Tentative Review #123

Art Bears
Winter Songs

(released 1979)

1. The Bath Of Stars ****
2. First Things First ****1/2
3. Gold ****1/2
4. The Summer Wheel ****1/2
5. The Slave *****
6. The Hermit ****1/2
7. Rats & Monkeys *****
8. The Skeleton ****
9. The Winter Wheel ****1/2
10.Man & Boy ****1/2
11.Winter/War ****1/2
12.Force ****1/2
13.3 Figures *****
14.3 Wheels ****1/2




When Slapp Happy and Henry Cow joined forces in the mid-'70s, some cynical observers suggested that this was more an attempt by HC to "poach" SH singer Dagmar Krause than a declaration of ideological brotherhood. Such observers must surely have felt vindicated when the Art Bears grew out of the collapse of both bands, a few years later. In this new incarnation, Cow-veterans Fred Frith, Chris Cutler and Krause managed to release three albums before themselves dissolving in the early 1980s.

Aside from downsizing their membership, the trio also curtailed many of the lengthier jams which had been featured on earlier Cow recordings (eg. the second half of In Praise Of Learning). The Trouser Press Guide has noted a turn towards song-oriented material at this stage; this ignores the prominence of conceptual themes on the albums in question, but is generally correct nevertheless. In temporary sacrificing their virtuosity, Frith and Cutler allowed their art-jazz-noise creations to merge with Krause's vocals in a dialectic that was often haunting, and always impressive.

The first and last Art Bears albums probably did little to surprise their following from a thematic standpoint -- Hopes And Fears (1978), was a powerful study of a urban/leftist despair, and The World As It Is Today (1981) was a open condemnation of global capitalism (including such titles as "The Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capital", and such). Winter Songs, on the other hand, must have puzzled more than a few casual observers.

The lyrics to this album (written by Cutler) tell of an unfolding story, primarily derived from a series of engravings from the Amiens Cathedral (although two other cathedrals, including Nantes, are similarly utilized for one track apiece). The songs which result are primarily descriptive, focusing on the characters presented in the engravings. To the extent that a plot can be identified, however, the saga seems to focus on a boy entering the world by a divine hand, moving through various stages of knowledge (encountering seasonal changes, images of poverty, and war), and finally attaining a state of enlightenment through the mysterious third wheel, itself the passage from unknowing to knowing.

Determining the relative success or failure of this project is not entirely simple. The song-depictions, taken as individual components, work extremely well; the music travels from austerity to chaos in a brilliant fashion, and Krause's voice is almost perfectly suited to the occasion. In terms of the story being depicted, however, a few problems present themselves. Neither the course nor the outcome is particularly clear -- various allusions to the boy's development are easily identifiable, as are assorted references to unequal wealth distribution ... but, it isn't entirely clear what end this is all leading to. It is possible to derive a Gnostic/socialist interpretation of the lyrics (a wheel does move by revolution, after all, and the references to cosmology and the boy's development could easily suggest a gradual process of initiation), but complete gnosis is never given directly to the listener. I suppose that may have been the idea, of course ...

(Actually, part of this thematic obscurity may be traced to the fact that a book featuring the lyrics to this album and other writings was advertised on inside sleeve. These other lyrics may provide some further elucidation of Cutler's intentions -- did anyone actually buy the text?)

The saga begins with a depiction of the boy's birth in "The Bath Of Stars" (not based on an Amiens sculpture). Dagmar's esoteric lyrics ("He steps from a crucible, held by an angel ...") are made even more disturbing by virtue of the unconventional use of overdubs (ie. whispered vocals over a sung line). The angel is the piece is preparing to send a storm upon the boy, whether for destruction or initiation. The music is clearly secondary here, as synthesized majesty intermingles with a minimal keyboard presence.

"First Things First" is a work of instrumental austerity, with guitar, xylophone and vocals co-existing in a state of measured stability; the presence of kit drums adds greater diversity thereafter, though this work still seems balanced in its own enigmatic manner. As per the backmasked vocals at its beginning, the significance of this track to the greater whole is perhaps not entirely apparent to the uninitiated; the image of two trees, interconnecting and dying, certainly has more than its share of esoteric possibilities. This is followed by "Gold", a first-person declaration from the standpoint of the element in question; similar to Henry Cow's "War", this track is heavily drenched in socialist belief ("I disconnect, I can transform anything into what I am"), and may have been the most recognizable message for those confused by the esoterica. While only accompanied by a solo piano, Dagmar nevertheless manages to create a truly nasty vocal inflection for this song.

The primary theme is then rejoined with "The Summer Wheel", a jazz-rock track describing the wheel's presence above a summer field -- Cutler provides some excellent work on drums, Frith add some quality jazz guitar additions in the instrumental section, and Krause seems a bit less disruptive to the general process than usual (for whatever reason). Musically, this is an easy highlight for the work.

