“islands” and other extraordinary albums…

I came to the music of King Crimson in a fairly random way, I simply started buying their albums, without any knowledge of their running order, the players on the discs, or anything.

I think the first one I bought was “Red”, which I liked very, very much.  Then, it was “Larks Tongues In Aspic” which had a huge, huge impact on me…and then, I bought “Islands” – which I thought was absolutely terrific, but clearly, cut from a different cloth than my first two acquisitions.  After that, I have no idea what I bought, perhaps “USA” – because it was live – and that was another amazing disc – my gut feeling was, I like everything this band does (but everything this band does, is SO different) – from the remarkable and incredibly jazzy “Lizard” to the heavy prog of “Larks’ Tongues” and on up till the end – the live “USA” disk – strangely, with re-dubbed violins – we never really understood why that was.

Getting these remarkable discs out of order, willy-nilly, was probably as good a way as any to get into the band.  Because it arrived very early in the rotation, “Islands” got played a lot, and I took a huge liking to it’s very honest song craft, with that AMAZING saxophonist (Mel Collins, of course!) as a guitarist, I was allegedly getting into King Crimson because of their remarkable guitarist (Robert Fripp, of course!) but I found myself really liking the bands that played behind Fripp, and not knowing what was going on at all, I could recognise the funky combo that performed on “Islands” as a remarkable working unit – a real band, which was clearly, very, very different to the african percussion and ambient percussion present on “Larks’ Tongues” – I could tell that “Larks’ Tongues” was indeed, by a very different King Crimson than “Islands”.

 

Of course, as time went by, I began to read the history of the band, and began to understand who it was I was listening to, was it the original “King Crimson”; the Crimson of the Big Red Face, that only existed for a mere 11 months, or one of the strange hybrids that followed on “In The Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard”, finally settling down to a working combo for “Islands”.

And I think like many Crimson fans, I did, in the main, favour the triumvirate of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless & Bible Black” and “Red”, all with the well-known four piece of Bruford-Cross-Fripp-Wetton, and for “Lark’s Tongues”, it was slightly unique in that it featured a remarkable percussionist who left the band in the middle of their first tour, Jamie Muir.

Once you understand the chronology, it all starts to make some kind of sense, although it’s quite difficult to assimilate the “first four” or the “first five” if you add in the live, and very rare and “Import Only” “Earthbound” which I had to special order from a specialist shop to get.  By then, I had everything else – so “Earthbound” with it’s absolutely searing sax from Mel Collins on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was the missing link between “the first four” the “last three”, if you will.

It’s interesting, I think, I always call it “the first ten” because that’s the classic package, of the band that existed roughly ftom 1969 thru 1974 and then called it quits.  But if you think about it, Fripp did an unusual thing – he book-ended the two different eras with a live album.

So you get the “first four”:

In The Court of the Crimson King

In The Wake of Poseidon

Lizard

Islands

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

Earthbound

 

Then you get the “last three”:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

Starless & Bible Black

Red

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

USA

It’s an odd pattern, to say the least. Four studio albums, one very rare and hard to obtain live album, three more studio albums, followed by a brilliant live album.

 

That’s my classic “first 10” and for many years, that was all we had – the only other live material available was on expensive and shoddy bootlegs, and you were never quite sure about the information on such records, was it really at that venue?  Was it really on that day?

Then, Fripp introduced the beautifully-covered “A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson” which gave us a lot of answers, it had an amazing booklet in it, where every gig the band ever did was listed by city and date – so that became our Bible, the only reliable, Fripp-produced list of gigs – and it was a really nice compilation, too, containing a rare demo version of one of their earliest tracks, “I Talk To The Wind” that featured Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble on vocals – who was at that time, the girlfriend of one Ian McDonald.

It was a lovely compilation otherwise, a beautiful piece of artwork, but musically it didn’t present anything much that was new – it was definitely a look back.

So I guess that is the eleventh disk of my “original ten” if you will.

Once King Crimson reformed a few times, and Fripp started releasing better-quality bootlegs of the band, the full picture of King Crimson came sharply into focus.  I could revel in any number of remarkable “Islands” bands shows, including one where they actually play the title track, something they very, very rarely ever did.  I could hear this very funky quintet (the firth member being lyricist Peter Sinfield, who operated the VCS3 from the soundboard) and Ian Wallace’s mighty VCS3-altered drum solo became a huge highlight of the tours.

The “Islands” band was literally a group that could play from a whisper to a scream, Mel would put away his saxes, and play the flute, ever so beautifully and gently, and vocalist Boz would sing lovely Crimson ballads from the first four albums with real intent – I love his live performances of these classics such as “Lady of the Dancing Water” or “Cadence and Cascade” – Fripp disavows them, he felt that Boz was not a good singer for the quiet pieces; but that he excelled on the rocking ones – my own opinion was the exact opposite, I’m afraid.  Sure, I love to hear this band roar through “Schizoid Man” or “Pictures Of A City” as much as the next guy, but when they turned down, and Fripp consulted his personal dictionary of tasty jazz guitar chords – Boz could do no wrong, if you ask me.

So after only having “Earthbound” to represent the music of the “Islands” band, for many, many years, it was a huge deal to suddenly be able to either buy CDs of their live shows, and / or downloads – a huge deal, because the limited view of what they were capable of “live” given to us by “Earthbound” could finally be laid to rest, and we learned very quickly that this band was a stomping, kicking beast of a rocker, but it was also capable of incredible, gentle beauty, as found in the two quiet tracks I mention above, along with rarities like the live version of “Islands” itself, which is an incredibly brilliant rendition of a truly beautiful song, and features even better guitar than on the studio version.  Why they removed it from the running order so quickly, I will never understand, because it was so incredibly beautiful.

I would, at a guess, think that it might have been an issue with having just two mellotrons to try and recreate the orchestral mood of the studio track, but I think they do a splendid job, with an improved guitar part, and a great vocal from Boz, too.  Again – RF has said that Boz “did not convince” on the ballads – but I do disagree, I think he had a beautiful voice for both rock and ballads alike, and that his voice was a godsend – he was the perfect lead singer for that band.

