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Henry Cow - The Road: Volumes 1-5 (40th Anniversary Box Set) CD (album) cover


Henry Cow



4.66 | 29 ratings

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5 stars After the breakup of Henry Cow in 1978, the musicians went their own way. The same year, Chris Cutler, the band's drummer and its most politically-involved member, founded an independent record label, Recommended Records. At the break of the new century, Cutler mentioned at one point that he was planning a compilation of Cow's previously unreleased live recordings, which resulted in numerous rumors around the internet. Several years later, in 2009, Recommended Records released the long-awaited 40th Anniversary Box Set. The Road: Volumes 1-5 is the first part of the set.

For a band with a musical vision as inventive and complex as that of Henry Cow, the recording studio was without a doubt the most comfortable environment, opening a new plethora of technical possibilities, such as overdubbing, pre-recorded tape effects, and electronic sounds. And yet, as opposed to many bands whose style relies heavily on studio equipment, Henry Cow display an incredibly high amount of confidence and knowhow in a live situation.

Disc 1, entitled Beginnings, comprises recordings from the LegEnd period, with Geoff Leigh still a full-time member of the quintet. The overall style presented on this album could really be classified as the Canterbury sound. It opens with "Pre-Teenbeat", a composition in two parts, and is followed by two vocal pieces, which had never been released on any album. These flaunt the influence of bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan or even Matching Mole, with fuzz organ very much in the vein of Mike Ratledge, Dave Sinclair or Dave Stewart. Next come the pieces from Henry Cow's debut album. Tim Hodgkinson's composition "Amygdala Extract" and Fred Frith's "Teenbeat" perfectly showcase the group's well-rehearsed sound characterized by near-flawless musicianship and equal input from all of the members. They are not exactly the same tracks as those on the original album, but they employ the main themes and ideas of the source pieces. "Teenbeat" features Dave Stewart, the keyboardist of Egg and Hatfield and the North, who provides light celeste touches and participates in a conversation in the background. The live-cut version of "Citizen King" is astonishingly similar to the studio version and is followed by "Nirvana For Moles" (originally released as "Nirvana For Mice"). The full version of "With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star", for which we have got the taste on LegEnd, is divided into eight movements. One is likely to detect the familiar melodies and passages from the studio album. "With the Yellow Half Moon and Blue Star" is probably my favorite piece out of the whole box set with its truly magical, inexplicable uniqueness. The disc closes with the three-part "Guider Tells of Silent Airborne Machine". A title of every part appears to be a name and a surname. This is by far the most experimental track on the album, pointing the way towards the band's future style.

Disc 2 comes from the Unrest era, with Lindsay Cooper onboard. Geoff Leigh left the group during their tour of the Netherlands as he could not stand the tension in the band and was unable to keep up with the touring schedule. "Introduction", with a dark, Stravinsky-like feel, quickly transforms into a contrastingly bright piece "Ruins I". As one goes on listening, one is likely to discover that the sudden yet natural changes in pace and mood are very common. The following track, "Half Asleep, Half Awake", composed by John Greaves, is built around a catchy motif. The "Ruins" theme returns in "Ruins II", quickly resolving into "Heron Shower Over Hamburg" (originally released as "Bittern Storm Over Ulm"). This track showcases Fred Frith's signature improvisational style, relying on his distinctive fuzz guitar sound. "Halsteren", which was recorded in Halsteren in the Netherlands (naming a live-cut piece after the city it was recorded in is common practice), uses the opening passage of "Living in the Heart of the Beast". Putting them in different musical landscapes really shows its modal ambiguity. "Halsteren" is divided into seventeen segments, such as "Extension", "First Suspension" or "Solo Extension". The rest of the disc is occupied by Henry Cow's 13-minute political statement "Living in the Heart of the Beast", with the line-up featuring vocalist Dagmar Krause. Robert Wyatt, the Canterbury scene pioneer and mastermind, provides his unique vocals for this piece. The recording quality on this one is slightly less perfect than on the previous tracks, but is nonetheless true to the impressive studio version.

Disc 3 was recorded in Hamburg. Once again, the band name some of their tracks by transforming recognizable phrases (for instance, "Nirvana For Rabbits" instead of "Nirvana For Mice"). They feel incredibly comfortable in the odd time signatures. "Ottawa Song", "Twilight Bridge", and "Gloria Gloom" are Robert Wyatt's compositions (the last one comes from Matching Mole's politically-charged Little Red Record). These are less reliant on improvisation and are kept in a more "popular" song convention. "Hamburg" is an ambient piece divided into five parts with "Red Noise 10" in between them. Next, the theme of "Beautiful As The Moon" comes back, followed by "A Heart". Robert Wyatt's input comes back with "Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road", which comes from his memorable solo album Rock Bottom. The disc is closed by a loud jam on Soft Machine's 1968 hit "We Did It Again", with Wyatt singing.

Discs 4 and 5 are almost entirely occupied by a lengthy ambient improvisation "Trondheim". The piece might appear as aimless noodlings, but an experienced listener will discover that it goes far beyond that. It should really be regarded as a thought-provoking provocation. Its single-layered flatness and sterility expressed by improvised dissonant parts plays an important psychological role. Even an accurate description of every single note on "Trondheim" will not properly carry the musical metaphor. The subjective meaning of time plays a crucial role here. Towards the end, it becomes a little more ariose. The box is closed by "March", which brings in a repetative melodic sequence.

The Road: Volumes 1-5 presents numerous different periods of Henry Cow's existence; from atonal ambient workouts to fast-paced jazz-rock jams to mellow, melodic, Canterbury-style pieces. Henry Cow was without a doubt a unique band and despite its dynamic, ever-changing style, two elements remained the same: excellent musicianship and incredibly clever musical detailing. Each listen to any of their works reveals many new factors and qualities. This box set is not only a very important historical document, but also an exceedingly addictive listening experience.

ALotOfBottle | 5/5 |


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