Archives for category: Music

E’G/Warner Bros., 1984

One could argue that the three albums by the Fripp/Bruford/Levin/Belew lineup, and especially the last two, have the flavour of Belew’s solo albums of the time, just featuring legendary supporting players, but that’s really not fair. For all of the bits of it that are very much of their moment, there’s also a lot of that transcendent KC magic here. The more I listen to it, the more falls together and achieves a kind of unity that Discipline has, but that I feel Beat lacks.

Addressing the album song by song doesn’t do it justice. As a work, the pieces fall together quite effectively.

The Left Side

king-crimson-3-of-a-perfect-pairOpening with four vocal tracks, none of which (on the face of it) is that demanding on the listener. Title track/opener, Three of a Perfect Pair is an interesting one because it stayed in King Crimson/Crimson ProjeKct set lists well into the 21st century, and as a fan, it’s easy to find that it’s just a little overplayed. Belew is right to be impressed with his ability to play the guitar in one time signature and sing in another, but it’s only because he’s the vocalist that this makes him unique in the band. The song itself being about the breakdown of a relationship seems an apt one as this incarnation of KC was on the verge of collapse at the end of the Beat sessions (and after the tour for this album, these four would not reconvene for 10 years).

Model Man, oddly, presents us with another relationship song in which the narrator begs for understanding (‘imperfect in a word…but I give you everything I have’) from the one who always has him on edge (‘look[ing] for the sights…the symptoms…the slight calm before the storm).

Sleepless, the single that should have been a hit. Warners even ponied up for a video in which everyone seems a little uncomfortable. The song is the most distinctly new wave of the album (especially the Clearmountain remix which was used instead of the original on the first pressings of the album). The interplay of the rhythm section is what I find most interesting about this song.

Man with an Open Heart should have been both a single and a hit. Of the four lyric tracks on the album, three address relationship issues and this one seems especially personal. Its changing time signatures anchor it in the KC universe as well.

The most surprising aspect of this album (and Beat for that matter) is how far in the shadows Robert Fripp seems to be. His guitar work through Discipline is always the most distinctive aspect of a KC recording. However, with Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes like Clouds), the instrumental that closes the Left Side, Fripp’s voice comes to the fore. It feels like one of his soundscapes as it flows through the ears, but has a rather non-cloudlike feel for a song with its title. It’s anchored by an almost underwater-feeling percussion.

The Right Side consists of three interesting instrumentals and a decidedly different vocal.

Industry is almost an extended meditation that relies heavily on the interplay between Fripp and Levin. It works on one level, as a continuation of Nuages, not the opening of a different suite of songs. It’s structured more as a bolero – each instrument building in intensity and than slipping away again.

Dig Me, welcomes Belew’s voice back into the fray with an oddly sad follow-up to the previous album’s opener, Neal and Jack and Me. In this episode, what was once a proud automobile stretching out on the open highway is now rusting, unhinged, and what ‘was deluxe becomes debris’. On a certain level, it’s of a piece with the relationship songs on the Left Side, but is also markedly different.

No Warning feels like a more pure KC improv, but kept short and to the point. It has the energy of one of those moments where the band just locks together.

And then there’s the album’s closer, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III. It’s an oddly titled jam that doesn’t seem of a piece with the other two songs that are its namesake. After more than twenty years of listening to this album (as with all the other entries in this series of reviews), never so diligently and with such interest as I have in the last week, I’ve never quite gotten what it was about this composition that invited adding it to the other two. And I’m still not, but I’ve got a feeling there’s something in the musical structure that lends itself or was consciously taken for that reason.

Sleepless has long been my favourite track on the album for purposes of sheer grooving. Of the vocals I’m now more drawn to Man With An Open Heart than I ever was before. I’m not sure I have a favourite of the instrumentals – they all feel of a single piece.

Next up: Vrooom and Thrak, but I’m going to take a KC break first.


