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Art Bears - Art Box

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Artist: Art Bears

Album: Art Box

Label: ReR Megacorp

Review date: Nov. 10, 2004

While Art Bears may have risen out of the ashes of Henry Cow, it would be hard to contend that they ever left the shadows left by their spot-lit progenitors. Art Bears were only in existence for two years, and their three albums represent a distinctly transitional phase as the Bear constituency began to move toward their own massive individual reputations. Yet, what is so inaccurate about deeming this period a "transition" is that Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, and Dagmar Krause showed no signs of developing the personal approaches that would define their post-1980 careers; these records show how seamlessly they were able to acquiesce to their stated conceptual goals, a last ditch effort at explicitly communal creativity.

In fact, in the liner notes accompanying this years Art Box, one of the most recurring themes is the division of labor, and how everything was evenly distributed in a group-context. According to Cutler, he wrote the lyrics, collaborated with Frith in deliberating over the music, from songwriting to studio manipulation, and Krause was responsible for the singing, which as designed, was meant to directly challenge everything else. Cutler briefly mentions Etienne Conod, seemingly the invisible, de facto producer of these recordings, who is hardly given a voice in the liners and barely mentioned in the album credits (a disappointment considering the involvement someone with his far-ranging experience must have merited). Conod's take on the group dynamic isn't as specific as Cutler's; he begins his sole paragraph by simply talking about the equipment used in the studio but it quickly becomes an indication of how much "teamwork" was actually involved. Frith's notes again differ ever so slightly from the other two accounts, he takes credit for the "notes part of the music composition" and the "accompanying conceptual framework." Besides much detail from Conod, what is also noticeably absent is any account on behalf of Krause. Despite the intended collectivization, one of the most harrowing aspect of the boxset is that after 25 years, Cutler and Frith seem to be presented as the real designers of the Bears' agenda, with Krause and Conod's role substantially downplayed.

The recordings, on the other hand, speak differently. On the three Art Bears albums, whatever this system was, it allowed each person to contribute something indispensable to the overall concept of Art Bears. It is communal both in practice and in content, an intended example of a new political hierarchy in the form of criticism on the old one.

The results are unmistakable – a darker prog-rock with enough shrieking Weimar-cabaret stylings and tape trickery for Frith and Cutler's artful juxtaposition to expound even more on unfamiliar territory. Where Krause was relatively reined in with her previous work for Slapp Happy, Art Bears were direly committed to an agenda of experimental progressivism, and despite its implementation of song structures, never seemed interested in exploring the same cynical and sarcastic melodic territory of Slapp Happy. Art Bears' three records are saturated with dialectic disparities, intellectual conceits, and high-concept design. Winter Songs, for instance is largely based on medieval carvings. In short, it is difficult work.

In this regard, the most immediate point of note is the relationship between Chris Cutler's lyric-writing and Krause's execution. The lyrics are essentially consistent throughout Art Bears' work: socialist allegory injected into medieval and archaic mythology, that in hindsight seems like a problematically clichéd modus operandi in the world of ambitious rock music. Scythes, hermits, kings, masters and labyrinths occasionally mar Art Bears' first two albums, until Cutler settles into a less fantasy-driven political rhetoric on The World as it is Today, which is interestingly constructed as a steady Odyssey-like narrative over the course of the entire album. When the lyrics from the first two albums are coupled with Dagmar Krause's Lotte-Lenya-meets-Yoko-Ono banshee from hell vocal approach, it elicits frustration; not so much because of discordance or atonality, but more so because of the transparent intentions of implementing this particular style. The willingness to conform to a loaded "sinister" ambiance in accordance with the nihilistic texts seems all too comfortable for a band with such a progressive agenda in mind.

However, when Art Bears hit the mark, they hit it well and all the truly remarkable things about their experiments come to the forefront. The World as it is Today manages to fully serve as socialist doctrine, blueprint for artistry in a collective, and creatively synthesizes Art Bears' work into an apocalyptic cabaret piece, embracing their blatant polemical stance with just the right musical accompaniment. More than anything else, The World as it is Today is the most conceptually-unified record of the three. "Truth" serves as excellent example – its skeletal, driving percussion and clever music emphasize Cutler’s keywords like "prosperity," while a lone, shaking, soap opera organ chord prevails. The record also might be Krause's best overall performance. She shows her full breadth, from the extreme to the subdued over 30 minutes. Frith's songs also seem more carefully arranged and thought-out than on the previous two albums. Considering that Art Bears transpired over the course of only two years, it seems to make sense that a group working at such a hurried pace would make their most palpable dent after the concept had some time to sink in. Yet as the liner notes mention, Winter Songs and The World as it is Today took an extremely short amount of time to record, the total recording time of both barely adding up to an entire month. At first glance, it might seem like this pace would work detrimentally against such heavily conceptual music, but on the record, and perhaps contradictorily, the saving grace of Art Bears is their sense of political urgency and relevance of dissent in their time. They were in a hurry for a reason.

The three albums deserve to be heard together, as collected in the Art Box, as the band was rigidly tied to certain thematic grounds throughout their tenure. What is less necessary, however, are the remix discs. It seems slightly overbearing (yuk yuk) to have an equal amount of space devoted to interpretations of the material, long after the fact, regardless of the all-star cast that contributes. Yet the work here is uniformly tasteful and often values and contextually places Art Bears' contributions in music. Predictably, heavy-hitters like Christian Marclay and John Oswald seem to contribute remixes more indicative of their own working methods than those of the Bears. Other contributions bring attention to the orchestration and studio techniques employed by Art Bears. Cutler, somewhat humorously, works exclusively with the drum tracks for his remix, therefore isolating his personal stake in the collective. Bob Drake's short "And the Comedy Bears" splices up a number of contrasting Krause vocal approaches, allowing a latent ridiculousness and humor that the often bleak recordings rarely touch upon. Half of the final, sixth disc also contains some bonus Bears material, the usual fare of singles and live versions, not without merit.

Perhaps mimicking the music, the box set as a whole often feels slightly transitory. The slapped-together, short, inconclusive essays in the liner notes, the excessive multiple discs of remixes (usually one disc is bad enough, let alone three), and the somewhat lackluster packaging all make the Art Box seem less important that it actually is. A better approach might've surveyed some of Frith, Cutler, and Krause's concurrent work at the time. Frith, for instance, was involved in his stellar solo guitar records. Cutler made an album in the early ’90s that was, in many ways, an Art Bears revival. Krause's somewhat hard-to-find solo album from 1986 which picked up the threads of the Bears might've been a nice addition. There just must've been some more contextual clues besides the half-disc, standard B-side/live material.

By Matt Wellins

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