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Henry Cow - The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set

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Artist: Henry Cow

Album: The 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set

Label: ReR Megacorp

Review date: Sep. 25, 2009

There are bands whose finest work allows its roots full exposure while burying them. Henry Cow was one of these, emerging at a time of widespread upheaval and making bold new statements and fashioning order of the resultant chaos. Yet, the full scope of this 1970s group’s accomplishments is only now being celebrated, thanks to the 40th anniversary box set from ReR Megacorp. The label has a history of producing similarly fine compendiums, most notably from groups such as Faust, Art Bears and This Heat, but the Cow set is a more ambitious project, befitting the band’s complex style and legacy. With roots deep in the multi-hued music of the late 1960s that it would be a misleading oversimplification to call progressive rock, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson and Cow’s less permanent membership crafted an all-inclusive music that managed to remain its own, stubbornly refusing to allow fickle taste and industry standards to dictate their choices; this set is the most complete documentation of their journey. Its three-volume layout encompasses nine discs and one DVD of live material. The first two (The Road Vols. 1-5 from 1971-1976 and The Road Vols. 5-10 1976-1978, respectively) present a chronological live survey, while the third, Studio, contains remastered versions of Henry Cow’s studio catalog. The set can be seen as a series of aural snapshots, sometimes out of strict chronological order. As with their Concerts album but on a much larger scale, the collection documents the band’s revised and reestablished identity.

Henry Cow’s 10-year existence and that of its various offshoots are well documented and won’t be rehashed here (a fine chronology is available in John Kellman’s All About Jazz review of this set). What follows is not directed at the new listener, though I hope it raises interest. I will focus on the sound of these recordings, both as historical and stylistic landmarks and as presented in their newly refurbished guises.

The music is taken from many disparate sound sources. Concerts exemplifies only one portion of what was a monumental decade-long development, a winding path with sudden twists and turns as diverse as the set’s accompanying written narratives. Certain phases and facets of the group’s career are only documented by audience recordings, others by the BBC and by similarly enterprising broadcasters; some weren’t documented at all. Long-time fans and seasoned Henry Cow collectors, for whom this set is most certainly assembled, will have heard the lion’s share of this material on bootlegs. Here, they’ve been edited and restored by sonic wizard Bob Drake, whose excellent remastering work can be heard on the Art Bears and Faust boxes. He worked on the project for over four years, as many of the sources were in an alarming state of decay. Pitch and noise adjustments were often necessary, and in some instances, judicious remixing was used, so long as it did not interfere with the character of the source. The results of his labors allow fresh insight into the band’s innovative working habits, in both improvised and composed contexts.

The first box is full of such revelations. A case in point involves the BBC sessions of 1972 and 1973, which predate the release of Leg End, the band’s debut album. It was always apparent that the attention to timbre, arrangement and fractured time that would come to define the band’s improvised and compositional aesthetic are present, and now they can be heard in near-perfect detail, unlike the hissy and muffled bootleg versions. The interplay of Frith’s guitar and John Greeves’ rhythmically snapped bass in the introduction to “Rapt in a Blanket” now come off as almost orchestral, where before they exuded a rather bland and pedestrian air. “Rapped” is certainly a pop tune, one of several that Frith wrote when, he states in the liners, he was attempting to emulate Robert Wyatt in Soft Machine. Indeed, the keyboards that quietly inform the second verse do conjure shades of Mike Ratledge, as does Tim Hodgkinson’s ripping organ solo as “Came to See You” jumps into high gear. Cutler’s drumming drives each time shift and extended section forward with fairly traditional trapswork that nevertheless demonstrates his now-customary timbral invention. His unique approach is most evident in the cymbals, which can now be heard clearly. There is still some distortion, but the improvements are miraculous.

A similar makeover is given to the March 1976 Hamburg radio broadcast that marked bassist John Greeve’s final appearance with the band. Incorporating a very similar setlist to the roughly contemporaneous BBC session released on Concerts, the band leaves room for some extended and multifarious improvisations between each of the pieces; the rep includes Henry Cow and Matching Mole tunes, and everything is book-ended by iterations of the heart-wrenching “Beautiful as the Moon, Terrible as an Army with Banners.” This take on “Nirvana for Mice” complements the more deliberate version from the first disc, recorded for the BBC three years earlier. “Moles” and “rabbits” are used in the titles here, and “Fair as the Moon” is the band staple’s moniker in this set. Again, the sound is crystal clear, the pitch correct, and the noise all but absent.

