The Incredible String Band went through a very definite evolution over the course of their first three albums. Their eponymous debut (1966) finds a stripped down traditional folk combo occasionally embellished with such accoutrements as violin, mandolin, banjo, or whistle, but mostly staying happy with Mike Heron and Robin Williamson’s acoustic guitars and elfin voices. The droning opener “Maybe Someday” is the only hint of the more international direction the Scots would take on their second album. On The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), ICB employed sitar, finger cymbals, tamboura, gimbri—as well as drums and bass—to enliven another set of concise and tuneful tunes, and the album stands as the most accessible balance of Heron and Williamson’s songwriting and zeal for non-Western instrumentation—the perfect portal into the ICB’s enchanted world. However, it is their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968), that is most often championed as the group’s masterpiece because of its ambition and originality. Epics such as the multi-sectioned “A Very Cellular Song” and the raga “Three Is a Green Crown” now play amongst the compact pieces, yet all follow a mercurial path that may alienate those hoping for more of the good-old knee stompers of ICB LPs past. Hangman’s is a grower that may never actually grow on you, though it certainly isn’t as much of an alienating “masterpiece” as, say, Trout Mask Replica, and songs such as “Koeeaddi There” and “Witch’s Hat” are as magical as ever. “The Minotaur’s Song” really mixes things up with its community light opera company feel. More importantly, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter really opened up the ICB format, allowing the guys to make the ultimate use of their ambitions on the double LP Wee Tam/Big Huge released later in the year.
But let’s not get ahead of Heron and Williamson, because only the first three albums are collected in a newly remastered double-disc set on BGO Records (which actually gave the same treatment to Wee Tam/Big Huge last month). The remastering is fine, natural, and not too loud, as some older BGO remasterings were. Cramming three albums onto two CDs means that one has to get split, but The 5000 Spirits is conscientiously divided between its original Side A and Side B, so it’s not too jarring. There is also a fat booklet with all of the original liner notes (including Heron’s track-by-track notes for the first album) and a new essay by John O’Regan. A nice package could only have been improved with full-color, full-size (well, CD booklet-size) reproductions of the three album’s original artwork… you’ll have to break out your magnifying glass to take in The Fool’s marvelously dated art on the cover of The 5000 Spirits!
Get The Incredible String Band/ The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion/ The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter on Amazon.co.uk here: