Roman Polanski’s MacBeth is a dark film, even considering the source material. The first movie he made after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, suffered her fate at the hands of the Manson Family, MacBeth is a bloody affair. Polanski’s Scotland is dark, muddy, foggy, rainy, and cold. The film bears the faded look of old Hipgnosis album covers – a bit like Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet that preceded it. But unlike that touching romantic tragedy, Polanski’s MacBeth fully embraced it’s cursed and grisly history. In terms of the story and dialogue, Polanski holds close to Shakespeare. In terms of execution, Polanski’s MacBeth borders on disturbing. The symbolism is paper-thin – from the three witches (wonderfully portrayed here) and their weird rituals (remember Charles Manson’s instructions to the family: “If you’re going to do something, do it well. And leave something witchy”), to the bloody murders throughout…and the most striking of all: MacBeth’s transformation from the clean shaven thane to the bearded king, looking not at all unlike Charles Manson himself, at the time.
The choice of Third Ear Band as composers for the soundtrack of Macbeth was a stroke of genius. An equally inspired choice of soundtrack composer wouldn’t be made again until Clive Barker would choose COIL to compose the soundtrack for the first Hellraiser film. However, COIL was later to be removed from the film as their sounds were considered too disturbing by Hollywood business types. Third Ear Band’s sounds can be equally disturbing, using different instrumentation, but achieving similar results – yet their compositions remain in Polanski’s MacBeth – and it’s a better film for these sounds.
Often relegated to the “progressive rock” genre, Third Ear Band are so much more than that. Somewhere between folk ragas, chamber music, and free jazz played on medieval-sounding acoustic instruments – Third Ear Band’s instrumental excursions are timeless, placeless, yin-yang blends of darkness and light. A combination of musical experimentalism and pleasurable listening that isn’t easily achieved. The band cut its teeth in the 1960’s psychedelic scene of the UK – playing with the biggest names of the time (Pink Floyd, Pretty Things) – and often closing the all-night happenings with their extended improvised jams.
Alchemy (1969), Third Ear Band’s first LP, is a revelation. Laying the groundwork for generations of “world music” artists that would come after, Alchemy introduced their swirling acoustic trances and freeform ragas to everyone who never got the chance to see them live.
A year later they released a self titled LP (also known as Elements) which continued the sounds of Alchemy, further extending and abstracting their music in four long pieces named for each of the elements.
In the same year Elements was released, the band was commissioned to create the soundtrack for an animated film, Abelard and Heloise (These sounds went unreleased for decades until the book/CD set, Necromancers of the Floating West – 1997) – and Abelard and Heloise lead to MacBeth. The band recorded live, to black and white rushes of the film. Forced to watch the gory scenes again and again, the music they turned out is remarkable. Coming, for the most part, in shorter bursts as opposed to the extended dream-ragas of Alchemy and Elements, Music from MacBeth is often dissonant, weird, and creaky. Here Third Ear Band has left us something witchy indeed. Occasionally, swinging into medieval dance, then right back out into improv territory, Music from MacBeth features oboe, recorder, violin, cello, bass, hand-drums, and guitar with VCS3 strangeness added for good measure. Sometimes birdsongs pierce the fog. Sometimes thunder interrupts. Third Ear Band managed to capture the tension and the darkness of the film in sonic form.
And then there’s track 9:
Titled Fleance after the character who sings it, a simple strummed guitar, hand drums, recorder, and strings accompany the first yet Third Ear Band song with vocals: a young boy singing Geoffrey Chaucer’s Rondel of Merciless Beauty. It’s raw; it’s flawed; it’s imperfect; but this single Third Ear Band vocal track takes its place among the finest examples of wyrdfolk / acid-folk ever put to record. A stunning moment of sad beauty before the darkness returns. But like a flower on a coffin, its presence seems to make the rest of the setting darker by contrast.
The rest of the soundtrack follows the film – more improv; more dissonance; the analog synth bubbles like a cauldron in the background, somehow sounding as ancient as the recorders and hand drums here; strings are bowed, scraped, tweaked and twanged, until Great Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill and Wicca Way cuts short.
(aside: the court musicians seen briefly in Polanski’s MacBeth, just happens to be Third Ear Band playing themselves)
Here Polanski and Third Ear Band part ways. The filmmaker to go about his controversial life, and the band to go on, in various forms, making music… while they had moments in their later recordings that approached their early works, something was gone. One wonders if it was bled out during MacBeth. Still, all of the early recordings; Alchemy, Elements, Abelard and Heloise, and Music from MacBeth remain essential listening for fans of acoustic improv, acid folk, and experimental music.
A Third Ear Band discography (probably incomplete):
s/t (Elements), 1970
Music from MacBeth, 1972
Experiences, 1976 (compilation of songs from Alchemy, Elements, and MacBeth)
Live Ghosts, 1989
Magic Music, 1990
New Forecasts from the Third Ear Almanac, cassette 1990
Brain Waves, 1993
Radio Session, 1994
Magic Music, 1997 (different from 1990 Magic Music)
Necromancers of the Drifting West, book + CD (contains the previously unreleased Abelard and Heloise soundtrack)
Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox, 1998
Hymn to the Sphynx, 2001
The Magus, 2004 (originally recorded 1972)
The Lost Broadcasts, DVD 2011 (performances recorded for German television in 1970)