Winter Songs is often overlooked in favor of the more esoteric work bookending this collection of Medieval noise folk experimentation.
In the ‘70s, the collaborative spirit seemed to have swept through the British art rock scene. Countless performers comingled on each other’s albums and, in a variety of configurations, explored similar sonic territory. This spirit of creative collaboration was perhaps most highly concentrated around the virtually unclassifiable music of Henry Cow. Serving as the nexus of a wildly experimental scene and seeing a virtual who’s-who of the avant-garde wing of British art rock, Henry Cow’s influence and ideals spread quickly during the decade in which they existed, each member popping up here and there on other artists’ albums before striking out on their own.
One such collaboration subsequently morphed into one of the decade’s great art rock supergroups. As Henry Cow as a band was on its last legs, guitarist Fred Frith and percussionist Chris Cutler began working with Slapp Happy vocalist Dagmar Krause. The trio had worked together from 1975’s Desperate Straights on through the dissolution of Henry Cow prior to coming out under the Art Bears moniker in 1978 with their politically-charged brand of avant-garde art rock on Hopes & Fears.
Within the span of four years the group released three albums before going their separate ways. The middle of which, Winter Songs, is often overlooked in favor of the more esoteric work bookending this collection of Medieval noise folk experimentation. After releasing their debut on Chris Cutler’s own Recommended Records imprint, Art Bears elected to have their follow-up released through fellow oddball’s The Residents’ Ralph Records. And while there would be subsequent releases featuring each member trickling out on Ralph, this would be the Art Bears sole album released by the aggressively avant-garde group’s label.
Given this change in label for the middle of their three studio albums proper, it’s not surprising Winter Songs is also their most distinctly different work. Where both Hopes & Fears and The World as It Is Today were lyrically based in Cutler’s Socialist views and Frith’s cacophonous approach to any instrument he laid his hands on, Winter Songs plays more like a traditional song cycle. Taking as his lyrical inspiration a series of carvings adorning the thirteenth century Amiens Cathedral in France, Cutler creates a set of impressionistic, almost abstractly poetic lyrics struck through with medieval imagery and allusions.
While in keeping with the Residents’ decidedly non-commercial aesthetic, here the music of Art Bears maintains a level of intriguing accessibility often lacking in even the most listener-friendly of underground efforts. Amidst the noise and arcane language lies a number of interesting ideas that feel far ahead of their time. On “The Slave” in particular, Frith deploys a searing onslaught of guitar scree that both sounds and feels as though it could have been recorded yesterday as opposed to nearly forty years ago.
Opening with an eerie doubled vocal that finds Krause using both her upper register and intimate whisper as one voice, “The Bath of Stars” sets the tone for what is to be an often unsettling, albeit it fascinating, approach to both song construction and the use of noise as both melody and harmony. “Rats and Monkeys,” the album’s clear highlight, is an urgently frantic bit of post-punk and atonal squall carried forward by an insistent, repetitive pounding on the keys and Krause’s slightly unhinged, half-shrieked vocals. It’s a fascinating bit of noise and rhythm juxtaposed to create the musical equivalent of falling down the stairs at an uncomfortable rate of speed. It’s an exhilarating three minutes that stands up to the best post-punk has to offer.
Among the more traditionally structured tracks is “The Summer Wheel,” built around Cutler’s jazz-informed drumming and Frith’s contrasting, cascading piano and bass duet. Here they come closest to fractured prog rock, adopting medieval melodic ideas and granting them a slightly left-of-center feel that prevents it from falling squarely into ELP territory. Here they allow the song to stretch and breathe, affording the music space and room to grow outside the strict confines of the shorter forms throughout.
Throughout the album, songs build and fall apart, feeling almost patchwork in their composition. It’s a somewhat esoteric approach that ultimately proves more accessible in its paired-down form than their previous work with both Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. Within the span of a few minutes, Art Bears are able to explore the push and pull tension, the release of noise and ethereal beauty. At the center of this is Krause’s unsettling, inimitable vocal presence. Sounding alternately like a Teutonic Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galas, Krause’s vocals cut through Frith and Cutler’s sonic morass as they swoop and dive and push the limits of the human voice. In this, she proves herself an ideal foil to the often unhinged work of her bandmates.
“Man and Boy” opens with a series of brutal blasts of sustained noise that ultimately collapse into what sounds like Cutler tossing pots and pans around a stainless steel kitchen as Krause looks on nonplussed. Similarly, “The Slave” has an approximation of post-punk’s art-funk pretensions and uses halting, stop-start rhythms to underscore Krause’s atonally harmonic vocal rants providing a visceral listening experience.
Recorded and produced in a mere two weeks in Sweden, Winter Songs is an impressive, often impenetrable blend of ideas that showcase this veritable supergroup of the avant-garde. These 14 relatively short pieces run the gamut from pastoral pleasantries to harsh, atonal caterwauling and all points in between. Put together, it all makes Winter Songs an exhilarating, accessible listening experience for those looking to explore all the late-‘70s British art rock underground has to offer.