In any case, they may have stopped playing “Islands” live after just a few attempts at it, but they did continue to play ballads at almost every show, and some of those recordings are incredibly beautiful – because Fripp carries the tracks with his incredible, concise guitar arrangements, while Mel just plays really beautiful flute solos and the rhythm section plays quietly and accurately – it’s really about Fripp’s guitar and Boz’s vocal (and bass playing too, I should add).

So if you do get a chance to pick up some of the live CDs by this band, I highly recommend that you find ones that include a ballad.

Back in 1978, or whenever it was – out of an entirely random series of purchases, I would buy a new Crimson record each week, I somehow fell in love with “Islands” because, perhaps, it was so, so strange, with the incredibly jet-lagged guitar solo from “Ladies of the Road” to Fripp’s vibrant harmonium playing on the title track.  This album also includes one song that the band never did perform live, because it was an orchestral piece written by Fripp to serve as an instrumental introduction to the final piece on the album, the title track – so what you hear is first, “The Song of the Gulls” which is orchestral/instrumental, followed by the vocal piece “Islands” which, I should add, contains one of Peter Sinfield’s most beautiful lyrics ever – I love all of his lyrics on “the first four” – but I have a special place in my heart for the lyrics to the “Islands” album in general, and the song “Islands” in particular – it’s truly beautiful imagery, and Boz’ gentle, quiet delivery makes the lyrics hit home so hard, just really gently and beautifully sung – there’s no other song quite like it in the Crimson canon.

It is, after all, the end of an era, because Earthbound, while it does have an outrageous version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” on it, is somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not in my top ten concerts by the “Islands” band.

I think it must have been an almost random selection, let’s just pick an “average” show, one of those ones where Mel is really kicking ass – and that’s what they did.

But – there is a lot more depth and beauty to be found, if you explore the world of live shows now available from this band – in particular, I recommend the earliest shows, where they have literally just come from the studio, and the songs much more, resemble the album versions, whilst over time, they began to stray wildly from the original forms, so if you want to experience the truest approximation of a perfect Islands band live show – stick with the earliest shows – the double CD at Brighton springs to mind as a good one, but you really can’t go wrong.

Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.

For me, it was really, really nice to see King Crimson not once, but three times on their most recent tour of Britain and Europe, and to see that thanks no doubt to the ministrations of young Jakko Jakszyk, that Robert has indeed, made his peace with this record that at one point, he didn’t want to think about or look at every again.

So much so, that they now play two tracks from the record live, which is an astonishing and almost impossible feat – I couldn’t believe my own luck, I was not only going to see King Crimson play repertoire from across their career(s) but I was going to hear them play two songs from Islands as well – “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” – and for me, that really felt like full closure – both Ian Wallace and Boz Burell have passed away, but Fripp in this way remembers them – and brings their amazing music to King Crimson fans via the 2015 incarnation of the band.  I think that is absolutely brilliant!  And the other player from the Islands band – is IN the new band, and it’s so, so lovely to hear Robert and Mel playing together again – Mel is an incredibly gifted player, and having him in the band has been absolutely brilliant.

I think that everyone knows and loves “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but then after that, doesn’t really know how to form an opinion of the band that made those next three records – “In The Wake”, “Lizard” and “Island” – each with different singers, different musicians, where only Fripp is the constant.

If we set aside the legendary first incarnation of King Crimson, and look at what happened afterwards – how the band changed in the studio – but that last incarnation, with Boz being taught how to play bass bv rote by Robert – he was originally just their singer – they couldn’t find a bass player – so he became the bass player! – they got it right, and the album they made, in 1971, still stands up today as an odd masterpiece of jazzy, blowing prog like no other.  if you are not familiar with “Islands” – I cannot recommend it more highly – in some ways, it’s my favourite King Crimson album.

It moves between so many moods, the lyrics are outstanding, there are great guitar parts and guitar solos, there are great sax and flute solos – the combination of Robert Fripp and Mel Collins, both of them mellotron-playing soloists – was a very dangerous one, and one that created a remarkable record with an incredible edge – “Islands”.  The record then travels through chaos until you reach the last two tracks on side two, when peace and beauty are restored in an incredible way – a truly gorgeous way.

 

 

 

“Islands hold hands, ‘neath heaven’s seas…..”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.

I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:

November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University

(eleven years pass)

then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).

(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).

(nineteen years pass)

which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…

this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.

but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.

the Soundscape faded down briefly.  Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area.  Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage.  This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.

so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.

the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time.  to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).

it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.

that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.

at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different.  There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too.  The “guitars” mix was better, too.

so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.

when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.

then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo.  the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.

I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.

once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.

then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.

I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”,  etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!

speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.

I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.

I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.

the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.

Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.

from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.

oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision.  I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.

did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas.  A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”.  Shivers.

I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable:  he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band.  Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night.  He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂

with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect.  Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what?  I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.

this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.

I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs.  Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.

and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track.  Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers.  Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!

the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.

A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.

meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.

finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.

the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.

the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.

my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…

the melodies stay with you for days.  you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.

its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.

and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody.  sigh.

King Crimson – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland – 20150917

This then, is the second of three King Crimson gigs we are attending, the first of two shows at Edinburgh’s lovely old Usher Hall, on September 17th, three days after the first show we attended in Birmingham on 20150914; while boasting a similar set list to the show from the fourteenth, the Usher Hall Edinburgh show had a number of significant differences that are well worth noting.

First of all, is perspective; in Birmingham, we were off to the left side of Symphony Hall, slightly elevated, and back some distance from the stage, whereas in Edinburgh, we were in the stalls in the fourth row – directly in front of Pat’s drum kit with Mel just behind him…not bad at all.  So this time, still to the left but way up close in the stalls – we noticed quite a bit more detail – simply because we were so much nearer.

But first things first, the set list, which was pretty much unchanged from the show three days previous:

Taped Introduction (including the “Islands Rehearsal” snippet from the outro of the “Islands” album – in other words – the standard 2014/2015 Elements Tours taped intros – the “no photos please” vocal montage, followed by “Islands” rehearsal, and finally, the 1971 Voice Of Robert Fripp intoning the count of “1 2 3, 2 2 3″…) – which becomes the count in for:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I

Red

Suitable Grounds For The Blues

Meltdown

The Construction Of Light

Level 5

Hellhounds Of Krim (??)

