Since the mid '60s, when rock musicians became rock artists, the world of rock has been treated to an unending parade of pretentious prefundities. Not content with driving rhythms, saw-toothed chording and semi-literate lyrics, many performers have sought to expand their horizons. Some have added orchestras and electronics, while others have waxed poetic, attempting to draw from their inspired psyches the essential truths about Life and Art.

While the results have been mixed (the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" and Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" were as impressive as Townshend's operas and Davies' "soaps" were abysmal), all the would-be geniuses have felt compelled to return, at some point, to the humble qualities of rock 'n' roll.

Such is the case with two of England's foremost Art Rock crooners, Peter Gabriel (formerly of Genesis) and Bryan Ferry (formerly of Roxy Music). Both have, for years, pursued their individual flights of fantasy.Recently, however, they have released solo records with a basic style and substance in marked contrast to the "artistic" quality of their earlier work. Apparently, for the moment, they believe that simplicity is a preferable course.

The metamorphosis of Gabriel is strikingly illustrated on the cover of his record "Peter Gabriel" (Atlantic SD 19181). There he stands, the once extroverted and pixie-like paramour of the Theatrical Rockers, tearing his fingernails across the stark, black and white photo, dressed in an ordinary shirt and coat, looking like a demented drug store clerk.

The change in his music is no less startling. He still has a penchant for thick, synthesized harmonies and disjointed rhythmic structures, but the oppressively grand and fantastic nature of his work with Genesis has been supplanted by a tighter and rougher approach. The songs in "Gabriel" are short and to the point and any instrumental ornamentation is overpowered by the surging theme lines and accompaniment.

"Flotsam and Jetsam" features a minor-keyed background over which Gabriel's heavily-echoed voice spits out the words in the finest, John Lennon-Dada Rock tradition, "Exposure" opens with a delicate electronic matrix that is set upon by pounding drums and a slashing bass line. "On the Air" is vaguely reminiscent of the arch-like rigidity of early Genesis, yet it is saved by a screaming refrain, while "Perspective" has a chorus response line that is a modern counterpart to that of the old rock ballads.

Lyrically, the dark and intraspective broodings of "Gabriel" and a human touch that was lacking in the dreary poetics of his earlier efforts. "It's too late, this model's out of date," he sings on "Indigo" while on "Perspective" he implores, "indeed perspective, 'cos I'm facing the wall/I need persepective, 'cos I'm not that tall." The words, filled with sadness, bitterness and restrained violence, display an honest attempt at emotion which makes "Gabriel" an intriguing and thought-provoking record.

Bryan Ferry is another matter. "The Bride Stripped Bare" (Atlantic SD 19205), his newest record, is completely devoid of emotion and humanity. But, then again, that is what has always been so teasingly endearing about him - the cold, Avedonesque models that odorned the old Roxy Music covers, the world of snobbish his appearance, the very personification of decent, artsy indifference.

To that extent, he hasn't changed much. The title of the record is taken from that of a work by Marcel Duchamp, that quixotic genies of 20th-century art, who was both inspired creator and dirty old man. A model, wrapped in a gold dress, is draped across the back cover while Ferry stares, imperiously, from the front, a hilarious Roger Moore look alike.

The problem is that, while his image has stayed the same, Ferry's music has taken a completely different turn. The electronic mish-mash of instruments that backed his vocals on earlier records has now been simplified and brought into greater relief. The drums, bass and keyboards are more clearly defined and are allowed embellishments that deemphasize the role of Ferry's voice - it is, no longer the center of attention, set against a wall of "treated" instruments.And finally, there is a Bryan Ferry record that has distinct, bluesy guitar solos.

His choice of material has also changed - there is more soul and R 'n' B to his new approach, especially when compared to the emotional cynicism and satire of the past. While "When She Walks in the Room" is similar to his older style, softly evoking the sweet smell of stale perfume and vapid love, he has also chosen to include several soul songs, such as Sam and Dave's "Hold On (I'm Coming)" and Otis Redding's classic, "That's How Strong My Love Is." The hot-blooded emotion and lustiness of those songs, interpreted by Ferry's cold, shrill voice, is disorienting.

Whether this effect is intentional (possibly, another one of Ferry's needle-like pokes at romanticism) or merely a gross miscalculation, "The Bride Stripped Bare" is a disquieting record that shatters the contrived sameness that has marred much of his work. For Ferry, the attempt to pursue a more basic style of music has produced a maze of conflicting forces that are exhilarating in their [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]