King Crimson – Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK – 20150914

for us, the first of three 2015 King Crimson concerts from the UK / Europe leg of the tour, took place in the elegant Birmingham Symphony Hall, on Monday evening, September 14th, 2015. We travelled down to Birmingham on the train, and spent a couple of relaxing days pottering about the place, taking photographs, reading, and for me in any case, drinking far too many Starbucks soya Mochas….

curiously, just a few hours before show time on Monday afternoon, on the DGM site, we noticed an advert for booking a pre-show talk with David Singleton, so we were privileged to get an extra 45 minutes of Crim-related material, courtesy of the very knowledgeable Mr. Singleton.

David discussed some of the recording processes and the challenges therein, and played examples of “before” and “tracks” (of “Lament” among others), where the board recording was mostly drums and vocals, and the rest of the concert was pitch-matched bootlegs, and, with a lot of patience and sonic necromancy, these are careful remixed so you can actually hear the individual instruments. It was a very interesting talk indeed, and David even treated us to some unreleased fly on the wall recordings from the forthcoming “THRAK” box set, we heard a session where “One Time” was being developed, and that was very cool.

At the end of the talk, which touched on King Crimson, Robert Fripp solo, orchestral soundscapes, the Vicar, and everything DGM, David then took questions, most of which were about forthcoming or existing releases, but some interesting points were raised.

Then, quite suddenly, it was time, show time, so the forty or fifty of us who signed up for the talk, dispersed to our seats in anticipation of seeing the legendary “seven-headed Beast of Crimson” perform live, at last. I’d been anticipating this moment for many months, and could not quite believe that it had finally arrived, at long, long last.

And I have to applaud this venue, there was zero stress, no queuing, no waiting, we sat in Starbucks drinking coffee (which was located inside the Symphony Building, a few steps away from the venue’s doors) prior to the show, made the obligatory visit to the merchandise stand, and then into the venue and our seats…which afforded us of a great view of the band, at approximately the same vertical “level” as the Crimson back line – i.e. at eye level of Collins, Levin, Jakszyk, and Fripp, with the three drummers at the “level” just beneath us.  The ideal place to see and hear from 🙂

For me, this tour is like a dream version of the band, with Mel Collins back in the fold, and the opportunity then that this gives the band, to recreate a large number of archival Crimson songs requiring flute, soprano, alto, or tenor sax – along with the presence of Jakko Jakszyk, whose knowledge of and mastery of King Crimson material 1969 – 1974 is absolutely unparalleled, he knows these songs as well as or even, dare I say it, better than RF himself – due to his involvement with the 21st Century Schizoid Band (of which, Collins was also a member). I was fortunate enough to see the 21CSB live in San Juan Capistrano which was in itself, a remarkable experience, so I’ve seen, and heard, first hand just how well Jakko knows his Early Crimson 🙂

So with the flutes and saxes more than ably handled by Collins; and lead vocals and the “other” lead guitar handled by Jakszyk, that’s a firm foundation to build on, especially when tackling the earliest Crimson material. The sparkle there though, comes from the fact that for a number of those pieces, it was Collins who originally played them, in the studio and live, so the horn and flute parts are very historically accurate but actually, better, because of course, Mel has grown as a player, he is better than ever and his contributions to this band, cannot be underestimated.

A lot of my excitement and anticipation for these songs was around having the impossibly ever-young looking Mel Collins back in the band with Robert, and watching them trade solos, with big smiles on their faces…it was almost as if the intervening time ( some 43 years since they last shared a stage!! ) had somehow magically disappeared, and we were back in 1972 – especially during something like the sonically raging “Sailor’s Tale” – the guitar / sax interplay and soloing was mind-bendingly good.

And…the inclusion, in this concert, for me, of two tracks from my personal favourite “early” King Crimson album, the much-maligned and misunderstood “Islands” (the fourth KC album from 1971) made my experience complete…I got to see Collins and Fripp play their way through both “The Letters” and the incredible “Sailor’s Tale” – two amazing tracks from a great album. But I am getting ahead of the story here…

When we entered the venue, the first thing that strikes you is the new front line: three drum sets, a DW Drums set (Mastelotto), a Gretsch set (Rieflin – who also doubled as the main mellotronist throughout) and a SONOR set (Harrison) set up in what is a first in rock music: a front line of three co-ordinated drummers. The drum arrangements ( as arranged by drum section leader Gavin Harrison ) were absolutely amazing: precise, powerful, and innovative.

I happen to know what the brief was from Robert, to the drum section – in just three words:

RF: “Re-invent Rock Drumming”

In my opinion, after seeing this concert, I feel that the three drummers have done exactly that, no less. A remarkable musical achievement – truly unusual and wonderfully creative and innovative. In a word – awesome!

The drum duties were spilt up in the most unusual ways, I remember for example, that for “Sailor’s Tale”, Pat and Gavin fell silent, leaving just Bill Rieflin to re-create Ian Wallace’s “flying cymbals” drum part, so that track had a unique sound: one drummer!

For most tracks, two or all three would be active, each taking different parts, maybe one would be on hi hat, another, on snare, another on low tom-toms, however it was arranged, it worked, and it worked really well. The drum section was extraordinary, and they sounded great being in the “front line”, really powerful and incredibly well organised in sound.

Bringing up the “back line” then, from left to right, were Mel Collins; the redoubtable and very tall Tony Levin on bass guitar, stick and harmony vocals; Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and lead vocals, and finally at far right, young Robert Fripp on lead guitar. The idea of having the bass guitar, and the three “soloists” in the back line is an extraordinary idea, and visually, it was a very striking arrangement. For the audience, it meant that you got the rhythm first, and the melodies and harmonies, second…very odd, but, it works.

