Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Henry Cow

  • The Henry Cow Legend [Virgin, 1973] B
  • Unrest [Red, 1979] A-
  • Western Culture [Interzone, 1980] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Henry Cow Legend [Virgin, 1973]
Composed to encourage improvisation, influenced by jazz yet identifying with Europe, and categorizable only as rock (although calling one cut "Teenbeat" is stretching things), the music of these Cambridge progressives is more flexible than King Crimson's and more stringently conceived than Soft Machine's. As is usual in this style, not everything works. As is also usual, the guitar (Fred Frith) carries more clout than the saxophone (Geoff Leigh). As is not usual, you can listen to what few lyrics there are without getting sick. B

Unrest [Red, 1979]
Finally released in the States five years after it came out in Britain, this demanding music shows up such superstar "progressives" as Yes for the weak-minded reactionaries they are. The integrity of Cow's synthesis is clearest in "Bittern Storm Over Ulm," based on the Yardbirds' "Got to Hurry"--instead of quoting sixteen bars with two or three instruments, thus insuring their listeners another lazy identification, they break the piece down, almost like beboppers. Though the saxophone is still second-rate and the more lyrical rhythms flirt with a cheap swing, the band is worthy of its classical correlatives--Bartok, Stockhausen, and Varese rather than Tchaikovsky and predigested Bach. A-

Western Culture [Interzone, 1980]
Right, it's not "rock"--it's modern chamber music utilizing "Rock" instruments, namely guitar-organ-drums, as well as brass and woodwinds of varying couth. It's jarring without valorizing the random, the way this group always is at its best, and it eschews the highbrow vocalizing favored by this group at its worst. I don't know much about chamber music, but I know what I like--"rock" instruments. A-