Archive | September, 1999

September 1999 – album reviews – Edwige’s ‘Keep the Change’ (“nebulous, pine-forest cleanliness”)

30 Sep

Edwige: 'Keep The Change'

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’

Edwige is a true original and determined with it, outspoken in her contemplative pantheism and in reaching towards the divine spirit that binds her universe together. It’s difficult to pin her down to any songwriter school – even within the eccentric fringes of spiritual folk, French chamber-chanson and psychedelic New Age she seems to incline to, she’s an odd customer and obviously wants it no other way.

You’ll either love or hate her unorthodox and uneasily captivating voice as it zooms and dodges (like a brilliantly coloured, elusive dragonfly) over her baroque and mystical songs. It’s more unpredictable now than ever – zigzagging through melodies, it’s never quite where you expect it to be. She’ll carol, coo, stick you with a sharp note. She’ll shiver herself into blocks of eerie harmonies flickering between celestial and dischordant. She’ll double back on herself, frustrate you, salve you; and finally dissolve into a lovely swarm of voice-clouds.

The voice remains the same, but the music has moved on since her jaunty, budget-recorded debut album. Faithful keyboardist Joe Evans is still on board, but admitting Alexander Zuchrow (guitarist, engineer and, most crucially, arranger) to the heart of the music means that Edwige’s songs have been framed and fleshed out in richer textures. Harpsichord and dream-pad sounds replace the previous tinny synth presets. Gentle bluesy guitars add new body; cellos, Appalachian fiddles and soft saxophones peep out of the corners. ‘Keep The Change’ possesses the nebulous, pine-forest cleanliness of Narada Records, or of Windham Hill folk.

If the first album was postcards from Edwige’s imagination, ‘Keep The Change’ brings you a breath of countryside as well as further maps of her spiritual landscape. Edwige’s themes of continuance and connection, of inner illumination and the dispelling of fear, sit in leaf-green settings. A puff of baby-Clannad folk in Water; tinkling Vivaldi pop for Reflection. The lyrics (and the rootsier atmospheres) are permeated by rain-mists and mermaids, wind and light. Via perky fiddles and banjo, the gracious Joy Song (both a letdown and a thank-you to a luckless admirer) threads country and Irish airs around Edwige’s serenity. The bizarre falsetto-waltz melody of No Two Ways bobs balloon-like over strings and harpsichord (which could’ve come from ‘Five Leaves Left’) and a clink of lounge vibraphone (which definitely didn’t).

Sometimes Edwige brushes up against the exquisite. On the contemplative ethereal anthem, Something Deep she mixes her “everywhere god” faith with a touch of Duke Ellington gospel shapes plus lemon-flavoured jazz cello. On He Only Knows (over yielding beds of keyboards, clarinets, luscious classical guitar ripples and soprano sax) she sings of journeying – “an arm coming from nowhere / far away has taken him. / Now he changes his road again,” – and then sets the seal on it with her own signature swim of voices. On I’m Out she sings of passing through peril to attain faith. A tapestry of Enya-esque chanting and the urgent wire-tang of a Jantsch-y folk guitar finally dissolves down into another magnificently luscious voicescape, though it basks a little too contentedly in the warmth of fuzzy piano and sax along the way.

Equally, sometimes she misses the mark. Her tendency to overbalance into tweeness is one thing (the popcorn cafe-jazz of Leave Your Mind At The Gate being the worst offender). It’s worse when the same determination that stretches Edwige’s songs towards dizzy heights sometimes leads her to stretch them out of shape. Eager to illustrate, she pushes too hard, letting her lyrics crowd out the melody and garble the song. At such times, she bustles against the delicate arrangements instead of nestling in them. For example, amongst the chirruping violins and Spanish guitars of So They Say, her message of opting for instinct (over demands for hard facts, or superstitions) is smothered by the tangled, forced and fussy words.

It’s all far better when Edwige relinquishes the strict and portentous hippy lectures and just lets her songs breathe; when she stops banging against aspirational truths and taps into the grace she sings about. This happens on Wherever It Is (a sparkling ballad of devotion) and on Light Energy Love, where a sweet, open melody (reminiscent of Bryan Maclean’s gossamer hums on Love’s ‘Forever Changes’) merges with a champagne tingle of fiddles, guitars and harmoniums and with Zuchrow’s gently gurgling psychedelic streams. It’s in songs like this that her determination pays off and her quest progresses.