The only slight sonic disappointment was that for some reason, the bass was sometimes quite inaudible ( very upsettingly, in particular, during the bass solo of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I” ), which, after a taped introduction, was the first number the band played.

Regarding that Introduction, first, we got the recording of the band asking us not to take photos      during the show, followed by the “Islands Rehearsal” clip from the very end of the “Islands” album, which the band played live over, a short flute solo, a few guitar sounds….leading up to Robert Fripp’s voice, teleported from 1971, counting in the orchestra with a droned “1 2 3, 2 2 3” after which, the drum section launched into a brief drum performance which quickly mutated into the familiar Jamie Mui-led intro to “LTIA Part I”. This is the same intro as used on the official live album “Live At The Orpheum“.

I had never dared dream that I would ever see any version of King Crimson play “LTIA Part I”…I never saw the 70s or 60s Crimson play live, my first KC concert was 1981’s “Discipline” tour, I saw the band then in 1981, 1982, and 1984, and then again, in 1995, I saw the double trio, who did play “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”, but I really didn’t think there would ever BE a King Crimson that COULD play “LTIA Part I” – until now.

It was a real shock, and when the full force of three drum kits slammed in, with Jakko and Robert doubling the heavy metal power chords, well, I about jumped out of my seat – the sheer power and volume after the very quiet percussion beginning was great. And you can bet that I zoomed in with my brand new binoculars to watch Robert Fripp play those fantastical riffs…which he did, with aplomb…no problem. That impossible Fripp-riff from 1973, perfectly executed in New Standard Tuning in 2015!! Those guitar parts are just amazing, and both guitarists really shined on this piece, Robert playing the coda with real clarity…Jakko playing both violin melodies and guitar parts, it was a really good performance of a notoriously complex and difficult piece of music – amazing!!!

Next up, the band launched immediately into “Red”, which in its lifetime, has undergone a few different “live” iterations, first, the very wild Adrian Belew v Robert Fripp “guitars” version played by the 80s band, then again, in 1995, the double trio adding two basses and two drummers to the patented live “Red” formula; mutating it further still from the studio version…,until now, finally, in 2015, when it underwent it’s most radical transformation.

Led by a new sort of “lolloping wave” drum part, where the three drummers in turn played a riff across the toms, one after the other, while the back line valiantly worked to keep the bass, chords and other melodic parts of ‘Red” in sync, it was a wonderful new way to experience “Red”, and I for one liked the new almost anti-Bruford drum part….the drum section’s new interpretation of what “Red” requires in the percussion department was radical and inspired – excellent. Visually it was quite unique too, because it formed a real “wave” as the drummers each took a turn, from one end of the drum section through to the other, it looked and sounded amazing.

After this initial opening salvo of a track from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” and the title track of “Red”, it was time for new 2015 King Crimson material, with which I was, and still largely am, utterly unfamiliar with. The first of a number of “new” King Crimson songs followed “Red”, which was also the first song of the evening to feature vocals from Jakko, “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” caught me off guard, I wasn’t really ready, but there it was.

Jakko was in fine voice, I know he is not considered to be an incredible vocalist by some, but I think he accounts for himself quite well, especially given that basically, he is playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals at the same time, as well as on some of the earliest material, playing Fripp’s original acoustic guitar parts using an ‘acoustic guitar” simulator effect of some kind. So he has a lot on his plate, a lot of responsibility, but he has the quiet confidence to pull this kind of musical multitasking off without incident.

“Suitable Grounds For The Blues” was no exception to this, Jakko delivering a flawless vocal while playing complex guitar lines, interlocking lead guitars with Robert Fripp while singing is a talent, and Jakko sounded great on this track. For me, I was a bit underwhelmed by it, there was no super memorable guitar parts or vocals to bring it up to above average, and I remember thinking that despite the fact that they played the piece very well, that for me, it seemed like one of the more or even most non-descript pieces of music that Crimson has ever done…nothing really remarkable or unique about it, nothing that really sticks in memory. I hope that in time, I discover more that is unique and good about the new material – it takes time sometimes with newer, unfamiliar songs.

This was followed immediately with another new vocal number, “Meltdown”, which again, the band played well, but myself being unfamiliar with the piece, I found it, once again, slightly underwhelming as a song, although the performance was excellent. Another good vocal from Jakko, very professional and very well done.

Following these two new tracks, the concert’s chronometer switched from 2015 Crimson to 2000s King Crimson, where we were treated to two of the best and most recognisable of tracks fromI A that time period: “The Construction Of Light” followed immediately by the powerful, ominous drive of “Level Five”.

I love the new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light”, featuring new parts for Mel, mostly on flute, have been integrated into the song perfectly; Jakko demonstrating that he can not only imitate Robert Fripp really well, but also, Adrian Belew, and he made short work of the interlocking Belew / Fripp melodic interwoven guitars that dominate “The Construction Of Light”, while other important changes were made: the vocals are entirely removed, and as the track nears the end, where normally Adrian Belew sang the tune out, suddenly, his missing vocal is replaced by a small blinder of a Mel Collins flute solo, and then the song is over,..but, after a very shirt silence, the awesome Tony Levin bass line that powers “Level Five” is underway, and this gives the shared lead guitar team of Jakszyk and Fripp, an even more complicated and serious lead guitar workout than the very intricate, complex “The Construction Of Light”.
So, from the very, very difficult to the very nearly impossible they go, with the lone bass line of Tony Levin beautifully and easily underpinning the twin lead-guitar attack for the duration of “Level Five” – a song rumoured to possible actually be, “Larks Tongues In Aspic Part V” but this is unconfirmed at press time. I always think I don’t particularly care for this song, until I see them play it, and I realise that it has become a modern Crimson “classic” – “Level Five” live, in 2015 – was simply brilliant!!

