Archives for posts with tag: Mel Collins

In this review, I look at the 40th Anniversary editions of two King Crimson live albums. I’ve been a fan of the USA album since before I knew where it stood in the KC canon. Earthbound, however, was never high on my listening list. Having launched into this adventure of rambling through the King Crimson discography, however, I was inclined to give it another go, especially as the notoriously lo-fi recordings are accompanied by an (expectedly cleaner) radio session, Live at Summit Studios, in this release. More on Summit later.

My favourite thing about Earthbound, recorded on the Islands tour in early 1972, is Boz Burrell’s voice. Being a fan of the classic mid-70s lineup that produced USA, Red, Starless and Bible Black, and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, the limitations of Wetton’s voice always grated on me. With this in mind, however, these recordings also reveal in stark relief why leader Robert Fripp gave the Islands lineup the boot. Fripp himself had already moved on before they went on the road to meet contractual obligations. The other three members, Mel Collins on flutes and saxophones, Burrell on bass/vocals, and Ian Wallace on drums, are very loose in their playing and seem to want to be more of a boogie band than a progressive rock outfit. The original release consisted of 21st Century Schizoid Man, two improvs, a particularly sloppy Sailor’s Tale, and an extended jam on Groon, the instrumental b-side of the very jazzy Cat Food from 1970. The initial release of Groon was only about four minutes (four different takes can be found on the 40th Anniversary Edition of In the Wake of Poseidon), but on this tour, it was regularly extended past fifteen.

The CD portion of this release extends the initial album with Pictures of a City, Formentera Lady, and Cirkus. The DVD portion extends it further with Ladies of the Road, The Letters, and full versions of The Sailor’s Tale and Groon.

kc-eb-usa-back-smThe opening Schizoid man pushes the needle to the red in terms of both saturation and energy. While the structure remains the same, the improvisations in the middle exceed what is expected. Mel Collins’ sax work is intense, and marred somewhat by drumming that seems to be, possibly, part of a different song. Fripp ropes everyone back in with some searing runs. Boz’s treated vocals are more menacing that we hear in later versions, which is somehow appropriate.

Peoria lets us in with some bass/horn/drum interplay, but if Fripp’s guitar is in there, it’s very low in the mix. Sailor’s Tale fades in and closes out side 1. It’s the only song on Earthbound’s original release that also appears on the album they were touring, Islands. It’s a bit sloppy – and perhaps it’s this tendency to sloppiness that frustrated Fripp, but on its own terms it works.

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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 –



Island Records, 1971

Released almost a year after Lizard, Islands is a somewhat mixed bag of very interesting music. As you might have guessed from my previous reviews, I haven’t seen the inside of the Sailor’s Tales box set which gathers up (on 27 discs) almost all the extant studio and live work from the period from In the Wake of Poseidon through Islands. I’m sure has a lot of interesting background material on both those LPs and this one. (I’ve got the follow-up box sets of the ‘72-’74 lineup with their long informative booklets of, so I have some idea of the material included.) So this too is a review of the album as released at the time.

king-crimson-islands-cassetteThe album’s opener, Formentera Lady is introduced by Harry Miller’s double bass theme. Mel Collins’ flute and Keith Tippet’s piano weave around one another behind Boz Burrell’s vocals. (KC’s third vocalist in four albums, Burrell had previously worked with Fripp and other Crimson members in Keith Tippet’s Centipede project.)

This song’s almost stereotypically Asian flute work that introduces the third verse has always led me to confuse Formentera with Formosa (the former English name of Taiwan). Looking it up now, I learn that Formentera is near Ibiza and is part of Spain, and was a popular hippie destination in the late 60s. I obviously didn’t pay that much attention to the lyrics until recently, as its references to Odysseus and Circe in the fourth verse place it in a squarely Mediterranean setting. For a couple of minutes after the last verse, the song moves into a now familiar jazz improvisatory realm, anchored by Burrell’s bass lines, eventually coming back to square one for the final verse. I’m pretty sure the soprano vocals that overlay this section of the song are unique in the KC canon. It’s amusing to note that Joni Mitchell was living on Formentera in 1971 and working on her album Blue, leading one to wonder if she’s who Pete Sinfield is referencing in the title.