Even better is "The Slave", with its European violin stylings and curiously syncopated drum presence (somewhat heavier than on the other tracks as well). Krause's voice depicts a slave "day-dying" at a gate in this track, with emphasis on the soil about his presence; there then follows a more curious section -- "Then did we dream over our houses" -- which seems a response to the economic injustice which produced such a character; it isn't clear if the revolutionaries are of the lower or higher orders, though. Frith provides a truly harsh guitar section at the very end of the track, which soon reaches an abrupt end.

"The Hermit" is an odder work -- also depicting an image of poverty, but doing so in a tender, lullaby fashion more traditionally associated with conservative myths of "noble peasants" than with those of dedicated socialists. Frith and Krause both provide strangely consonant presences here, depicting the valiant hero of the image as he warms a fish (hmm ...) over an open fire. Strangely Celtic violins and drums appear in the instrumental breaks, for reasons not immediately apparent.

Perhaps such an idealized image of poverty was incapable of defending itself for long. In any event, "Rats & Monkeys" shatters the piece of the previous track, with Dagmar repeatedly warning of animal vermin overtaking the city; musical chaos surrounds her, including a profoundly deep bass presence and the expected guitar dissonance -- the music in the song's reprise is, if anything, even more chaotic than the primary body of the work. Considering the source (both the band and the inspiration for the song), it isn't too difficult to consider the piece as a metaphor for urban revolution, achieved as the piece reaches its end.

"The Skeleton" is another austere piece, depicting a figure dancing himself to the bones while in the grip of St. Vitus. The harsh keyboard presence offsets the order of the track somewhat, and Dagmar's harshly nonchalant take on the events in question gives the track a strong element of morbid beauty; on the other hand, Frith's decision to repeat the vocal line on guitar may not have been the best of all possible decisions.

This is followed by "The Winter Wheel", re-introducing the primary narrative of the track once again -- perhaps in reference to the plague activities described in the previous track, "black winter's wheel" is depicted as an isolating force, separating man from man, and creating further interest in otherworldly beliefs. This track combines the austerity and jazz-rock elements which dominate the album, with some good piano and drums performances in the process. From herein, all of the tracks seem focused towards the cycles of revolution, and the developing ambitions of the boy character.

"Man & Boy" reintroduces the boy-child to the story, depicting his harvesting of a "twisted tree" while his father uses the wood for fire (leading to an extremely strange hi-hat crescendo). The music of the piece is founded primarily on background chaos, with high-pitch wailing (from an electronic source) dominating much of the track, and isolated conversations audible on occasion; some production trickery is also present in Dagmar's voice towards the end.

The next two track flow together, joined by an extremely ambient guitar solo which seems as far removed from virtuosity as would be conceivable under the circumstances. "Winter/War" consists of an apprehensive piano line and metallic percussion, depicting "the breath of spring, cut short by death" as a season of war approaches. "Force" depicts a chaotic presence, identified as female, who "contains the winter, spewing forth the spring". The cycle clearly continues, though one may wonder if Cutler's Bonham-esque mixing for the middle section was called for.

"3 Figures" is one of the most important tracks in the series, depicting the responses of the boy, the man, and an aging king to the emerging presence of war (at some level, at least). As the boy wishes to lead forth into battle, his father attempts to limit his enthusiasm; the king, meanwhile, resigns himself to avoidance of the world and all of its trappings, though looking upon the boy with a profound (Saturnian?) fear. The music is marked by Frithian craftiness, resulting in possibly the most satisfying track in the cycle.

In comparison, the concluding "3 Wheels" falls slightly short of its goals; though successful in depicting the rise of the narrator (presumably the boy) to a state of higher knowledge, it nevertheless isn't quite as satisfying as it should be (though close). Krause's voice depicts the vision of the sun's double-wheel in the sky, and subsequently the image of a third wheel, not bound as the others in temporal matters; wondering if s/he is as Ezekiel in a trance, this figure then describes the wheel as a portal to wisdom, "which moves and is unmoving". This section could have been an extremely triumphant conclusion to the cycle [if a conclusion it is...], but is hindered somewhat by poorly conceived lyrical depictions (breathless depictions of "a wheel within a wheel", for instance, can hardly score many points on a scale of profundity). The music, after a ritualized percussive backing in the first section, is as esoteric as the lyric, revealing many possibilities while not actually affirming terribly much.

The album is strongly recommended to adventurous fans, though the inscrutable nature of some thematic variants may frustrate some listeners (obviously, those initiated in the secrets of Cocteau's grave or caught in eternal battle against the legacy of Clement V will feel perfectly at home). This is easily the most curious of the Art Bears releases; a case could be made that it's the best of the three as well.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 27 Aug 1998)

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