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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Art Bears: The World As It Is Today


1) The Songs Of Investment Capital Overseas; 2) Truth; 3) Freedom; 4) (Armed) Peace; 5) Civilisation; 6) Demo­cracy; 7) The Song Of The Martyrs; 8) Law; 9) The Song Of The Monopolists; 10) The Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capital; 11) Albion, Awake!.

I always found it hard to comprehend how it is that alt-left, pro-Marxist ideological attitudes so frequently go hand in hand with viciously avantgarde music (and not just music). Punk rock — no problem, this is something with which the suffering working class can identify in a matter of moments. But dissonance, atonality, weirdass time signatures, total disdain for the bourgeois attraction of a pop hook? It only really works with a thoroughly idealized concept of the «new worker», such as might have been entertained by occasional Soviet dreamers in the turbulent 1920s and never ever existed in reality. Instead, the main audience for this kind of music can only consist of relatively well-to-do middle class kids with intellectual yearnings. In between the Clash for the rebels and the Bee Gees for the rest, Art Bears, with their political agenda, never stood a real chance, not even when they pulled their act together and released a thoroughly politicized musical manifesto — right on the heels of their fling with the RIO movement, which never evolved beyond a couple of declarations and a couple of friendly get-togethers.

This is not to say, mind you, that pro-Marxist avantgarde rock has no place in art (or under the sun in general). At least in the case of this last album by Art Bears, it seems to me that ideologi­zation has played a positive role — after the somewhat sleepy Winter Songs, The World As It Is Today sounds almost demonically imbued by a new-found energy, and not just because Dag­mar Krause turns into a raging fury when rattling out Chris Cutler's lyrics, but because Fred Frith, too, seems dedicated here to producing an atmospheric masterpiece of doom, chaos, and atonal apocalypse. The result is a record that is, yet again, nowhere near as diverse or unpredictable as Hopes And Fears, but far more violent and overwhelming than Winter Songs.

Although a song title such as ʽThe Songs Of Investment Capital Overseasʼ is prone to making one giggle rather than sit up and take stern notice, the actual music is nowhere near comical — for­tunately, it is not entirely without its own warped sense of humor, but you will have to spend some time sniffing it out, in certain small corners of the musical arrangements and occasional ironic lyrical twists. As it stands upon first sight, though, the band takes its agenda very seriously, with dramatic piano chords strung together in bass-heavy phrases, waves of amplified piano resonance, and scurrying percussion creating a stormy atmosphere right from the very start — as if they really took that "overseas" aspect seriously, with visions of greedy capitalists crossing treacherous waves in sailships, their holds creaking and straining with chests of money expropri­ated from exploited workers.

Starting from the second track, the song titles get shorter and seem to be aimed at dismantling the propagandist lies behind such concepts as ʽTruthʼ, ʽFreedomʼ, ʽPeaceʼ, ʽCivilisationʼ, ʽLawʼ, and ʽDemocracyʼ. Once again, Krause plays the role of the Sibyl, but this time, a very mad, eccentric Sibyl, who might even resort to long periods of screeching like Yoko Ono's twin sister (ʽFree­domʼ — fortunately, her voice is a little lower than Yoko's) if it helps her get her point across. At the same time, Fred Frith is chopping down the pillars of Western civilization with his threate­ning soundscapes, three key elements of which are the bass section of the keyboard, screechy avantgarde violin playing, and guitar feedback. On ʽDemocracyʼ, in particular, the band raises the biggest ruckus up to date, despite the track being very short: first, we quickly learn that demo­cracy, according to Cutler's words and Krause's dramatic declaration of them, is a venom of scorpions bred from the bodies of a lion and a snake who killed each other, and then, in confir­mation of the judgement, a minute and a half of a musical tempest that pretty much equates democracy with anarchy... except these guys are supposed to love anarchy.

Despite my somewhat ironic assessment of the contents (you guessed, right?), there are plenty of fascinating musical ideas here, especially when the songs pick up steam, which they do quite often: ʽThe Song Of The Martyrsʼ, for instance, has a ferocious bassline accompanying the mes­sage of "things seem worse than ever", and ʽLawʼ is a brief funny snippet of avant-vaudeville, delivering its message in less than a minute's time and in the most hooliganish terms available to anybody with a loud set of pipes and a piano. ʽThe Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capi­talʼ is a hilarious deconstruction of a stereotypical «worker song», culminating in a fulminous battle of two out-of-tune pianos — almost enough to get me thinking that, perhaps, they can't really be too serious about all this. And, according to Cutler, the original lyrics to ʽAlbion Awake!ʼ were so violent that even Krause refused to sing them (eat your heart out, Sex Pistols!), leaving the song as an instrumen­tal cobweb of aggressive, but minimalistic keyboard parts, a more appropriate title for which should have been ʽEverything Is Brokenʼ.

That said, I am not altogether sure that I want to equate the positive effect of this album with the one of Hopes And Fears. In spite of the band's best efforts, the blunt political framework gives the whole thing a comic flavor — sometimes intentional, sometimes not — and the theatrical power of the work is undermined by this confusion. If it is serious, why is it all so over the top? If it is ironic, why is there such an atmosphere of seriousness? At times I begin to suspect that, perhaps, all of this album and not just its last track would have worked better if it were purely instrumental (and note: this has nothing to do with the anti-establishment / revolutionary nature of the lyrics, and everything to do with the ways they are integrated into the music). As it is, this forced marriage of political radicalism and avantgarde musical exploration now seems dated... heck, it must have probably seemed dated even way back in 1981 (didn't Jefferson Airplane, after all, try to do something similar in their Volunteers phase?).

It is unlikely that Art Bears split up due to creative differences — the project was never intended to become a long-term one in the first place — but it might be argued that The World As It Is Today, with its rigid political agenda in danger of overriding the music, got them cornered, and splitting up was the best way to get out of this place. Whatever be, I am not putting the album down: as I said, it can be musically fascinating right down to the point of kicking first-rate avant­garde ass, and the concept as such is at least amusing, if not exactly intriguing. But even so, and even against the potential arguments of the band's hardcore fans, I would insist that it promotes a more close-minded understanding of avantgardism than Hopes And Fears, a record that (per­haps incidentally — but who cares?) was much less afraid to weave together the challenging and the conventional, whereas The World As It Is Today, with its decisive lack of compromise, is not only less enjoyable, but even ends up making less sense.


  1. The short instrumental coda of The Song of the Martyrs reminds me of another political song: Banco's Canto Nomade.The Italians are way more convincing.

  2. "Closed-minded" - having a mind that is closed. As opposed to a close mind, which I guess would merely be adjacent.

  3. > how it is that alt-left, pro-Marxist ideological attitudes so frequently go hand in hand with viciously avantgarde music

    Because it's the only form of government, which might be granting money to avantgarde artists for no reason at all.