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Class ?

Main Category: Avantgarde
Also applicable: Jazz Rock, Prog Rock
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Henry Cow fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Henry Cow fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1973
Overall rating = 8

A record that revels in unlistenability... but it ain't even "ugly", it's just boring.

Best song: I. Don't. Know.

Track listing: 1) Nirvana For Mice; 2) Amygdala; 3) Teenbeat Introduction; 4) Teenbeat; 5) Nirvana Reprise; 6) Extract From "With The Yellow Half-Moon And Blue Star"; 7) Teenbeat Reprise; 8) The Tenth Chaffinch; 9) Nine Funerals Of The Citizen King; 10) Bellycan.

So the dark and perilous road ended up leading me into the dreary depths of the Canterbury scene... I actually bought a couple of Henry Cow albums, you know. Ever heard of Henry Cow? They heralded the RIO ("rock in opposition") movement that was famous for making some of the most inaccessible music ever. Not 'noise' or anything like that - Throbbing Gristle they're not - but real music completely devoid of melody/emotion/sense of purpose whatsoever. Sounds fun to you? Sounds just like the kind of stuff I'd be so happy to bash! And I won't disappoint you on that one. Well, not exactly.

Henry Cow actually kicked around for about five years (the band was formed as early as 1968, back in the early days when the entire Canterbury scene was just forming) before getting a record contract, and Legend was their debut, which means that the only way they can be represented on this record is in the guise of wisened, ace professionals who may not seem to be knowing what it is they're doing but who actually do know it to a tee. One thing I could never accuse these guys of is lack of dexterity. They usually play as a tight (aka competent, because in reality, they are very loose), monolithic (aka synchronous, because in reality, they just fall apart all the time), unpretentious (aka quiet, because in reality, this is an extremely pompous and self-indulgent recording) unit, and the players almost never get to shine with solo spots, but you can tell that they're all competent and could give enough competition to the all-time greats if they wanted to. Chris Cutler, in particular, is a magnificent free-form jazz drummer whose playing is by far the most energetic and inspiring on the entire album. Fred Frith certainly can play some mean guitar when he wants to; Geoff Leigh blows off the roof with his sax; Tim Hodgkinson's organs and pianos are flying all over the place; and bassist John Greaves is quite fluent as well. No problems whatsoever in this department.

The problem is - what the hell are these guys actually doing? I certainly can see how some people would love an album like this - since it's inaccessible, it must be good, even great. But personally, I would like to draw a line between interesting inaccessible music and uninteresting one. Mind you, I'm not even talking emotional/unemotional or catchy/uncatchy here. Over the years, lots of bands have written music that's hard to access if you don't have a specially trained ear. Henry Cow are most often compared to either their Canterbury colleagues, Gong, or Gentle Giant, as far as complexity goes. But the music of Gong and Gentle Giant has always, or almost always, been interesting - yes, quite often these bands trigger various emotional states or just write complex melodies that turn out to be strong and memorable once the 'weirdness wears off', BUT sometimes even those two factors don't work, and still, there's always something to hold your attention - some cool atmospheric trick, some weird instrumental move, something.

Legend has nothing of that, apart from the cool pun in the title, mayhaps. Oh sure, repeated listens do bring out a certain lightweight charm to some of the pieces. Thus, after a certain period of introspection and recognition I now find the first part of 'Amygdala' to be moody and even 'place-taking' to a certain extent, what with the lush organ background and the gentle guitar plucking and bassoon fiddling all contributing to a romantic medieval feeling. I am also a wee bit partial to 'Teenbeat Reprise', where Fred Frith plays a distorted guitar solo that somewhat stands out against the general dissonant background and plays the part of a straw you can clutch. And, of course, there's 'Nine Funerals Of The Citizen King', which is unique if only because it's the only track with vocals on the album - I suppose if most of the tracks had vocals, it'd be a simple bit of filler, but here, it's almost a highlight. Plus, there are bits, teensy weensy bits and pieces that are fun. The dissonant brass introduction to 'Teenbeat Introduction', for instance (introduction to an introduction? Holy cow, that's Henry Cow!). It's kinda funny.

Otherwise, it's just dissonant, highly professional, monotonous, ultra-complex jazzy/avantgarde noodling. No emotional resonance; no catchy melodies, heck, no melodies at all; nothing particularly interesting - if you've heard the first two tracks, the rest of the record turns out to be pretty predictable. I perfectly understand that that was the point: Legend is a record of details and nuances, an album that is supposed to be listened to with the utmost care. Even when it seems that the band is just falling apart, they're not - like on a Trout Mask Replica of sorts, all, or most, of these parts, aren't improvised at all. But what's the sense of it? Just to force yourself to listen to the album a hundred times and then proudly proclaim, 'Hey, I'm an expert - you haven't listened to Henry Cow properly, but I have, and this record is deeper than it seems! You know what? They are actually repeating a complex theme throughout 'Teenbeat'!!' Well, if it takes more than a dozen listen to figure out that they're repeating a complex theme and leave it at that without pointing out why these guys feel the need to repeat a complex theme throughout that only becomes obvious after more than a dozen listens, all I can say is this album sucks.

