October 1994 – mini-album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘VROOOM’ (“like a gigantic work-worn machine developing a telling fault”)

31 Oct

King Crimson: 'VROOOM'

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’

The first new music from King Crimson in a whole decade rolls in with a yawn… or the sound of a hitman’s car tyres slithering quietly past your house. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s subliminal – a dark, stretching, barely audible ambient sound. Reverbed and resting right on the edge of the listener’s attention, it’s something which creeps in and cases the joint, maybe clears it of distractions. The last set of King Crimson albums, back in the ’80s, went straight in with clean, pealing, bell-like guitar patterns. Perhaps there’s a big clue to current Crimsonizing in that this one doesn’t.

Although the band’s known for its high turnover of disparate personnel and fresh starts, ‘VROOOM’ unexpectedly reunites that stable-against-the-odds 1980s Crimson lineup (Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford) but augments them with two new members: Trey Gunn (a graduate of Fripp’s Guitar Craft course, doubling Levin’s 10-string Chapman Stick) and Pat Mastelotto (a jobbing, dextrous rock drummer best known for being part of American AOR act Mr Mister). Historically, when Crimson’s added members it’s been for as much for specific sonorities as much as personal approach. Perhaps a jazz or military saxophonist to break up a beat group, or a violinist to bring in classical textures. Maybe a Stick player to replace, fan out and reshape the bass chair; maybe, to upset the whole applecart and reboot the other players’ brains, an avant-garde improv percussionist with a thousand-yard stare and a junkyard armoury, or a master of cartoonish sound-effect guitar. Conversely, this is the first time Fripp’s apparently hired people mostly to thicken out the existing sound. This might be another clue.

What emerges – after that scouting roll – does and doesn’t sound like King Crimson. The New York brightnesses of the ’80s lineup (those circular Steve Reich and Talking Heads echoes which so thoroughly rebooted Crimson’s former Anglo-prog approach) have been banished. The title track is a descending, angry staircase of screech – simultaneously in synch and slightly ragged, like a gigantic work-worn machine developing a telling fault. If there’s a template for it, it’s the sound and structure of key ’70s Crimson track Red (the frowning, minimalist/totalitarian march which announced that Fripp had honed his once-florid instincts to a fine metallic economy).

The difference is that the big bare bones of this follow-up are fletched with additional details; disruptive flams and spurs, heavy digital processing resulting in analogue splurge, gears splintering but carrying on. A second huge instrumental track – THRaK – lurches forward in angry displacements, a blind giant hammering at a wall. In both tracks there are breathers which aren’t breathers – sighing passages where instruments fall back and Fripp’s misty ambient drones come in; or where a clambering bittersweet arpeggio makes a bed for a solo passage of wracked and pearly beauty before the hammers come down again. Throughout, there’s the sense of highly-stressed engineering precision just one slip away from disastrously throwing a rod, or a kind of hellish chamber music electrified to breaking point.

The band’s nervously sunny human face during the ’80s, Adrian Belew has been sucked backwards into this bigger, blurrier ensemble (predominantly providing a battery of guitar shrieks, leftfield lunges and rubbery solo lines). He still sings; is still the go-to song guy; but it’s clear that the songs have been almost entirely subverted by the new approach. On Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, King Crimson rattles through a bluesy lurch; Adrian sounding like an animatronic waiter covering John Lee Hooker, delivering sub-Dada wordplay in murmur-to-scream builds before the band explodes into barely contained passages of full-on percussive chaos.

A little of the ’80s Crimson is allowed into Cage, with Fripp’s cackling speed-arpeggios making it a close cousin to ‘Discipline’s breakneck Thela Hun Ginjeet. Like Thela, it’s a neurotic street cry, but what was once simply threatening has now turned actively murderous as Belew’s prissy paranoia is taken up to international level (“walking down the street, do you stare at your feet / and never do you let your eyes meet the freaks, / the deadbeat addicts, social fanatics, / they’re a dime a dozen and they carry guns. / Halloween every other day of the week… Holy smoke! somebody blew up the Pope!”) while didgeridoos yelp and Fripp provides a barrage of his most jarring, churning guitar disruptions.


 
A third instrumental – When I Say Stop, Continue – mingles both King Crimson’s old knack for doomy improvised sound-pictures and the band’s puckishly dry sense of humour. Over an ambient creeping horror of a Fripp Soundscape, the band knock, shrill, drill and build up a swelling industrial noiseuntil Belew yells “Ok, come to a dead stop. One, two, three, four!…” only for the band to wilfully drift on without him, trailing ghostly shrouds of presence, until the drummers slam and nail the doors shut.


 
Only with One Time do both King Crimson and Belew emerge from this deliberately uneasy fug. Here, the sextet drop delicately into perfect synch and sweet restraint, a softly-mutated post-bossa pulse and Levin’s springy bassline coaxing along Belew’s lapping reverse-rhythm guitar and gentle vocal melancholia. It’s a reminder that King Crimson also have a knack for the beautiful offbeat ballad alongside the harsh upheaval. This is no exception, grasping wistfully and tenderly after a fleeting sense of centredness, throwing what’s come before into a more human-scaled relief.

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 0004 (5 028676 900016)
CD-only mini-album
Released:
31st October 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) some original copies still available from Burning Shed – also reissued, along with the material from its companion volume ‘The VROOOM Sessions’, as part of 2015’s 16-disc ‘THRAK BOX (King Crimson Live and Studio Recordings 1994-1997)’, also available from Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

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