The beginning of 2015 has been a real treasure-trove of live releases from the inarguably, the two most influential, powerful and long-lasting of the progressive rock bands: the mighty King Crimson (whose current ranks, in the 2014/2015 incarnation of the band, have swelled to seven thanks to a front line of three drummers) and the stripped-down-to-a-trio but just as powerful, just as dark, and just as technically proficient, Van Der Graaf Generator.
January saw the release of a sort of “taster” live King Crimson album, entitled “Live At The Orpheum” recorded at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on September 30 and October 1 during the band’s 2014 US tour – their first tour in this seven-man configuration.
While the album is almost frustratingly brief, clocking in at about 41 minutes, it may be an intentional Fripp-ploy, or Fripp-plot as my keyboard seemed to prefer, so I will allow it to say that, to leave us tantalised and wanting more. And that – it does. I recently read a full set list of a 2014 King Crimson show (see “HollywoodReporter.com” to view this setlist), and it was about double or more in length (at least) to what this live album contains. But – what the album contains – is surely one of the most extraordinary and most unexpected things in the universe – King Crimson, with their “front line” of three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin – who also plays a bit of mellotron), and a “back line” of four musicians including founder Robert Fripp, is delving deep into…it’s back catalogue.
And that – well, we had hopes – we knew that Mel Collins was back in the band, and we also knew that his fellow 21st Century Schizoid Band alumnus Jakko Jakszyk, over time, had mastered most of the classic King Crimson repertoire from the “first four” albums – “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, “Lizard”, and the less well known and under-appreciated “Islands” on guitar, and on lead vocals (plus, other tracks from “Red” too) – quite a feat in itself, but, also making him the perfect new lead vocalist / spare Fripp-type guitarist, too, for this new King Crimson. Much to my personal astonishment, we get not one, but two tracks from the much-derided and often undervalued “Islands” (1971), which over time, has actually become my personal favourite out of the “first four” classic King Crimson albums.
The two tracks they cover from “Islands” (“The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”), are at the same time, perfect re-creations musically and yet, edgy, new and sparkling from having “re-invented” drum parts, in three perfectly-arranged sections (Gavin Harrison, drum arranger), from the three drummers; who take these songs as seriously as any of the classic tracks on offer here, as well as what is probably Jakko’s best vocal on the album, on the wonderfully melodramatic “The Letters” – an absolutely beautiful vocal rendition. Perfect – and chillingly accurate – “impaled on nails of ice…and raked with emerald fire…” – Peter Sinfield‘s lyrics still forming a huge part of the ethos of King Crimson, some forty plus years since they were penned in 1971 – and that was Sinfield’s last King Crimson album as lyricist – “Islands”. For me, the lyrics from “Islands” are probably my favourite of all of Sinfield‘s lyrics on any album by any band, including the remarkable debut from King Crimson, 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – there is something about “Islands” that just resonates with me, and much of it is in the beautiful words that the departing Sinfield graced the record with.
The back catalogue represented here on this short, but amazing live album, also extends to two tracks from the “Red” album, fast forward now from 1971, to 1974, where the second major incarnation of King Crimson, that started out in 1973 as a quintet, quickly became a quartet when percussionist Jamie Muir, left the band, leaving poor Bill Bruford on drums to handle all of the drums and percussion from there on out. David Cross was the next to go, driven out by the world’s loudest (and best) rhythm section – John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and it was Wetton, Bruford and Fripp that remained long enough, after the extensive touring just prior to the making of their last studio album, as a trio now – so in two years, from a quintet to a trio; the ninth of the “first ten” – (counting Earthbound as no. 5 and USA as no. 10) – two songs were included: the never-before performed “One More Red Nightmare” (this time, sporting the drummers having a go at bettering one of original drummer Bill Bruford’s most difficult and well known drum parts – and doing a GREAT job of it, by the way) and as the album closer, the beautiful, extended “Starless” – with Fripp playing that signature thick, distorted lead guitar melody (the one that breaks your heart all over again when you hear it), as Mel Collins reprises both his own and Ian McDonald‘s horn parts – McDonald was a guest on the 1974 “Red” sessions – as was Collins.
