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Henry Cow - Legend CD (album) cover

LEGEND

Henry Cow

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

4.11 | 168 ratings

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Trotsky
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars In some ways, the Henry Cow collective is the final frontier of prog. The kind of band that has far more in common with avant-garde jazzers than your "average" symphonic prog rock group, Henry Cow grew out of a group of left-wing Cambridge intellectuals who made music that combined sophisticated jazz-rock with atonal, discordant contemporary classical sensibilities. If you're a Gentle Giant fan who can also take delight in Frank Zappa's and Soft Machine's zaniest moments, then Henry Cow's largely instrumental debut Legend is an absolute must.

The opener Nirvana For Mice is a burst of solid jazz-rock that seems to go nowhere, primarily because of the lack of distinct melodies. In some ways, the least accessible piece on the album and one could almost imagine that it's there to scare off the unadventurous. It's followed by a wonderful Tim Hodgkinson composition, Amygdala. An absolutely stunning work, it is one of my favourite bits of progressive jazz-rock ever. Each of the five players shows remarkable dexterity and creativity, from the delicate flute of Geoff Leigh and Fred Firth's outstanding guitar work (this ultra-talented man makes Robert Fripp and Jan Akkerman look like commercial sell-outs!) to Hodgkinson's sax and the sympathetic, astute rhythm section of John Greaves and Chris Cutler. I can't tell you plays the great jazz piano on this one since four members are credited with playing the instrument in the liner-notes!

The third track Teenbeat Introduction is pure off-the-cuff atonal jazzy improvisation that serves as (you guessed it!) an introduction to Teenbeat. The sort of thing that takes a dozen listens just to figure what each musician is doing, it's one of those pieces that shows you just how special (and difficult!) Henry Cow were. The Frith/Greaves piece Teenbeat that it leads to is a great piece that tends to remind me of early Gentle Giant. Ambient, fast and furious, it's a delight to behold, with Frith turning in some dazzling violin work.

The tempo is then turned down a couple of notches by Nirvana Reprise which is a minute long Frith guitar instrumental that wouldn't disgrace Hackett or Howe. Extract from "With the Yellow Half-Moon and Blue Star" is another typically bizzare Henry Cow tune that rides mainly on Frith's violin, but passes through all kinds of phases during its brief two and a half minute tenure, before seguing into the ferentic, King Crimson-esque Teenbeat Reprise, which is probably the most fiery piece of all here. Firth's aggresive lead guitar is backed all the way by some stunning piano which eventually takes over for one of the album's most ambient sections.

The album closes with two more doses of collective improvisation in The Tenth Chaffinch and Bellycan which are great, but perhaps a little too much considering how heavy the album has already been. Thankfully sandwiched in between is another strong composition from Tim Hodgkinson, Nine Funerals Of The Citizen King. It contains the only lyrics you'll actually hear on the whole album, and unsurprisingly, its melody is closer to Robert Wyatt than anyone else. With strong violin backing and some interestive percussion and flute going on, it's yet another effort that will test the patience of even most proggers, but has somehow wormed its way into my affections over time.

Ultimately, the Henry Cow test is one that every would be progger must face, and I can think of no better place to start with than the visceral Legend. I should mention that the version I have was remixed for CD release in 1990 by Hodgkinson and Frith, and Lindsay Cooper (who actually joined Henry Cow from Comus after Legend was recorded) took the opportunity to record some new basoon parts for Amgydala. Not having heard the original, I wasn't the least affected by this, but some purists may well take offence. ... 84% on the MPV scale

Trotsky | 4/5 |

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