Pictures Of A City

Epitaph

Easy Money

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

The Letters

Sailor’s Tale

Interlude (Taped audience sounds)

Starless

(Encore – after a well-deserved standing ovation for “Starless”:)

Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row (??)

The Court Of The Crimson King

21st Century Schizoid Man

 

Since the set list is essentially identical to the Monday night Birmingham show, I will focus in on differences and details that I observed this time, that I might have overlooked with the excitement of that first show on Monday night; plus, sitting so close at the Edinburgh show, I was able to see the players in incredible detail. My new 10x binoculars helped significantly with this – if I wanted to see in close-up, what notes Robert or Jakko or Tony were playing – the binoculars allowed me to get in really close on the action, and observe chord patterns, note patterns, and playing styles in intense detail. Being in the fourth row gave us a great view of the band, but having the binoculars on top of being so close, gave me super-close up HD Guitar Vision – it was brilliant.

They all played well in Birmingham on Monday, but in Edinburgh last night…they played even better.

There were a couple of mishaps, so I shall get those out of the way, some mysterious mid to low frequency feedback was plaguing the band during “Pictures Of A City”, it was quite persistent and it ran for perhaps 40 or 50 seconds, a low, irritating non-musical tone; the band forged on as if it wasn’t happening, until eventually, the sound man (presumably) quenched it.  It returned again later, I think during Epitaph, for a shorter period of time, but that was the last of it, thankfully.
The beginning of “Easy Money” was slightly marred by an out of tune guitar (Jakko’s, I think) but then turned out fine, in fact for me, it’s a huge highlight because it’s one of the only instances where RF really tries to play a 70’s style Fripp sustained guitar solo, and that solo was a cracker, really beautiful, liquid distortion and cracked Wah pedal action…gorgeous guitar tone from Robert’s Axe FXII.

 

One of the other instances of that beautiful sustained guitar tone is Robert playing the exquisitely beautiful melody of “Starless”, however, at the end of one of those solos, his final bend ended up in a truly bum note – a rarity for Fripp.  Ever the professional, he simply looked at Jakko, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Possibly because we were sat so close to Pat and Mel, I really noticed their playing this time, and I would say that Mel played even more spectacularly amazing sax and flute in Edinburgh, than in Birmingham, where he was awesome.  So better than perfect, really – the solos were so tight, so intense, and he absolutely steals the show with his soloing in “Pictures Of A City”, “The Letters”, “Sailor’s Tale” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” – his playing was absolutely stellar on those tracks in particular, he was consistent and excellent throughout.

Pat – well, what can I say, Pat is the master, and is my personal favourite of the three extraordinary drummers.  His intense, powerful playing on “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” once again, channelling the great Michael Giles…was simply astonishing to witness at close quarters. Pat was amazing throughout the show, and I could really appreciate his contributions to the drumming really well indeed at this particular gig.

And, impressively, this time, we could hear the bass and the Stick, much, much better, so bring able to hear what Tony was playing, better than on Monday night, was great – I particularly love the verve with which he attacks the lolloping bass line of “Sailor’s Tale” – he sounds great at all times, really in tune and doing very musical, very good work on the electric string bass, the Stick, or the bass guitar, Tony always sounded really good.

But then, this is a band where everyone sounds good, all the time, and the amount of care and detail that goes into the band’s sound is truly overwhelming. Just watching the percussion section during the opening number, the incredible 2015 rendition of the 1973 classic “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” is a lesson in musical co-ordination; all three drummers are playing many different percussion instruments to add atmosphere and ambience during the quieter sections, then sitting down simultaneously to come charging in for the heavy metal section.

Watching Pat was a revelation during this, he had clearly studied the original track well, and he picked up a myriad of strange percussion devices, and operated them at certain points in time during the “lulls” in the song – with military precision.  Then that heavy metal section would come up again, with Jakko wailing away on the high, bendy lead guitar notes, Robert, playing the chords (and often, during this concert, that was the case) and the three drummers all come in on the downbeat, and also, end each bar with a cymbal smack – and hearing the three of them, playing their hearts out underneath that ominous set of power chords – just sounded amazing.

“Red” followed immediately, and again, the band was confident, Jakko playing the long, ascending sustained lead guitar line, while Robert handled the chords; Robert played the flanged “stand-alone” chords on the “middle section”, leaving Tony and Jakko, with some assistance from Mel, to handle the beautiful melody that plays over the flanged guitar chords – and then, back into that wonderful E to F# progression, which then finally leads back to the wonderful ascending guitar from Jakko – and Mel joins in for the last few notes, so they both end up on a stretched high note that is held for just the right amount of time…perfection.

I can’t really add a lot to my previous blog’s comments on the “new” songs that appear at this point in the set, although I did find myself liking “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” a bit more than the first time I’d heard it, way back on Monday night – it, and it’s companion, “Meltdown” – are just not as convincing to me as the earlier material is.  And therein lay the difficulty – the repertoire they are playing, spans 1969 – 2003, and includes some of the most incredible of Fripp compositions and other writers’ contributions – the lyrics of Peter Sinfield are a huge part of the tracks that they perform from 1969’s “In The Court Of ‘The Crimson King”, 1970’s “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, and 1971’s “Islands” (sadly, no live versions of anything from 1970’s “Lizard”, the third album) and other contributors such as Adrian Belew, whose guitar parts on “The Construction Of Light” are absolutely brilliant – but, fair dues – Jakko played them just as perfectly and just as beautifully as Adrian ever did – and to be honest, as much as I love the music of Adrian Belew, and I liked his role in King Crimson – I am actually of the belief that Jakko is a better choice, because of his knowledge of the early catalogue, and he’s a fine, serious singer, too.

So I like the fact that Jakko is there, for example, his acoustic guitar emulations on the two quieter tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” are just so spot on, he does the finger picking perfectly WHILE he sings the beautiful Greg Lake vocal melody with beautiful lyrics from Peter Sinfield!  A very beautiful example of multi-tasking – Jakko gives us the acoustic guitar, and the lead vocal, leaving Robert free to play the beautiful lead guitar parts on both “Epitaph” and “The Court Of The Crimson King” – beautiful work from both guitarists.