Forty four years has elapsed since Robert Fripp and Mel Collins toured together in 1971, and worked on the difficult fourth Crimson album, “Islands” together with then drummer Ian Wallace, and singer/Fripp-trained bassist Boz Burrell (both of who have by now, passed on), and some 41 years have elapsed since the “Red” album – the final studio album from the “first ten” which was completed in 1974 – so it’s more than a lot of water under a lot of different bridges – but, for me, for this reviewer, it’s absolutely fantastic to hear Mel Collins and Robert Fripp playing these songs again, and showing us anew how powerful, unique, and in many cases, under-appreciated they were at the time – especially the wonderful “The Letters” with it’s incredible story of unfaithfulness and purity, and the awesome , powerful instrumental track, “Sailor’s Tale” where Jakko and Fripp re-create the double fuzz tone attack solos that underpin one of Mel Collins’s most well-known and insanely wonderful sax solos – and we now have TWO perfectly-aligned, fuzz guitars duetting with Collins now on this unbelievably cool piece of music, driven now by three drummers plus the as-ever-note-perfect Tony Levin on bass – it is simply astonishing – a great version of a great song – really powerful stuff.
In fact, besides the obvious brilliance of Tony Levin on bass / stick, the multitasking Jakko’ on vocals, guitars and possibly keyboards, and Robert Fripp himself playing what can only be called “regular guitar” (as these older pieces demanded) instead of soundscapes and, “regular guitar” from Fripp, is both a surprise and a revelation – he is as competent as ever, a stellar player – and not to be trivialised; however, it’s really the presence of the remarkable Mel Collins that makes this live outing astonishing, beautiful, shiver-inducing and reminiscent all at once – he is able to either re-create his original parts, or, create improved, modernised versions of them, that still capture the beauty of the originals – effortlessly, and there are some very innovative uses of Mel’s abilities on this record – my favourite being during “The ConstucKtion Of Light” (the sole track from the 2000s represented on this record) when it comes time in the song where Adrian Belew is meant to sing – instead of a Jakko vocal to replace the missing Belew…we get a beautifully understated jazz flute solo from Mel Collins!
So that just knocks my socks off – a word-perfect rendition of the track, with Jakko and Fripp playing the interlocking guitar parts with precision and grace – and then here comes Mel, replacing the now-departed Adrian Belew with an amazing piece of live jazz flute – simply brilliant!
The only place where the album maybe lets us down a tiny bit, is in the almost-complete absence of any new music – it contains a short introductory piece, and an equally short percussion showcase written by Harrison – teasers, tiny bits of new Crimson. But that tiny point does not bother me in the slightest, because the quality of the takes, the amazing versions of classic tracks on this truly astonishing mini-live album, captured from just two random nights on the tour – are of such a high quality that I can wait a bit longer to hear new King Crimson songs in 2015.
The track list is as follows:
1. Walk On: Monk Morph Chamber Music
2. One More Red Nightmare
3. Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
4. The ConstruKction of Light
5. The Letters
6. Sailor’s Tale
If you enjoy the music of King Crimson, you cannot go wrong with this incredibly well-played, beautiful-sounding live record – which now joins a remarkable collection of live King Crimson recordings that begins with “Epitaph”, which documents the eleven months of the original 1969 band – remarkable performanecs! – then, moves through “The Great Deceiver”, “The Road To Red”, “Starless” (covering 1973-1974 and all points in between) and many, many more – and at the moment, ends here – in 2015, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the band’s formation back in January, 1969 – this live release, released in January, 2015 – 46 years later.
More shows are planned for Great Britain and Europe in September 2015, and I am happy to report that we’ll be travelling to both Birmingham (September 14th) and Edinburgh (September 17th) in the UK, to see the band, something we’ve never, ever done before, as well as, one date in Utrecht, Holland (September 24th) – just for the sheer fun of it – a week later – so, I am actually ecstatic because we are going to see the new King Crimson not once, not twice – but THREE times!! – well, maybe, once before, in 1975, when I saw Led Zeppelin twice in one week – but that was because a second show was added at the last minute – this is a deliberate tracking of the band from one city to another and then to another continent…how very exciting!!! I’ve seen King Crimson before – a few times (1981, 1982, 1984, and in 1995) but this is King Crimson with MEL COLLINS – come on, and that is why we’re going to see them three times in one year!!! ☺.
Then – February arrived, and the special two-disc version of “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” by Van Der Graaf Generator, arrived along with it. Now, I had been lucky enough to read about and pre-order this record, because, for those that pre-ordered, a limited edition of 5000 would contain a second disc of live material, which is called “Bonus Atmos”…and I would always rather have a double-live Van Der Graaf Generator CD instead of a single-disc Van Der Graaf Generator CD – any day of the week, month or year!!
On the day the discs were due to arrive, the vendor wrote to explain that they had been short-shipped, and that there had been a serious shortage of the two disc version of the CD – and that some unfortunate customers might have to wait for more to be pressed.
