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Whereas most "progressive" bands of the 1970s seemed to progress in the direction of ever-increasing virtuosity, in a manner not unlike the snake that consumed its tail and simply carried on, the members of Henry Cow were far stricter adherents to a truly progressive ideology. In the case of this live two-disc setoriginally released in 1976 and recently reissued in expanded, remastered formtheir approaches make for a body of music that serves as an overview of just how much ground the band actually covered during its golden age. The fact that these musicians did so without becoming paid-up members of some technocratic elite is to their resounding credit.
This is well indicated by "Off The Map, "Café Royal and "Keeping Warm In Winter/Sweet Heart Of Mine, played as one continuous piece by the same lineup that cut Legend (East Side Digital, 1973). The degree of discontinuity between these two bodies of music is notable, not least because the level of improvisation in this instance seems a whole lot more pronounced. The contrast also serves as indication of a collective willingness to branch out into musical territory beyond the remit of even the loosest notion of a rock band.
This theme of contrast is also notable when the improvised sections of this set are viewed against the formality of the songs. The band only used vocals intermittently in the course of its career on record, and Dagmar Krause had one of the most distinctive voices of this or any other age. Her musical identity in itself is as individual as Fred Frith's approach to the guitar, for example, and these are just two examples of a number that could be cited within the context of this music; on "Beautiful As The Moon, Terrible As An Army With Banners, performed as part of a medley, she carries a melody of almost iconoclastic individuality.
The band's only quartet recordings are preserved on "Groningen and "Groningen Again, the titles of which highlight the arbitrary nature of titling, inasmuch as both pieces were recorded in the Dutch city of that name. The benefit of hindsight, dubious though it always is, seems to reveal a band straining against form at the same time as it stayed shy of entirely open freedom. The result is music that wins the listener's attention through detail as much as the raising of its collective voice. That said, a singular power is also in evidence.
Trying to verbally encapsulate what this band did is a pretty pointless exercise. Besides, the time it would take can be far more constructively used in listening to the music, especially when Bob Drake's fresh remastering has had the effect of giving it an unprecedented immediacy. The sublimation of individual musical personalities to the needs and works of the collective might just nail it, however.
Track Listing: CD1: Beautiful As The Moon, Terrible As An Army With Banners; Nirvana For Mice; The Ottawa
Song; Gloria Gloom; Beautiful As The Moon (Reprise); Bad Alchemy; Little Red Riding Hood
Hits The Road; Ruins; Groningen; Groningen Again. CD2: Oslo (Tracks 1-8 inclusive); Off The
Personnel: Lindsay Cooper: bassoon, flute, oboe, piano, recorder; Chris Cutler: drums, piano; Dagmar
Krause: voice, piano; Fred Frith: guitar, piano, violin, xylophone; John Greaves: bass, celeste,
voice, piano; Tim Hodgkinson: organ, piano, clarinet, alto saxophone. Geoff Leigh: tenor and
soprano saxophone, flute, clarinet, recorder (CD2:9-11) Robert Wyatt: voice (CD1:6,7).