I am still astonished by the unexpected presence of “Easy Money” in this band’s set list, but there it is, and after a shaky beginning with an out of tune guitar, it quickly turned into one of the best songs of the night, because of Robert‘s amazing 1970s style lead guitar playing, not to mention Jakko’s brilliant vocal, and Tony doing his best to play like John Wetton – and mostly, succeeding at it.  A great rendition of a great song – complete with laughing machine at the end from Pat – just like on the album.

My favourite part of the concert then arrives – the two songs from “Islands”, and again, a delicate, beautiful rendition of “The Letters” with Fripp playing super high octave chords with a beautiful guitar sound, and Jakko playing the other picked part in time, and singing the beautiful, beautiful vocal – one of Boz’s best vocals, I believe – and then, there is an incredibly powerful part, where Robert plays some amazing, super sustained “Frippy” guitar lines, before the song begins to go…a bit mad courtesy of the amazing saxophone skills of Mel Collins, who blows his way through both “The Letters” and the second of the two tracks, which follows immediately, the instrumental “Sailor’s Tale” in astonishing form, with powerful, melody, and grace.

Mel is so amazing on both of these tracks, the accuracy with which he’s tried to re-create the original parts, while at the same time, improving and updating them – it’s just an astonishing effort on his part, and his playing breathes new life into these two songs.  Jakko’s vocal on “The Letters” is possibly my favourite vocal of the night, I love the way he sings this song, right up to the a cappella ending –  which he does just perfectly – a brilliant performance.

Once the band have played “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”, two tracks from my personal favourite of the early King Crimson records, I could die happy, but, things progress, and we end up in the beauty of “Starless”, where I must mention the remarkably talented Bill Rieflin, who plays mellotron on so many of these tracks, the accurate arrangements he uses are a testament to how much he cares about getting it right, and the mellotron sounds are perfect, and the playing is perfect – and on “Starless”, it’s so, so beautiful – with Robert‘s amazing, thick sustained lead guitar line, and Mel’s sinuous horn parts snaking in between, it’s a huge highlight of the night, and the excitement of the final section, after the long instrumental build up, is undeniable.

Despite Robert’s unfortunate note in the middle of the verses, this version of “Starless” brought the band to standing position, and, brought the audience to it’s feet as well – and the applause was truly thunderous as we’d just been assaulted by a dozen of some of the most amazing progressive music ever written.  And when the band walk off, the crowd is clapping in rhythm for their return – until they do return, to play us out with the last two offerings, both from that famous debut 1969 album, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – the title track, as the penultimate offering, followed by “21st Century Schizoid Man” complete with recorded intro (the “Wind” sessions result) – and this was another great rendition of “Schizoid Man”, with one slight disappointment – I hadn’t really noticed this at Birmingham, but I am definitely sure about it at Edinburgh – there is no guitar solo!

Robert plays the beginning of the original solo, and then does a short descending lead guitar, which is an intentional bridge to Mel, who picks up the notes from Robert, and then takes the solo proper – and Mel is great at this, he always had a solo on “Schizoid Man” back in the day, so he is the perfect player for the job, and this was no exception – he played a blinder.  But then, as the song progressed, there was a drum solo, and then, they came back in to play the “precision section” – which went flawlessly – and then to the last verse and the ending – which was dead silence at the climax of sustained rock-burn-out noise – brilliant!!  The crowd loved it, and it was a great version – but, strangely – no guitar solo.  It worked, it’s great with Mel handling the solo, but I would have loved it if Robert and Mel had each had a solo (as they used to, back in 1972) – but, this is the 2015 arrangement, so I guess that’s how it goes now 🙂

Overall, despite some annoying feedback and the very, very rare issues with the music, this was a really well-played show, and it just makes me look forward to our next and final of three shows, in Utrecht, Holland, on September 24th – I can’t wait !!

One of the things I’ve noticed about previous versions of King Crimson is that, if you listen to a series of concerts over time, you generally speaking, find improvement – parts are played better, arrangements are tweaked and re-saved, and musicians find better and more perfected ways to do things – so, over time, they tend to get better – and I realise I haven’t so far heard much of a series, but I can say, that over the three day period between Monday and Thursday. that there is improvement.

One thing that was easy to observe, was the difference in audience reception. In Birmingham, the applause was not nearly as loud or persistent after the main set, there was no rhythmic clapping to call the band back to the stage, while in Edinburgh, the Scottish crowd were on their feet and shouting for more, applauding really loudly, then, clapping rhythmically – a much much better audience response, which in turn, made the players respond positively – so while in some ways, the Birmingham show might have been more technically “polished”, here in Edinburgh, there was more emotion, more audience interaction, and in the case of one Mr. Mel Collins, some incredibly passionate horn soloing – really beautiful work, just out of this world solos on every track – the man is impossibly talented.  And when Robert Fripp and Mel Collins join forces to solo, one at a time, or together / trading / overlapping solos – it just rocks.

Both concerts had high points and low points, but I felt that the Edinburgh show was more relaxed, with a much more receptive audience, so at least in that sense, it was a “better” show – but in my mind – both of these concerts were absolutely remarkable musical experiences, once- in-a-lifetime – except, I get to see it three times in a life time 🙂

 

 

See you at Utrecht on the 24th !!!!

Happy Krimsoning !!

 

 

Dave

 

 

 

 

on the road to red…

Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.

Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.

The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen!  It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.

now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.

It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.

There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.

I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night.  Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.

Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…

And sometimes, what happens is remarkable.  There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.

For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.

Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”.  This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”.  The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.

Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.

But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music. 

And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !!  It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.

I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.

Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions.  You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.

The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).

That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows.  So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!

Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record.  It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.

For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set.  Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.

This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade.  it’s starless…and bible black.

I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.

Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.

I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).

It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly.  “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂

I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”.  Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.

All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.

I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened.  Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play.  And play – he does.  With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.

Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing.  They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that.  The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !

But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.

You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.

