While most 70s progressive rockers had their noses stuck deep in the works of Herman Hesse or Tolkien and spent their time copping licks from Ravel or Mussorgsky, the members of Henry Cow were reading Marx, Mao and Walter Benjamin and preferred Varese, Cage or Sun Ra for inspiration. One of the first signings to Virgin records in 1973, the Cow were responsible for some of the most dazzlingly complex rock ever recorded, merging British psychedelia, free improvisation and modern classical with a healthy dose of revolutionary polemic. The band gained a reputation for immense seriousness depite their occasional sly Dadaist humour, though to be fair there pobably weren't many fart jokes in the Henry Cow tour bus.
Western Culture was recorded in 1978 some time after their difficult split with Virgin, and was made in the knowledge that the group was to fold afterwards (a previous attempt at recording had failed a few months earlier). Though these were obviously tricky times for all concerned, you wouldn't know it from the music on this CD, which is some of their finest and dispatched with awesome precision and economy.
Compositional duties are split between saxophonist/keyboardist Tim Hodgkinson and bassoonist Lindsay Cooper (possibly the only ever fulltime bassoonist in a rock band). Their dense, cerebral compositions are restless, angular affairs with nervy, timeshifting rhythmic dexterity from drummer Chris Cutler (who has to be one of the finest, most inventive drummers this country has ever produced) and guitarist Fred Frith (doubling on bass). Frith is superb, switching from fuzzed out, oblique rockisms to querulous Derek Bailey acoustic scrabble ("The Decay of Cities") and occupying a few thousand points inbetween. There are no pointless displays of prog virtuosity though; despite the sometimes bewildering complexity of the music, not a note is wasted throughout.
Guest pianist Irene Schweizer provides a spot of free jazz fire on Coopers doleful "Gretel's Tale", while Anne Marie Roeloffs's trombone and violin add extra textural grit. The most affecting track is "Half the Sky", where lush chords underpin Friths Frippish glides and Hodgkinsons chattering alto sax, eventually breaking out into an almost klezmer-esque melody over Cutler's tumbling percussives. Three extra tracks round off this long unavailable re-issue including "Viva Pa Ubu" (featuring former vocalist Dagmar Krause, here uncredited) and the all too short cut and thrust of "Slice". Exhausting, sometimes jaw droppingly gorgeous and occasionally very scary, Western Culture is a fitting testament to possibly the most progressive of all English rock bands. Bless 'em. --Peter Marsh
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