There is, though you probably aren’t aware of the fact, a parallel universe in which Henry Cow are the biggest band on the planet. It’s a neat place, too; not only because the Cow stalked our own version of the seventies like a pack of predatory shadows, pouncing upon the weaknesses of the world and making mincemeat of their pretensions, but also because the host of bands that erupted in their wake had no alternative but to follow suit, creating a series of musical disciplines whose one unifying feature was the death of commercial pap.
It was called Rock in Opposition, and in March 1978, five bands from around western Europe came together at the New London Theatre to shatter all preconceptions of what the music ought to be: Henry Cow, Italy’s Stormy Six, France’s Eltron Fou Leloublan, Sweden’s Salma Mammas Manna and from Belgium, Univers Zero.
By the end of the year, RIO had developed into a collective, its membership swollen by another Belgian band, Aksak Maboul, a second French act, Art Zoyd, and the Art Bears, formed from the remains of the now-splintered Cow. And when RIO faded as an actual organization, its spirit lived on, as a musical genre to those who care for such things; but, more importantly, as a musical ideal.
An ideal that for a few years in the early 1980s was exemplified by yet another Belgian act, Present.
Frontman Roger Trigaux had established a reputation already, as a member of Univers Zero. He quit in 1979 following UZ’s second album, but the dark leanings of both Heresie and its predecessor, 1313 were not to be abandoned. Two Present albums, Triskaidekaphobie (1980) and Le Poison Qui Rend Fou (recorded in 1983, released in 1985) stand as such monumental bookends that it scarcely matters what the band did in-between times. Music like this is itself timeless. In fact, bonus material on the newly remastered editions of both offers us an extraordinary glimpse into the intervening years, and it is just as enthralling as the studio stuff.
It was stubbornly non-commercial, at least at the time. Today, Present’s sound is less avant-progressive (the term most frequently flung at them) than it is a forebear of a lot of what passed as Prog in more recent years. Yet it also determinedly eschewed any of the cliches that were, are, and forever will be the foundation stones of the music. Like Henry Cow, Present's influence can be found in so many places today. But the source remains unrepeatable.
Present’s majesty is given a thorough workout across two new CDs, deluxe reissues of their two 1980s albums. Both albums are loaded down with bonus material - twenty minutes worth live material recorded in 1981 on Triskaidekaphobie; and a full disc’s worth of a 1982 show on Le Poison, in addition to a heap of video extras, and chunky booklets discussing the history of the band with Trigaux and sundry other band members.
Cherry-picking highlights is impossible. Long time RIO addicts will probably be most astonished by the live material on Triskaidekaphobie; both “Dense” and “Vous Le Saurez en Temps Voulu,” from the Univers Zero repertoire, are utterly rearranged, rockier and more electric than their original incarnations, and absolutely in keeping with the new band’s outlook.
Another peak is “Promeade au Fond d’un Canal,” a nineteen minute monolith that shares its episodic roots with the likes of Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready” and Van Der Graaf’s “Plague of Lighthouse Keepers.” But it travels so much further (and continues to do so - it remains in the current Present’s line-up to this day), to clatter, shatter, shudder and twist across any preconception that any individual passage might engender.
Even more epic is Le Poison’s “Erstaz,” a twenty-five minute piece of such sprawling complexity that the listener is still recovering from the experience when it comes around again, a live rendition among the bonus tracks.
An evening spent with these two albums is a breathtaking experience, and one that probably demands a few listens before everything truly sinks in and makes musical sense; RIO in general was responsible for some scintillating music, but also a lot that could be deemed “difficult.”
But there’s a beauty here, and a demanding drama that ultimately emerges among the most rewarding you will ever hear. Unless, of course, you've already spent time in that parallel universe we mentioned earlier. In that case, you already know how great it is.