My reviews of albums by Henry Cow:
1973: Leg End (9/10)
Is it jazz? What about those pieces that are written out, which don’t resemble jazz?
It is prog rock? What about the clearly improvised pieces?
What is it?
These musicians have found the point at which two forms of avant garde music meet; not content to just improvise, they compose; not content to just write out big prog rock pieces, they spazz out.
To this day I’ve still never heard anything else like it.
And it’s no wonder it took them so long to get a record out; this is music for people who have a high tolerance for the avant garde.
1974: Unrest (9/10)
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 common 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.
Henry Cow albums from 1975:
Desperate Straights (8/10) with Slapp Happy
Slapp Happy is one of those bands I read about a lot and then listened to and was kind of disappointed by. But then I guess I mustered some enthusiasm because my review of another album of theirs is positive. Henry Cow, on the other hand, I used to absolutely love. It’s an odd match, for sure, but I guess it made sense to them at the time.
It actually serves Henry Cow well to work with actual songwriters. Henry Cow’s biggest issue, at least in terms of getting more fans, is a lack of any kind of conventional songs. And though the songs here are hardly conventional, they are much, much more conventional than your average Henry Cow song. Given that Moore didn’t write all these songs it’s remarkable that there is so much consistency in the material, especially given the reputation of Henry Cow in this regard.
I generally prefer Henry Cow, in terms of the music I listen to, but the more I listen to this the more I think I like this compared to Slapp Happy by themselves. Though Moore is a sophisticated composer, he’s also a little too subtle for me. And the addition of madcap ideas from the various members of Henry Cow and the guest musicians from the avant prog/jazz fusion world help out. And for those who find Krause’s voice hard to get used to I’d say that music feels a little more appropriate to her unique voice than the more traditional Slapp Happy stuff.
One nitpick: I’m pretty sure all 7 musicians don’t perform on each song. It’s a silly thing to think about yet, here I am, thinking about it. The title track, for example, has very few instruments on it given that this is supposed to be a collaboration between a trio and a quartet. What were the rest of them doing?
8/10 I guess, for its sheer uniqueness
In Praise of Learning (???) with Slapp Happy
I haven’t listened to their second collaboration.