Next, we were treated to the very short but very excellent, “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which is a fascinating drum / percussion / electronics solo piece from Gavin Harrison ( who is also the track’s writer ). I was familiar with this new piece of Crimson music because it appears on the official “Live At The Orpheum” live CD, and it’s actually a really nice little tune – performed both effortlessly and flawlessly by Harrison, who showed no trace of nervousness at any point in the proceedings.
After the gamelan-like sounds of Gavin’s solo piece, the introduction of the astonishing “Pictures Of A City” just frosted my socks, with Mel honking away furiously and joyously on his tenor sax, playing the fabulous “spy’ melodic lines in perfect unison, harmony or counterpoint with Robert Fripp, who reprised his original contributions on guitar. Jakko had the pure joy task of singing yet another brilliant Peter Sinfield lyric, and for me, this track, this performance, was a true musical highlight of the night, another song that I never dreamed I would experience “live” in my lifetime, but, there it was: a great vocal and guitar from Jakko, fantastic bass, guitar and sax precision “spy” parts, excellent new three drummer drum part – a sprawling, complex and very musical arrangement of the song, from 1970, that tried to top 1969’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” for complexity – and very nearly succeeded in doing so.
This was a really powerful performance, with both Fripp and Collins on absolute top form, playing with precision and grace – a fantastic moment in time, an unforgettable version of “Pictures Of A City” sung with passion by Jakko, and played with so much power by the whole band – an ensemble performance, perfectly co-ordinated between the seven players – a true team effort, a huge win in my book – a real highlight for me. Beautiful work.
Then the time machine dialled us ever further back, back from 1970 to 1969, and for me, the first of two tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” that I simply was not expecting at all – the first of which, was “Epitaph”. This one featured Jakko’s encyclopaedic knowledge of early Crimson, where he simultaneously played Robert Fripp’s acoustic guitar parts, while doing a very credible imitation of Greg Lake’s classic, mournful vocal. Fripp played beautifully on this one, recreating his fast strummed parts perfectly, while Jakko handled all of the “acoustic” picking duties. But then, the band’s secret weapon was revealed, Bill Reiflin, his back now to us as he turned away from his drum kit towards his mellotron, loaded with all of the authentic “Streetly” mellotron samples, very, very precisely and carefully reproducing the original parts as played by Fripp and Ian MacDonald.

The historical accuracy of both the samples used (making the strings, flutes, horns or choir voices sound exactly like the 1969 album, and, the accuracy with which Rieflin plays the mellotron parts, perfectly copying the parts on the original album)…the addition of this super accurate and authentic mellotron part, coupled with Jakko’s impassioned vocal performance, really brought an amazing sparkle to a song with such a serious lyric. I never, ever dreamed, in a billion, billion, years, that I would see and hear King Crimson play “Epitaph” – but I just did, last night. I still can’t quite believe it, I’m pinching myself…”Epitaph” live.  I really heard and saw that! Last night.

Now this is where things get a bit hazy. There were quite a number of “drum solos” during this performance, some of which I understand, are actual songs with titles, and the next piece, as far as I was able to ascertain, was called “Hell Hounds Of Krim”. Now you know just about as much as I do about this song, every time this trio of drummers played, it sounded amazing, and these “all drums” songs were no exception – they sounded great! Three of the most inventive players around, each with their own style and sound, working together on a three part drum performance – it was simply magic. Another top notch performance of new material.

I know I keep saying “I never dreamed in a million years that I would see and hear King Crimson play THIS SONG”…well. I can tell you…and I will, over and over again…I never dreamed in a million, trillion years, that I would witness them playing “Easy Money”, but there it was. Again. Jakko did a very credible imitation of John Wetton’s vocal, while Fripp took on the difficult guitar parts. When it got to the first guitar solo, Robert got an amazing guitar tone out of his Axe-FXII, a very accurate 70s cracked-Wah liquid sustained “Frippy’ solo sound, and he played a vintage style “solo” using that amazing sound. It was phenomenal, and I was absolutely flabbergasted by the quality of that solo, and of all the parts – Fripp absolutely nailing the high speed violin riffs near the very end, with perfect timing and expert intent, absolutely on the mark…”just making easy money”…this is where Pat then fires off the “laughing box” at the end, just like on the original record.  but Robert was smoking hot and I won’t forget that amazing solo any time soon.

I could not really believe that I’d just heard and seen “Easy Money” live. Perhaps to give me time to recover, they then played “Interlude” which was just about one minute of tape, of an audience clapping and talking. Now at this point, based on previous set lists, one of two things could have happened, the next two tracks, might be, “The Talking Drum” followed by “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”, in other words, following “Easy Money” that would be the whole of side two of the original vinyl “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” album, or, they could divert back from 1973 to 1971, and “go Islands”…

I said aloud, during the last few seconds of Interlude ‘please be ‘The Letters”‘ and an instant later, “The Letters” started up. For me, this was it, the high point of the concert. Jakko’s voice is most similar to Boz’s voice, and I think he sings this song really well, which really adds to the historical accuracy. Both Fripp and Jakszyk play really delicate picked guitar chords during the verses, and the whole band played this piece with such delicacy…until the super loud fuzz guitar and honking tenor sax part that is…which is really sudden, and really powerful yet another awesome demonstration of dynamics, from the whisper to the scream…

