HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

10 May 2017

Henry Cow (Virgin)

Henry Cow started here! Which means that a lot of other things did too, ultimately; this is the source of a great series of rivers and tributaries, and a whole movement in music called 'Rock in Opposition' which sounds funny now but maybe not so much in these times of socio-political upheaval. But really, Henry Cow were a progressive rock band, simultaneously a shining example of rock music and also far more experimental than most of their British peers. I haven't actually sat down and listened to this one for a long time (which is the whole point of this project), and I must say I've come away more impressed than I remembered being. The individual musicians all have had such storied careers that it's charming to listen to them at their point of origin, but so much is already established. Chris Cutler's style of drumming is unmistakeable - crisp and light, yet driving and confident, and he locks in with John Greaves to drive the compositions forward. Greaves is the most heavily felt, especially on opener 'Nirvana for Mice', and he's the reason this is pulled so heavily in the direction of rock music, I'd say. But he shows he can improvise, too, although there's not much extended technique at play from him compared to the others. Over the weekend, I read David Toop's recent-ish book on improvisation before 1970, which focused mostly on the English scene, so improvisation is on my mind. The improv moments of Henry Cow (I know this is commonly called Legend or Leg End, but those words appear nowhere on the sleeve, spine or labels of my copy) mostly take place on side two, during the middle part where the reprise of 'Teenbeat' segues into 'The Tenth Chaffinch', a collective work which has some utterly dazzling moments. Fred Frith, again starting out here as a plucky young guitar player, can hold down prog riffage as well as skittery, bumpy Derek Bailey-style runs, and I found myself drawn back to the memory of the one time I saw him play live, at a weird session with some Estonian musicians. Frith has this way of tossing off moments that sound like no one else in terms of technique -- not flashy, but expressive, and with a focus on tonality and mood that is lacking from a lot of stick and poke guys. The weirdly, possibly microtonal shifts that open 'Extract From "With The Yellow Half-Moon And Blue Star"' on side two turn into the same kind of thing, like a conventional rock guitarist melted with some distant, hazy lights in the distance on a cool summer night. It's amazing to think how he had this ability to paint on the very first record he ever played on (I think). The whole band sings on 'Nine Funerals of the Citizen King', which I guess is technically the closest these guys get to sounding like Genesis, though the lyrics feel more modern, probing and poetic. It's a great song and one I forget about; generally I wish there were more vocals in Henry Cow, even the truncated glossolalia we get at the end of 'Amygdala'. Somehow this band turned into an institution, but one that kept challenging and reinventing itself; I can only imagine what this must have seemed like in 1973, especially coming during that time when British music was started to harden and become somewhat immobile. Compared to Egg or Hatfield and the North, this is madness, but like many enduring records (for example This Heat's Deceit, or Animal Collective's Sung Tongs) it manages to be from a scene/style but totally singular, kicking the ass of everything around it (non-aggressively!) with a purity of vision and purpose. And I write this as someone who even gets bored a little bit during this record! But there's more to come, so much more to come....

No comments:

Post a Comment