I was not one of those unfortunate souls, two days after that email, my copy of the double CD arrived – and I have to say, for my money, it’s the best live Van Der Graaf Generator album YET – even if you just count the first disc. If you consider both discs – then it’s absolutely the best – the range of tracks on offer, from classic to modern, is astonishing, and of course, it contains not one but BOTH of the “behemoths” – the two “giant” live tracks that this dedicated trio have re-learned: “Flight”, taken from the tenth Peter Hammill solo album, “A Black Box” (my personal favourite), as well as a classic Van Der Graaf Generator track reworked for the 2010s – “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” originally from the VDGG “Pawn Hearts” album of 1974. We were fortunate enough to see the band at this time, in 2013, and the setlist did include both of these tracks – and, they also both appear on disc one of the new CD, “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” – so for those two tracks alone, it’s worth the price of admission. You cannot go wrong!
Most people know the story of the reformation of Van Der Graaf Generator, when the “classic” line-up got back together for a show, in 2005, and then a tour, and then another tour…and originally, this included fourth member David Jackson, on saxes and flute, along with founding member Peter Hammill, organist/bassist Hugh Banton, and the remarkable Guy Evans on drums – this quartet made a new studio album, went out and played it – and then at some point, David Jackson had had enough – and much to the horror of the fans, who were loving this re-united band – he quit after the 2005 tour.
We all held our collective breaths, wondering what on earth would happen next – how could this band go on without the very distinctive flute and sax contributions of the remarkable soloist David Jackson?? – the man who plays two saxophones at once, and was a huge, huge part of some of the songs – an integral part, you would think. An irreplaceable part…
Think again – the remaining trio of Hammill, Banton and Evans voted to go on as a trio – and produced an even more remarkable album, called “Trisector” in 2008, followed by tours and another wonderful studio album called “A Grounding In Numbers” in 2011, plus an experimental record called “ALT” in 2012 – so this gave the this well-rehearsed trio of veteran musicians a huge and diverse back catalogue – or two – drawing upon the classic tracks from the 1970s, or, the tracks from the current four studio albums, starting with “Present” (which was a double – so it’s really five studio albums) made with Jackson, three, beginning with Trisector – without.
One other live album, the most excellent double “real time” (with David Jackson) was also released in 2007, so this band has been very, very busy in its new incarnation(s), “Merlin Atmos” (without David Jackson) being the second full length live document of the band in the last decade – and I don’t really care how many Van Der Graaf Generator live discs get made – they are always good, and always welcome – because this is a band that actually just gets better and better as time goes on, and has become astonishingly able on the stage – almost telepathic in their ability to support the wonderful songs of Peter Hammill, as well as other tracks written by various band members over time – “Hammill, Banton and Evans” compositions probably to the fore, and why not?
Many of we fans have actually come to feel that the trio is somehow – better – purer, and able to improvise more freely, and it has in particular really allowed Hugh Banton to come forward, and take every single Jackson solo or part, and make it his own – beautifully. It’s strange to vocalise this, but – I like the trio better, than I like the reformed classic quartet! Sacrilege to some, truth to me. I think a lot of VDGG fans will know exactly what I mean by this – especially if you have been fortunate to see the trio version play live, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few times.
And – this band, this oddest of power trios – drums, organ/bass pedals, and piano/guitar/vox from Peter Hammill – has dared to take on repertoire that the reformed quartet, with Jackson, would not have DREAMED of attempting. Like the final track on CD one – the amazing “Gog” – an obscure Peter Hammill track from 1974’s “In Camera” album, that this trio plays as if on fire – a terrifying lyric and vocal, accompanied by church / nightmare / drum solo lead guitar music such as you have never heard – an extremely strange track, but – played with a wonderful, overwhelming sense of the now. Truly powerful, unbelievably strange music – but, also truly wonderful, and I was lucky enough on one occasion to see the trio version of VDGG play “Gog”, and it pretty much frosted my socks, to coin a phrase. I will never forget the power of that performance “will you not come to me? – and love me for one more night?” – the roar of Peter Hammill‘s voice is undiminished by time, and the anguish in the lyrics of a song like “Gog” does not lessen with time.
I did see the quartet version of the band early on; they were great, really, really good, and seeing David Jackson reprise his original solos was amazing and unforgettable, but, seeing the trio perhaps three times since then, I’ve come to absolutely love the stripped down, “can-we-really-pull-this-track-off-with-just- the-three-of-us?” (answer: yes, always) version of the band.
