Archives for category: rock and roll

2003 Sanctuary Records

First of all, The Power To Believe, released in 2003, contains, hands down, my least favorite King Crimson song. Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With is noise without relief and lyrical silliness unmatched in the entire catalogue. And the more I listen to this album, the less I like this song. In the absence of everything else, it’s simply annoying. Belew’s just messing around with words in a way that’s less successful than other such messes. It was okay when it was new, with Elephant Talk. Less so, twenty years on. Another reason Happy rubs me raw is that most of the rest of this album is really intriguing. Eyes Wide Open is one of KC’s most beautiful songs, up there with Matte Kudesai and Cadence and Cascade.

The instrumentals Level V (aka Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part V), Dangerous Curves, and Elektrik see Crimson addressing the tour de force they specialize in with some of their greatest vigor. Elektrik takes several turns through the quiet-loud arpeggiation cycle that the KC classic sound relies on, with bits of keyboard thrown in.

Dangerous Curves has this building crescendo, starting with a quiet keyboard line that pulls in first drums and then bass and guitar, the drum fills increasing in volume, almost like a bolero. Like the best Crimson pieces, you want to think it’s one thing and then it hypnotically turns into something else, before returning and showing you that it was never the thing you thought at all.

kc-tptbThe Belew lyric Facts of Life, which closed out side A is another false start on this album.  (Does one even know if this album was sequenced for LP release? Not I.) It’s musically interesting, but lyrically weak. The foolish aphorisms that don’t lead anywhere lead us to believe that Belew was just noodling some more, while giving the illusion of some kind of profundity. ‘Like Abraham and Ishmael fighting over sand/Doesn’t mean you should, just because you can/That is a fact of life…Nobody knows what happens when you die/Believe what you want, it doesn’t mean you’re right/That is a fact of life.’ I think the conclusion the lyrics draw in each verse isn’t supported by the arguments – at a poetic level, it would be more satisfying if he’d left the title phrase out of the sung lyric.

The title track, shared out in four parts, is the most intriguing thing on the album. Part I introduces the album with Belew reciting the text through a vocoder with no accompaniment:

She carries me through days of apathy
She washes over me
She saved my life in a manner of speaking
When she gave me back the power to believe.

Part II opens side 2 as a light percussion/keyboard wash to which bass and guitar later join. The lyrics are the same, still treated, but handled almost as a mantra, a meditation guided by the instrumentation.

Parts III and IV follow Happy and close the album. In part III, the melody and lyrics are pulled apart and given an almost industrial texture, which is interrupted by the classic Robert Fripp lead guitar. Subtitled ‘The Deception of the Thrush’ (a title which shows up on the Level Five EP which preceded this album’s release), those two or three minutes of Fripp taking over might be the most satisfying thing on the album, especially for fans of the classic mid-70s sound.

So, yeah, it’s a whole lot of really good dragged down by two not very interesting songs. And, listen, King Crimson is my favorite band. Those two songs, if they showed up on a Belew Power Trio album, or just about anywhere else, would probably have me hopping gleefully up and down. In the context of an otherwise serious and intellectually engaging album, they get on my nerves. This is still a four-star album, which may give some idea of how the rest of it grabs me. (Note: There’s a tasty new reissue of this one too and it’s on the wishlist in my head.)

I’ve been challenged to review the catalogue of Gentle Giant, a band I’ve only recently been introduced to and about which I know very little. Watch this space.

 

I had an astoundingly specific musical dream last night in which I was attending a gig by a reformed Rocket from the Tombs. RFFT were an early 70s proto-punk band from Cleveland fronted by Dave Thomas. The other original members included Craig Bell, Johnny Mandansky, Peter Laughner, and Gene O’Connor. The band lasted a year before the band split. Thomas and Laughner formed Pere Ubu while O’Connor and Mandansky joined Stiv Bators to form Frankenstein and later the Dead Boys.

Right, In the dream, I was watching a lineup RFFT that also included Robert Forster, one of the founders of Australian pop band the Go-Betweens. In the dream Forster was the founding member of the Go-Betweens who had passed away. In the waking world it was Grant McLennan who died of a heart attack in 2006. Forster is a going concern.

The gig took place in the large back room of a diner. It was brightly lit and the stage was barely raised at all. And there was a serious mosh pit. The song in the dream was 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and before the song was over, the mosh pit spilled its way into the diner.

We had friends over last night who I regaled with tales of this year’s Glastonbury Festival. One of the acts I brought up was Kamasi Washington (a fair distance, musically from RFFT), and in a later dream, I was at the office and rushing out to catch a bus to see Washington, but I saw the bus (#71) drive by as I was leaving. I must have been in San Francisco because I ran down a hill to catch the train at Market and Montgomery, but I took the wrong entrance and I and another guy ran two or three flights downstairs only to find that the platform wasn’t there. A guy working on a car at the bottom of the stairs told us to go back up and take the other entrance. As I was running up the stairs I woke up. And I’ll conclude with this excerpt from Kamasi’s Show Us the Way.