E’G/Warner Bros., 1982

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this album as a whole. Beat has the same hard/weird/beautiful combination that we’ve come to know and love from King Crimson, but it also leans heavily on the New York sound of its predecessor. I first had this on CD in about 1987 and I recall listening to a few tracks a lot and not knowing what to do with others. I didn’t have a lot of King Crimson context, but loved Heartbeat when it was on the radio when I was in high school. I at least had a little to go on with Neal and Jack and Me. Two Hands is beautiful, but the instrumentals kind of baffled me. It might be the weakest of the early 80s trilogy and (at least according to Wikipedia) was difficult to make. Belew and Fripp went head to head and Fripp was ready to call it a day on this version of the Crims, but they got it together and toured (and recorded another album).

Discipline pointed at a thematic fascination with the Beat generation writers (The Sheltering Sky), and this album continues with it. Opener, Neal and Jack and Me namechecks Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in its title. While the lyrics seem to have the point of view of the cars the titular characters drove in On The Road, they could also be spoken by Carolyn Cassady, lover of both whose memoir Heart Beat was published in 1976. A film version was released in 1980.

Which brings us to track two, Heartbeat, which seems to be a love song or a lost-love song. For me it was an evocation of intertwined love and lust and made me want to be landed with someone, which I mostly wasn’t in high school and college. While band members have suggested that this track and side 2’s Two Hands shouldn’t have been on the album, they’re both quite beautiful. They’re just not really King Crimson songs. (Belew would rerecord Heartbeat for his 1990 solo album Young Lions, though I don’t recall that version being wildly different.)

Sartori in Tangier, the album’s first instrumental takes its title from both Kerouac’s Satori in Paris and the city of Tangier where many of the Beats lived, including Paul Bowles, author of the novel The Sheltering Sky. For being only three and a half minutes, it still has the structure of a Crimson multi-part epic. Tony Levin’s Chapman Stick into leads into a strange combination of downtown funk and middle eastern rhythms. Stick Men (Levin and Pat Mastelotto’s project with Markus Reuter) have been performing a version of this recently that works quite well.

Oh, and here’s a really intense rendition which (based on the opening still) is from a Japanese date on the Beat tour. Seems that the string battle is just between Levin and Fripp, because Belew is on percussion.

NC_HB_Germany_1980Side one closes out with Waiting Man, another distinctive Belew vocal which like the title track of the follow-up album seems to have the vocals in one time signature against instrumentation in another. Bill Bruford’s drumming on this piece (as with a lot of the percussion in this period of KC history) seems to owe a bit to Steve Reich’s phase works such as 1971’s Drumming.

Side 2 opens with Neurotica which is an odd combination of spoken word in the style of Thela Hun Ginjeet and something much jazzier. I find the vocal portion, which describes or lists animals roaming the city (heat in the jungle indeed) to be less interesting than the music.

Two Hands wraps a fairly sparse arrangement around a lyric by Belew’s then wife Margaret. The strange point of view (I am a face in the painting on the wall / I pose and shudder and watch them from the foot of the bed) gives the song this weird voyeurism. From one perspective, an outsider of sorts recognizes love in the pair he (she?) sees. From another, the narrator of the song is watching people he doesn’t necessarily know make love. Again, an odd addition to the Crimson catalog.

The Howler poises a generally funky bassline against some rather interesting noise in the service of a relatively abstract lyric. The band doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with it and the song fades out. I imagine that a few live workouts would have made the song more interesting.

The album closes with Requiem, an improvisation in which the members of the band seem to be playing at cross purposes. This isn’t uncommon in KC improvs, but the fadeout at the end seems to indicate that this was going to be the last song of this version of the band. Fripp pulled it together and they gathered for another tour and album.

Next up: Three Of A Perfect Pair

E’G/Warner Bros., 1981

Released in 1981, Discipline was the first album by the reformed King Crimson after a seven-year hiatus. Prefigured by Robert Fripp’s 1980 LP League of Gentlemen, in the dead wax of which was inscribed The Next Step Is Discipline. The League of Gentlemen was an interesting exercise in angular new/no wave and featured Barry Andrews (at the time between XTC and Shriekback) and Sara Lee (who would go on to Gang of Four, the B-52s and a few other acts).

Fripp himself had spent the previous couple of years producing projects with Peter Gabriel (Scratch), Daryl Hall (Sacred Songs), and the Roches’ first album (and later their third) amongst others. Not to mention his own solo release, Exposure which included guest spots from those three and several others, including Peter Hammill.

The act Fripp was putting together after League was to be called Discipline, but at some point, he changed his mind and decided it would be the next incarnation of KC. As was the case with almost all previous releases, this album featured a new line-up. Bill Bruford returned from the mid-70s crew and was joined by Adrian Belew and Tony Levin.

Levin and Fripp had already worked together on Peter Gabriel’s first two solo albums. Belew and Fripp crossed paths on David Bowie’s Heroes – Fripp played guitar on the album, and Belew on the tour and Bowie’s next album, Lodger. Despite his work on the edges of rock and roll as a member of Frank Zappa’s band, Belew brought a distinctly pop sensibility to the proceedings. (On his 1983 solo album, there’s a cover of the Beatles’ I’m Down – he knows his power pop.)

devito_disciplineDiscipline runs the gamut from essentially downtown New York new wave to strangely beautiful downtempo work. Some pieces harken tot the noise mastered by the mid-70s line-up. What’s most interesting about this album (and its two successors) is that Fripp for the first time had a guitar foil in the band who was an equally forceful player. Belew also acted as frontman in a way the earlier singers (including Wetton and Lake) hadn’t. Belew never subsumed his vocal quirkiness to any greater KC ethos. This is also the first album with a co-producer from outside the band. Rhett Davies had recent credits with the second Talking Heads album, Dire Straits’ debut, and multiple Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry albums. It’s possible that he enforced on the band a certain rigid approach, despite what I’m about to say next.

KC to this point hadn’t done an album with a unified mood, and this album is no different. Down tempo pieces such as The Sheltering Sky share sides with rockers like Thela Hun Ginjeet, whilst the meditative Matte Kudesai sits between the bass-driven funk of Elephant Talk and Indiscipline.

It’s possible that the opening track, Elephant Talk, was the first King Crimson song I ever heard. KROQ (Los Angeles’ new wave station which started using the tag line ‘Rock of the 80s’ in about 1978) had it in rotation when it came out even though historically the band weren’t exactly new wave. (Around the same time, they were happy to have Jon and Vangelis’ Friends of Mr. Cairo in rotation as well, even though neither name over the title had new wave cred either.) It’s a strange bit of Belew weirdness in which he rattles off words beginning with the first few letters of the alphabet over a pretty funky bass line.

Frame By Frame might not be the first KC piece with backing vocals, but it’s one of very few, I think. Fripp makes himself known with some of his trademark arpeggios.

Matte Kudesai features a plaintive Belew vocal over a Frippertronics loop. Recently I saw a live video of k.d. lang crooning this, which seemed a really incongruous pairing of singer and song. But in her introduction, she said that it had been an influence on her album Ingenue. Curious, but if you listen to the lang album with this in mind, it’s kind of obvious.

Side 2 opens with Thela Hun Gingeet, a real group effort. Guitars, bass, and drums all play off one another in service of another piece informed by the NY funk scene. The vocal is a tape of Ade talking about meeting some very paranoid folks on the street who think he’s a narc. There are recordings from the time on which he speaks the text found on the tape (like this bootleg from 1981), but in others (including recent Crimson ProjeKct gigs) the original tape (or a digitisation thereof) is used.

The Sheltering Sky, the album’s longest track at over 8 minutes features the interplay of Fripp and Bruford which becomes more complex as the piece evolves. Bruford’s toms are relatively simple and metronomic and might themselves be looped. On the one hand, it harkens to the extended instrumental strangeness of Red and Larks’ Tongues Part II, but it’s really its own beast. Thematically, The Sheltering Sky presages the follow-up’s focus on, well, the Beats, informed by Paul Bowles’ novel of the same name.

Levin and Belew return for the title track which closes the album. Figures from other tracks on the album weave in and out as the musicians take on its complex and ever-changing rhythms.

While Discipline (along with the next two albums) sits uneasily with their previous work, a case can probably be made that the ‘73-’74 albums are also of a piece that doesn’t sit with their other work either.

I give this disc four stars.

Next up: Beat

(Image credit: Chris DeVito’s tattoo of the knot on the cover of Discipline.)