Available in fine music shops everywhere.

leave it to robert fripp

leave it to robert fripp.  only fripp could do this.

since 1968, robert fripp has produced some of the most consistently challenging, musically advanced work of the modern age of rock music.  musicians have marvelled at his guitar playing in a huge range of very different settings: as de facto leader and muse of the great king crimson; as tape-recorder experimenter buddy of the remarkable brian eno; as the guitar-sparring partner of andy summers; as the leader of an amazing 1980 “dance band” called “the league of gentlemen”; as the secret weapon of david bowie on various tracks from the “berlin years”…the list goes on and on, fripp’s own solo records, many of which feature him on “soundscapes”, meaning, fripp, a guitar, and whatever guitar / looping system he has on at that moment, to the remarkable “exposure” (in it’s many, many guises) with it’s many, many singers and crop of amazing songs…the list just goes on and on…even in the strange late 60’s trio “giles, giles, and fripp” – robert fripp played a lot of really very remarkable guitar on the band’s odd records – their one official release, and the more recent and very interesting “the brondesbury tapes”…

…fripp was also the onboard lead guitarist (remarkably, sharing that role with michael brook) in the absolutely underrated “sylvian / fripp” (as the name hints, a collaboration between fripp and japan leader david sylvian) – and the even more obscure yet fascinating “sunday all over the world” – fripp’s first of two bands that feature his wife, toyah wilcox, on vocals…and all the while, many, many versions of “king crimson” would form and dissolve, form and dissolve…

some of these releases, are “division one” releases, large scale, well marketed, well received – others, more low key, or “division two” releases, but no less significant for that.  it didn’t matter how much or how little media fanfare accompanied any particular fripp or fripp-related release; you knew, if a new album came out from robert fripp, say, entitled “a blessing of tears” – that it was going to be good – really good.  over time, based on your very real experience – you recognise that works by this artist, are generally, works of great quality.

and somewhere amidst all of this work, amidst all of these remarkable and interesting collaborations, amidst the ongoing work with king crimson – the most incredible, most astonishing release of all appeared, with no fanfare whatsoever – and I am not really sure just how many people know about it.

this is what fripp has done – he’s released a masterwork, a really, really important work – one of the earliest examples of the use of looping on stage – with almost no fanfare whatsoever.  to my mind, that’s similar to miles davis releasing “sketches of spain” but not mentioning it to anyone; just letting a few fans discover it, but not really bothering to acknowledge that it’s a key work in his canon – one of the best albums he ever produced.

THAT is what fripp has done – basically, he has released the best (guitar) album he has ever done, bar none, without really mentioning it to anyone !

I was late to it – I found out about it by accident, months after it was released.  I immediately downloaded it, all of it, and set out to listen to it.  thirteen hours later – I was still reeling from the shock of just how perfect, just how beautiful, just how intense, this amazing release truly is.

I am speaking, of course, about the frippertronics tour of europe, which kicked off on may 7, 1979 in amsterdam and completed in madrid on june 1, 1979 (although no recording exists for that show – the last recorded show being the may 29th show from zurich, switzerland – we think) and these 15 long, live frippertronics looping performances – are simply staggering in their scope, diversity and incredible beauty. overpowering beauty, musical intensity of a kind you rarely, rarely ever get to hear or witness – loop music as it was in the beginning. (and shall be, looping without end, amen, forever).

leave it to robert fripp to release 15 mind-bogglingly good shows of live frippertronics, after allowing them to sit, unreleased for decades – all that time – I had assumed that the tapes did not exist, were not viable, or had just been lost or forgotten – but, they were handed to alex mundy, dgm’s resident necromancer, and alex has lovingly restored the solos to the loops, the lectures to the looping…  there are a few remaining bits of robert’s spoken portions, in one or two of these shows, but this is mostly just guitar, guitar and more guitar – heaven for someone like myself – as it was seeing fripp play at tower records that made me want to become a looper – which I did, about a decade later – and I’ve never stopped since.

I was lucky enough to witness a live frippertronics show myself, on the US leg of the tour later that year (and I am hoping that this will eventually be released, assuming at least part of it does… 🙂 at a tower records store in san diego, california where I lived at the time, so I had a very personal interest in hearing the first live performances, in europe, of frippertronics – a tape-based looping system developed with the help of fripp’s friend and musical partner, brian eno.  I was also fortunate enough to see a “lecture” at mandeville auditorium at UCSD in 1983, which turned out to be…a frippertronics show – this time, as we entered the hall, robert was already looping…amazing.  I’ve just noticed that DGM have that show in their download archives, so that’s one I will definitely download…sigh.  but anyway, returning to the earlier, european version of frippertronics…

the set up was straightforward: two full-sized revox tape decks, with a large space between them, and a long piece of tape (the “tape loop”) running between the two machines; a black gibson les paul guitar, and a very small, minimal guitar pedal board – amplifier and speaker cabinets – that was the entire thing, but the one ingredient that really brought this “small, intelligent unit” to life, was it’s creator and operator: robert fripp himself.

with only an astonishingly short “four to six seconds” of loop time available to him via the revoxes; fripp was able to use his knowledge of music, counterpoint, and harmony to introduce notes, phrases or even “pickup selector switch switching sounds”, into the loop in the appropriate way as to build up pieces that were alternately serene, terrifying, beautiful, or very, very dissonant.  most of the frippertronics loops are on the serene, beautiful side; with the occasional leap over to the dark side, and some of those “dark” loops are some of the best performances here.

but, whether you prefer the heavenly, melodic, beautiful waves of sound that robert often performed, or if you prefer the dark, dissonant, disturbing pieces he sometimes favoured – there is something for everyone in this 15-show set.  I love all of these loops, dark, light, and every musical shade in between, and the beauty of the loops themselves, is set off wonderfully by the confident, high-speed, accurate solos that fripp almost casually layers over the top of the loops.

he is so confident, so accurate, that it’s almost miraculous to behold – and there are a lot of surprises – notes you don’t expect; sudden endings you don’t expect, and so on…it’s quite surprising sometimes.  a sudden, very loud low note will, out of nowhere, underpin what was moments before, a lovely, high-pitched floating cloud of beautiful looped guitar…

that dark, powerful note overwhelms and overtakes the lovely floating cloud; turning light to dark momentarily, but perhaps, allowing for a different kind of overlaid solo to then occur. fripp steers the compositions where he wants to; altering the running loop on the fly to change it’s character; and then launching into another impossibly fast crimson-esque guitar solo – you could just about hear the wheels turning in fripp’s head, it all comes out – every idea, every doubling of a note, every harmony, every intentionally dissonant harmony – it’s all to plan, and that plan is executed with frightening precision and overwhelming confidence – the power of robert fripp, lead guitarist, is absolutely laid bare on this series of live, loop and solo recordings.

