In 1967, Joe Boyd had signed the Incredible String Band, who were then down to Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, and Licorice McKechnie, to Elektra. The 5000 Spirits or Layers of the Onion had been crafted in a cottage in Glasgow, but Boyd wanted a proper recording studio to get it on tape. He chose engineer John Wood's Chelsea studio for the sessions. Recorded on a four-track machine, Boyd and Wood proceeded to capture the very best of the dozens of songs Williamson and Heron brought in. Influenced heavily by the era -- this was the summer of love, after all -- and North African music due to Williamson’s recent trip to Morocco, the set is one of the most ambitious albums in the band’s catalog. The trio were also accompanied by Danny Thompson on bass on seven tracks, as well as Nazir Jarazbhoy on sitar. The standout tracks include “First Girl I Loved” (later covered by Judy Collins and Jackson Browne), and the cosmic folk-blues “The Mad Hatter’s Song.” On this set, British folk often comes up against against Williamson’s fascination with Middle Eastern sounds -- check the bowed gimbri hovering and flitting about the acoustic guitar on “Chinese White,” and the hand drums underscoring the acoustic slide guitar on “The Hedgehog Song.” Thompson’s bass and Williamson’s harmonica are the only elements that keep “Blues for the Muse” on the ground -- barely a blues at all because of the way it pushes the 12-bar envelope. The brief “My Name Is Death” begins as a one-chord drone before it moves back to a more formally constructed 18th century traditional song. The meld of all ISB’s influences are heard on “Gently Tender,” a beautiful if somewhat anarchic tune where flutes, acoustic blues, hand drums, bass, gimbri, and sitar are all employed. This set stands as one of the true masterpieces in the group's catalog.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek