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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Henry Cow

In Praise of Learning

Review by Steve Alspach

Prog rockers of the world, unite! This little trip down memory lane involves Henry Cow, a progressive outfit whose inspiration appeared to be Frank Zappa and Karl Marx. They were originally a band that, like other Canterbury bands Soft Machine or Hatfield and the North, mixed fusion with avant-garde. "In Praise of Learning" is unique not only for its Seriously (with a capital "S") communist bent, but also because it merged Henry Cow with Slapp Happy, an avant-garde trio that featured Dagmar Krause on the thickest German vocals this side of Lotte Lenya. (Couldn't they have then named the band "Cow Slapp"?) The end result was an album that can infuriate or find its mark, but it will not evoke a passive response from the listener.

The personnel for this album was: Chris Cutler, drums and radio; Fred Frith, guitar, violin, xylophone, and piano; John Greaves, bass and piano; Tim Hodgkinson, organ, clarinet, and piano; Dagmar Krause, vocals; Peter Blegvad, guitar, clarinet, and voice; Anthony Moore, piano, electronics and tapework; Lindsay Cooper, bassoon and oboe. Geoff Leigh, soprano sax, mongezi feza, and trumpet, and Phil Becque, oscillator are also featured.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
War
This is a short, crisp piece where Blegvad sings "Tell of the birth / tell how war appeared on earth" and Krause responds with a vocal somewhere between Yoko Ono and Cloris Leachman in "Young Frankenstein." This song has obvious edits, and Cutler plays on the beat or all around it. Even at 2:27 this piece is rather disjointed.
Living in the Heart of the Beast
There is a method somewhere in this sprawling, 15:30 mess. The melody lines are impossibly hard to sing, and there are disjointed instrumental passages, and it's apparent that composer Tim Hodgkinson was influenced by Zappa. Ten minutes in there's some very good playing between Frith and Moore. But it's not until 12:20 that the music forms some sort of cohesion. The lyrics, at this point, become an all-out manifesto, the drums sound a march, and Krause sounds truly defiant in her vocals. It's worth the wait - this coda is almost transcendent.
Beginning: The Long March
This is a free piece that actually manages to find some places of beauty in all the static and noise.
Beautiful as the Moon Terrible as an Army with Banners
Frith plays piano on this song to good effect. The opening is Frith, Krause, Cutler, and Greaves. But again, the melody isn't the easiest to sing along with. The song then goes into an instrumental section with several stop-start points before moving into a free piano movement. It then returns to the chorus.
Morning Star
It's every man (or woman) for him (or her) self in this free piece. Bits of electronic crackling play with varying-speed tapes and cymbal crashes, clarinet noodlings flip between acoustic and electric, and then at the six-minute mark, it all comes to an abrupt end.
Lovers of Gold
Material from "Beginning: The Long March" is used on this song. The first 45 seconds is actually quite interesting with a low drone permeating. Krause sings over a chaotic instrumental track that includes atonal guitar scratches and the, um, music becomes slightly more intense. Short violin stabs turn into long notes, Lindsay Cooper's oboe peeks out and it is another exercise in improvisation with little sense of direction. Then comes a short guitar riff, the sound of birds, and another quick ending.
 
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