The soprano is faded out behind some sax before the mellotron introduces Sailor’s Tale, an almost Philip Glass-like workout for drums, horns, and keyboards. Well, it feels minimalist until some honks from tenor sax take the front of the song. As is becoming familiar in KC territory, the song takes a couple of turns in tempo and instrumentation, increasing in intensity before an oddly long fade. This seems an appropriate way to bring the listeners to the next track.

The Letters, a 16-line story of infidelity and death. closes side 1. The first letter from a husband’s lover to his wife informs her that she’s pregnant, the reply to which seems to indicate the wife has killed her husband (‘What’s mine was yours is dead’) and is about to take her own life (‘I take my leave of mortal flesh’). The opening verses are very quiet but lead to several turns with the sax taking the lead. The middle section of the song is all emotional turmoil until the wife takes up her pen. Collins comes back on flute and in the final lines the instruments leave all the work to Burrell’s bass.

The composition around which the song is arranged dates back to the Giles Giles and Fripp song Why Don’t You Just Drop In, performed on the early Crimson tours as simply Drop In. The lyrics to Drop In, however, are entirely different than those of The Letters.

Side 2 opens with possibly the oddest song for King Crimson to record. A couple of people responded to my assessment of Happy Family on Lizard to tell me it was actually about The Beatles. A case can be made for this, especially when listening to Ladies of the Road, a raunchy paean to groupies which sounds in places like either late model Beatles or early John Lennon solo work. To be honest, I was first turned off to Islands because of this song. It’s direct and explicit and almost glam in its presentation (not a problem for me in the grand scheme – one could hear it fitting in on the soundtracks to Almost Famous or Velvet Goldmine). The main issue I have with this song’s lyrics are not that they’re frank or sexually explicit, but more that the narrator is objectifying (‘[She] Said I’m a male resister / I smiled and just unzipped her’). The worse crime still, however, is that there’s no metaphorical content or lyric irony. This is uncommon both in Sinfield’s other lyric poetry for KC and in Crimson lyrics as a whole.

After the hardness of ‘Ladies’, Prelude: Song of the Gulls is oddly soothing. Its repetitive motif of flute against strings is almost baroque. And despite being a Fripp composition (recorded by Giles Giles and Fripp and also found on The Brondesbury Tapes), the recorded song doesn’t seem to feature him. I’m reminded of the credit given to Bill Bruford for the song Trio on which he doesn’t play (‘admirable restraint’).

Finally, the title track is a slowly built layering of instruments. Flute (or possibly alto sax), piano, and guitar are added to Burrell’s vocals. In the second half of the song, the vocals are faded and Collins switches over to tenor sax and Fripp adds a quiet harmonium as the song gathers in intensity. It’s one of their loveliest songs – up there for me with Matte Kudesai and Walking On Air.

The album works well as a whole, and taken on its own terms is mostly successful. Its production is more polished than that of the earlier albums. Combined with the the photograph on the cover, it’s a departure from how the band had earlier presented itself. I honestly can’t come up with a star rating for it – Islands simply needs to be experienced.

Next on the menu? Larks’ Tongues In Aspic!

Island Records, 1970

Released only six months after In the Wake of Poseidon (and only 14 months after their debut), Lizard is a definite continuation of the improvisational jazz/rock found on the first two LPs. Almost all of the vocal work has been taken on by Gordon Haskell (whose voice graced the released version of Cadence and Cascade on Poseidon). One of the main changes in sound is the full-time presence of Mel Collins on flute and sax. Lyric duties are still being handled by Pete Sinfield.

In rough structure, we get three uptempo songs on side 1 followed by a ballad. Side 2 consists of the multi-part Lizard Suite. The first thing to catch is that the more rocking of the songs don’t really resemble much from the previous albums, except for the maybe the jazz inflections of Cat Food.

