The Rock In Opposition movement came about in 1978 at a concert in London organised by Henry Cow. A show that included Univers Zero (Belgium), Stormy Six (Italy), Etron Fou Leloublan (France) Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden) as well as HC themselves, it brought together a diverse array of players whose musical journeys and expressions were quite different from the other.
What united them was a belief that the then-current music industry and its increasing drive for commercialism and a certain homogenous outlook were something they all stood against. Though all of these outfits were increasingly marginalised there was evidence that there was indeed an audience. The notion of creating an ecosystem independent of the major labels was very much an idea before its time.
Since that original festival, there have been many other RIO events and with it a widening of the bands who might fall under the Rock In Opposition banner. Much like the term Canterbury scene, it has become a generic term to describe a particular approach to the act of making music.
Although all of the bands who affiliate themselves with the description are wildly diverse and musically different, they all share a sense of defiance that stands in the face of outright commerciality, remaining true to their own beliefs and artistic freedom.
Henry Cow’s Chris Cutler told Prog in 2012, “I think the spirit of RIO these days is that you’re doing what you want to do and you’re not making concessions to the market place.” Here are some tracks from those original RIO bands and a few that have followed in their wake.
Samla Mammas Mana - Dundrets Frojder (1971)
Formed by keyboardist Lars Holmer in 1969 Samla Mammas Manna (which means Collect Mother’s Manna), encapsulate a brash and bold quality that sometimes places the Uppsala-based quintet within the orbit of the Canterbury scene as well as playful compositions that sometimes come with a pronounced Zappa-ish tang and absurdist humour.
Mostly instrumental, their music is an eclectic blend that also incorporates a dose of Swedish folk music shot through with fusion-friendly time signatures, propelled and accented by Hasse Bruniusson’s assertive drumming and Holmer’s electric piano. All of the band’s album’s reward investigation with their second, Måltid, released in 1973 being especially powerful. The group played at the inaugural RIO event in London, going on to back Henry Cow’s Fred Frith on his 1980, Gravity recording.
Henry Cow - Ruins (1974)
Not so much founders but more convenors of the Rock In Opposition Henry Cow’s three albums recorded during their unhappy tenure with Richard Branson’s Virgin company constitute some of the most creative releases on the label. Arguably the key track from Henry Cow’s second album Unrest, the mournful architecture of this Fred Frith composition stands as one of the band's key moments on their Virgin discography.
Opening with an eerie multi-tracked violin, cautious woodwind motifs cautious peeking out only to be abruptly punctuated by piano and percussion, the piece then rapidly unravels into washes of harsh organ washes, roaming bass, and frenzied drums. Mixing tightly articulated structures and improvisation, as the piece threatens to sink into seething chaos, the focus sharpens once again. The violin and bassoon duet in the middle of Ruins, with percolating xylophone, dissonant woodwind figures, and Fred Frith’s distorted, mewling guitar solo, ensures the track keeps the listener guessing as to what comes next.
Henry Cow - Living In The Heart Of The Beast (1975)
There are two distinct periods in Henry Cow’s story. The first part is their time as a mostly instrumental group with occasional somewhat diffident singing. The second is where they take on a dedicated vocalist following their merger with Slapp Happy, hence the inclusion of a second track by the group in this primer. A formidable and often foreboding piece from their third and final album for Virgin, In Praise Of Learning, it was written by keyboardist Tim Hodgkinson.
Originally entirely instrumental, with singer Dagmar Krause now on board lyrics were suddenly required. What Hodgkinson came up with was an epic and impassioned condemnation of capitalism’s insatiable appetite for profit for the few over the needs of the many. Dagmar gives it her all in a strident tone bringing to mind Austrian singer Lotte Lenya.
Peppered with so many jaw-dropping flourishes including the jaw-dropping unison piece for guitar and organ that begins just after the 10-minute mark, demonstrating the band’s absolute command of challenging textures deployed in the service of making a huge impact.
Univers Zero - Ronde (1977)
With a sound that in the years following their 1977 debut release has woven clarinet, violin, bassoon, keyboards, brass, bass and drums into a compelling and often darkly brutal narrative, the legend emblazoned on the band’s old website, “If Stravinsky had a rock band, it would sound like this” probably hit the nail on the head.
Belgian’s premier chamber rock ensemble, also present at the 1978 RIO event, offers a sometimes austere and challenging musical landscape for the listener to navigate. Yet these stark pieces, such as Ronde, from their first album, wrangle complex forms into adventurous and imaginative works that are as exciting as they are unsettling. After several changes in personnel, the sound has altered to a degree but later albums up to and including 2014’s, Phosphorescent Dreams, all contain stirring examples of their sombre brilliance.
