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Henry Cow - In Praise Of Learning CD (album) cover

IN PRAISE OF LEARNING

Henry Cow

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

3.91 | 118 ratings

From Progarchives.com, the ultimate progressive rock music website

Syzygy
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Henry Cow's politics were as radical as their music, and this was never more explicit than on this, the second album to emerge from the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy merger, and the third 'proper' Henry Cow album (Desperate Straights was a Slapp Happy album with Henry Cow, IPOL is Henry Cow with Slapp Happy. Clear?). The trademark chainmail sock was deep red, and the cover was adorned with a quote from the left wing film maker John Grierson - 'Art is not a mirror, it is a hammer'. The titles of the two instrumentals also explicitly refer to the band's left wing politics; Beginning: The Long March is a reference to the Chinese Revolution, while Morning Star is the name of the daily paper published by the Communist Party of Great Britain.

And what of the music? The album opens with War, a Slapp Happy song alluded to in the lyrics of A Worm Is At Work from Desperate Straights. Where Peter Blegvad's lyrics had previously tended towards the whimsical, here he goes straight for the jugular and Dagmar spits them out with suitable venom - 'Stacking the bones on the empty aerodrome', 'Shaking her gory locks over the deserted docks' and 'Violence completes the partial mind'. The whole thing is over in less than three fast and furious minutes. This leads into the album's centrepiece, Tim Hodgkinson's remarkable Living In The Heart Of The Beast, a 15 minute call to arms set to complex and compelling music that comes from the same dark, haunted place as Magma or King Crimson circa Lark's Tongues/Starless. Fred Frith plays lead guitar over a desolate soundscape while Dagmar intones doom laden lyrics. The interplay between Frith's guitar and Dagmar's voice in the first half of this composition is remarkable. After painting a picture of bleak desperation, the second half of the piece is rhythmic and focussed and the lyrics offer a way out - 'Dare to take sides in the conflict that is common cause/Let us all be as strong and as resolute...' . It says a lot about Henry Cow's abilities as composers and performers that a revolutionary manifesto sung over complex music is also catchy and even hummable in places. The rhythm gradually speeds up as the piece draws to a conclusion, propelled by a wonderful bubbling and melodic bassline from John Greaves. This brought side 1 of the vinyl original to a close.

The second half of the album opened with Beginning: The Long March, a studio improvisation/sound collage of the type that Henry Cow included on the second half of Unrest. This is uneasy listening even by the standards of this album, but there is some angular, spiky beauty to be found if you presevere with it. The centrepiece of side 2 is Beautiful as the Moon, Terrible as an Army With Banners, written by Cutler (words) and Frith (music). In a sense, this is the first Art Bears song and is also the most accessible track on the album. The arangement is simple and uncluttered, with Dagmar singing over a piano/drums accompinament with only the most subtle of embellishments. Cutler's drumming is economical and restrained but as restless and complex as ever, and this may be his finest moment on a Henry Cow studio album. The album closed with another dense improvisation, Morning Star, in a similar vein to Beginning:The Long March, again not for the faint hearted but worth grappling with.

Among their contemporaries, only Matching Mole ever released an album as explicitly political as this with 'Little Red Record'. Whether you agree with their politics or not, music as passionate and committed as this is all too rare, and in the prog field it is almost unprecedented. Listen and be amazed.

Syzygy | 4/5 |

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