 

2000 Virgin Records

After several years of noodling, with different combinations of players in the six-person lineup performing and releasing under the collective name of ProjeKcts, a new quartet recorded the next King Crimson album in 2000. Losing long-time members drummer Bill Bruford and Tony Levin to other responsibilities, Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto, and Gunn released The ConstruKction of Light in 2000. TCOL retains the intense heaviness of songs like Red, Sleepless, and Thrak in the new songs, but in the main, the light touch that balanced those songs in context is lost. Musically, don’t get me wrong, they’re at the top of their game. The arrangements of the title track and FraKctured are especially tasty. Lyrically, I’ll be blunt, Belew’s taken them off the deep end.

There’s a reason that the current lineup performs the title track as an instrumental. ‘What am I? A speck of dust on the penis of an alien?’ I dunno, Adrian, are you?

Another issue that plagues this album, and to a lesser extend its follow-up, The Power to Believe, is the reliance on older KC tropes. FraKctured reworks the complexity of Fractured from 1973’s Starless and Bible Black, while Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part IV continues the saga begun on 1974’s LTIA and continued on 1984’s Three of a Perfect Pair.

The fact that it is so musically self-referential doesn’t need to be a detractor from its musical brilliance, but I still find it annoying. The opener, ProzaKc Blues, even contains the line ‘Son, you’ve been reading too much Elephant Talk.’ With that said, I’m still rather amused at the idea of Crimson performing a blues (something they hadn’t done since the days of Islands, when Boz Burrell wailed on Pharaoh Sanders’ The Creator Has a Master Plan). With its treated vocals (deepening Belew’s voice into a growl, much like we hear on the original 21st Century Schizoid Man – another throwback) and the musical interplay are interesting, but the lyrics…  It’s a weird one, because they’re also playing with blues tropes and structures, from the opening line ‘Woke up this morning in cloud of despair’ to the way it thumps along, you could almost replace the lyrics with lyrics by Willie Dixon or Blind Lemon Jefferson. ‘You have to see the world for what it is / A circus full of freaks and clowns’, however, feels as though the writer hasn’t thought things through. And the doctor’s advice, ‘I recommend a fifth of Jack and a bottle of Prozac’ doesn’t help the listener any either. My feeling is that it might have been funny at the time, but as I’ve aged, I find it less so.

Into the Frying Pan is another song that’s musically gripping, but lyrically lazy.

And how life unwinds
Around and around and up and down
You think you’re fine but then
You’re back in the frying pan
Into the frying pan

And The World’s My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum, while amusing for its word play, gets old. It might be that Adrian specializes in that sort of thing and always has. (Early in his career, Belew played with Frank Zappa, another gent who was musically brilliant, but used humor to relieve the complexity of his compositions. He even titled one album Does Humor Belong In Music?)

In King Crimson, the complexity has often been the point. Or perhaps just Robert Fripp’s point. So, I find the silliness the lyrics bring to the songs on this album off-putting. Is there a difference between Belew uttering the phrase ‘Get jiggy with it’ in the context of 2000-era King Crimson and John Wetton singing ‘Got no truck with the la-di-da / Keep my bread in an old fruit jar’ in 1973? Still not sure.

With this in mind, however, I’ve been hearing more in Belew’s vocalese  – the arrangements place the words in counterpoint to the instrumentation in such a way that the vocals are almost a fifth instrument in a way they never were in earlier incarnations of the band.

While I may find the lyrics lazy or silly, and the references don’t indicate to the listener that the band is moving towards anything new, but musically, they are moving out and around both the classic sound and what was influencing them in those years after Thrak.

Another issue I have with TCOL as an album is that there are almost no let up – the album is just kind of loud. Into The Frying Pan, FraKctured, and Heaven and Earth play a little bit with the the fluid dynamics that make the best KC albums intriguing, it’s mostly about loud complexity. (Recently I started listening to Tool with whom KC toured around this time – I didn’t get at the time why they made up a double bill, but Tool is all about examining the complexity to be found in loud, which one definitely hears here.)

tcolWhile half the album’s running time is spent exploring themes they addressed in the mid-1970s – FraKctured and LTIA IV, this makes an odd kind of sense. Fripp and company are holding on and expanding the original genius KC brought to the musical landscape. Those things that are in a sense at the heart of KC from the start. Listening more closely to FraKctured, it has in its arpeggios some almost Mike Rutherford-like passages before delving back into the noise. It’s a very curious mix of things.

