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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Art Bears: Winter Songs


1) The Bath Of Stars; 2) First Things First; 3) Gold; 4) The Summer Wheel; 5) The Slave; 6) The Hermit; 7) Rats And Monkeys; 8) The Skeleton; 9) The Winter Wheel; 10) Man And Boy; 11) Winter / War; 12) Force; 13) Three Figures; 14) Three Wheels.

Art Bears' second album is a fun initiative, much appreciated by the band's small handful of fans, but from that particular perspective which does not simply follow the rule of «the weirder, the better», Winter Songs is, mildly speaking, a bold, yet barely successful experiment. According to the most common story, all the texts here were written by Chris Cutler, based on series of car­vings on the facade of Amiens Cathedral in France — and then rather quickly, almost spontane­ously, set to music by Fred Frith and then recorded in a matter of 14 days in a Swiss studio. This inevitably means that, compared to the refreshing diversity of Hopes And Fears (a record whose content gradually accumulated over several different periods), Winter Songs is more mono­tonous, and its songs, despite the usual intricacy and complexity, give the impression of having been dashed off way too quickly.

Although the whole thing consists of 14 short tracks (one per day?), something that should help comfort prog-wary passengers, they feel more like variations on a single given theme than 14 completely different entities — an album like Thick As A Brick is infinitely more diverse in its movements. Much of this has to do with Dagmar's singing streamlined and restricted to a single style, the stream-of-consciousness avantgarde-free-verse one, which has by now stepped over the dead body of Kurt Weill and is not turning back. Double-tracking and having different vocal lines overlap each other is a common trick here; reversing the vocal tapes is much less so, but when it does happen, it is seriously irritating (ʽFirst Things Firstʼ). Eventually, I find myself tiring of this vocal style, whereas on Hopes And Fears Krause's voice stayed inspirational from start to finish. And while the actual pronounced words are intriguing (I mean, let's confess this, who of us has never dreamed about being treated to a cycle of haiku-like poems inspired by Amiens Cathedral?), it is hardly good for one's sanity to spend 37 minutes listening to the Sibyl's rantings. And at any rate, Chris Cutler sure ain't the new Nostradamus.

As for the music, much of it consists of slow, labored avantgarde textures, sometimes with a bluesy base (ʽFirst Things Firstʼ again), sometimes growing out of vaudeville (ʽGoldʼ), some­times out of jazz-fusion (ʽThe Summer Wheelʼ), sometimes presaging post-1983 Tom Waits (ʽThe Slaveʼ, tearing blues-rock a new one), and sometimes still reflecting Fred Frith's obsession with Celtic folk (ʽThe Hermitʼ). This sentence seems to directly contradict the accusation of monotonousness, yet Art Bears put their own stamp on everything they touch, meaning that every song stutters and stumbles along as if on the verge of falling apart — which never happens, since these guys are professionals, but it can still make you sea-sick.

Amusingly, the band even put out a single from the album, and even more amusingly, it kind of made sense, because ʽRats And Monkeysʼ is indeed the most clearly outstanding track here. Un­like everything else, it rushes forward at an insanely fast tempo — something to be valued in the era of punk and post-punk — and with its noisy and echoey production, Dagmar's psychotic wailing, and screechy violin runs that occasionally degenerate into feedback, it is easy to see the track appealing to the fanbase of, say, Siouxsie & The Banshees. It is a fun romp (think gypsy music on real strong amphetamines!), yet also fairly atypical of the rest of the album; one could, in fact, throw ʽRats And Monkeysʼ away as a «joke» number on a record that generally takes itself far more seriously. But at least it gives the reviewers something to cling on to.

For its conceptuality, abrasiveness, and total lack of compromise Winter Songs may be easily construed as the apex of Art Bears' short career, but this is not my way of thinking: I think the best art bears imprints of a good balance between the conventional and the experimental, and Winter Songs breaks the balance that existed on Hopes And Fears. With multiple listens, the album may become enjoyable even for laymen, but I have not been able to break through so far: it always seems as if the level of pretense and bombast here fails to match the rather thin and quiet sonic textures, and the effect is irritating. Still, avantgarde fans will find a plethora of challenging ideas in these arrangements, and, you know, if you ever get sick listening to legions of normal Celtic folk albums, you can always come back to ʽThe Hermitʼ for salvation from routine. Also, good enough publicity for the Amiens Cathedral, I guess.

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