Henry Cow

In Praise Of Learning

Henry Cow - In Praise Of Learnin ©1975 Virgin
1. War
2. Living In The Heart Of The Beast
3. Beginning: The Long March
4. Beautiful As The Moon- Terrible As An Army Of Banners
5. Morning Star
6. Lovers Of Gold

Recorded at the height of Henry Cow's strange career, In Praise of Learning perfectly encapsulates what the Henry Cow experience is all about.

An unusually theoretical rock band (the term rock used loosely), this particular outing found them collaborating with the Kraut consort, Slapp Happy and their rather eccentric vocalist Dagmar Krause. Unified with a Marxist-Leninist ideology, the two bands billow and bluster angrily on the record, with cerebral modernism smashing headlong into visceral revolutionary rhetoric, creating an alarming and paranoid atmosphere. Henry Cow was not Marxist in the Rage Against the Machine sense of the word, but bounced around in a convoluted web of experimentalism and Brechtian notions of political art. They are to Rage Against the Machine what Walter Benjamin is to that crusty that works down at Savers. Though in many respects, Henry Cow's caustic anger makes RATM's bong-induced ranting seem downright anemic.

The overall album is fairly diverse, beginning with a rather musical little number called "War", a trumpet blaring sing-along in a style reminiscent of the Sugarcubes of eighties fame. The song establishes the band's love of cold analytical viciousness, with a subtle violence permeating every one of Krause's nasal hisses. The second song "Living in the Heart of the Beast" calls for revolution in the least direct way possible: by meandering through a maze of Zappa-esque guitar feedback and dissonant percussive passages. Krause's voice is cold and menacing for the song's duration, ending her performance with harrowing martial anger. The album progresses from there to include melodic piano lines, noisy saxophone squawking (the kind that would make John Zorn famous later on), blasts of free jazz, outright cacophony, and unsettling ambiance. The pastiche is uniform in its singular aesthetic of industrial age ugliness and fierce oppositional politics.

Recorded back in the days of an undecided Cold War, In Praise of Learning not only attacks capitalism but points at a Marxian alternative. Whether or not Communism represented a legitimate counterargument against the forces of capital is of course debatable, but the sense of imminent radical change lends the album a highly charged political vitality, granting the rather academic music a rare sense of anger and urgency. HC is the nasty revolutionary underside of prog rock's gilded idealism. Good stuff.

Review by James Slone

Review date: 03/2003

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