as a looper myself, albeit with about 10 years’ less experience than fripp, I can speak first hand to just how difficult it is to loop with only a four second loop!  four seconds is a very, very short space of time in music. one of my first digital loopers, the digitech rds-8000, sported just eight seconds of loop, and working with that was possible, but never easy 🙂

as the technology improved, the digital loopers became more capable – I moved from 1 second to 8 seconds and eventually on up to 196 seconds (with the remarkable echoplex digital pro) – quite a leap, from eight seconds to over three minutes! – and once you have a looper with that kind of capability, the problems mostly disappear (although, very long loops have their own challenged).  fripp used his four to six seconds, with the revoxes, off and on for about four years.

while fripp did embrace digital loopers, it wasn’t until the early / mid 1980s, so for these performances – it was done strictly with the tapes, and four seconds was all robert had to work with.  and what he does in those four seconds, is simply remarkable guitar playing.

oh my god – what fripp can do with a four second loop; it’s absolutely astonishing, and I am quite certain that many weeks or months of meticulous rehearsal preceeded this short tour – when he starts out on his first loop of that first amsterdam show – it’s with complete and utter confidence, and he sounds relaxed, well practiced and so, so accurate – he builds up a loop, it ends up smooth, beautiful and lovely – and then, begins to solo, but not just any solo, truly beautiful, melodic, thick sustained-notes soloing, as only fripp can – and to have these performances restored – loops and solos – is a sonic miracle, but to my mind – these performances demonstrate the true quality of robert fripp, the guitarist, that even his best work with king crimson could not quite demonstrate.

because here – there is no john wetton or tony levin (king crimson bassists at different times) thundering away in the low frequencies; there is no cymbal splash or electronic percussion madness from bill bruford (king crimson drummer since 1973, on and off), and there is no david cross (violin) or adrian belew (lead guitar, vocals) to “spar” or harmonise with – all of that is gone, and in it’s place – a four second span of time; to be filled with beautiful, harmonising notes, or to build up loop counterpoint, or to layer long, sustained notes or trills – and then, this loop becomes the band, it becomes the music that robert then solos over – but we can now really hear what he is playing, far more clearly than one can in some king crimson recordings – and while these recordings are of varying quality, the beauty and simplicity of what fripp accomplishes here is not diminished in any way, shape or form – it’s guitar heaven, it’s undoubtedly one of the première examples of man v machine where both win; fripp has taken what eno (and others) developed, and made a few modifications to the system to make it as suitable for guitar as possible – and has created a brand new kind of music: frippertronics.

fast forward twenty years, and a similar, yet wildly different, kind of solo fripp music emerged: the soundscape.  this is the modern-day equivalent to frippertronics.  and while I love and admire both forms, frippertronics and soundscapes; for me, my money is on frippertronics – because it involves the pure sound of a gibson les paul (whereas, soundscapes are more guitar synthesizer-oriented, therefore, less guitar-like) and the fripp pedal board, captured, looped, and soloed over with an intensity and capability that few musicians ever reach – fripp worked very, very hard at this – and he got it right, and if you listen to these 15 shows back to back – you will not be disappointed – and in fact, that is exactly what I did, I downloaded them all on a friday night; then on the saturday, I put them on – and let them play in sequence, all day long. 

at ten pm that night, it finally came to an end – and I was left speechless, breathless, and utterly, utterly impressed – OK, I knew it would be good – but I never dreamed – my 34 year old memory of the 1979 frippertronics show I had seen, and the 30 year old memory of a second show at mandeville auditorium, told me “this will be incredible” but even those memories could not have prepared me for the reality of the speed, dexterity, power, and beauty of these live guitar loop and solo performances – they are out of this world, and for guitarists, are an absolute lesson in what can be accomplished with a very, very finite set of equipment, set up for one purpose – and then there is the way that robert plays.

it’s so, so powerful, because really, it was not that long before, barely five years, that he was onstage with wetton, bruford and cross, playing lead guitar night after night after night, and the power of his time with king crimson (ten remarkable albums in the short space of 1969 – 1974) – and the power of his playing in those various “king crimsons” (plural) is now matured; amplified; calmed; organised; and it’s so precise now, there is very little bending (something he would give up almost completely, eventually) and the melodies he plays are just exquisitely beautiful – especially when played over loops of incredible precision and beauty.

so to my mind, even just speaking as an average guitarist – this is the best guitar album I have EVER HEARD.  I have no other words, no other way of describing what it’s like to sit and listen to robert fripp solo for 13 hours over tape loops that he made on the fly; in a record store, restaurant or other non-traditional venue on this first-ever frippertronics tour.  there is simply no other music on earth like this, and it truly shows the talent, power and sheer chops that fripp has developed over time.

by eschewing traditional venues, and bringing the music directly to the people – and even more remarkable, by TALKING to, and with, the people – fripp bucked the whole system, which I am sure pissed off his record company and everyone else who would now not be able to make a buck off of these performances – this was a real dialogue now, between robert fripp and those who love the music he creates – and at every show, there was a question and answer session (and that just blew my mind, I could not believe that we were sitting on the floor of tower records, and fripp, a few feet away with his les paul still slung around his neck – was taking questions from the audience!).

an audience that was stunned, or I would say more accurately, completely fucking blown away, by what they had just seen and heard.  the power of robert fripp’s lead guitar playing alone is enough to frost your socks; passages of great speed and precision, wonderful melodies that fly from the fretboard – but also, a new component, those enticing, amazing loops – that support and blend with the solos so perfectly; hypnotic, repetitive – and the perfect musical “bed” over which to solo.

but – the loops weren’t static, they were often “changed” by fripp, who would solo for a minute or two, and then, add more notes to the loop, and then, go back to soloing over this “new” altered loop – and he might do this several times within one looped performance – change the loop, solo, change the loop, solo more, etc. – to beautiful effect.