This 2013 double live CD is absolutely a must have, as far as I am concerned, first, so you can own the “official” live versions of both “Flight”, with it’s wonderful new intro and outro, and the re-worked, modernised but absolutely fantastical “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” (upon which one “Robert Fripp” played a bit of electric guitar, back in 1974, on the original studio version thereof) – those two tracks are astonishing, but – the rest of the tracks are of equal lineage, and the “new” tracks taken from the last few albums, sit perfectly with the older material – it no longer, in fact, “matters” from whence a song comes – it’s the Voice of Van Der Graaf Generator – and that voice is undoubtedly the voice of Peter Hammill – back healthy and hale from a heart attack scare several years back – and the music just flows from track to track and you find yourself not caring when a song was first recorded, but just listening in the moment, to a band of consummate musicians, playing a large quantity of some of the best highlights of one of the best progressive rock catalogues ever built – an amazing band.
The set list is as follows:
Disc One – Merlin Atmos
- All That Before
- A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers
Disc Two – Bonus Atmos
- Interference Patterns
- Over The Hill
- Your Time Starts Now
- Scorched Earth
- Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
- Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End
The band took an interesting tactic when it came to preparing this disc, that I found very refreshing – the three of them, split up the work like this:
- When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “mixed by HB at the Organ Workshop”.
- When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “balanced and arranged by PH at Terra Incognita”
- Guy Evans wrote the liner notes, which talk about the two long pieces they learned and how that came about.
I thought that was really, really fair and “meet”, and when you listen to the whole disc, both discs, I mean, in order, they sound like one cohesive concert, so the way that “HB” and “PH” “hear” the band in terms of the live mix, are clearly quite similar – it’s as if they were one person, but each mixing half of the show – very odd, but – effective. In fact, I’ve just re-listened to the transition from “Gog” to “Interference Patterns” in the play list containing all 13 tracks – and it’s just like the next track begins, there is no audible change that would indicate the hand of PH at the mixing desk, or any way to denote the handing off of the mixing task from Hugh to Peter at this point – it just flows…brilliant!
For me – a deeply satisfying concert, and hearing these familiar songs once again, now that the trio has been playing for a number of years, hearing the small changes and improvements – it’s just fantastic, they are growing, and, the quality of equipment, the quality of current technology, actually means that they sound better now, than they originally did in concert – back in the 1970s, underpowered and distorted PA systems, and generally bad stage sound plagued the band (as various bootlegs will attest) while all of the live material from the reunion onwards is of such a great quality – it’s fantastic, and I am so pleased for them, because it’s as if they are getting a second chance to be Van Der Graaf Generator, but, with the advantage of age, wisdom, experience, skill – and they can apply those in equal measure, on a stage that is MIDI compliant, and where microphones are not feeding back, and everything sounds really, really good – so it’s win, win, win for the new Van Der Graaf Generator – I hope they continue as long as possible, I love this band, and I can’t believe that I’ve now managed to see them four times – when I really thought I would never, ever see them play live.
I was fortunate enough to see some solo Peter Hammill shows in the 1980s, but at that time, Van Der Graaf Generator was a distant memory, and no one dreamed that they would eventually reform – and thank God that they did! What a great band, and another great live record with another great, no, amazing set list – 2013 was a good year for this band.
So here are two bands that were instrumental in starting out what became “progressive rock” – King Crimson in January 1969, and Van Der Graaf Generator originally in 1968 – both, now, alive and well in the 2010s, and making extraordinary music live on stage – still – and long may they play. Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill are two very different people, two very different “bandleaders” (Fripp would possibly deny being the bandleader, but never mind) but, what they do share is determination, determination that…the music shall be heard. Fripp endured legal battles that kept him away from music and the stage, Hammill had a heart attack and overcame his health issues, to go on to start making amazing albums like “Trisector”” – and one of the tracks from that album, “Interference Patterns”, starts Disc Two of the new set, and it’s an amazing, amazing performance – a really, really tricky song – and they play it amazingly well – a fantastic version of a now-classic song from a now classic album – “Trisector”.
And rumours are abounding that King Crimson is working on new material, so it may be that they are at the start of a new run of compositions that will rival the post-reunion output of Van Der Graaf Generator – I certainly hope so, that would be fantastic, and I remain hopeful that during the September tour, that King Crimson might reveal some new works from an upcoming album – who knows?
Meanwhile, you could do worse than to start your year with either or both of these extremely high quality live releases – I highly recommend them both to progressive rock fans, and the curious, everywhere.
all the very best
dave 🙂 🙂