At a finer level, there seems to be both a lyrical and a musical plan to the whole thing. Almost, but not quite, a concept album in much the same way that Court seemed to follow an interlocking plan, but wasn’t a single story carried through.

Cirkus musically feels on the one hand like four verses in search of a chorus, until the crashing cadences of the first three verses cross-fade into a soprano sax and Mellotron-led bridge that feel more a part of some AM radio soft rock hit. This doesn’t last. The fourth verse collapses into a crash of noise which evolves through several phases and concludes with what sounds perhaps like the ‘megaphonium fanfare’ referenced in the second verse.

Indoor Games feels much the same as Cirkus, both musically and in terms of wild lyrics that come from all over the place and might reflect how a writer who has never taken psychedelics might script a trip: ‘One string puppet shows amuse / Your sycophantic friends…Whilst you loaf on your sofa / Sporting falsies and a toga-Playing Indoor Games’.

Happy Family features Haskell’s voice run through a vocoder most of the time (in the second and third verses sounding almost like a dalek), arrayed against some flute and organ. Some of the instrumentation again brings the midway to mind. The bridge is again a controlled madness of improvisation, anchored primarily by Collins’ flute work.

Lyrically, we hear of four men, Uncle Rufus, Brother Judas, Cousin Silas, Nasty Jonah, who grow rich (whipped the world and beat the clock / wound up with their share of stock), perform (Uncle Rufus grew his nose / threw away his circus clothes), and presumably go to war. Four times the lyrics repeat ‘four went on (or ‘by’ in the first verse) and none came back’. Thematically, this points backwards to the opening track and forward to the Battle of Glass Tears, again suggesting that perhaps there’s a plan in all this madness.

Side 1 closes with Lady of the Dancing Water which at less than three minutes and only ten lines, is the shortest of of the tracks on Lizard. It also seems the most like the easy folk Haskell would do a couple of years later. Lovely as it is, Lady doesn’t seem to fit with anything else on the album. On the other hand, it’s not as though a little respite doesn’t add poignancy to the proceedings.

KingCrimson-Lizard-backRight then. On to side 2, the Lizard Suite.

The first section, Prince Rupert Awakes, features an unadorned and untreated vocal from Jon Anderson of Yes, which also sounds like he’s handling his own harmonies. Before getting into the lyrics and the structure of the piece, I’ve got to say that this must have been particularly galling to Haskell, who cited his treated vocals as one of the reasons he left KC following this album. Haskell at the time had a strong voice, though not one with much expressed range. (His 1974 album It Is and It Isn’t features some lovely work, such as this piece.)

Lyrically, it’s more Pete Sinfield mush, but there’s a wonderful contrast between the verses in which the vocals play against dissonant instrumentation – piano in one channel and bells and synth flourishes in the other, while the choruses feature almost Spanish-style guitar runs and Mellotron.

The suite continues with Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale, which is a nice little pun that references the last verse of the opening, ‘Now tales Prince Rupert’s peacock brings / Of walls and trumpets thousand fold’. It’s an interesting instrumental that I suppose is mostly a jazz battle between pianist Keith Tippet and Collins. The bolero sounds like it’s closing about a minute before it should, and the the flute rises in a crescendo joined by a quieter piano accompaniment and finally kettle drums. The Battle of Glass Tears, the third part of the suite, is itself divided into three parts. The name of this section again draws from Prince Rupert Awakes, in which ‘Prince Rupert’s tears of glass / Make saffron sabbath eyelids bleed’. Dawn Song, a vocal, describes armies preparing themselves for battle, ‘Three hills apart great armies stir / Spit oath and curse as day breaks. / Forming lines of horse and steel / By even yards march forward.

It’s interesting to note that with Mel Collins’ 2015 return to active service in King Crimson, Cirkus and The Battle of Glass Tears (along with Pictures of a City from the last album, and The Letters from the next one) have become regular features of the band’s live sets.