Which it certainly does. It's sometimes called Henry Cow's most accessible record, but I beg to differ. It's only 'accessible' as much as it is slightly less 'adventurous' than any of their other albums. For me, an 'accessible' album is the one that lets you inside it - lets you understand the meaning and message of all the songs. As far as I understand, this album has no meaning or message whatsoever, so how can it be 'accessible'? For my money, some of the subsequent Henry Cow albums are much better.



Year Of Release: 1975
Overall rating = 10

Bringing Teutonic flavour and political rhetorics inside the package can really help, you know?

Best song: WAR

Track listing: 1) War; 2) Living In The Heart Of The Beast; 3) Beginning - The Long March; 4) Beautiful As The Moon - Terrible As An Army With Banners; 5) Morning Star.

Like this one, for instance. Actually, this was Henry Cow's second collaboration with members of a slightly similar RIO band, Slapp Happy, and the result is way, way more listenable than Legend, if not necessarily more 'likeable'. By 1975, the band had very much veered off towards leftism - partly inspired by the philosophy of Slapp Happy lead vocalist Dagmar Krause, partly, well, I guess, because it was a rather cool thing for them to do. But leftism or no leftism, this inspiration mainly shows through in Krause's lyrics, most of which are unintelligible anyway; the main aspect of the album is the performance itself.

The five songs on here are sometimes divided into the "pure Henry Cow" section and the "Slapp Happy-drenched" section. The first one, predictably, is dang near unlistenable. It consists of two sprawling atonal jams and nothing else; there's nothing even slightly melodic about this kind of music. Not that I really understand what it is I prefer to hear: boring jazzy noodlings or messy atonal ramblings, but at least the boring jazzy noodlings can make up for some barely tolerable music for the background. 'Beginning: The Long March' and 'Morning Star' certainly cannot. The former, if it is even supposed to give an impression, reminds me of an old rusty submarine being dragged through a large chunk of debris at the bottom of the ocean. None of the noises that the band is making seem to be predictable, but somehow, they all are. Percussion hooliganry, synthesizer execution, white noise, dissonant horn blasts... you know, all the usual stuff that you're supposed to play when you're bored of the 'traditional' approach to harmony. 'Morning Star' is even worse - it's not so much of a noisefest as a further deconstruction of a boring jazz noodling. I mean, tired of having to choose between boring jazz noodling and sprawling atonal jamming? We give you both packaged as one! Isn't that groovy? Isn't that enough to make you rush out and buy the album?

Well, I'm not happy at all that I bought it, but if anything can give me consolation, it's the remaining three tracks. These are very much dominated by Dagmar Krause - although, of course, if you're alergic to untrivial types of singing and/or trhink that Nico was a no-talent, you'd better buy this record for 'Morning Star'. Dagmar sings in the most 'unlikeable' voice I've ever witnessed from a female singer on a rock album. She howls and screams, sometimes actually sounding quite lovely (a bit similar to Renate Knaupp from Amon Düül II), but more often coming across as a pissed-off old German hag. Well, that's all right by me; German cabaret style and Kurt Weilesque influences is not exactly my cup of tea, but at least I can understand that.

In that respect, the opening track, 'War', might just be one of the best numbers to ever come out of the band - a powerful pseudo-Germanic anthem with catchy (imagine that! Catchy!) vocal melodies, creepy Satanic laughter, a short and moderate chaotic mid-section, and Dagmar at her weirdest. All of this packed within a bare two and a half minutes, a perfect introduction to the album which immediately predisposed me towards it, and not even something as abysmal as 'Morning Star' could detract me from that feeling.

The other two Dagmar-sung numbers aren't as consistent as 'War' simply because they're several times as long. The only other track on the first side is the epic 'Living In The Heart Of The Beast', which I personally prefer to interpret as an operatic composition rather than just something chaotic and pointless. It has its ups and downs - some instrumental sections that are classic senseless Henry Cow, but most of the vocal sections are well worth a listen or two... or twenty-two, actually, because the vocal melodies only become engaging after you've been subjected to them so many times they become familiar. No, it's certainly not a great track, but it's quite listenable. Peter Blegvad plays some blistering electric guitar on it, too, and while I couldn't define Dagmar's vocal melodies as really truly memorable, I'm not sure I could do the same with 99% of opera arias I've heard in my life. The good news is: she's singing real melodies, and she doesn't do that in an off-putting way. Ah! If only I understood more of those lyrics... then again, given the lady's communist sympathies, maybe I just don't wanna know.

The third, and the most "grandiose", of the worthwhile tunes on here, is 'Beautiful As The Moon - Terrible As An Army With Banners'. There are some Gothic influences here, in the overwhelming minor tonalities of the song, and the way it alternates between these grand piano-based anthemic parts and quieter piano-based introspective parts, is quite beautiful. Perhaps the result is nowhere near as 'uncompromised' as Henry Cow would have liked it to be, but guess what? That makes me happy. Boy, do I like a band like Henry Cow for all the wrong reasons.

Anyway, don't get me wrong: this is not a sellout or a 'mainstreamisation' of any sort, and if you happen to be a Henry Cow and RIO freak and Legend is in your Top 10 albums of all time, be sure to grab this one as well. I predict, though, that not all Henry Cow fanatics will be able to tolerate Ms Krause, and even more so for the non-fanatics. But you really should get over all those stupid anti-German biases, people. The war is over, remember? :)


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