The song then moves on until it reaches its remarkable vocal climax, where Jakko is “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…this song is so intense, and so strange, but the band gave it everything, took it seriously, and delivered it well, in a beautiful, unforgettable (for me, anyway) rendition.

and then I held my breath one more time, according to previous set lists, the next track should be “Sailor’s Tale” – so as the Bill Rieflin-powered, perfectly reproduced mystery mellotrons of “The Letters” faded out, I had a long moment of fear…until suddenly, Tony Levin and Bill Rieflinh » started up the fabulous bass and drum backing of “Sailor’s Tale” – which then gave the three back line soloists the chance to truly shine…first, the awesome sax riff, with dual long sustained guitar notes from our two guitar heroes…after a few precision reiterations of that, it then gets to the truly exciting bit, where both Collins and Fripp solo wildly, trade solos, play together, play crazily…it’s a truly wonderful instrumental jam. So here is my “broken record” speech again: I never dreamed in a million years that I would see and hear not one, but two amazing tracks from “Islands” my personal favourite of the early King Crimson albums.

so the double whammy shock of “The Letters / Sailor’s Tale” left me reeling, Mel’s screaming saxes and Robert’s wild lead guitar playing, including bends…it was very odd to see RF bending strings again in tracks like “Sailor’s Tale” or “Epitaph” – these two “Islands” songs, brought back in 2015 from 1971, probably at the suggestion of Jakko, who like myself, is also very fond of “Islands”, just made my evening complete, I was so pleased that this was an “Islands” night rather than a “Larks’ Tongues” night…although I do also hope to see the set list with “The Talking Drum / LTIA Part II”, but after tonight, now I can die happy!! because I saw and heard both “The Letters” AND “Sailor’s Tale” live – something I literally would have thought impossible until THIS King Crimson formed.

Then the time travel machine jumped forward again, to the beautiful, exquisite piece that is 1974’s “Starless” – more perfect mellotron parts, Mel Collins effortlessly re-creating both his own horn parts but also, Ian McDonald’s horn parts, creating a perfect amalgam of both…Jakko, tackling another difficult-to-imitate John Wetton vocal.

When the song reaches the slow buildup section, with the long, long picked guitar notes with bass figure, there was a slight problem with tuning at the start of that section, which eventually sorted itself out by the time we got to the very exciting conclusion of the song…Fripp playing that amazing, liquid, distorted lead guitar melody, again, with string bending, sharing the melody with the horns, a beautiful song, great vocal by Jakko, great bass from Tony, and beautiful soloing from Robert and Mel. Now, I had previously seen a version of “Starless” live, when I saw the 21st Century Schizoid Band play it, with the late ian Wallace on drums….but now, it’s “Starless” with Robert Fripp AND Mel Collins, it was just wonderful as performed by the new “Seven-headed Beast Of Crim”, a truly lovely performance, nicely done.

Time now for more “drum solos” that are apparently songs, this time, it’s (apparently) “The Devil Dogs Of Desolation Row” again, this trio of ultra professionals could make any percussion piece sound great. So another high quality 2015 percussion workout from Pat, Bill and Gavin. Great stuff.

For the final number of the main set, another impossible track from the distant past – the title track from 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, again, featuring the historically and musically accurate Jakko Jakzsyk on mock-acoustic guitar and lead vocals. Another standout vocal from Jakko, singing some of Peter Sinfield’s most famous and most amazing lyrics…perfect reproductions of the original flute parts from Mel…Robert reprising his original lead guitar parts in a really accurate and beautiful way…another classic Crimson number from the renowned first album.

And that was that, the end of the show, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” and I wanted to mention something interesting, planned into the drumming, for all of the tracks that originally featured Michael Giles on drums, I got the feeling that Pat Mastelotto felt it was his duty, his calling, to emulate sone of the incredibly powerful Giles drum rolls, and with real power…and he did just that. On several occasions, I was watching him play through the binoculars, when he would let loose an inhuman burst of speed, playing in the same uncanny, impossible way that Michael Giles used to. It was an astonishing thing to witness, and you could feel Pat’s desire to emulate what Michael played, because it was so much about the drums, in those classic pieces (I am thinking of “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” here).

Often during the long outros of the songs, Giles would suddenly play something impossible…and Pat did exactly the same thing, on a few different occasions during the night. So it was awesome that Pat did this, a real, living tribute to the critical part that Michael Giles (who, by the way, is Jakko’s father-in-law) played in the original music from that first album, his long powerful rolls were critical to the early Crimson’s sound.

To be fair, there were moments when each of the drummers did things equivalent to this, channelling Ian Wallace, channelling Bill Bruford,and young Gavin Harrison very nearly equalled Pat’s power and majesty – nearly.  I would say that ex-Ministry Bill Rieflin is the gentlest of the three, with the lightest touch maybe; but it’s unfair to compare, as he had to leave the drums and play mellotron for much of the set. So Gavin and Pat got the lion’s share of the power drumming :-), but when Bill was free to join them, he rocked just as hard…the three of them are really well matched in every way.

The band left the stage to standing ovations, and then returned for one final song: “21st Century Schizoid Man’ – which rocked the house. Tony was especially good on this one, doing his best to out-play Greg Lake on the bass…while everyone else took a turn at soloing, including the drummers…Mel took an amazing sax solo, and both Robert and Jakko played some great guitar. And then, there was the famous “precision part” near the end,  where the band play a riff, stop, okay a riff, stop, and so on, and of course, the seven of them knocked that bit on the head…Jakko had a great time with the vocal on this one, I think he sounded really good on it.

