Henry Cow were one of the most important avant-garde bands of the 1970s, and this album is a large reason why. Having heard all of their studio albums, I can safely say that this is almost assuredly their career peak. Western Culture marked a drastic change in sound from their previous albums. Gone are the improvisations of their first three releases. All the music here is composed (and composed fantastically at that), right down to the last detail. Also gone are the unique vocals of Dagmar Krause (present only on In Praise of Learning), a singer I’ve learned to love through the Cutler and Frith follow-up Art Bears. This is completely instrumental, and it’s completely fantastic. Western Culture refines the existing Henry Cow sound into one perfect mixture. Finally, this isn’t a collaboration with Slapp Happy. This is pure Henry Cow. Also worth noting is that this is the band’s swan song, as they would split up after this album, with numerous side projects (the most notable probably being the fantastic-but-not-as-fantastic-as-Henry-Cow Art Bears). In fact, much of the material written at the same time as this album was later used for the first Art Bears album, the highly recommended Hopes and Fears. But, yet again, I digress from the main purpose of this review, which is to talk about Henry Cow’s masterpiece, Western Culture.
Before looking at the music of the album, it’s important to first look at the musicians. Tim Hodgkinson and Lindsay Cooper play an eclectic mix of instruments and also serve as the sole composers on this album (with Hodgkinson writing tracks one through three, Cooper taking four through six, and the two collaborating on track seven). Their presence is really obvious on this album, and they do a fantastic job. Fred Frith gives seven stellar performances on guitar. I’m a bit surprised that he didn’t do any composing for this album, especially since he has the honor of being included in a book about the greatest American experimental composers (for the record, he moved to America at some point, and I believe taught music at California). Then again, what really happened is that his and Chris Cutler’s compositions were deemed more appropriate for the Art Bears album than this album (and, listening to Hopes and Fears and this album in conjunction, I can see why). And finally, we get to my favorite of the bunch, Chris Cutler. He ranks right beside Christian Vander (Magma) and Jaki Liebezeit (Can) among my favorite drummers (note that Liebezeit is my all time favorite). He holds the entire album together, and one of my favorite moments in all of music comes at the end of “Industry”, when he goes berserk in his unique “pots and pans” style. Henry Cow were a band composed of four musicians who truly constitute the term super group, but without ever being one. No egos fly, for they’re too busy composing great music.
Just from looking at the track titles, we get a sense of the band’s politics (which were radically left-wing). Though not listed here, the first three tracks comprise a single unified “song” titled “History and Prospects” (presumably the history and prospects of western culture). We proceed through the industrial destruction of “Industry” before the despair of “The Decay of Cities,” and finally to the hopelessness of “On the Raft” (presumably lost at sea, waiting to die). This seems to be the intended message of this instrumental music, and I find it magical how Henry Cow were able to so potently inject a message into their music without ever explicitly stating it. “Day by Day” is less politically oriented, with the only political message coming in the form of the last song, co-composed by Cooper and Hodgkinson. One is a woman, one a man, and the title “Half the Sky” reflects the Chinese proverb, “women hold up half the sky.” It’s very much symbolic of equal rights, but this doesn’t come out in the music the way the themes come out on side one.
Western Culture opens with “Industry”, by far the best on the album (but don’t think Henry Cow blew their load in the first track – far from it!). It opens with a dissonant screech, joined by Cutler’s trademark drums, and then we’re off on a wild ride through moods and emotions, ups and downs, finally building up steam until it explodes in the furor of the final fifty seconds, only to come to a sudden halt. This sudden stop can be seen as representative of the atomic bomb, which certainly acts quite quickly (just a note: I would normally consider this to be reading too far into the music, but given just how radical Henry Cow were with their politics, I doubt that’s the case here). This is a musical tour-de-force that shows just how great Henry Cow were. I cannot imagine a better start to an album, and this may be my favorite opening track of any album. Wherever it stands in that regards, it’s impossible to deny that it’s absolutely fantastic.