With the lyrics to hand, the plan behind the whole thing seems obvious. The first verse of Cirkus concludes ‘Bid me face the east closed me in questions / Built the sky for my dawn’, suggesting that perhaps the battle is just another aspect of a cosmic ringmaster’s production.

Fairly straightforward, the aptly titled Last Skirmish finds the band at its most dissonant. Prince Rupert’s Lament builds a high wail from the guitar balanced against metronomic notes from Haskell’s bass.

In true King Crimson style, the album doesn’t end on this note of despair. Big Top, which sounds like a demented fun fair carousel committed to tape, slowed and sped up, fades out in just over a minute. When the album is played on repeat, it feels as though it really is a circular experience as Cirkus starts up again.

It’s possible I had this album during my 90s period of KC fascination, but there was nothing for me to grab on to – it was far too late for my prog-bound adolescence on the one hand and the jazz and improvisation didn’t seem of a piece with anything else I knew in the rest of the work. That said, having listened to it at least once a day for the last week, it’s a strong offering and well worth checking out. (And because there don’t seem to be any live versions of songs from this album on YouTube, here’s an 8-bit rendition of Happy Family.)

Next up: Islands.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One
Pictures of a City
Hell Hounds of Krim
The ConstruKction of Light
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
Easy Money
Level Five
The Talking Drum
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
E: In the Court of the Crimson King
E: 21st Century Schizoid Man

As with most previous incarnations of King Crimson, the latest is a lineup of insanely talented musicians. In this case, the band is trying to take on the aspects of its entire history. Noting that Crimson is whatever guitarist and bandleader Robert Fripp says it is, it’s impressive to see and hear them incorporate several tracks from the band’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. The title track, added on this tour hadn’t been performed by the band since 1971; 21st Century Schizoid Man wasn’t played by the 80s incarnation, but has been a mainstay since the Thrak tour in 1996. (I saw them on that tour in Berkeley and Adrian Belew introduced it saying ‘I don’t think we’ve played this here before.’) Epitaph was added to the set last month, having not been performed since the initial tour for the album in 1969.

At the other end of the timeline are tracks from the final studio albums of the Adrian Belew-fronted editions of the band, an instrumental version of the title track of 2000’s ConstuKction of Light and Level Five from 2003’s The Power to Believe (between 2003 and 2010, there were a couple of tours with Belew and line-up changes, but no albums), and new pieces Hell Hounds of Krim and Meltdown.

While the renditions of Epitaph and Crimson King were both faithful, and sound very much of their time, Schizoid Man, with its combination of improvisation, treated vocals, and heavy guitar has always been the earliest example of jazz metal. Pictures of a City dates from 1969 as well, though it didn’t appear on record until the following year’s In the Wake of Poseidon. This is the only other track from King Crimson’s early progressive period in the set. The three albums that followed Crimson King all featured Mel Collins on saxophones and flutes, and the current tour is the first Collins has played with the band since 1972. (Not that he hasn’t been busy enough – his CV includes work with Camel, Roger Waters, and some Crimson-related acts including 21st Century Schizoid Band.)

The heart of the set, for me, were the pieces from the ’72-’74 golden age. Following the tour for 1972’s Islands, Fripp disbanded the group (one could cite ‘creative differences’), only to reform it a few months later with two percussionists, Bill Bruford from Yes and an absolutely insane bloke named Jamie Muir; John Wetton (bass/vocals); and David Cross (violin/mellotron). The three albums recorded by variations on this lineup, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red are classics, recently reissued in 15+ CD sets that include as much related live material as the band have in their archives. Following Red, there was no tour as Fripp disbanded the crew again. (This time it had a lot to do with an absolutely lousy record contract – lousy even by the standards of the time, from what I’ve read.)