All in all…a show full of surprises, full of unexpected joys, full of songs that I never dreamed in a billion, trillion, gazillion years I would ever get to see my favourite band in the world play – but last night, I did…I really did.

This remarkable group of seasoned musicians have worked together to create something truly unique, a group where the three drummers are out front, and those who normally solo or support, become the back line…and that strange strange configuration – works. Really, really works. The selection of songs, old and new, is remarkable, and the sense of history here is so strong, carried forward by musicians, old and new – this is also remarkable.

A really, really good show. Enjoyable on so many different levels, superb musicianship, passionate delivery, and a first ever look back across the entire King Crimson catalogue, this band with its front and back lines strangely swapped, really gives you a run for your money – and just about anything might happen – a flute replaces a voice; a guitar becomes a violin, and Robert Fripp bends his strings again, most beautifully, on “Starless” and “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King”.

Indeed.

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pre-orders – remasters – alternative mixes – a boon or a curse?

Now that the good Steven Wilson has succumbed to the temptation to remix almost every important pop, rock or prog band that ever existed, in glorious 5.1 surround sound, with instrumental mixes, and extra tracks galore, I am afraid that I have succumbed to a new technological phenomena – the “pre-order”.

It was probably Amazon, bless their cotton socks, that started this trend (with my personal new favourite CD Store, Burning Shed, also well onto the pre-order bandwagon): order your favourite re-master or 5.1 expanded version of your favourite re-master, or an exciting new release, ahead of time, and you have the advantage of receiving it on the release date. That’s definitely a positive, it means you can get to the important bit all that much sooner: listening.

I mostly consider this concept a boon, my pocketbook, however, views it as a curse, especially since the advent of Burning Shed here in Europe, a specialist shop featuring all of the music candy that I cannot, cannot stay away from – so now, it’s a double curse – if Burning Shed don’t have it, Amazon probably do.

This is the problem though, another part of the curse, which might be labelled as “The Curse Of The Crimson King” because King Crimson (or rather, Robert Fripp) is guilty of this as much or more than many bands, as time goes on, they re-release their classic 60s or 70s music catalogue over and over and over again; on the one hand, taking advantage of the leaps and bounds of technological advance, so we can get ever-cleaner, ever more amazing-sounding renditions of our favourite music, on the other…making us buy it over and over and over again… Sigh.

At first, it made sense – so, using King Crimson as an example – I totally understood why: in the earliest days of the compact disc era, Fripp’s record company produced CDs of the original 10 King Crimson albums on CD when CDs came out, and they did a pretty poor job of transferring this very important music – so, Robert Fripp invented “The Definitive Editions” which were the first truly good-sounding versions of King Crimson CDs, and I had no issue at all with paying again, for something I had bought multiple times on vinyl, and then, on cassette, and then, on bad transfer CD, and finally, on Definitive Editions.

The problem is, more time passes, more technological leaps and bounds occur, and it’s that time again; time to remaster every King Crimson album yet again. Until finally, in 2014, we get what really is the definitive edition: the Steven Wilson remasters, in normal or deluxe versions. We get to hear the original multitrack tapes rendered into state of the art 5.1 surround sound, by someone who if he wasn’t already, is fast becoming the guru, the master, of the arcane science of 5.1 mixing, the remarkable Steven Wilson – who started out tackling one of the most difficult catalogues of all, the King Crimson catalogue; everyone held their collective breath, but, Steven was sensitive, understanding and very kind to these songs that we all grew so attached to in the early 1970s or even, the late 1960s.

This, begins to cost some serious money, and, I am not complaining, no one held a gun against my temple, but…if I had known, I would have just kept my chrome cassette tape of my import Crimson vinyl, until such time as the Steven Wilson expanded box 5.1 surround sound sets became available; if I had skipped the first three CD generations I would have saved, literally, hundreds of dollars / pounds i.e. a shed load of MONEY, on King Crimson alone :-(. I shudder to think how much money I lost across the entire Prog genre over the years :-).

But that brings me from one of the worst curses, which is not in any way limited to King Crimson, almost every prog band in the universe has immediately jumped on this same cash cow bandwagon, from Jethro Tull to Gentle Giant to Caravan, to one of the best boons – and that is the 5.1 experience itself. Now, when I was in my 30s, I decided to invest in a 5.1 system, mostly so I could watch films with their proper sound tracks, in theatre style. Audio 5.1 was a rarity for a long, long time, I was always interested in it, but, there really wasn’t much to buy for the longest time – so we had to be content with our wonderful sounding movies…

Of course, change is good, and the change came – now, 5.1 surround sound audio is becoming as common as nails, on both DVD and even nicer, on Blu-Ray (my personal favourite format) and I for one welcome it, and I say “boon”, it’s a good, good thing, it allows you to hear your favourite music in startling new ways, ways that can make you jump out of your seat they are so surprising and revelatory, ways that I cannot really describe using words – you have to hear it. I started getting into this seriously when the King Crimson 40th Anniversary / Steven Wilson editions albums started coming out, I got my 5.1 surround sound system back out of the box and set it up, because at last, I had something to actually LISTEN to on it….

And listen I did, and I do – and the Crimson catalogue is while an early triumph for Wilson –it’s still one of the very, very best jobs he ever did of re-configuring a strange and wonderful catalogue, into the 5.1 surround sound format, and of course, at the same time, unearthing all manner of remarkable rarities, from outtakes to alternate versions to previously unearthed live versions to, in one case, on Starless (either version, either the 2-disc Starless & Bible Black 5.1 package, 2 discs, or the new 27 disc version – yes, I said 27!) unearthing a live track that no one into the band could remember. Luckily, their lyricist did remember, so now we have the piece of Prog delight that is King Crimson’s “Guts On Our Side” – a remarkable track, rehearsed for a few days, performed once, dropped from the set, forgotten for 27 years, and now – it’s back!! You want to talk about bonus material – you need to see the new giant Starless box set, it is simply amazing.