Thankfully, the next track, “The Decay of Cities,” lives up to the legacy “Industry” single-handedly created. While it never hits the heights of those last fifty seconds of “Industry,” it proves just as potent at carrying their political message. The opening guitar is beautiful, and gives little indication of what is to come (though you start getting ideas when Hodgkinson and Cooper enter on their instruments). Then, about a minute in, some horns start blaring in the background, and then the journey’s really begun. Excellent moods and atmospheres cycle throughout this track, mostly dark and somber (remember, this is music representing death, decay, and destruction). I must, yet again, point out Cutler’s drumming, because it’s simply phenomenal. Two and a half minutes in, the music really picks up, furthering the feelings of desperation, depression, desolation, and despair (I’m using a lot of D words for this song; now why is D such a gloomy letter). This is yet another musical tour-de-force by Henry Cow that again displays their musical prowess, both technically (how well they can play) and emotionally (how it appeals to the listener). It’s dissonant and difficult (there we go with the Ds again), but well worth the effort.
The three part “History and Prospects” ends with its shortest piece, “On the Raft.” This is sad, hopeless music, but it’s no less engaging than either of its two counterparts. Cutler, yet again, deserves special mention, drawing you in right through the start, both increasing and controlling (at the same time) the madness created by his three bandmates. This is music that speaks to the soul. It drives a stake deep through your heart, stopping breath until it’s over. This is like a story that has you hanging tightly to every word. You cannot put it down until it finishes, even after you’ve already read it. This is, quite simply (as if – the music is anything but simple), good music in its purest form. This song is a fitting end to my favorite instrumental composition (Western Culture in its entirety is among my favorite instrumental albums), perfectly capturing the feeling of being lost at sea with no hope of survival.
Side two, then, is bound to disappoint, coming as it does right after the inimitable side one, right? Well, no, actually. While I prefer side one superficially, I cannot imagine either one without the other. “Day by Day” is composed of four absolutely astonishingly good pieces of music that are just as zany and crazy as those that graced side one (and not nearly as depressing). It opens with “Falling Away,” my favorite of the four. This track is all over the place, never staying in one place for too long (lest it get boring). Still, there are some repeated themes that keep the track in line and give it focus (which is always a good thing; nothing bothers me more than a song with great ideas that just can’t get its act together and focus). Near the beginning, there is a crazy horn (or some similar instrument, I don’t know the difference, really) section that seems to epitomize, like the closing of “Industry,” the very essence of what Henry Cow is about. My only complaint is that Cutler’s drumming is more restrained (though still excellent) than on side one. Nevertheless, when the music is this good, I cannot justifiably complain.
Next up are two shorter songs, “Gretel’s Tale” and “Look Back.” “Gretel’s Tale” opens ominously (in a very low pitch), but it picks up soon, ending up as a crazy blend of happiness and this same ominous quality that permeates the entire track. Cutler gets a bit more freedom on the drums here (but still not nearly enough), but the highlight is Hodgkinson’s wonderful piano bit in the middle of the track. “Look Back” is slightly less significant (it’s under a minute and a half in length). It passes quickly, but adds a lot to the song. It doesn’t inspire a lot of words from me, but keep in mind that I love it all the same, and that I feel it’s essential to the album.
“Half the Sky” makes itself known immediately, getting off to a grandiose start (finally, Cutler is getting to do what he does best). In addition to Cutler, we get grandiose dark themes that flow throughout the track, including some wailing saxophone reminiscent of Van Der Graaf Generator (especially the Pawn Hearts album), and just as enjoyable (and, just so we’re clear, NOT AT ALL DERIVATIVE). This is a track that ebbs and flows, and that percussion in the background (courtesy of Cutler, of course) is always nagging you (in an absolutely wonderful way). This is the perfect close to a perfect album. Among all seven tracks, there is not one moment of filler. Every musician is at the top of her or his game (yes, that was intentional, a reference to the last track and the wonderful contributions of Lindsay Cooper to this album), and I have rarely ever heard such compositional genius.
On a final note, keep in mind that RIO/avant-prog is a pesky genre to get into, and it’s easy to get turned off of if you pick the wrong album to start with. I think that Western Culture could very well serve as a great introduction to the genre (especially if you like instrumental music and jazz), but please do not give up if this album doesn’t do it for you. Of all the genres of progressive rock, RIO/avant-prog is by far the most diverse, essentially covering every other genre (except maybe Indo prog/raga rock). Even if you don’t like one band, there are plenty of others sure to please you. If you like metal, try Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. If you like post-rock, try Univers Zero or Art Zoyd, who, while not post-rock, let many of the same ideals permeate their music. If you like space rock and don’t mind strange (but brilliant) vocals, try Buldozer. The list goes on. For the most part, just TRY different albums from the genre. As I said, something is bound to please you. For me, Henry Cow’s Western Culture is one of those “things.” Highly recommended, and by all means 5 stars.