I learned a lot from watching this process, a lot which I later put to use in my own work, but what I also learned was, just how difficult this process is – the concentration required, the precision required – it’s intense, and few people could pull it off.

leave it to robert fripp.

 

this is a link to the first show from the frippertronics european tour, may 7, 1979, follow the right arrows to find the rest of the shows (and much more).  there is also a link where you can purchase all 15 shows as a bundle (recommended – this is what I did).

I know that fans of king crimson and robert fripp have their favourite albums, tracks, and live performances by robert, working in king crimson, or, guesting on other albums by other well known artists such as david bowie, or, in collaboration with people like david sylvian.  I am one of those fans, and I can remember arguing about very important topics such as “which is the best version of ‘schizoid man’ ” or whether red or usa was the best late period king crimson album (at the time) and so on.

I am not ashamed or embarrassed in any way to say I love the music of king crimson, robert fripp, as well as “sylvian / fripp”, “the league of gentlemen”, the league of crafty guitarists, and the current working group, the orchestra of crafty guitarists (which I was, briefly, a member of) – I love all of that, and I would defend it’s high quality and musicality – these are works of quality.  their common denominator, is, of course, robert fripp.

however – as much as I love say…“exposure”, as much as I love king crimson, and would defend their amazing catalogue against any naysayers, with songs as beautiful as “starless” or “the night watch” – well, it puts a lot of other “prog bands” to shame, if I am honest – this music is so intense, and so, so beautiful…

…but in some ways – this 15-show frippertronics european tour, is the best album that fripp never made, and never made a big deal of. it’s release was incredibly low-key, it just appeared on the dgm website one day, but there was no marketing push, no attempt to big this up at all – it just appeared – and those of us who realised what it WAS – well, we snatched it up immediately.  but then – we KNEW – we knew what this contained.

because they (these live performances) are so real; because they are the first ever recordings of robert fripp creating live loops to solo over; because the soloing is so absolutely incredible, I would say that now, this is my favourite robert fripp recording – of all time.

I know – that seems like sacrilege.  how could anything be “better” than, say, “in the court of the crimson king” ?  the answer is, of course, it can’t, really, but, when I hear this music, I realise – this is really the kind of music that fripp was playing all along, but you couldn’t always hear it, because the band was playing so loud! 

this is the “real” fripp – hypnotic layers of intense, dark sound, guitars screaming like seagulls over the top, ominous low notes bending via the services of a tuning key, notes “played” by switching the pickup selector switch from “off” to full on (with the bass pickup turned all the way down, and the treble pickup, turned all the way up) – the selector switch becoming a rhythmic device that adds to the loop – fripp using his fuzz tone, the wah-wah pedal, and his other devices to add texture and form to the loops – and once happy, he would then let that loop play – and solo his heart out with an intensity at least as powerful as “1969 to 1974 king crimson”. 

you think that the guitar solos on “USA” are pretty darn powerful and quick (you are right – they are) ?  you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. you think that nothing can top what fripp plays on “red” in songs like “red”, “fallen angel” and “starless”  – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.  you think what you hear on “the great deceiver”, a four CD live fripp-wetton-bruford-cross king crimson albujm, is a lot of amazing robert fripp lead guitar (you are right, it is)?  You should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

about 13 hours in total, I believe, something like that – and a large portion of that, is robert soloing his heart out, at length, over those amazing four second loops.  I have since played these shows on a saturday, just letting them run all day long, and it really, really makes for a great “mood” – you would love the way it takes an ordinary saturday, and turns it into an amazing day and night of pure, pure music – the frippertronics way.

so, so beautiful – the best album that robert fripp never made.  15 live shows – this is the one album that is pure testament to the intense, quick, and breathlessly beautiful way that robert fripp plays lead guitar – truly, this is where you can really hear genius at work, on the fretboard of a black les paul guitar – at the hands of the master, robert fripp.

now – for the non-guitarist, it’s likely that you may continue to regard the “band” works of robert fripp more highly than this “guitar” based fripp work.  but for me, as a musician and as a guitarist – this is simply the ultimate fripp documentary, which might have been lost to us, but blessedly, dgm have taken the time to resurrect these shows (and others, as well) and release them via the dgm website (these are download only) – and I for one, thank alex mundy at dgm for doing this work, and I thank the big guy in the sky (whoever that may be this week) for preserving those fragile tapes for all those years until alex could do his magic with them.

I can only imagine how it felt to alex, and to robert, to hear these for the first time in 34 years – and it’s criminal that these were never really released in any form (except for the occasional loop based record such as “let the power fall” – which gives you an inkling of what these tour performances were like – but one short album of loops is no substitute for the real thing – the real 13 hours of music!) – please forgive me if I am repeating myself now – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. 

seriously.

you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get

more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.

despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir.  every note ever recorded !

I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.

at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse.  so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works:  while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.

brilliant !  so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio.  this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months  – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.

so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency.  how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…

the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.

so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!).  those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.

even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing.  you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.

sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.

but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!

having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say.  I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.

it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.

but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson.  60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride.  some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!

this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.

and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.

the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).

bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.

speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.

a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.

the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”.  when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).

some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!

having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers.  it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.

musically, it works.  two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.

in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it.  so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.

what about the guitarist then?  I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings.  for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.

I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.

for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton.  wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.

sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron.  or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-).  I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably.  I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa.  unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.

moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).

or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record.  wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together.  fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose.  “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!

on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.

by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since.  and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.

I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about.  sigh.

this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely.  it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly.  it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.

so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.

and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius.  not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!

moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.

unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.

from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.

I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.

at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”.  even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.

this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.

the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!

at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery.  it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).

I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense.  “my my”…

it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go.  there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.

muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.

and then there were four.

those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).

but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.

the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday.  the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.

my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon.  utterly dependable.

I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me?  absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic.  and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get?  it was, shall we say – most upsetting!

so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.

…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you.  I am finally getting to see and hear this record.  for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂

meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!

the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.

the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.

the new 2012 stereo mix – well.  it’s beautiful.  I love it.  but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.

so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good.  I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).