But – also – see this brand new disc, just released on October 27, 2014, and arriving on that day via of course, my Burning Shed pre-order – the 1979 classic album “Drums And Wires” by XTC. Wilson already had one XTC disc under his belt, the most excellent 1992 album “Nonsuch”, but he was just using that to warm up, and now, in 2014, he has delivered what may be his master work – “Drums And Wires”. I sat down last night, and listened to the entire album in 5.1, plus, a generous helping of B-sides in 5.1 surround sound, and then, taking up over two hours of my evening, from the Blu-Ray edition, a massive number of “bonus tracks” – sessions, live tracks, and a full rehearsal session that is every XTC fan’s dream – including discussions, instrumental run-throughs, and a remarkable timeline of music that leads up to the recording of the actual album.

In the case of XTC, that series of sessions and rehearsals was really the sound of the band transforming, butterfly-like, from the “old” XTC of the madcap organ and piano of the ever so slightly deranged Barry Andrews, to the beautiful, all guitars attack of “Drums And Wires” – with new member Dave Gregory undergoing trial by fire, learning a massive number of songs – including some, from an early session, that sound very much like the “old” XTC, and it’s a wonderful thing indeed, to hear the band evolving at speed, and to hear Dave’s contributions to the songs – and, the leap of confidence that Colin Moulding underwent, with his song writing and performance “double whammy” of “Making Plans For Nigel” and “Life Begins At The Hop” – fronting the band, and changing the dynamic once again – his songs, of which there are several, suddenly leaping ahead into a new maturity that no one really expected, while Andy Partridge, as always, up his own song-writing game by several thousand percent – as always.

But if I leave aside the glorious batch of extra songs, including several I’ve never heard, and, including two wonderful promo videos that I’d never seen – and I just concentrate on the album itself – oh my. It’s a real beauty, it really is. Everything about this already amazing sounding record is amplified, enhanced, emboldened, and I nearly did jump out of my chair at several points, surprised, because I was for one thing, hearing this music in a way I never had done before, and, at the same time, Steven Wilson had pushed certain elements to the fore in the mix, making a lot of great choices on instrument placement in the 5.1 surround sound field – an amazing job this time, maybe his best (excepting the King Crimson catalogue possibly) – a lone tom-tom hit from Terry Chambers, bounces off of the rear right speaker, into a huge cloud of reverb that then pours across to another speaker…two astonishing, unexpected cymbal crashes during the first few notes of one of the songs, scared the life out of me – I swear I have never heard those in any other version of this album I’ve owned, or rather, I’d never heard them so well.

Then there was the instrumental version, and that’s something that over time, I’ve gotten really, really interested in, and I am so glad that apparently, Steven Wilson feels the same way – for example, the instrumental version of Gentle Giant’s “The Power And The Glory” is absolutely mind-blowing, it is so powerful, so precise, and yet, so full of the joy of music – Kerry Minnear is an incredibly joyful player – and that is the sound of a band at the height of their powers, captured perfectly across five speakers by the very talented Mr. Wilson.

Of course, there are others out there, re-mastering and re-mixing prog, pop and rock classics into 5.1 surround sound, including such luminaries as Jakko Jakszyk of King Crimson, but right now, it’s all about Steven Wilson – and who knows where he will turn his ‘magic 5.1 wand’ next?

Some bands don’t seem to want to go down the 5.1 road, at least, not yet, but, they are interested in re-masters, sometimes, re-masters that we the listeners have waited for, for a long, long time – and this time, it’s Mr. James Patrick Page that I need to wag my finger at, for making us wait until 2014 to hear the re-mastered Led Zeppelin catalogue! Torture. But, worth waiting for.

The first three albums arrived a couple of months ago, but, Led Zeppelin IV (an absolute classic rock album) and Houses Of The Holy (Led Zeppelin does prog – or something akin to it, anyway) – arrived as part of the October 27, 2014 pre-order event, this time, from Amazon, and while there are no 5.1 mixes to drool over, the re-masters themselves are absolutely pristine and exquisite, done only in the incredibly perfectionist / with painstaking attention to detail, and – lots of guitars – that Jimmy Page can.

Each re-mastered Zeppelin disc comes with a second disc full of out takes, alternate takes, and various other musical delights, and as the albums have been arriving, the quality of those bonus tracks has just improved and improved, with these two – “Led Zeppelin IV”, and “Houses Of The Holy” feature the most amazing bonus material of all, from gentle acoustic guitar and mandolin tracks for songs like “The Battle Of Evermore” and “Going To California”, to instrumental versions of “The Song Remains The Same” (replete with lots of extra lead guitar – as if the song didn’t have enough lead guitar in it already!) and “Over The Hills And Far Away” – a song I used to play in Pyramid, the band I was in when I was about 20 years old – hearing just the instruments, reminds me of the hours we spent learning the song, I had to do the solo, so I spent hours and hours with this track – and I know it backwards and forwards – so it’s great to hear it, with Robert Plant set to “mute”, and just the band, and of course, Jimmy’s many, many overdubbed guitars – the master of the overdubbed guitars if anyone is.