Island / Atlantic Records, 1974

Released just six months after Starless and Bible Black and right on the heels of Fripp dissolving the group (again), Red has been identified as King Crimson’s apotheosis. It is indeed damn fine stuff. Violinist David Cross was expelled from the band during sessions for basically not being able to keep up with the hardness of the sound they were creating, and indeed he’s only evident on two tracks. Former members Ian MacDonald and Mel Collins were brought in to round things out.

Side 1 consists of the instrumental title track; the album’s ballad, Fallen Angel; and the aptly named proto-metal One More Red Nightmare. Side 2 consists of the the improvisation Providence, recorded on the previous tour, and the album’s closing epic, Starless.

Red is, interestingly, the only song from this album that later incarnations of band continued to play into the 80s and 90s (and still). This is possibly because the album as a whole relies on a lot of overdubbing. With its multiple time signatures and sections, and its relative brevity, this one track sums up everything the band had been working on up to that point.

Fallen Angel, which recounts the death of the narrator’s brother in a knife fight, is strangely beautiful. I love how John Wetton holds the vocals together, never letting his range falter. The cornet and oboe (contributed by session musicians, not Collins and MacDonald who both contribute to Starless and MacDonald to One More Red Nightmare) give the track a special poignancy. (In terms of theme, location, and arrangement, it wouldn’t have been out of place somewhere on Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, released the same year.)

The beauty of Fallen Angel leads to the the oddness of One More Red Nightmare in which the narrator recounts the horror of being aboard a falling airplane (Pan American nightmare / Ten thousand feet funfair) only in the last lines to awaken ‘safe and sound / Asleep on the Greyhound’. Last weekend my wife and I visited New York and from the Empire State Building’s observation deck could see the Met Life building which was still the Pan Am building the last time I was on that deck in about 1984.

Side two mirrors the second side of Starless and Bible Black, consisting of an instrumental improvisation and an epic. Providence (named for the city in which it was recorded, much like Asbury Park on USA) is a weird interweaving of noises that I’m mostly unsure what to make of. At times it doesn’t sound as though the band were playing in the same room, but then it pulls together before breaking apart again. I’m sure in these write-ups I’ve used variations of that same sentence. That sort of thing is very much in the nature of KCs improvisational experience. I find it more intriguing than many of the band’s other live improvs and it seems to make sense in context.

Finally, there’s the album’s longest track, Starless. What started as a Wetton composition rejected for the previous album ended up as this stupendous beast with parts written by each member (including Cross), contributions from Collins and MacDonald and words composed by Palmer-James. Like some of the best pieces of the Pete Sinfield era, this track combines relatively depressing lyrics (Cruel twisted smile / And the smile signals emptiness for me) with music that is by turns mad and manic.

Robert Fripp, commenting on both the size of the current KC lineup and amount of studio complexity that went into Red suggested that the band could now play all of this album without extra trickery. I don’t have the quote to hand, but KC Mark VIII have indeed performed all of the tracks save for Providence on recent tours. For many of the dates the last couple of years, the dgmlive website offers one track for free (with registration, natch). So:

  1. Red –
  2. Fallen Angel –
  3. One More Red Nightmare –
  4. Starless –

Discipline Is Next.