I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!

highly recommended.

the way we listen

over on the pureambient music group on facebook, we’ve been talking about the different ways that different people perceive a piece of music.  (by the way, please feel free to drop by and join in the conversation – everyone is welcome!). obviously, every single human being “hears” a particular song in a “different way” – but to me, it’s fascinating to try and understand what those “different ways” are, and if I am hearing a song in a particular way, can I break that pattern and “hear” it in a completely different “way”?

I don’t know, I think I can.  when I actually think about it, the way I listen to most music is strangely analytical.  instead of hearing it as a “whole composition”, I usually break it down mentally into it’s component parts.  so if I were listening to king crimson, circa 1974, I would think, when I hear the electric piano playing a distorted power chord during a live performance, “oh, that’s david cross” and I would be, momentarily, focussed on what david is doing in the piece in question.

invariably, a moment later, john wetton would pull off some amazing, sinuous, powerful bass run – and then, I am just hearing john, really – sure, I can still hear bill’s snare drum popping on the 3, or whatever it is he’s up to, but during this section of the song – it’s all about what john is doing.  and probably, I am at least mentally, if not physically, playing air bass along, trying to figure out what notes are in that incredible bass run – and probably failing 🙂

so I might listen to that song, and be in “wetton” mode, and pretty much pay attention to the bass, the bass, and … the bass.  on another day though, it might be all about what fripp is doing on the song – maybe he’s done something unusual, played a part in an odd way (compared to the studio version) or he might do some tapping (he does this more often than you would think) or some kind of impossible slide/hammer/whip round that I cannot get my head around…so that same song, is now heard in a totally fripp-centric way.

or – on yet another day, I might be in “bruford” mode, and while I can hear the rest of the band, I am listening to that tightly tuned snare pop, I am waiting to guess where the downbeat will fall in this particular measure (hint: not where you think it will!) and I am hearing the track “drum-centric”.

and – a normal person (i.e., not a musician!) would listen to this same song, and hear…a band playing, a song, not the individual parts, just the entire composition, as a holistic and organic whole.  after years of analysing songs, of focussing sharply on one player’s part, it’s become very, very difficult for me to just “hear a song” or “hear a band” as a whole entity, I have to really work at it to not focus on one element, and, it gets more difficult every year.

so for example, if I want to hear king crimson live from1974, let’s say I decide to put on “usa” – I know what will happen, I will be irresistibly drawn to “asbury park” immediately, because the drums in asbury park – well, if you like crimson, you already know about this drum part – it’s all about bill, and i’d say that when I listen to that song, it’s initially to hear what bill does.  that is…until wetton and fripp enter the fray.  then – my attention shifts – bill is still there – but now, john and robert are there too, and it’s hard to say which one of the three is the most amazing – not to downplay david’s role in the song, I actually love what david does on the piano here, but the problem is – john and robert are so fracking amazing on this song.  so I am torn – who do I listen to? who do I focus on?  that razor sharp guitar, that is suddenly blazing out 128th notes that are so brittle and sharp and they just fly atop that thunderous, murderously powerful bass line – to me, asbury park may be the single most powerful live performance by these four men that there is – although i’d have to think about that – I can’t immediately think of any other that blows me away quite like this one – especially in the first two or three minutes of the song – the power and the glory, wetton and fripp – and, underpinned by a snare drum that is snapping so hard it sounds like the drum head is in imminent danger of being split into a thousand fragments with each driving, smacking sound…

so some songs defeat my ability to focus on one element, and asbury park is one of those – maybe then, I am listening to that song in an almost normal way – almost as a whole – but not quite, because while I may not be focussing on a single element throughout the piece, I am probably shifting back and forth between the main players, maybe even every few seconds! maybe that says that I have a problem with my attention, I don’t know – either I am great at dividing my attention between various elements, or, I am unable to focus and keep attention on one attribute – fantastic !! 🙂

seriously though, I do find it interesting, the way people “hear” music, and as we were saying over on the pureambient music group on facebook, different people hear different influences in your own music, and that can be very revealing – when I get input from people, and they say “this reminds me of…bill nelson’s ambient work, “crimsworth”” or “this song reminds me of eno” then that interests me, I want to understand what it is about that song that brings that reaction – so I then go back and listen again as “see”, or “hear” rather, if I can “hear” what they are talking about.  it’s very strange that other people can hear the influence of artists that you admire in your work that you were not conscious of.  that always gets me, because when I listen again, I have that eureka moment, “oh…i see – yes, that bit does sound like eno, it really does” – which I might never have been aware of had someone not pointed it out.

that’s actually very valuable to me, for one thing, I don’t ever really want to plagiarise or create works that are too derivative, that sound “too much” like artist a or b.  that’s a tall order, because there are only so many chord progressions, so many melodies, so many harmonies, available – they’ve almost all been tried, performed or recorded over the centuries – so it’s really more down to other factors – performance, tones, ambience – that help make even an ordinary chord progression work well and sound unique to you.

tone and atmosphere are extremely important to me in the writing process – a piano, with no effects on it, is one thing, but a piano in a subtle, beautiful reverberant room – suddenly, the sound of the instrument starts to influence the song, and the notes, the chord progressions, the music itself become less important, and the atmosphere, which alters the standard tone of the instrument, and the timbre / atmosphere combination, create a mood that is somehow beyond the actual tune itself. the problem that this creates though is that I tend to want to hear that atmosphere or tone or timbre while I am recording – which is at odds to the accepted practice of recording “dry” and adding all effects post-production – oh well – sometimes, to get a particular result, you have to ignore what is “right” and go with what sounds right…

there are ways around this, and I am able now to record dry and play back with atmosphere added so it’s not so much of an issue now, but it used to be that I would just put the effect on while I was recording – because I couldn’t really play the piece “dry” – particularly, let’s say, if it was a loop recording of energy bow guitars – because the reverb or echo or phase shifting or chorus or flanger or delay was integral to the composition – and there are still times when I record guitar that is heavily effected – because I simply can’t play the piece live and then “add the effect later” – I just can’t play it without hearing the effect already there!

I am learning to, but sometimes…I might just do it “wrong” to make it “right” 🙂