Between ’74 and about 1980, Fripp appeared on a number of projects – producing Peter Gabriel’s second solo album, his own solo album Exposure, projects with Brian Eno, David Bowie’s Heroes album, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, and a crew called The League of Gentlemen (with Sarah Lee who would join Gang of Four and Barry Andrews who was between XTC and Shriekback). LoG recorded one album in the runout groove of which was etched ‘The Next Step is Discipline’. Discipline was to be the name of Fripp’s next band which consisted of Fripp, Bruford, Tony Levin (bass, about whom more below), and Adrian Belew (guitar/vocals). When it came down to it, Fripp decided this was the next incarnation of King Crimson and retained the name Discipline only in the title of that lineup’s first album.

Belew is a gregarious character whose had already worked with Zappa, Bowie (the Heroes tour and Lodger album), and Talking Heads among others. He fronted the various lineups of KC between 1981 and 2008. These included the three different lineups that recorded Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair between ’81 and ’84, Vrooom and Thrak in the mid-90s and The ConstruKtion of Light and The Power to Believe between 2000 and 2003. Fripp decided he was after something else with the new group and did not invite Belew along. Oddly, Belew has fronted The Crimson ProjeKct with all six members of the Stick Men (Levin, Mastelotto [about whom more below as well], and guitarist Markus Reuter) and The Adrian Belew Power Trio. These shows leaned heavily on the 81-84 material as well.

The title track of Red, another piece of proto-heavy metal, and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 2 were mainstays of KC sets from the 1981 reformation onward, but Starless (also from Red, but containing the refrain ‘Starless and bible black’) hadn’t been performed until this tour since the tours that led up to Red’s recording in ’74. The Talking Drum was a mainstay of the double-trio lineup of the mid-90s and briefly in 2008.

The current incarnation of King Crimson is an interesting bunch. Fripp as always seated upper right on guitar. Next is Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and vocal. Jakko has worked on an large number of projects since the early 80s including stints with Level 42 and Tom Robinson and work with a pre-Porcupine Tree Gavin Harrison. In 2001 he joined with members of the earliest KC incarnations to form 21st Century Schizoid Band. In 2010 he worked with Fripp on an album that, with contributions from Collins, Harrison, and Tony Levin became A Scarcity of Miracles, which is very much in the KC vein.

Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick has been in most KC lineups since 1981. He first worked with Fripp on Peter Gabriel’s second solo album (which Fripp produced), and played on Fripp’s 1978 solo album Exposure. Next to Levin on the top row of the stage stood Mel Collins surrounded an array of horns.

 The front row of the stage on this tour is populated by three drummers. On the left is Pat Mastelotto who has recorded since the early 80s (including as a founding member of Mr. Mister who had two #1s that you might recall). He and Harrison both recorded with Barbara Gaskin in the early 80s. He’s been with Crimson since the mid-90s. Front and centre is one who might be the oddest member, Bill Rieflin. Rieflin is best known in some circles for his participation in a number of 90s era industrial acts including Ministry, Pigface, and KMFDM. However, he was also in The Minus Five with REM’s Peter Buck and took to the drumkit for REM’s last couple of albums/tours. His short-lived Slow Music Project featured Buck and Fripp. And finally, in front of Fripp, Gavin Harrison. At 52, Harrison is the youngest member of the current lineup, and is possibly best known for his membership in Porcupine Tree since 2002. He’s been a professional musician since the early 80s as well and has been in KC since 2008.

Mastelotto is the most physical and almost manic, while Harrison is the most fluid of the drummers. In the opening piece  of the set, Mastelotto took on the crazy percussion work originally done by Jamie Muir. (See this version from 1973 – Muir’s the one with the Van Dyke; Bruford is the one in overalls.) Watching Harrison’s playing is almost like watching water flow. While none of the three is an imprecise player, Rieflin is the most precise in terms of stature and attention. Sitting bolt upright most of the time, he looked almost uncomfortable, but worked with great synergy with the other two drummers and with the rest of the band. The band requested that the audience make no recordings or photos during the show and for the most part this was respected. Alas, the band has been vigilant about taking down videos posted from the tour. Early on, there was a medium-quality clip of 21st Century Schizoid Man that featured Harrison’s gorgeous drum solo. I have high hopes that a professional video or audio recording of this tour will be released sometime in the not too distant future.