Island Records/Atlantic Records 1974
This is a really strange offering in the KC canon – much of it was recorded live or derived from live recordings made on the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic tour, and some aspects feel too fast. This is especially true of some of the vocals on side 1. It’s not as though everything is too fast, just that speed sometimes overtakes dynamics.
Richard Palmer-James is back for another go in the writer’s seat. As with LTIA, there’s no overarching theme that ropes the lyrics together. (An argument can be made that the only other Crimson album that has some kind of thematic bonding is 1982’s Beat.) The album is divided equally between four instrumentals and four tracks with words, though side 2 only has two long instrumentals, so the division is not quite equal.
The Great Deceiver starts the album off with a bang, though it’s opening line (‘Health food faggot with a bartered bride’) rubs this listener the wrong way. It’s not common to hear something so derogatory in KC lyrics, though it’s not out of place in a song about the Devil. (ETA: The Elephant Talk FAQ notes that Palmer-James had in mind a meatball, not a derogatory gay reference.) There’s a nice slow bit in the middle of this track that helps it work as not just a rush from point A to point Z. The opening of Lament helps slow the proceedings down a bit. Lyrically it’s odd to hear a first-person, rather mundane song about being in a rock band from Crimson (though one could argue, Easy Money is also about being in a rock band, but from a different perspective). It has some of those nice changes that we’ve come to expect from KC and dives from the languorous opening into something more in keeping with the subject matter.
Next up is a strange little improv called We’ll Let You Know. As he did in Lament as well, Bill Bruford steps a bit into the odd percussive territory that Jamie Muir held on LTIA. It features a really nice interplay with Fripp and Wetton. I’m not sure Cross participates, though he might be on keyboards here. I’m pretty sure it was edited from a longer improv and messed with in the studio – it makes the piece a little less interesting as a base, I’m guessing, to build into a live staple.
The Night Watch (along with side 2’s tour de force Fracture), is one of my favourite songs on the album. The combination of instrumentation, subject matter, and setting is beautifully executed. The verses, telling the story of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, fit as if joints in a picture frame. It was recorded at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which is about half a mile from the Rijksmuseum where the painting is housed. The painting takes up a large dedicated wall – visitors make their way past hundreds of other pieces to find and then stare at it – if they can get close enough. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which plays a similar role at the Louvre, has one subject, and is about the size of a piece of notebook paper, The Night Watch is about twelve feet by fourteen and features almost two dozen characters and might be the museum’s star attraction.
The song is lyrically straightforward in its telling of the lives of Dutch burgers in the age after the Spanish occupation. There’s a line about the painting being dark (The city fathers frozen there/On the canvas dark with age). It had been displayed over its owners fireplace for several decades and in the 80s or 90s underwent repair and is much brighter now. (I am exceedingly lucky to have very good seats for the Crims’ return to this venue in July and I have hopes that they’ll add this to the set list. When they last played the Netherlands, they came to Utrecht which is very nice, but nearly so close to the subject of one of their songs.)
Trio, another instrumental, famously credits all four band members. Bruford’s credit, if I recall rightly, is ‘Admirable restraint’ as he never identified a place to come in so sat still with drumsticks in hand. Cross’ plaintive violin plays with (or against) Fripp’s Mellotron and guitar weaving in and out, bringing them together and then floating away. Wetton seems to join about three minutes in, gently, before Bruford’s bass drum and cymbals bring us into The Mincer. This one is a menacing vocal track that closes side 1 with effects-laden guitar work that seems to have some of the free jazz influence of earlier albums. The lyrics are oblique at best, but hint at the same feeling as Peter Gabriel’s Intruder who knew ‘something about windows and doors’. With lines like ‘Fingers reaching / linger shrieking…You’re all done baby / breathing, the menace behind the song builds, but the vocal style doesn’t really match.
As noted, side 2 comprises two long instrumentals, the title track and Fracture. In the last week, I’ve listened to this album more than a dozen times and at one point listened to the title track three times in a row. It resists entry. I honestly don’t know know what to make of it. It ebbs and flows between the instruments and sometimes seems to have a purpose and is sometimes just noodling between blasts of interplay before fading back out. The piece lacks a continued sense of itself while easing in and out of a sense of impending menace (yeah, there’s that word again). Eventually it feels like it’s going somewhere, that there’s some kind of synchrony between the musicians. Bruford, about half way through seems to take the reins of the piece and then it slips away again. The whole thing comes to an almost cohesive conclusion in its last minute or so.
And then Fracture comes on. Those opening notes introduce something that works and every section of the piece works together. As a representative of this lineup’s key pieces, it stands with the title track of Red and LTIA‘s bookend pieces as a statement of purpose. At about the eight-minute mark, someone (Wetton, probably, as he usually had a mic in front of him) lets out a ‘Whoo!’ because, I think, they are all in such a groove. It feels composed with room for each member to stretch. This is especially apparent in the version found on the anniversary reissue of the live album USA, recorded on the Starless tour.
There are songs on the album that were composed and arranged as pieces or evolved cogently out of improvisation, and others that are improvs cut to wax. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but in the context of this album, it distinguishes pieces on the album that work for me from others that don’t. As a whole, this album has pieces that absolutely shine and others that don’t succeed nearly as well. I still give it 3 1/2 stars.

Next up: Red.