And while the melodic flow and patterns of those two tracks harken back, they are also musically timeless in a way. Play LTIA II or IV for someone who is totally unfamiliar – they won’t be able to identify a time period. (The same is not necessarily true for LTIA III – those early 80s albums are much more of their time period, I think, in terms of sound and production values.)

The original CD release of TCOL divided the title track into two parts, an instrumental and the shorter nonsensical vocal. I very much appreciate that the recent Spotify mix of the album pulls these into single tracks. The improv and the live version of the title track tacked on at the end of the Spotify version are nice, but neither are essential.

Note: I’ve got the reissue, The ReconstruKction of Light with reworked drum tracks and all sorts of extra goodies, on my wish list. I may revisit this review in light of enjoying that one.

Next up: The final studio release, The Power To Believe.

 

1994 Virgin

Just over ten years after the conclusion of the Three of a Perfect Pair tour, a new King Crimson release, featuring a six-man lineup, hit the streets, to much rejoicing. But back up. In 1993, Robert Fripp recorded and toured an excellent album with David Sylvian. Sylvian fronted new wave act Japan, after the demise of which he created some very cool, hard-to-classify downtempo solo albums. A Japan reunion in 1990, under the moniker Rain Tree Crow, did not fly. Robert Fripp had played on an earlier Sylvian solo album (Gone to Earth from 1986) and the new collaboration was successful. The band for the album featured bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Jerry Marotta. (Marotta and Fripp previously worked together on Peter Gabriel’s second solo album and Fripp’s Exposure.) Marotta, however, wasn’t able to tour the album. Enter session percussionist (an ex-Mr. Mister drummer) Pat Mastelotto. Check out this article in which Pat recounts flying to England from California on his own dime to audition for the gig.

At the conclusion of the Sylvian/Fripp tour, Fripp regrouped the King Crimson, augmenting the early 80s quartet of himself, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin with Gunn and Mastelotto. The expanded lineup creates a more interesting sound for certain, though still most definitely Crimson. The first release of this line-up, the Vrooom EP introduces the new four-man rhythm section, an intriguing platform for the interplay of Belew’s and Fripp’s guitars.

Four of the six tracks would be reworked for the full LP release, Thrak. Cage and When I Say Stop, Continue only appear on Vrooom.

Despite the 10-year gap, there’s no grand departure from the earlier sound, save for a greater emphasis, I think, on the intense instrumentals. The 1981-84 quartet didn’t record anything new that had the sheer intensity of the songs Red, Fracture, or Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt II. Fripp made a return to this style in the songs Vrooom and Thrak, the latter forming the basis for many of the Thrak tour’s live improvisations. These sonic onslaughts are balanced with the ballad One Time and the funky Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream which can be seen as descendants of songs like Two Hands and Sleepless respectively.

The Thrak album expands on this balance of the noisy and the quiet. It also features two of KC’s most beautiful tracks, Walking On Air and the aforementioned One Time.

Vrooom opens the album, the arrangement from the EP now divided into two parts, the second bearing the unwieldy title Coda Marine 475. I’ve always been confused that the second song of an hour-long cycle has the word Coda in the title, but there you are. Dinosaur is something of a pop-metal hybrid, like Sleepless or Thela Hun Gingeet, I suppose. Straightforward(ish) lyrics from Belew, ‘I’m a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones’ might be an attempt to head off judgement of what the band are doing 10 years after their last album, and 25 after their first. (Noting that this is the 50th year of KC, this might be premature.) The song has the sort of soft-loud dynamic that Kurt Cobain (just a few years before) said Nirvana nicked from the Pixies, but it’s also a microcosm of the album as a whole.

Next is the ballad Walking On Air. Belew’s plaintive alto weaves what might be a love song. It’s Crimson, so you can never tell, but it’s one of the two or three most beautiful songs in their catalogue.

The instrumental B’Boom follows. After a short introduction, percussionists Bruford and Mastelotto go head to head. This is the first time KC had had two percussionists since that brief period around the recording of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic and this kind of interplay in Crimson got lost again after this album until Fripp regrouped with three drummers in the front line. The song, at least in its title, brings us back to a long improv performed on the LTIA Tour at the Zoom Club called Z’Zoom. (Note that the Zoom Club gig also included two more improvisations: Zoom and Zoom Zoom which together run for over an hour. The band might be referring back to them in the tracks Vrooom and Vrooom Vrooom. I might have to delve back into that recording.)

The title track, an intense and difficult metal epic follows, oddly reflecting the progression on LTIA from The Talking Drum into Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II. On the tour for this album, Thrak formed the basis for many extended improvisations. I’m not sure if I’ll delve into the Thrakattak album, which is comprised of several of these live improvs. I’ve tried before, but it’s an endurance test, sort of like listening to all four sides of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music without a break.

