Sunday 21 February 2016

Review: The Syn, Live Rosfest

With the new Syn album, Trustworks, nearly upon us, I felt it was really about time that I finished my review of the previous release, Live Rosfest, which Steve Nardelli kindly sent me.

It is difficult reviewing The Syn, difficult to separate the exhausting politics from the music. (I hope Trustworks can break the pattern.) We can probably call the band on Live Rosfest Act 3. Act 2 had ended with the collapse of the Syndestructible line-up, everyone fed up with Nardelli's behaviour, so Nardelli created a new band with Francis Dunnery, who had briefly rehearsed with Nardelli/Squire/Johnson for a tour supporting Syndestructible that was cancelled before it began – Dunnery perhaps should have paid more attention to that outcome!

The rest of the Act 3 band was an impressive selection of players: Tom Brislin on keys, and Brett Kull and Paul Ramsey from echolyn. With Dunnery regular Dorie Jackson, they recorded the album Big Sky. A supporting tour featured Nardelli, Dunnery, Brislin, Kull, Ramsey, Erica Brilhart and Jamie Bishop.

Live Rosfest is a live recording from 1 May 2009 of the line-up's final show, which was at Rosfest. (It was also at Rosfest that Nardelli first met Moon Safari, with whom he made Trustworks.) Not that this was meant to be their final show. The rest of the tour was cancelled given poor ticket sales, with the band unpaid and unhappy. Kull posted to the echolyn mailing list on 5 May:

“Yep, the tour has been cancelled. Paul, and I are no longer playing in the Syn nor having anything to do with it.

“Bad organization, bad mojo, bad energy.”

Oddly, promo for the album doesn't mention that bit. You'd think “Bad organization, bad mojo, bad energy” would be a great pull quote to put on the advertising...

And yet none of that “bad mojo” comes through. Because this is a great performance. It brings alive the Big Sky material, with very listenable performances from Brislin, Dunnery and Kull in particular.

The set consists of the entirety of Big Sky (in a different order), plus three 1960s Syn songs, but oddly ignores Syndestructible or anything else by the other modern line-ups. On Syndestructible, the band had taken Nardelli's basic song ideas and expanded them, played with them and generally arranged the heck out of them. Big Sky was more stripped back, but live, the band stretch out and I generally prefer these live versions to the studio album. There is a talented band here and they don't reach their full potential on this material. An album by Dunnery/Brislin/Kull/Ramsey/Bishop would have been an interesting prospect.

At the centre of it all is Steve Nardelli. Nardelli is a technically limited vocalist and maybe a bit of an acquired taste, but in the right setting, as here, his vocals work. He brings a distinct melodic style and an open vocal performance. While there is an echolyn connection, this isn't an echolyn album, the Syn sound derives from Nardelli's songwriting, but it is interesting to hear the echolyn players working with different material. More Dunneryisms come through – Dunnery co-wrote all the material on Big Sky – leading to a robust performance. Brislin lives up to the reputation he built during his short Yes stint.

This release does not lack for content: it comes with an accompanying DVD with two short films. “The Syn in the 21stCentury” is a history of the band. I like it because they mention me(!), but leaving that aside... There is some nice footage included here, from Syndestructible sessions through to working with Moon Safari on Trustworks. Chris Squire is interviewed briefly and we see snippets of performance with Squire and White, and with Brislin. But there is an unnecessarily arty presentation, with, for example, one Nardelli interview shot in stark lighting. The whole thing is cut too quickly, as if it's a music video rather than a documentary.

What it lacks is much in the way of a coherent narrative. Perhaps that's because it's a huge lie: the story of The Syn in the 21st century is a fascinating one about Nardelli's drive but also general disregard for his bandmates, of constant chaotic collapse and re-birth. Any hint of that reality is swept aside by a pretentious narration that finds a path between art school project and cult indoctrination.

“The Making of Big Sky” comes across as less professional, but is actually more coherent. It is mainly based on interviews with Nardelli, Brislin and Dunnery, done at the echolyn recording studio during the album's making. There is still a tendency towards puffery: at one point, Nardelli hilariously describes Armistice Day as a "very big success for us". That would be the hotchpotch release that produced a legal attempt from Squire/White to stop its release and caused Gerard Johnson to finally leave the band (and start another legal action). The release that made very little impact on anyone ever. But most of the content here is focused on the actual making of the album.

So, Live Rosfest gives you Big Sky, but performed a bit more interestingly by a good band, plus a couple of short films with some interesting content poorly presented. I'd put in the top half of modern Syn albums: if you like the band, this is worth getting.

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