The previous Henry Cow / Slapp Happy collaboration, _Desperate Straits_, seemed at its root more of a Slapp Happy album with masterful, yet peripheral, contributions from Cow's personnel. _In Praise of Learning_, on the other hand, is very much a Cow album. Like the previous Cow LP, _Unrest_, _In Praise of Learning_ balances the album with compositional brilliance and very effective improvised experiments. In many ways it is not musically so different from _Unrest_, but for the contributions of their fellows in Slapp Happy. This involvement makes _In Praise of Learning_ one of rock-in-opposition's monolithic works, wonderful even if ultimately not the best of Henry Cow's releases. The lyrical and instrumental imagery is powerful and the music is unforgettable.
Perhaps most crucial here is the introduction of a "real" singer, Dagmar Krause, who is more than a mere conduit for the group's callow Marxist philosophy. Hers is some of the best voice work ever put to tape. Listen only to the opening track, "War", one of the all-time great opening songs, an awesome sort-of-art-punk classic. Dagmar's aggressive vocal lines are propelled on a piano-and-bass vamp scattered with bursts of horn, and sick instrumental jazzy interludes. Without a doubt the best prog song ever under two-and-a-half minutes long. "Living in the Heart of the Beast" is the definitive RIO epic, the vocals would steal the show but Hodgkinson's composition is to this day exemplary for its field. It is perfect from beginning to end, from its searing Frithian opening, to its beautiful violin solos, its brutal middle section of angular riffs and tone rows, to its triumphant crescendo finale. It is tough, dissonant, and sinewy but never noisy or pretentious, it is simply thrilling epic music. "Beginning - The Long March" is a dark, tense improv, highly edited, evoking Univers Zero jamming to Stockhausen. It has a definite chamber music vibe, with mysterious acoustic flourishes appearing, throughout layers of noise, moving between abstract twittering and grim ambience. "Beautiful as the Moon, Terrible as an Army with Banners" is a RIO anthem for voice, piano, and drums. The best part of before is near the final verse, with double-tracked piano dissonantly weaving through irregular rhythmic patterns and interlocking tempi. Krause's proclamation with the heavy, bassy strikes, cascading piano, hissing cymbals. "Morning Star" is another weird instrumental piece, this coming across a fiery jazz ensemble playing Schoenberg. too good.
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