“islands” and other extraordinary albums…

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

So you get the “first four”:

In The Court of the Crimson King

In The Wake of Poseidon

Lizard

Islands

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

Earthbound

 

Then you get the “last three”:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

Starless & Bible Black

Red

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

USA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

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

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

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

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

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

(eleven years pass)

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

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

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

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

(nineteen years pass)

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

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

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

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return Of The Dinosaurs (but then…were they ever really gone?)

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

7. Starless

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 HammillBanton 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 – “HammillBanton 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

  1. Flight
  2. Lifetime
  3. All That Before
  4. Bunsho
  5. A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers
  6. Gog

 

Disc Two – Bonus Atmos

 

  1. Interference Patterns
  2. Over The Hill
  3. Your Time Starts Now
  4. Scorched Earth
  5. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
  6. Man-Erg
  7. 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 🙂 🙂