“Even to-day, when individualism is rampant, art bears traces of its collective, social origin” (Jane Ellen Harrison, Ancient Art and Ritual).
Great quote, but what does it have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked, because I’m about to tell you. From that quote was taken the name of one of the most interesting and innovative progressive/experimental/avant-garde rock bands of all time: Art Bears. The band’s percussionist and lyricist, Chris Cutler said that “… not too much should be read into this; it just sounds intriguing, has an animal in it, plays with ambiguity and is mildly ridiculous.” A weird name for a weird band, and I absolutely love weird bands (provided that they are actually good).
Art Bears is definitely not a mainstream band (I know, I sound like a hipster), even in the prog mainstream, if there is such a thing, and I feel that they deserve a little more recognition, considering their historical and influential significance to avant-rock, not to mention their innovative and excellent music.
Art Bears’ third and final studio album, is, in my opinion, their finest offering, and a first rate contribution to progressive/experimental/avant-garde rock. Art Bears abandons a lot of free form improvisation common to other RIO bands (such as Henry Cow, from which they were spawned) in favor of more structured songs. I think that this works very well for them since the album is strongly political (anti-capitalist) and the structure helps to convey the theme. Every part contributes to the message of the whole. No instrument, note, beat, or lyric is superfluous.
Unlike a lot of other prog bands, Art Bears does not feature a lot of super-technical solos or musical masturbation (I’m looking at you, Dream Theater). Their songs focus very strongly on the songs themselves, rather than the individual musicians and their virtuosity. The percussion, bass, keys, and assorted other instruments are generally repetitive (though not unimpressive) and create a melancholy, dissonant atmosphere, over which guitars and vocals weave haunting, eerie, and unusual melodies.
However, Art Bears doesn’t just make music, they make art (as might be implied from their name). I know I sound like a hipster, but it’s true. Their music is very synaesthetic: it can be very tangibly felt and seen besides just merely being heard.
One of the biggest contributions to the music’s synaesthesia is the unique vocals of Dagmar Krause. Seldom has emotion been so tangible (it is all negative emotion, but remember, sad is happy for deep people). Her sprechstimme style of singing vitriolically captures the resentment felt toward capitalist oppression of the masses. In the song Freedom, Dagmar launches into a solo of screaming that is at once both unnerving and oddly appropriate. You can feel her pain and sorrow at the injustice she witnesses. You can see fists clench in frustration and teary eyes shut against the sight, and if you give yourself over to the music, you might find your own fists clenching in hatred at the capitalists and come to feel that Dagmar’s scream isn’t so much her own as an echo of yours.
It would be inadequate to discuss Dagmar’s vocal power without drawing attention to the lyrics that she so wonderfully animates. Lyrically, the album is heavily anti-capitalist and makes heavy use of irony. Many of the song titles are titled exactly opposite to their subject, such as Truth, Freedom, Peace, Civilisation, and The Song of Dignity Of Labour Under Capital. The lyrics of Truth make a fine example of the irony present throughout the album: “Then I went walking and I saw long queues, but little food…Then I got reading and I learned PROSPERITY had come, and this was EDEN. Worms appeared and TRUTH brushed them away.”
The role of the instruments in evoking feelings and images is no less significant than that of vocals or lyrics. To me, the instrumentation evokes the setting in which the characters (brought to life by Dagmar) are set. For example, the eerie soundscape of mellotron, guitar, and violin in the song Civilisation conjures an image of a bleak sunset over a smokey, grey, post-apocalyptic hellscape. Over this background, Dagmar’s dissonant vocals creep, embodying a melancholy witness of civilization’s end. In The Song of the Martyrs, a haunting song and the only one on the album that is beautiful in anything approaching a conventional sense, the piano looks and sounds like tears dripping from the eyes of an oppressed worker and feels like sorrow.
Special mention must be made of the phenomenal guitar work of Fred Frith, since he is pretty much the experimental guitar player par excellence. His solos are not the blazing pyrotechnics of the likes of John Petrucci or Yngwie Malmsteen, but are simple or complex as is required for the emotional expression dictated by the song. Although the uniqueness and odd-phrasing of his solos make his guitar work stand out, at no time is it ever conveyed that the songs exist as a showcase of Fred Frith. He uses noise about as often as notes in creating the mood of each song and at times his guitar is like a second vocalist. I’d like to go back to Freedom as an example of this. Dagmar’s aforementioned solo of screaming is really more like a duet with Fred’s guitar, which also sounds like it’s screaming. The grating string noise and wailing bends can be felt, heard, and seen as a mechanized howl of an oppressed, industrialized society.
Every song on the album has its own subtleties to unravel, which require multiple listens, pondering, and patience. Though I could probably write an individual review for each song to highlight their individuals nuances and excellence, I won’t.
If you love thought-provoking, melancholy, political, artistic, experimental music, then you should definitely check out this album. Even your preferred musical tapestry is one with dragons and wizards, give it a listen anyway. You might like it. Also, multiple listens are definitely required to truly appreciate the album, so unless you absolutely despise it the first time, give it another shot. You might end up loving it. If this review makes you into an Art Bears fan, just remember…I liked them before you did!
Very little of the album is available on Youtube, but here are two of the songs I discussed in the review: Freedom and Truth.