The Art Bears were a thinking person's rock trio, unfortunately destined to be also-rans during the age of punk's ascendancy. But for an outfit operating at the margins of popular music for less than two years, it turns out that the Bears left quite an impressive legacy, as evidenced by The Art Box, a 2004 Recommended Records set celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band's inception. The collection is crammed with six CDs, not to mention a CD single and several booklets, that nearly burst the box's seams. Members of the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy aggregation, multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, drummer Chris Cutler, and singer Dagmar Krause came together in 1978 and recorded three albums between the Art Bears' founding and breakup. These albums -- Hopes & Fears, Winter Songs, and The World as It Is Today -- are all here in remastered form (along with high-quality reproductions of the striking original cover art), as are two discs of remixes made by various artists over a six-year period, a disc of live material and miscellanea, and a single ("Coda to Man and Boy") that duplicates a track from the live/miscellanea disc but is a nice souvenir anyway. The three original albums presented an adventurous mix of avant rock experimentalism, smatterings of noise and dissonance, British folk flavors, medieval imagery, and leftist, anti-corporate politics -- all distilled into the short formats of art songs with an occasional cabaret feel. In other words, not exactly Top 40 material.
The Art Bears' uniqueness is immediately apparent upon listening to the first of their albums, 1978's Hopes & Fears, like all three of their studio efforts engineered by Etienne Conod at Sunrise Studios outside Zurich. Hopes & Fears was a transitional LP, first intended as a Henry Cow album and including contributions from Cow members Tim Hodgkinson, Lindsay Cooper, and Georgie Born. The sonic palette is wide (including guitar, violin, viola, piano, harmonium, xylophone, and bass...and those are just the instruments played by Frith!), and there is a Cow-ish instrumental flavor throughout ("Terrain" is purely instrumental). But the most striking impression probably comes from Krause's vocalizing, about as antithetical to a conventional rock style as one could get. A powerful singer with a wide range, Krause could also be viewed as strident and severe in this setting (more In Praise of Learning than Casablanca Moon), informed by the seriousness of Cutler's "texts." The liner notes point out that the "texts" (Careful! These are not "lyrics"!) preceded the music, and although Cutler professes that "a listener can't know by listening whether the music or the text came first," in this case many might at least hazard a guess that the words were first through the door and the music followed closely behind.
Pared down to the core Krause/Frith/Cutler trio on 1979's Winter Songs, the Art Bears truly achieved a singular identity distinct from that of Henry Cow. Inspired by medieval stone carvings, Cutler's lyrics are brief and direct, hinting at eternal dark mysteries and matched by music ranging from the frantic ("Rats and Monkeys") to the absolutely haunting (the closing "Three Wheels"). This is a showcase for Frith's uncanny multi-instrumental skills and reveals how supremely inventive he could be even in the briefest of formats. And the group was arguably still on an upward trajectory when The World as It Is Today -- the soundtrack to a nightmare brought on by world capitalism -- was recorded in late 1980. This is the Art Bears at their most political, still informed by the Brechtian axiom that had driven the latter-day Henry Cow: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it." The LP also has some of the band's most memorable tunes. And as for Dagmar at her most intense, her throat-shredding screams on "Freedom," even if electronically treated, would give Diamanda Galás a run for her money.
These three studio albums comprise only half of The Art Box. The double-disc Art Bears Revisited is a star-studded (well, avant-garde star-studded anyway) batch of remixes and "extra tracks" that might've been floating around in Cutler's sock drawer, with contributions from such usual suspects as Jon Rose, Otomo Yoshihide, John Oswald, the Residents, Bob Drake, Christian Marclay, and Annie Gosfield, not to mention Frith, Cutler, and a previously unreleased track by...the Art Bears! The remixes careen from the straightforward to the abstract, from the Spartan and meticulously arranged to the densely packed, yet there is always some logic involved and the similarity of the source material provides cohesiveness. A number of remixers had access to the 16-track masters but others used only the CDs and LPs as raw material, and in the latter cases the artists' ability to isolate and recombine sonic fragments is noteworthy.
The live/miscellanea disc has its own share of highlights, including a live version of "The Song of Investment Capital Overseas" by Duck and Cover and four songs performed live by an expanded version of the Bears (including Marc Hollander and Peter Blegvad), both with adequate sound quality. Perhaps surprisingly, the live Art Bears tracks reveal that the band -- a studio-based project if there ever were one -- could literally stomp in a concert setting, and they draw a raucously appreciative reaction from the crowd. The Art Box is a comprehensive document of a band that represented what the best rock music should be: utterly uncompromising. Ultimately, though, don't expect lighthearted fare; there is much for your listening displeasure here, summoning dark existential thoughts about life in its pure state and dark political thoughts about how humankind is apt to ruin the few gifts it is handed. Mixed with a bit of good old-fashioned revolutionary hope, that is. But the Art Bears didn't believe that the best music served a palliative function, and The Art Box makes a strong case for the intelligence and integrity of that particular stance.