Stormy Six - L'orchestra Dei Fiscietti (1977)
Another band appearing on the first 1978 RIO concert, this Italian band originally hailed from the R&B beat boom of the mid-1960s. Ion subsequent years they evolved a potent blend of rock and folk appending a left-of-centre political message to their material.
1977’s L’Apprendista (The Apprentice) threads together a critique of Italian society at the time, through a suite of songs frequently punctuated by concise string arrangements and tangles of interlocking guitar. L’Orchestra dei Fischietti (literally translated as The Whistle Orchestra) is an episodic piece covering atonal ambiguity, slashing rock chords, strident folk melodies, and a dizzying chorus of vocal hocketing, a technique that Gentle Giant fans will instantly recognise.
Etron Fou Lelouban - Pourrissement Des Organes Interieurs (1978)
Originally called Etron Fou, (a colloquial expression that roughly translates as ‘mad shit,’) their first gig in December 1973 was supporting Magma. Drawing upon influences such as Gong, Soft Machine, Sun Ra, and Captain Beefheart, their music revels in n repetitive motifs and wildly contrasting textures.
One of the bands performing at the original Rock In Opposition festival in 1978, they continued their association with Henry Cow, appearing on Fred Frith’s 1981 solo release, Speechless, and who in turn produced their fourth album, Les Poumons Gonflés, released in 1982. Recorded at the first RIO event, Pourrissement des Organes Intérieurs (or Rotting Internal Organs) embraces a manic, punkish energy with Chris Chanet’s paint-stripping sax weaving through Ferdinand Richards’ steadfast bass and Guigou Chenevier’s explosive drumming.
Present - Vertiges (2009)
Formed in 1979 after leaving Univers Zero, guitarist/keyboardist Roger Trigaux’s multi-national troop possesses a brow-furrowing virtuosity and bone-crunching dynamics in roughly equal measure. Operating in much the same astringent field by chamber-rock ensembles such as Henry Cow and Magma, Present’s music is as imposing as it is demanding.
Taken from 2009’s Barbaro (ma non trope) the splintery, explosive nature of Trigaux’s compositions invoke Stravinsky, Messiaen or more contemporary classical works with their studied angularity and harmonic density. However studious Present’s labyrinthine material may be it is never dull as the musicians hop, skip, and jump their way through Trigaux’s imaginative and abstruse scores. Almost every beat and bar brings with it an unexpected confluence of piano, electric cello, bass, drums, sax, and electric guitar at a pace that is both bracing and intriguing.
Gaupo - The Pilman Radiant (2013)
Although drummer David Smith is now taken up with The Holy Family and Kavus Torabi is preoccupied with The Utopia Strong Guapo’s output over eight albums from 1997’s Towers Open Fire through to 2015’s Obscure Knowledge all bear the hallmark of a group unafraid to experiment and push into new and sometimes arduous territories.
The band’s affinity with the RIO movement first arose at the RIO festival in Carmzaux in France in 2007. The Pilman Radiant, from 2013’s History Of The Visitation, is a 26-minute suite brimming with baleful drones, knife-edge strings, and Kavus Torabi’s spine-tingling guitar riffs, unleashes an urgent gutsiness that continues with twitchy intensity without cessation. Like an iceberg, only the very tip of this epic work can be heard in this brief but powerful excerpt.
Aksask Maboul - Histoires De Fous (2020)
Shapeshifting Belgian outfit joined the ranks of the RIO movement in the late 1970s. Founder member Marc Hollander has said that he is at heart a collagist, building pieces from many diverse sources to produce a roiling melange of textures and moods. Over the course of an intermittent career spanning over 40 years, they have produced a varied, intentionally eclectic sound that defies any easy categorisation.
With a discography whose tracks might encompass anything from musique concrète collisions, TV show soundtrack aesthetics, pop music confections, avant-electronica burbling, rock, jazz, ambient, and anything else that might spark interest their collective interest, nothing is off the table as this track from 2020’s Figures, readily illustrates. The fact that they can be hard to pin down might alienate some but their willingness to change and challenge themselves makes their music especially interesting.
Mirador - Boomerang (2022)
Founded in 1980 this Quebec-based RIO-affiliated outfit excel in producing music that’s playful and ambiguous in nature. Their latest album, Elements, was described in Prog as being ‘reassuringly eclectic’ with Boomerang starting in “classic, band-falling-downthe-stairs mode, before developing into a blend of wonky jazz and Gentle Giant-like complexity.”
Founder and keyboardist Pascal Globensky has said the name of the group was simply a word he invented. Much like the music itself, it defies precise meaning, enabling audiences to respond in their own way. Guitarist Bernard Falaise has described their music as “A great soundtrack to the weirdest movie you’ve ever seen.” He’s not wrong.