Thrak concluded side 1 on the cassette release which makes sense. The second half of the album is balanced as a suite between the two parts of Inner Garden, Radio I and Radio II, three pop songs, and the concluding iterations of Vrooom (Vrooom Vrooom and Vrooom Vrooom: Coda).

Inner Garden I and II, are short, nearly a cappella, vocals from Belew. The first leads into the very funky People, in which Trey and Tony battle out the bass line under a lyric that’s not too far removed from Foreigner’s Women. (‘People bowl, people rock, people pay to see two people box’ vs. ‘Women behind bars, women in fast cars, women in distress, see that woman with no dress.’ You be the judge)

Unlike Walking On Air, One Time is a little harder to grasp lyrically, but Adrian’s vocal is lovely and he doesn’t reach for anything beyond what the song calls for. It’s bookended by Radio I and Radio II which a reminiscent of the dissonant Ligeti pieces used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The vocal portion of the album concludes with Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, another slice of funk. Listen, what I’m calling funk is probably unfair to both the funk genre and to KC’s progressive metal leanings. This song and People may simply be funky because the bottom end of the songs is emphasised whereas in other pieces on the album, the guitars take precedence. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a word salad, but it’s prog, so that too is okay.

The album concludes with Vrooom Vrooom, a restatement of the Vrooom theme, and Vrooom Vrooom Coda which takes the high end of Coda Marine 475 and turns it inside out. It’s a really odd piece to conclude the album on, but it’s as musically intriguing as just about anything else here.

As I often do when writing these reviews, I’ve listened to the album pretty constantly for the last several days and have become more and more impressed with both the compositions and with the composition of the album as balanced halves. As a CD listener, the balance of things was lost on me when the album came out. I can appreciate what the band were after, even though in the decade since Three of a Perfect Pair, the LP format had slipped away.

I give it four stars.

Next up: The ConstruKction of Light.

Where the Dark and the Light Mingle, the debut album from San Francisco’s Gutter Swan, is a song cycle of covers from across what might be called the Americana tradition. Themes of yearning run through all of the tracks, tinged with the seduction and aftermath of indulgence.

The arrangements are deceptively simple. Loryn Barbeau employs the slightest twang in voice which suits the song choices well. Guitarist Steve Egelman pulls gorgeous melodies out of a six-string.

Wayside/Back in Time and Oxycontin Blues (and later in the album the medley of Carole King’s Way over Yonder and Joan Osborne’s Saint Theresa) delve into the desire to be back in a time before addiction took hold. Simple Man gives us just the heart of the rocker from Lynyrd Skynyrd debut album, transforming the plea for a child’s happiness almost into a prayer. Appropriate given the line, “All that you have is your soul.”

All that need be said of C’mon Billy is that Loryn and Steve do PJ Harvey proud.

The first of two Richard Buckner covers, Oscar Hummel, features another straightforwardly beautiful vocal that belies the violence of the lyrics of a lost traveler who mistakenly finds the home of his enemy. (A search reveals that the lyrics are from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection that consists of stories told on headstones.)

This is followed by Beekeeper, a song possibly narrated by a less dead Oscar Hummel ‘You all say I’ve crossed a line, but the sad fact is I’ve lost my mind…All I want is to be left alone, tact from me is like blood from a stone.’

I’m not sure I have a favorite track on the album, but Vocal (supplied by Norwegians Madrugada) is the tale of a possible suicide to which Loryn brings these breathless phrases. Just listen to how she sings ‘Dare not walk through the liiiiight,’ in which light is both salvation and death, howled and then almost whispered as the song ends. *Shudder*

The headlong rush into desire and addiction is best expressed here by their approach to TV on the Radio’s Wolf Like Me. The harmonies in which our narrator is a (were?) wolf seducing red riding hood balance on some sweet fingerpicking. The faster pace on this song is a nice balance to Vocal’s near dirge-like pace.

Way over Yonder/Saint Theresa positions Saint Theresa, another song of an addicted hooker longing to be on the other side of whatever life is offering against a more ambiguous longing for a simple escape. Way down in the hollow is a long way from Way Over Yonder.

gs-wtdatlmWhere the Dark and the Light Mingle concludes with Richard Buckner’s Desire, in which our narrator is done with their last partner, having said too much and too drunkenly, ‘shot my insides out with grief and Mr. Kessler’ and just needs to hit the road. Fed up with life and death and lust and addiction, the road beckons.

Gutter Swan’s two members capture the gauntlet of life, death, love, need, and bit of the supernatural, and so many of the various ways we subvert and support these things. As a collection of songs that work individually, the album succeeds, but it excels as a story. Folk blues, country, singer/storyteller songs woven together. Using such disparate and desperate sources makes something far more compelling than the individual tracks.