First off, this triple-CD offering is misnamed; it's actually Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. It features three absolutely stellar sets from London, Rome, and Paris on the In Praise of Learning tour in 1975. Along with the three Cow principals -- Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, and Tim Hodgkinson with guest Robert Wyatt, who stars on virtually every track here as a vocalist with Dagmar Krause -- are John Greaves, Lindsay Cooper, Peter Blegvad, and Anthony Moore, among others. The three sets are all the same in that they are comprised of the same thematic and song titles. They basically break down as: "Beautiful as the Moon: Bad as an Army With Banners" suite, which contains "Nirvana for Mice," "Ottawa Song," "Gloria Gloom," and "Ruins." This suite is about 35 minutes long, with all kinds of surprising twists and turns along the way -- such as one tune may not ever be fully executed while another may stretch on long past its prescribed length. Next is the "Muddy Mouses" suite, which contains "Solar Flares," "Muddy Mouse (b)," "Black Notes and One White Note," "Muddy Mouse (c)," and "Muddy Mouth." Again, slipstream approaches in all three performances accent the band improvising on song structure so much that it's difficult to discern how they in fact were able to follow one another -- given that all three of these performances were in the same month at the beginning of the tour. Next is a long group improvisation that features the three principal members and Cooper going head to head as Graves, Moore, and Blegvad slip in and out of the mix. Next is the "Bad Alchemy Suite," which is basically just Wyatt's "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road" and "Living in the Heart of the Beast." The intensity and focus that Cow/Slapp Happy display in executing their material, and the fluidity with which they slip from structured material to improvisation, is astonishing to say the least. The control over pace, drama, and dynamic is wondrous, and given that these are live recordings, the pitch control of Krause, Wyatt, and Cooper is mind-blowing, just staggering really. Each performance is different from the one before it, each performance has its own unique pathos and humor, and each performance digs deeply into the fabric of a given tune or suite and pulls out the unexpected at just the right moment. If Cow and Slapp Happy contributed anything to the art rock scene, it was timing and a sense of elasticity missing in so much of the music from the prog rock era and beyond. The only drawback here is the quality of the recordings themselves. It's "good" but obviously from the audience and not a board tape. The listener can hear everything, and there isn't a ton of hiss, but ultimately it is for fans only. It's a revelatory document that suffers no less or more than the great Jazz at Massey Hall from the late '40s concert (available on the Original Jazz Classics label). Serious fans of Cow who don't already have this material on CD (it is far superior in sound quality to the bootleg cassette and LP versions) will have to have it. Hearing entire sets played through like this is at the very least inspirational, and at most, high art.
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