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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Art Bears: Hopes And Fears


1) On Suicide; 2) The Dividing Line; 3) Joan; 4) Maze; 5) In Two Minds; 6) Terrain; 7) The Tube; 8) The Dance; 9) Pirate Song; 10) Labyrinth; 11) Riddle; 12) Moeris Dancing; 13) Piers.

Although the career of the Art Bears is inextricable from that of Henry Cow, it might be argued that the quintessential Henry Cow — the band that had previously engaged in some of the most convoluted and inaccessible avant-jazz-rock-fusion on the Legend album — had already ceased to exist by the time their second album, In Praise Of Learning, started making waves. From that point of view, it is not altogether clear if Hopes And Fears could/should be called the last Henry Cow album, or if In Praise Of Learning should be dubbed the first Art Bears one. Perhaps the former, since the recording actually started out in the name of Henry Cow (the first sessions in Switzerland in January 1978) — but ultimately ended in the name of Art Bears (the last sessions in London three months later). But maybe the latter, since one only has to remember ʽWarʼ from In Praise Of Learning to realize that that was truly the first Art Bears composition in all but name.

So let us bow down to naming technicalities and start it off from a clean slate: Art Bears were Fred Frith (all melodic instruments except for occasional guest spots by fellow Henry Cowherders), Chris Cutler (all percussion), and Dagmar Krause (all lightly German-accented English vocals), breaking their commitment to Henry Cow by systematically making commercial, openly marketable music — well, marketable to about a few thousand people, at least, which would already be a huge fuckin' sellout compared to Legend. The hopes were to produce an intelligent synthesis of hard rock, free-form jazz, Celtic folk, modern classical, and Kurt Weill that could appeal to lovers of adventurous sound explorations all over the world; the fears, on the other hand, were largely confined to the contents of the album, whose first track title — ʽOn Suicideʼ (with lyrics conveniently adapted from Bertolt Brecht) — already suggests that, despite the jarring surrealism of the music, its emotional and artistic content was supposed to make some perfectly earthly sense.

As somebody who usually wastes little time in becoming pissed off at the senseless pretentious­ness of much avantgarde music, I will have to state, right at the very start, that Hopes And Fears is so directly focused upon catching you off guard now and again, that the windows of opportu­nity for getting pissed off are quite tiny. Its main inspiration, as evidenced primarily in the vocal style and mannerisms of Krause (but also in the instrumental music as well), is neither rock nor jazz music, but rather the pre-WWII German scene, everything from the cabaret-meets-high-art style of Kurt Weill to the atonal experiments of Alban Berg. If you «get» that kind of musical attitude, you will have absolutely no problems assimilating most of the record — wild, desperate, ablaze with angry Teutonic passion but also deeply humanistic at heart. That the vibe would, of all people, happen to be revived by a bunch of English musicians at a time when conditions for it could not be less auspicious, is curious by the standards of the late Seventies, but completely irrelevant now that time has finally all but flattened out in the 2010s.

However, as I said, Hopes And Fears is really a synthesis, and by no means a «Kurt Weill with rock instrumentation» kind of record. A good example is the album's wonderful nine-minute epic, ʽIn Two Mindsʼ. Starting out as a sort of acoustic avant-folk oratorio in which Krause offers a passionate character study of a «fallen woman», it goes through a number of sections, one of which sounds as a barely veiled tribute to The Who — with Townshend-style power chords propped up by Keith Moon-style powerhouse drumming, reminiscent of the Quadrophenia vibe. These «two minds», alter­nating with each other several times, create an odd contrast that totally catches you off guard upon the first time, but eventually becomes perceived as a natural up-and-down trajectory of the human spirit. And Krause, whose natural vocal timbre is not the most pleasant thing in the world but agrees well with the long-standing tradition of «masculine singing» by self-empowered Ger­man ladies, does a great job vocalizing in lamenting / anthemic ways on both parts.

Much of the work is still instrumental, although short bits of vocalization tend to be present everywhere, contributing to the various moods. ʽMazeʼ, true to its title, is an avantgarde track that loyally recreates the sensation of being trapped and disoriented in a labyrinthian structure (of your own mind, no less), with dissonance, wild time signatures, and Berg-like strings paranoi­dally humming in tandem with electronic feedback; ʽThe Tubeʼ is even more claustrophobic, with waves of Metal Machine Music-like heavy guitar feedback given a cavernous production, giving you that cool feel of standing in a post-apocalyptic metro tunnel populated with giant acid-spitting cockroaches, rather than merely getting caught up in the hurly-burly of underground traffic. (The obsession with twisted underground corridors is, apparently, not coincidental, since further on down the line you also find ʽLabyrinthʼ, a two-minute synthesis of Weillesque singing, atonal feedback, and an odd industrial percussive track).

On the other hand, there is ʽThe Danceʼ and later still, ʽMoeris Dancingʼ, tracks that reflect Fred Frith's interest in traditional Celtic music and feature an avantgarde reinterpretation of the jig-and-reel pattern — although when it comes to the wild violin stylizations on the latter track, it is hard to tell if it is really the Celtic vibe that remains prevalent or if a Mid-Eastern wave of in­fluence has caught up on it, as even Krause succumbs to dropping her Lotte Lenya skin and doing a bit of a spinning-dervish imper­sonation instead. Never a dull moment with these guys for sure.

Does it all make grand sense? Hard to say, but at least there is no nasty feeling here that the musicians are simply fucking with you for their own egotistical reasons. Because of the various stylistic influences, there are moments here that sound genuinely tragic, others that sound sincere­ly rebellious, and still others that betray romantic yearning and lust for freedom (ʽPirate Songʼ and ʽPiersʼ with their marine references — and, as it happens, yet another allusion to Weill). It also helps that most of the tracks, with the understandable exclusion of ʽIn Two Mindsʼ, are reasonably compact, as, I believe, most openly experimental compositions should be: be it Krause's passionately free-form arias or Frith's chaotic mixes of jazz chords, feedback, and gypsy violin, they never give any individual track sufficient space to irritate the beejesus out of an un­prepared listener (although even a fully prepared listener might find oneself secretly longing for a cool glass of ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ midway through the album marathon).

All in all, this is quite an ambitious and adventurous affair that finds itself, strangely enough, almost completely free of the clutches of contemporary New Wave conventions — despite occa­sional use of electronics that still brings to mind old-fashioned Faust rather than Gary Numan — and is, of course, forever doomed to linger on the taste fringes of those who like their modern classical converted to popular genre formats: a small, small bunch indeed, but one that would probably enthusiastically approve of this thumbs up rating. Not that there's anything bear-like about this music, though: Art Chameleons might have been a far more appropriate moniker for these guys.


  1. To my knowledge there's no "The" in "Art Bears"

  2. To further split hairs, "In Praise of Learning" was their 3rd. album. "Unrest" from 1974 was the second. And there was actually a final "Henry Cow" album, "Western Civilization", released in 1979, by the other members of Henry Cow. That album was largely the instrumental stuff from that abortive follow-up album to "In Praise of Learning". Art Bears is better, though, IMO.

  3. It was their 4th, actually. Don't forget 'Desperate Straights', a Slap Happy/Henry Cow collaboration, like 'In Praise'.

  4. Mad mad music - senctioning ode ...o o