Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Rock In Opposition: A Primer

Prog, it seems is a four-letter word. I often feel sheepish when declaring I love it even in its more mainstream form. Yes and ELP are great in the right forms and doses (Close To The Edge, the Tarkus suite) partly because they are ludicrously overblown, but this makes them largely intellectually unsatisfying and poe-faced. The majority of the best work of the genre took place on its fringes, in the so-called 'Avant-Prog' subgenre, which is itself usually broken down into three main subgenres: Zeuhl, a set of bands linked to or influenced by the sublime Magma; Canterbury Scene, a rather self-explanatory collecting of bands such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Gong; and Rock In Opposition.

In actuality, Rock In Opposition is not strictly a genre (or subgenre), rather a movement. When dropped by Virgin, British band Henry Cow decided to continue outside of the mainstream, and to celebrate this they invited four bands they had encountered on tours of Europe to appear on a festival bill with them in London. Those four bands were Belgium's Univers Zero, Italy's Stormy Six, France's Etron Fou Leloublan and Sweden's Samla Mamma Mannas, and that festival took place on 12th March 1978, under the name Rock In Opposition.

While all could be considered Avant-Prog, the festival was not a collection of stylistically similar bands - Univers Zero's gloomy Stravinsky-inspired chamber-rock differs greatly from Etron Fou's mischievous Dadaist music - rather, they were, as the festival's flyer puts it, "five rock groups the record companies don't want you to hear."

By the end of 1978, the success of the festival inspired the participating bands to form an organisation under the same name. Three bands were added to the collective: France's Art Zoyd, Belgium's Aksak Maboul and Henry Cow-offshoot Art Bears (Henry Cow had disbanded by this point). Further festivals and meetings took place between the bands the following year, but by the end of the decade the organisation was no longer functioning.

Despite the diversity of the groups involved, the term Rock In Opposition has since been applied to a subgenre of bands in the spirit of or inspired by the original set, such as the American bands Thinking Plague and 5uu's.

Ten great RIO albums

Henry Cow with Slapp Happy - In Praise Of Learning
While Prog generally had little room for women, thankfully this does not hold for RIO. Cow already featured reeds player amongst their ranks, but their best work came when Dagmar Krause joined the group on its collaboration with her band Slapp Happy, with her atypical vocals complementing the instrumental mindset of the rest of the band.

Univers Zero - Ceux du Dehors
Placed alongside its predecessor Heresie, Ceux du Dehors is almost playful, but that is to say it is ominous rather than funereal. The Belgians' music, woodwind-laden and heavily influenced by 20th century masters Bartok and Stravinsky, exhibits masterful interplay here through its dizzying, shifting rhythms.

Etron Fou Leloublan - Batelages
Etron Fou Leloublan's (roughly translating to 'Crazy Shit, The White Wolf') debut exudes naivety, a surrealist sense of humour (fluency in French not needed to realise this) and a disdain for conventional structure on a par with Godard's Weekend. Yet this doesn't hide the group's talented musicianship, particularly of its rhythm section - Ferdinand Richard (bass) and Guigou Chenevier (drums) - who would become the band's core.

Samla Mammas Manna - Klossa Knapitatet
Samla Mammas Manna were already on the fringes of an anti-commercial movement in Sweden, called Progg, but their humourous nature jarred with the more political bands of the movement. Their music is simultaneously bravura and silly, while encompassing fusion, folk and circus influences.

Art Bears - Hopes & Fears
When composing new material for a Henry Cow album, some members were dissatisfied with the more song-oriented pieces being written by drummer Chris Cutler and guitarist Fred Frith. These 'songs' formed the basis of the first Art Bears album, with Cutler and Frith being joined by Dagmar Krause. Even when it veers into rockist, The Who-influenced territory, it remains far from conventional. Not to be confused with an album by a wet indie band.

Aksak Maboul - Onze Danses Pour Combattre la Migraine
It's hard to identify this and its successor, Un Peu de l'Ame des Bandits, as the work of the same band, but the same can be said of pairings of songs on the same album. Flitting between classical, ethnic music and jazz, the album's electronic passages seemingly foretell 8-bit video game background music.

Art Zoyd - Génération Sans Futur
A French band in the Univers Zero vein, Art Zoyd take that band's dissonance and portent and use sporadic vocals and trumpet stabs and squalls to give it a more visceral, confrontational edge. Later work has seen the band focus on creating new soundtracks for German Expressionist classics.

Present - High Infidelity
RIO continues to produce great music beyond its original temporal bounds, as evidenced by this 2001 effort from a reformed Present, who originally formed in 1979 when guitarist Roger Trigaux left Univers Zero. The album's stunning centrepiece is the six-part, 28-minute Souls For Sale, built upon violent, brutal, hypnotic repetition.

Fred Frith - Gravity
This solo album, inspired by 'dance music' of multiple cultures, sees the Henry Cow/Art Bears guitarist backed by Samla Mannas Manna on side one, and Americans The Muffins on side two, with further input from Aksak Maboul man Marc Hollander. Frith and his collaborators expertly craft an album that is as joyous as it is complex.

Thinking Plague - In Extremis
A band heavily inspired by the Henry Cow/Art Bears strand of RIO (most obviously through the presence of unconventional female vocals, though supplemented by strange male vocals), Thinking Plague take this and other influences (Fripp, circus, klezmer) into more cinematic territory.

[EDIT: Some interesting responses have been made by Alex and Dave.]