|Alex Temple||21-August-2002||In Praise of Learning|
You all know Dagmar Krause's reputation. Room-clearer. Insane. "Mrs. Crazzzzzzy Squirrrrrel," as one rec.music.progressive poster put it. I'd had the Art Bears two-fer CD, Winter Songs / The World as It Is Today, for ages, and I never quite understood why everyone had such violent reactions to her singing. Sure, she gets a bit hysterical on "Rats and Monkeys," but it's nothing too shocking, really. Then I got In Praise of Learning.
There is no doubt in my mind that "War" is the origin of Dagmar's reputation. She's harsh and aggressive, rolling her Rs and exaggerating her vowels, scraping holes in your ear with a stylistic icepick. I love it, of course.
In Praise of Learning is a collaborative effort between Henry Cow and cabaret-rockers Slapp Happy, and "War" could technically be considered a Slapp Happy song, since it was written by Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore. It's hard to imagine that such aggressively "out" music could be created by the same band that gave us "I've Got Evil." But members of Slapp Happy have since said that when they worked with Henry Cow, they tried to tone up the dissonance and experimentation so the music would better suit Cow's musicians. The result is a weird mixture of catchy diatonic melody and the insane vocals described above, as well as creepy laughing noises straight out of the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" and a middle section that switches from noise collage to cheerful jazzy sax playing halfway through. I can't imagine a better integration of such apparently irreconcilable styles.
"War" is followed by the epic "Living in the Heart of the Beast," a massively dense and complex piece by Tim Hodgkinson. This track is as perfect an example of the RIO aesthetic as I can think of, with its angular melodies, subtle motivic development, and violent textural contrasts. The piece abounds with brilliant moments, from the double-tracking of Dagmar's voice in one section to the driving and furious guitar solo in another, from the quiet passages of instrumental interplay scattered throughout to the weirdly funky guitar and drumming under the word "fear" about halfway in. The track concludes with an Art Bears-like call for a proletarian revolution against "capital's kings who reduce [us] to coinage," and this chorus is so stridently powerful as it fades into the distance that it almost makes Marxism seem feasible.
And then, there's side two. After such a breathtakingly excellent pair of tracks, it's not surprising that the second side pales in comparison. "Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible as an Army with Banners," by Chris Cutler and Fred Frith, is sort of a rocked-up early 20th-century German art song, which is pretty good but only gets really impressive during the apparently double-tracked piano solo near the end, where two Friths play slightly out of sync to create a strangely liquid effect which seems to foreshadow Ligeti's Itudes. The other two tracks are highly edited group improvs. While "Beginning: The Long March" is a rather interesting composition of mostly ambient noise, "Morning Star" is too sparse and noodly to hold my interest for more than a couple of minutes.
I should probably mention that the CD I have is labelled
In Praise of Learning (Original Mix). I haven't heard the remixed
version, but I hear that it has a less colorful sound and a forgettable
bonus track, so I'll stick with this version. I recommend that all
prospective buyers do the same.
Henry Cow are more or less the founding band of the mythical RIO scene. Firstly, RIO stands for Rock In Opposition. Allegedly, the name RIO originates from a festival that Henry Cow organized under the name "Rock In Opposition" in London in 1978 for groups that they considered interesting, but were doomed to languish in obscurity. In the aftermath of the festival, a small nucleus of groups more or less operated under the RIO denominator: Henry Cow and Art Bears (UK), Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Etron Fou Leloublan and Art Zoyd (France), Stormy Six (Italy), Univers Zero and Aqsak Maboul (Belgium).
In addition, the term RIO may generate both musical and political associations. Musically, RIO is usually associated with a certain style of music that could include the following elements: an angular, sharp-edged, and complex playing style, a certain interest in improvisation and the integration of classical instruments, i.e. chamber music instruments (such as bassoon, clarinet, violin, oboe), in a rock context. One should see this as a rough, incomplete working definition, as not even the bands mentioned above necessarily make use of all of these elements. Henry Cow does make use of all them all though: They regularly use an angular playing style, classical instruments like oboe and bassoon play an important role, and they often work in an improvisational mode.
On a more political level, the name RIO is often associated with an anti-capitalist, left-wing (or even Marxist-Leninist) political stance. Although this may be true for bands like Henry Cow or Stormy Six, one can not generalize that all RIO (influenced) bands have a strong left wing political agenda. However, it should be noted that the organization of the "Rock in Opposition" festival was most likely led by anti-capitalist, left wing motives.
Henry Cow's first album, Legend, starts with "Nirvana for Mice," which just as well could have been a superb outtake from Burnt Weeny Sandwich by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Great avant-garde rock with a jazzy vibe. The album maintains the high level of the opening track, mostly featuring experimental, instrumental rock with strong musical links to the Canterbury scene and Zappa, but elements of neo-classical and chamber music are present as well. A very good debut.
On their second album, Unrest, the first four tracks (on CD) are "pre-composed," while the others are improvised. The composed tracks include some of their best output. "Half Asleep, Half Awake" is for me the highlight of the album. A very elegant composition which sounds like the perfect symbiosis between Canterbury jazz rock, avant-garde, and chamber music. Magnificent. The 12-minute "Ruins" is in a similar style as "Half Asleep, Half Awake" and excellent as well, but maybe slightly less elegant. Then there is the aptly named "Solemn Music," which is far too short, but very beautiful. The improvised tracks are harder to listen to, despite the fact that arrangements are much sparser. Short bursts of cacophonous noise are followed by quiet sections with slowly meandering saxophone leads, stuttering, mutated electric guitar, vocal experiments, and subtle percussion. And while some of the improvised tracks are interesting, I think that I would have liked the album better if they had included more semi-composed tracks. Comparing Legend to Unrest, I feel that Legend is a slightly more coherent album where the improvised-sounding parts are spread out more evenly over the album, while Unrest is split rather abruptly.
In Praise of Learning and Concerts are more noisy albums
with a fair dose of improvisation. Both have great moments, but as a
whole they didn't hold my interest very well. However, their last album,
Western Culture, is nothing less than a masterpiece. The band seems to
focus more on composition. Furthermore, the classical/chamber music elements
have become more prominent over the Zappa/Canterbury influences that were
dominant on Legend. The album effectively displays in the form of
instrumental music, a cold and mechanized Western society. Under titles like
"Industry," "The Decay of Cities", and "Falling Away", hides the angular,
gloomy, threatening meta-beauty of RIO music. In my opinion, Western
Culture is by far their most mature and coherent work with some
fantastic, frenetic drumming, biting guitar work, and the usual array of
saxophones, clarinets, oboes, etc., which sometimes sound fierce and
aggressive, but mostly they form a more reflective counterpoint to the
distorted guitar playing and the busy drumming. "Western Culture" may be a
difficult listen, but it contains outstanding music.
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