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16 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Western Culture' (Interzone)

This is the record for which the 'Thatcher anticipation' tag on the sidebar was invented, the swan song of Henry Cow, reduced here to a four-piece instrumental band and performing two side-long compositions, or song suites I guess. Not only is John Greaves gone, but so is the sock; Cutler's cut-out art (there's some nice alliteration) is actually really appropriate and nicely composed, just like the record itself. 'History and Prospects' is written by original member Tim Hodgkinson, and is one of the more genre-bending Cow compositions, though it's not exactly hip-hop or country music. Its opening piece, 'Industry', references the then-burgeoning industrial music scene, or maybe they weren't aware of that and it's just inspired by proletariat Marxism (or, perhaps by both); either way it's hot shit, with Frith playing a thick, almost dubby bassline between some modal reeds and a thick groove-beat. There's some electroacoustic work here, tapes and other noise, which make a few crashing percussive parts sound like Neubauten. Overall it's one of my favourite Henry Cow tracks, one which seems to look the furthest ahead not just in terms of electronic integration but towards Frith's later work in New York, in the 80s. 'The Decay of Cities' comes next, a bit more textbook perhaps, but that textbook is about labour statistics and urbanism, and it punches above its weight. Difficult music, maybe, but it's spacious and it's still recognisable as modern instrumental rock music, with the free/drone/noise parts used more like icing on a cake. Cooper's 'Day by Day', on the flip, is a little more conventional prog-Cow, or at least more fitting in the continuum of their Virgin-era records. I know now that Western Culture was their Abbey Road, recorded with it intending to be the end, so I can hear resignation in the heavy, ponderous rhythms and the probing, unresolved oboe/sax lines. But I can also hear connections to some of their past and future collaborators, showing them to be a band in the truest meaning of the word 'progressive'. It could be the acoustic guitar plucks here and there, sounding not unlike Derek Bailey, but also the spazzy bits of 'The Decay of Cities' which show the influence of the Residents and Ralph Records - a turn towards surrealist sound, perhaps another way that I see Western Culture more like a beautiful beginning (or collection of beginnings) than a somber ending.

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