OK, I can forgive how long it took, regardless if this was due to a small, or even medium-sized monkey on Jimmy Page’s back, or just his loose, lackadaisical way of working – but I have to smile, when I hear the alternate version of the strange, disco-funk track that is “The Crunge”, the guitar part just cracks me up, it’s so unlike anything Page played before or since – and the rhythm section rocks, as Plant moans over the top of this funky mess – and then there are those amazing John Paul Jones synthesizers, sounding absolutely astonishing in this alternate version of the song – we all used to argue about this song, was it rubbish, was it great – I would tend to vote for great, myself, and it’s fantastic to hear alternate versions of all of these songs.

Hearing the multi-tracked lead solo of “Dancing Days”, the band are just kicking it, and such an unusual rhythm, too – I’ve always loved the odd “meter” of this track, and it sounds absolutely wonderful in this “new” version, in the vocal-less “No Quarter”, John Paul Jones’ keyboard masterwork, is brilliantly renewed in this alternate mix, I’ve always loved this song, I’ve played it on the piano or on electric piano or synth, for many, many years – another very, very progressive track – and Page’s sinister guitar riff is fantastic, while Jones plays wah-wah electric piano – fantastic, and, with the vocal focal point taken away, sounding absolutely remarkable.

I can still remember the day the original vinyl Houses Of The Holy was released, in 1973 – I went to the store, which was just a department store, that had a records section, that was nearest to my house, I was still in school at the time – the store was a White Front (because, the front was white) and I was there when the opened, had to wait while the staff un-boxed the album – and, there were a LOT of boxes – and a lot of us waiting to buy the album – this would be the per-cursor to the pre-order, back in the vinyl days – going to the store on release day, to get the record within the first five minutes of it being available. Fantastic. The strange Hipgnosis artwork fascinated me, it’s a truly beautiful record visually, too – and I took it home, and played it and played it, and then – played it some more.

What had happened to Robert’s voice? In the two years since Led Zeppelin IV, something happened, it just sounded so weird, until you got used to it. Pagey and the rhythm section, as always, made up admirably for any inconsistencies in Plant’s vocal performance, but in hindsight, I think he did a great job of the vocals on this record – they are excellent, especially on the rockers – like the wonderful “The Ocean”, another one that Pyramid learned and played, an absolute BLAST to play on guitar – what a rocker. “Got no time to pack my bags, my foot’s outside the door….”

The outro of the alternate UK mix in progress of “The Ocean” is absolutely amazing, with Plant singing in a very high register indeed – vocals that do NOT appear on the original album, but that are quite brilliant – so singing live, in this mix in progress, we catch a glimpse of the erratic vocal genius of Robert Plant – a great set of extra material this time, on both of these new Zeppelin re-master releases – they just get better and better and better. I am really amazed, and I really give Page a lot of credit for taking the time to produce this catalogue, and, to do such a meticulous, pristine, careful job of it – Jimmy Page is probably / possibly the 1960s equivalent to today’s Steven Wilson, maybe.  Or maybe, Steven Wilson is the 2010’s Jimmy Page – who knows?

I don’t know about you, but personally, I can’t wait for the re-master of Physical Graffiti – that should be another event entirely – and, for me, it’s the last “good” Led Zeppelin album – after that, they were never the same. But this period – 1971 to 1973 was awesome, two of their very best records, while really, from 1970 to 1974, was ALL sheer genius, on the road, and in the studio – well, really, starting with Led Zeppelin III – for me, this is the Holy Trinity of Led Zeppelin albums:

This is the 1970 – 1975 version, which does give a good overview of the changes the band went through…

1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Houses Of The Holy
3) Physical Graffiti

Or, the “Super-Purist” Led Zeppelin Fan version which covers the timespan 1971 – 1973, and this was an amazing short period of sheer creativity, on a scale that they never really got back to after delivering these three amazing records:

1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Led Zeppelin IV
3) Houses Of The Holy

It was at the end of this period, in 1973, that I saw the mighty Zeppelin, live at the San Diego Sports Arena, getting to delight in a tour that was half a tour in support of “Led Zeppelin IV” and half, the tour that saw some of the tunes from Houses Of The Holy being previewed for the first time ever. I then saw them again, twice in one week, remarkably (due to insane levels of ticket demand – on a Tuesday night, and then, on the Friday night of the same week – in 1975, which gave me the view from Physical Graffiti looking back). Both tours were amazing, and unforgettable, and the 1973 concert, also happened to be the very first rock concert I had ever attended, at the tender age of 15, but I was already rocking then, and starting out with Led Zeppelin live is not a bad way to start at all – it has stayed with me, and I try to remember that youthful energy now when I play the guitar – a few years on.  🙂

But, whether I like it or not, whether it is a boon, or a curse, or both (probably both, I am betting) the pre-order is here to stay, at first, I did tend to resist it, but now, I take advantage of it every time, so I can get that “waiting for the store to open to pick up my new album, by my very favourite band at the time” feeling again. Wonderful days, when I just had The Beatles, and then Led Zeppelin, and not a whole lot else, to listen to.

Starting out as a lead guitarist, for me, Led Zeppelin was a great grounding for the aspiring rock lead guitarist, learning all of those songs – some, simple enough, sometimes, it’s quite easy to imitate Jimmy Page (say, on “Tangerine” or “The Ocean”) – including some really difficult ones, like “Ten Years Gone” from Physical Graffiti, in trying to learn that bastard of a song, my respect for Jimmy Page went through the roof – he was really a very, very serious guitarist capable of a huge range of expression, and he wrote some cracking good songs, too!

Will we ever see or rather, hear, Led Zeppelin on 5.1? I don’t know. But I do know, now that I have a collection of 5.1 audio discs started, that I would probably be the first 15 year old kid, in line at a digital “White Front” called “Amazon”, no longer in 1973, to get my brand new shiny 5.1 version of “Houses Of The Holy”. I will be there.

