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Syrinx: The Synth Pioneers Who Were Ahead of Their Time

On October 14, 2016

by Andy O'Connor


Photo by Bart Schoales

John Mills-Cockell has spent the past few decades composing operas and orchestral pieces, having shied away from live performance some time ago. He’s a rambly but humble guy, wistful about the past but hopeful of the future. Unknown to most, in the 1970s, he was way ahead of the curve in mixing synthesizers with rock music in Syrinx, a short-lived Toronto trio and his most known work, way before that was in vogue. A guy like him has a reason to be arrogant, having struck on an important concept that took a while for folks to catch up with, but he isn’t.

Synths in rock are far from unheard of now — take their fellow countrymen Rush for instance, who gained commercial success once Geddy Lee incorporated keyboards into the mix, or how many post-punkers today bite New Order, or how a metal’s label most recent success story is an all-synth band that did music for Stranger Things (that would be Relapse and S U R V I V E). Tumblers from the Vault, released today through RVNG Intl., collects all of Syrinx’s recorded work, and whether you’re a fusion fan looking beyond Miles and Herbie, Krautrock enthusiast, a Canadian prog head, or simply someone interested in the intersection of electronic and rock, this set is a must. While they were only active for a short time — the material is from 1970-72 — it was a whirlwind.

While Syrinx were accomplished musicians before coming together, they were also exploring new territories together, and their recorded output is all over the place. Vault doesn’t stick to one mode, and that’s the main fun of it. “Hollywood Dream Trip” is total noir, with a smokiness that Raymond Chandler would kill for. It and the track that follows, “Father of Light,” have piano not unlike that of Brian Eno’s collaborations with Robert Fripp and Harold Budd. Prog even makes an appearance with “Chant For Your Dragon King,” which is as medieval as it sounds.

Mills-Cockell was the backbone of the group, and he had musicians willing to take the plunge with him. Doug Pringle, a key member of the trio who played saxophone, came from the free jazz scene, and even for him, this was some really uncharted territory he almost wasn’t ready for. It’s kind of hard to tell that there’s sax on here, because he attached processors to them that altered his sound, but his unhinged playing gave the music a slight chaos it needed.

“I had to say to him, ‘Doug, I want you to learn the melody that I wrote for these songs.’ And he’s like ‘Do I have to?” Mills-Cockell said, cracking up while doing so “He has a beautiful way of playing and he would take the melodies I composed and extrapolate on them.”

Alan Wells, who provided percussion, was also thrown in for a loop, though Mills-Cockell thought he adapted quickly.

“He was playing with these synthesizer sequence tracks, he wasn’t in control of the tempo all the time, but he did an amazing job, I can’t imagine Syrinx without that drumbeat,” he said.

For as disparate as the two albums are, and how the albums are within themselves, what brings it all together is an ethos of simplicity. There’s a pop mastery beneath the experimentation — had some vocals been laid down, they might have been even bigger. “December Angel” has all the makings of a ‘70s ballad, with its somber tone and goopy strings. “Tillicum” was on a Canadian television documentary show, Here Come The Seventies, which catapulted them to some level of fame in their home country. And if you’re looking for boogie rock without the guitars, “Better Deaf And Dumb From The First” and “Aurora Spinray” both squiggle like a more minimalist Funkadelic.

“Because of the synthesizer sound, it still sounded new and fresh, and I think that was kind of my theory on synthesizer composition is you gotta keep it simple because the sounds are so rich, I found even playing a major triad was a challenge to my ears. It’s all the harmonics jangled in a way different than with conventional instruments. That’s still true for me, I’m fascinated with those sounds,” he said.

Mills-Cockell came from an academic background, having studied music at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and was instrumental in establishing an electronics course there. His fascination with electronic music came at age 15 at a classical concert in London, England, which ended with what was supposed to be a recording of a Karlheinz Stockhausen piece, but instead Hugh Le Caine’s “Dripsody.” One course he taught at RC attracted Wells, and he stressed that the people who came to his courses were not from academia. Syrinx was not a rebellion against his past, it was just a logical conclusion of his experience with academia plus his tenure in more rock oriented groups.

“Did I ever say I want to do music that is clearly melodic and not ‘experimental?’ Probably not. It was just really where my heart took me,” he said.

Toronto’s experimental scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s made for some strange alliances and even stranger cameos, which the band relished in. Mills-Cockell once ended a gig with his former band before Syrinx, Innersystems, to go see John Cage and Marcel Duchamp play chess. Following their local success, ballet companies were asking them for music to use in their performances. It was a time of wild creative exchanges, but with generosity to match. Syrinx were set to record Long Lost Relatives, their second album, when the studio with their tapes and equipment, Magic Tracks, burned down. We’ve heard too many stories about bands getting their gear stolen, and usually they’ll put up a GoFundMe or the like for fans to help out. An agonizing feeling, and a familiar one at that. It’s amazing that this support mentality existed all the way back in the '70s.

“Before we knew it, all these people who were our artistic supporters put on a benefit for us. Probably 100 musicians played, it went on for 24 hours, it was an amazing event. We raised five or six thousand bucks, which a lot in those days,” he said.


Photo by Bart Schoales

If you need any proof that they were ahead of their time, Mills-Cockell ran into a like-minded, but much more famous, contemporary, while buying new equipment following the fire.

“We’re in Manny’s Music Store, which was the place to go then…I pretty much decided what I wanted to get was an ARP 2500 and there’s Pete Townshend. He’s looking at the same instrument. In the same store, we both bought the same synthesizer,” he said, “So here I am back in Toronto, we newly installed our new gear into our rehearsal studio, and I turn on the radio one day driving down the street and I hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again;” it’s got that really famous synthesizer hook. I was like ‘Right. Holy shit.’ That was within 2-3 months of when we bought the 2500 at Manny’s. It was one of those amazing coincidences and the fact I could hear it on the airwaves so quickly afterwards really impressed me with how impressive Townshend really was.”

Aside from that, he only came around to Krautrock and other bands at the time mixing synthesizers with rock after the fact. He doesn’t mind that though. In fact, it’s sort of a pre-internet relic that all these bands, Syrinx included, came to a similar point without knowing each other. Experimentation was rich in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that even provides an interesting footnote for one of rock’s most notorious concerts.

“It was the spirit of the time — by the time Altamont concert happened, we had our Moog synthesizer for three years, and Moog had a kiosk at the festival selling synthesizers, so it had gone a long way very quickly.”

And since then, electronic and rock’s paths have grown more tangled and more bountiful.

Syrinx's Tumblers from the Vault will be in the Vinyl Me, Please store that opens on October 17. Don't miss out on this album. 


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