One of the most appealing things for me Henry Cow is how utterly uncategorizable they are. Though regularly lumped in with the Canterbury Scene, it’s basically impossible to compare them to any of those bands, or really any prog rock band. This isn’t prog rock. I sometimes don’t know what it is, but it has little in comm with most progressive rock, except maybe ambition (and some European art music influences).
Much of it sounds vaguely like jazz – European jazz, specifically, which is often divorced from the blues in a way in which most American jazz isn’t. But while it often sounds like jazz, and some of it is indeed improvised, some of it is most definitely not jazz, having a lot more in common with 20th century and avant garde classical music, albeit still performed by something resembling a jazz or rock ensemble. Try to make sense of that. They are very much their own band, which is one reason why I love them.
Another reason is their edge – I think the description above, particularly the mention of “classical” might make this band sound restrained or polite or fey or something. They most definitely are not. Whether it’s through the playing itself or the use of tape effects to distort the playing, there is regularly a sinister edge to the performances. (It helps that this is music influenced by music with an edge, but still.)
I listen to a lot of avant garde music, compared to the average music listener, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard another band that does exactly what Henry Cow does, and certainly nowhere near as well. There’s plenty of technique and boundary-pushing but there is also plenty of stuff that will actually stick with you if you if you give it enough time. And it just sits in this weird space between three genres of music, a space that only a few people had really started to explore in 1974.