Henry Cow’s politics were as radical as their music, – no wonder the dominant color of the artwork is red, which symbolizes Communist ideologies – and this was never more explicit than on In Praise of Learning, the second album to emerge from the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy collaboration and the third Henry Cow album. Two albums were recorded almost at the same time by both groups together, the first one being released under Slapp Happy’s name and called Desperate Straights, while this one was released a few months later. Henry Cow’s lyrical content is focused on Marxist ideologies and revolutionary idealism. Also, this’s the third and final album featuring the chainmail sock artwork.
The album opens with “War”, a wonderful unconventional short song, catchy melody and menacing lyrics almost spitted out like venom from a furious lamia by Dagmar Krause, the result works fantastically. This leads into the album’s centerpiece, Tim Hodgkinson’s remarkable “Living In The Heart Of The Beast”, 15 minute piece full of complex and compelling music. Fred Frith plays lead guitar over a desolate soundscape while Dagmar intones doom laden lyrics. The interplay between Frith’s guitar and Dagmar’s voice in the first half of this composition is remarkable. After painting a picture of bleak desperation, the second half of the piece is rhythmic and focused and the lyrics offer a way out. It says a lot about Henry Cow’s abilities as composers and performers that a revolutionary manifesto sung over complex music is also catchy in places. The rhythm gradually speeds up as the piece draws to a conclusion, propelled by a wonderful bubbling and melodic bassline from John Greaves. This brought side A of the original vinyl to a close.
The second half of the album opens with “Beginning: The Long March”, a studio improvisation/sound collage of the type that Henry Cow included on the second half of their second album “Unrest”. This is surely the most difficult listening even by the standards of this album, it’s more avant-gard and atmospheric than the previous two, but it works very effectively. The centerpiece of side B is “Beautiful as the Moon – Terrible as an Army With Banners”, words by Chris Cutler and music by Frith. The arrangement is simple and uncluttered, with Dagmar singing over a piano/drums accompaniment with only the most subtle of embellishments. Cutler’s drumming is economical and restrained but as restless and complex as ever, and this may be his finest moment. The album ends with “Morning Star”, another improvisational instrumental, with exotic-sounding bends, bizarre noises, and fantastic drumming. Once again, Cutler’s performance is of importance particularly in this song.
All in all, In Praise of Learning is an absolute masterpiece with a radiant combination of instrumentation, song-writing, emotion, intellect, everything that makes each song unique and full of true magic, Dagmar Krause’s powerful voice adds a new dimension to Henry Cow’s music. Whether you agree with their left wing politics leanings or not, the band could be viewed as revolutionary pioneers and would definitely have made many artists and listeners sit up and take notice. (Sputnikmusic)