Please.

 

Meanwhile, I would have to agree that pre-orders; re-masters with expanded bonus tracks, sessions, mixes, takes – are both boon and curse, the curse being, I haven’t really got the kind of money to buy all the AMAZING stuff that is coming out on CD – for example, I have my eye on the new five CD box from original Genesis guitarist Ant Phillips – but I don’t know if I can afford it, so I have not yet ordered it. I can’t decide, I know I would like it, that’s not an issue, it’s just the cost. So the curse, which started with having to buy multiple versions of the same King Crimson albums, over and over again, year after year – now continues with a positive river of reissues, re-masters, 5.1 expanded editions, box sets and rarities collections – and my mind says “I want it all, all of it” but my pocketbook does not agree with me, it does not automatically say “yes” to every new release.

Would that it would or could. But hey – if I skip one five CD set, maybe then I can afford a nice affordable 2 disc set? Or, I can save up to buy REV, the latest software instrument for Komplete / Kontakt, that I have had my eyes on for several months – I really should just lay off of CD buying for a while.

But – I probably won’t, because invariably, burning shed will send me an email, with just ONE thing I want, I will go to the website, and find another four or ten things that I really, really want – and I try to compromise, maybe buy two, or three, but not eight, or ten or 12.

This is so complicated. Almost like a Complicated Game. And then, you get pre-orders. Sure, they are handy; they mean you get the disc quickly, you can also get special promotional items if you are one of the first to order, I have both a beautiful “The Power And The Glory” postcard from the Gentle Giant set, and, a beautiful “Drums And Wires” postcard, personally autographed by the good Andy Partridge. That can go with my full set of autographed 2009 XTC re-masters, I suppose. Except…they are re-mastering them again. With the right music, with more of the music, much more, with the right artwork – I am so, so glad that Andy Partridge created APE records, and has put right the many questionable activities of his former record company Who Shall Remain Nameless.

And perhaps the one thing that APE records and Andy Partridge have “put right”, is in creating this absolutely powerful new version of “Drums And Wires”, which is visceral as all hell, and so powerful when rendered into 5.1 surround sound by the good Mr. Steven Wilson, I was truly riveted throughout both the 5.1 album version, and the 5.1 instrumental mix – utterly fascinating, and it really does give you an absolutely new appreciation for the songs, you really do “hear things you’ve never heard” when you hear a good Steven Wilson 5.1 mix.
In my humble opinion, not speaking as a musician now, but just as a fan of music, and a fan of the band XTC for many years – I was so, so lucky, to see the very last live show the original quartet (the one with Dave Gregory, so not the original, the almost-original, quartet) in San Diego, before Andy packed it in for touring – that this 5.1 version of “Drums And Wires”, is, to date, the BEST of the Steven Wilson 5.1 mixes.

He takes a great, well-made album, and turns it on its head, making you hear things that were there all along, but, that you never quite appreciated because you were too busy listening to Andy sing or listening to one of Dave’s incredible solos…but, the amazing musical touches of the original production team, and in particular, the power and majesty of the now long-departed Terry Chambers on drums, coupled with the rapidly becoming-McCartney bass playing of Colin Moulding, well, those two are an INSPIRED rhythm section, and you don’t realise just how good they are, until you hear this in 5.1 – providing the perfect rhythmic bass and drums “bed” for the two guitarists to work over – and, work they do.

A supreme effort for Mr. Wilson, then, (and a proud rendering of what is almost certainly the band’s masterpiece) and I for one, offer a tip of the hat for his amazing work on this disc, it floored me, I am so, so glad I opted for the Blu-Ray, it just sounds SO incredibly good – it really does.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming:

October 27, 2014

Three Pre-Orders Arrive in One Day:

1) XTC / “Drums And Wires” – The Surround Sound Series – Steven Wilson 5.1 Mix
2) Led Zeppelin / Led Zeppelin IV – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.
3) Led Zeppelin / Houses Of The Holy – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.

CDs for the collection, or rather, four Led Zeppelin CDs and one XTC Blu-Ray full of 5.1 mixes and bonus tracks, and one XTC CD – so, five CDs and a beautiful Blu-ray – not a bad evening at all, a very nice thing to come home to, I should say!

And I do say.

Let’s have then, next, along with the obviously-hopefully-forthcoming Physical Graffiti from Mr. Page, how about XTC – The Big Express – followed by XTC – English Settlement – two of my personal favourites, from Mr. Wilson?

This would be a boon to my ears, and a curse to my pocketbook – but never mind, it is all about the music – and it is the music that matters, as you will know, if you regularly hang around in the land of pureambient as I do.

I guess I will continue to do pre-orders; which means that more and more, I will be expecting x number of items to arrive on a certain date, which will mean then, an evening of listening, learning and exploring – for example, I saw two videos that I’d never seen, and I heard several XTC songs that I had never heard before, when I sat down to explore the “Drums And Wires” Blu-ray at some length – and that was a wonderful experience, the videos were hilarious, with our heroes goofing around in classic style, but again, it was hearing all that music, music I’d never heard, early sessions, a rehearsal – so much effort going into the preparation of the album – and finally, making the album, with a long series of abandoned tracks and ideas scattered in their wake – but, still ending up with a couple of dozen truly excellent, and often startlingly innovative, tracks, enough for the album and for any number of B sides as well – plenty of songs to go around.

Well – when you put it like that…OK, dammit, boon. Not curse, boon. Sigh.

 

[expensive boon?] 🙂

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.