrinx that jazz tinge, and a recently acquired vocalistcum-drummer, Malcolm Tomlinson. A third album, due out this summer, will have vocals, a feature that may attract a whole new audience.

In a country whose music scene has rarely been known to be ahead of the times, the sound of Syrinx is exceptional. It soars through the air, virtually proclaiming the future.

Bootleg: Downchild Blues Band (distributed by RCA). Described as “Toronto white,” this raunchy group is the closest thing we have to a Chicago blues band. It’s basic blues. Vocalist Rich Walsh has a grainy, rough-edged voice that’s remarkably suitable for the classic numbers the album features along with Downchild’s own adequate composition. ■