Art Bears – Winter Songs and The World as it is Today

Art Bears were an English avant-rock group formed during the disassembly of Henry Cow in 1978 by three of its members,Chris Cutler (percussion, texts), Fred Frith (guitar, bass guitar, violin, keyboards) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The group released three studio albums between 1978 and 1981, and toured Europe in 1979.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Henry Cow – but they are amazing. I adore their music. Someone gifted me these two albums and I really felt that I had to share the love.

 

Winter Songs:

Winter Songs is their second album. It was recorded at Sunrise Studio in Kirchberg, Switzerlandbetween 22 November and 5 December 1978, and was released in 1979. It was Art Bears’ first album to be recorded on their own, the bulk of their first album, Hopes and Fears (1978) having being recorded as Henry Cow.

 

Ground and Sky wrote: The band took a short break from political themes to record this rather solemn work based on engravings from the Amiens Cathedral. They’re no longer augmented by wind players or extra musicians, so the music is much more sparse than on the debut, often with just percussion, guitar, and minimal piano or synthesizer along with Krause’s vocals. The overall sound, however, has advanced, with better use of the studio as an instrument, and very advanced editing and mixing (mostly courtesy of Etienne Conod).

Even thought this album doesn’t have the political punch of the next in this post, it is still heavy on the intense. The tone is contemplative and solitary, with some nasty truths and a lot of abstract whir. Check this out:

 

This is fast paced and unrelenting. It carries the screeching rush of the images of rats and monkeys, uncompromising in the nail-grating edge that races through the mind.  this is the most intense of all the songs ono the album, though they all have this ‘un-definable’ quality that makes categorization tough. It’s not prog and it’s not punk even though it steals from both. (or is that contributes to both?) It’s not Zeul and probably would best be  described as avant-garde-anti-rock, though even that doesn’t come close. It’s a brilliant track that grows on you more and more as you listen. It warns of a city becoming infested with vermin and through the track you can feel these things rushing up your legs.

 

The haunting medieval refrains throughout the album give you an other worldly feel, so that you wonder where you’ve been for the last hour or so.  Despite the slower pace of Slave (above) and some others, you still can’t pin the music down.  It’s a total mind-fuck, swinging you pole to pole, telling you to sit and keep with it, despite your out of comfort zone discomfort. The discords, the unrelenting ear-assault and the operatic stylized vocals tell you through each and every song – “you are my captive. And I won’t release you.”

 

The World As It Is Today

After the short venture into non-political realms on Winter Songs, Art Bears storm back to their Marxist tendencies on this album. However, their signature dry abstraction remained intact.

 

 

HOW amazing was that ride?

One aspect of Art Bears’ sound that held true throughout their short lifetime is the constant advance in studio experimentation. This album is the most technically refined in their catalog, and features some very creative recording techniques. This is a more sophisticated album than the two before it in that it has a more efficient arrangement detail and more musicians involved in the project. Largely due to the work of engineers Conod and Vogel, the record sounds very modern, and has been influential on the avant-rock bands of today.

Ground and Sky had this to say: Krause deserves special attention on this album. The band runs through so many styles and atmospheres (witness the breadth of expression from the compressed rage of “FREEDOM” to something like the short mock-showtune “LAW”), her ease with the melody might belittle the difficulty of the music — wrongly, of course. In the insular world of experimental rock music, vocalists with a sense of classical beauty and a distinctive personal style are very rare.

As exampled in Freedom, the track above, Dagmar Krause is just phenomenal in her screaming rage. Her persistent shriek beginning midway through is a testament to both the band’s commitment to its message, and Krause’s physical endurance. The feel is gut-wrenching waltz like, but we never get too comfortable with that notion as Frith plucks away at some sarcastic piano in the background. This is nasty, brilliant, beautiful shit.

 

 

The slow dron-ish build up of Civilization is a lament for something lost.  Intermittent busts of sound grind out amid the bubble and flow of background ominous electronic swell. Tolling bells, quieted vocals – we are at a funeral people. A funeral for a civilization. Although The World as it is Today features a wide range of musical styles,  the style and mood for each song seems to match perfectly with the nature of the lyrics.

 

 

The Song of the Dignity of Labour Under Capital is downtrodden and resigned. Only “Albion Awake” seems a bit out-of-place; it’s a bleak downer of an ending, yet it is paired with a text that (finally) offers a glint of hope and revolution. The text remains unsung – the song is instrumental – perhaps a statement of Cutler’s pessimism about the prospects for a Marxian uprising and triumph of the oppressed.

So, if you’re home today, and feel like a little surfing, dip into the Art Bears for a while and get a feel for something  – else.

 

 

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