Most shocking, though, is a May 1976 concert recorded in Trondheim Norway, when Henry Cow was a quartet, Greeves having left and singer Dagmar Krauss suffering illness. As their earlier material could not be performed, and as re-invention was their M.O., they decided to perform an entirely improvised set, in the dark and with liberal use of prerecorded tapes. Unlike many of the shows featured in the collection, Trondheim is presented in its entirety, clocking in at a little over 90 minutes. The music is some of the group’s most adventurous, ranging from stereotypically European pointillism to keyboard-driven proto-industrial densities of overwhelming magnitude. Cutler’s notes state that it is a desk recording, though my illicit copy has what seems to be an announcer’s voice introducing the group followed by applause. There is very limited dynamic range on the bootleg, all of the textures forming a huge muddle that renders it almost unlistenable. Thanks to Drake’s careful restoration, the music gains a sense of distance and of perspective, each instrument inhabiting its own space. The stereo spectrum and dynamic range are also expanded exponentially, the music ebbing and flowing in the concentric waves that must have filled the room during its performance. The final section, the slowly building Frith composition “March,” makes dynamic sense, both relieving and heightening tension, thanks to the improved soundstage on which it is allowed to breathe.

The second box completes 1976 and sees the band through to its final performances in 1978, demonstrating the way Henry Cow material was revised and reused in the process. The group sound changed when Georgie Born entered, her cello affording an additional measure of contemporary classicality. We are treated to extracts from a March 1978 Bremen radio Broadcast in which portions of Tim Hodgkinson’s composition “Erk Gah”—correctly named “Hold to the Zero Burn, Imagine”—allow comparison to the version with lyrics from the Stockholm concert of May 9, 1977. The Bremen reading emerges from a lengthy improvisation, entirely recontextualized when compared to Stockholm and to the version Hodgkinson recorded in the 1990s. The sound on both broadcasts was always quite good, but some careful noise reduction and what I take to be some added reverb has allowed each instrument to bloom, certainly a boon as the band was exploring even more intricate timbral relationships than before. The bassoon work of Lindsay Cooper takes on a new level of clarity in this remix. Early versions of Art Bears songs are also present, such as “Joan” and “On Suicide,” the latter coming from an unidentified cassette believed to be from May or June of 1977.

A fascinating sequence of events, allowing a different view of Henry Cow, comes courtesy of a show from the Melkweg, Amsterdam in December 1977. “Teenbeat” reaches the boiling point as trombonist Annemarie Roelofs and former Cow member Geoff Leigh come to the fore (Roelofs had been in the audience, and Leigh’s band Red Balune had been playing the same evening). Then, Leigh heats things up with some of his customarily anarchic tenor work, reminiscent of the 1960s New Thing that influenced him in his formative years. He’s underrepresented in the box, his brief but exciting tenure with the band yielding admittedly poor concert recordings, but this audience tape demonstrates the freewheeling excitement he generated in performance.

For these ears though, the biggest surprise on the second box is Henry Cow’s set at the first Rock in Opposition festival, which took place in London in March 1978. Cow’s opening improvisation is one of their most cacophonous and cataclysmic, a vibe continued as the quintet launches into an especially gritty version of Cooper’s “Half the Sky,” released later on the group’s final album, Western Culture. Pervasive guitar distortion throughout is enhanced by a bass-heavy recording, giving the whole weight without clarity being sacrificed.

Such a mammoth project cannot be encapsulated in a single review, so let’s move into rapid-fire mode. In the first box, you can find a late 1974 proto-rendering of the Hodgkinson-penned “Living In the Heart of the Beast,” and though heavily edited, it demonstrates the band’s interesting and very different conception of that long-form work in its earliest stages. You’re also treated to a complete version of the music accompanying the ballet “With the Yellow Half-moon and Blue Star,” a piece based on a Paul Klee painting of which only a fragment appeared on Leg End. There’s also a BBC version of “Guider Tells of Silent Airborne Machine,” a track that never appeared on any album and whose concluding melodic figures would be incorporated into the title track of Peter Blegvad’s enigmatic and whimsical Kew Rone.

The set fills in many missing historical and compositional links, and though hard-core collectors will have much of this material, the refurbished sound alone makes the set indispensable for fans. Additionally, we now have the only video of a Henry Cow performance on DVD, an outdoor show in Vevey, Switzerland from August 1976. Altogether, and taken with the subscriber bonus disc containing more rehearsals and additional concert fragments, this is a fitting monument to one of the most interesting and eclectic groups to come out of the 1970s. Though a long time in the works, this 40th Anniversary was well worth the wait.

By Marc Medwin

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