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

IN PRAISE OF LEARNING

Henry Cow

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

3.91 | 119 ratings

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AtomicCrimsonRush
Special Collaborator
Symphonic Team
3 stars Out of the box.

Here it is in all its Rock in Opposition glory - tread careful dear listeners and question what is music? 'War' begins the journey with some absolutely insane time sigs and free form jazz sax over the strong off beat. The tuneless female vocals of Dagmar Krause are perhaps the most challenging aspect and really will take some getting used to for certain listeners. It is unlike anything you will hear but is kind of similar to the experimental side of Bjork. Krause's emotions are charged sounding like someone spat in her socks. But this is the best song on the album.

It is a short song so we soon roll onto the epic 15 minute sonic noise of 'Living In The Heart of the Beast' and nothing prepares the listener for this excursion into avant hyper weirdness. More odd metrical sigs are augmented by distorted fuzzed guitar and then it stops and Chris Cutler's piano in solitude is heard. Dagmar Krause is the vocalist and she is the queen of dissonance. She even has multi tracks on her vocals at one point. The sound is a beserk Magma sound, and then very atonal anti-jazz woodwind dominates with Lindsay Cooper's beserk bassoon and Geoff Leigh's triumphant trumpets. The xylophone of Fred Frith is peculiar but is a trademark Henry Cow effect. Several instruments join together and play their own tune and then are suddenly amalgamated with 4 strong blasts. The percussion of Cutler is incredible with off sync explosions and weird cymbals tishes. Peter Blegvad's clarinet is changing melodies constantly, John Greaves' bass keeps an odd rhythm that interplays with the trumpets of Cutler and then a violin takes over played beautifully by Frith. The strange competing of musicians and ferocity of time sig changes is frightening. It is certainly one of the most astonishing pieces of avant-garde music bringing to mind the madness of Frank Zappa meets The Residents at it's most experimental.

Henry Cow's lyrical content is focused on Marxist ideologies and revolutionary idealism. The previous song is actually a call to arms against Marxist capitalism and is intended to spur on the communist party to power. The band were revolutionaries themselves with their peculiar approach to music. This album was part of a long term collaboration with Slapp Happy and is as far removed from the Canterbury influences in their first albums as one could get. It embraces the 'steaming cess pool of human conformity' as far as Marxism is concerned, and attempts to recreate music structures and forms. In this case it is a very complex and difficult album to enjoy by many listeners. The left wing politics and communism is a strong point of the lyrics and will turn some off.

The high emphasis on creativity and recreating new musical ideas is a compelling component of the sound. This is continued with 'Beginning: The Long March' with a ferocious oboe and sonic rhythm in the intro. A crash down of percussion and piano and other angry instruments heralds the new soundscape which is a disjointed fractured musical outburst of cacophonic dissonance. This continues with sporadic musicality and odd bursts of musical instruments with out any time sig, without any melody or any semblance of harmony. It drones and groans as a serrated violin trys to take over, but low piano crashes in. A metronome knocking is heard and broken guitar splashes. The sax and horn blasts sound like cars speeding on a motorway. Now we are really into unchartered waters as the sound gains in intensity, no sig or melody still but an unnerving disturbia of disharmonious drone.

The discordance of this is now put into striking contrast with the next song, where vocals return on 'Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible as an Army With Banners'. The sig is splintered still but this has more resonance with a listener who may have been turned away by some of the previous RIO. The bass and drums are in sync yet the metric is decidedly acrimonious, especially with the rather pleasant vocals for a change. It is easy to listen to after a while as the ears are attuned to the oddness of it all. The sig actually begins at last and gains speed with guitar flourishes. The piano begins an out of melody improvisation as the percussion and bass pound. Then another piano tinkers along and all the other instruments fade out. The off tune twin piano solo becomes quite unsettling sounding as though it is falling down a flight of stairs, and then a loud blast of vocals and guitars come in like a train wreck and ends it. Are we having fun yet?

'Morning Star' based on the UK's Communist paper, is a saxophone with percussion hybrid and the non-cohesiveness of the sound is jarring. More very weird sounds on instruments continue but the percussion is extreme improvised jazz on 'Lovers of Gold'. The members sound as though they are all playing their own tune but it somehow fits in a discordant way. Perhaps reminiscent of King Crimson's 'Providence' or their other improv jam sessions. Krause sings again as the drones become ominous. She has a melodic voice but the music is disjointed. At this point one may be ready for anything with a beat or signature, it is very discomforting.

This album is not for the faint hearted as at times the unmusicality is too much for the ears to bear. It is refreshing to hear after listening to the mediocrity poured out on the radio. The band could be viewed as revolutionary pioneers and would definitely have made many artists and listeners sit up and take notice. I am not sure how many times one could sit through this but it will cause one to ponder on what makes music 'music'. In fact it can be argued that the album is a protest against conformity of musical structures or virtuosity. Is Henry Cow a genius band of artists or just a bunch of improvising rejects kicked out of the conservatorium? There is no disputing the artists are incredibly talented and deserve attention. In any case this is as original and as unconventional as it gets, perhaps even unsurpassed in terms of the influence on the avant-prog scene.

AtomicCrimsonRush | 3/5 |

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