On the final song, Something Deep, she sings with an equal measure of frustration, patience and commitment. “You keep plugging your ears so you won’t hear my song… / Something deep inside of me knows / I still sing for you.” Going down fighting, or transcending closed minds? The little soul warrior with the effervescing voice isn’t going to give up.

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’
Quasar Music, EDW2CD (634479464935)
CD/download/cassette album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Quasar Music or CD Baby.

Edwige online:
Homepage YouTube

REVIEW – Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’ single, 1999 (“smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling”)

27 Sep

Forty Shades Of Black rear up with the dirty, sticky, galumphing riffs of Belisha – an elephantine math-rock construction with stubble somewhere that’s annoying it. It lumbers around, red-eyed and furious, tearing a few trees up in fits of fiery rage. It also provides a way for the spiky London post-rockers Delicate AWOL to let off steam (Forty Shades Of Black is basically a handy alter-ego for them when they don’t want to sing).

We’ve met Belisha before, on Delicate AWOL’s ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ EP. Put centre-stage, its grind’n’chop, Mogwai-meets-Ruins sardine-can shapes bang aggressively against your eardrums, and look set to dominate. That is, until the band unveil the smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling sound-painted dreams of the other tracks. These reveal themselves gradually, like disintegrating lacework peeling off an old dressmaker’s dummy.

The soft explorations of Sidings are a post-rocker’s picture of a shunting yard being swallowed by the encroaching dark. Intermittent bass throbs mutter alongside shivering guitar. Caroline’s quiet moans float past alongside feathery passes of brushes on drumskins. Notes slide by, softly massive and indifferent – red lanterns looming out of the darkness. Much less of a reverie, Advanced Formula is as fragile and awkwardly stretched as a crane fly. Spidery math-rock chording scratches out a place to sit: an E-Bowed solo paints a long wavering strip of electric-blue Bill Nelson light across the cloud cover, while the shapes give way to a relaxed out-of-synch swing.

I’ve mentioned before how Delicate AWOL seem hung up on disintegration. This time, watching things decay and fall apart seems somehow satisfying – the return of something to its disassociated elements, instead of the fraying of desires. Whichever is your favourite collapse, inside or out, this band can orchestrate both.

Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’
day Release Records Ltd., DR102 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL (Forty Shades Of Black) online:
MySpace

REVIEW – David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’ single, 1999 (“drained of energy but not of humanity”)

26 Sep
David Hurn: 'Sick Of Hate'

David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’

For better or worse, former Ever-Opening Flower frontman David Hurn left behind a lot when he quit that band’s deep-blue, textured shades and unusual blend of Rain Tree Crow, Rush and Morrissey. It wasn’t just the rock-band muscle and ghostly electronics that Ever-Opening Flower offered, but the aggressiveness of the detail; the assertion and meaty impersonality offered by a pushing bass, rock drumming and high amplification… the way it can obstruct and drown any soft brush of associations which you might want to imply rather than state outright. Pros and cons.

Left to his own devices, Hurn’s songs are hushed, internalized, almost entirely acoustic; and none of them rises much above a whisper. His guitar and the wistfully resigned tones of his low-tenor voice are joined by droplets of detached, forgetful piano and the sorrowful whistle of detuned radios. Sick Of Hate is a spare, isolated, note-picking thing; drained of energy but not of humanity. It’s the soft, tired noise left behind after the London bustle has passed and the frantic energy has ebbed. “I’m sick and tired of hate, / Of rain on the streets./ You and me are far too small to make a difference…” If it fights back, it fights back like the grass – bent back by hostile forces but refusing to be shaped by them.

There are some shades of Red House Painters (and the perennial Nike Drake) in there. It’s the sighing gloom, the mouse-like quiet; the way you have to focus yourself in on the story, to have to want to care before you can get anything out of it. You’re eavesdropping on the final deterioration of a love affair, the lack of conclusion after the arguments become meaningless. David murmurs “The mess that we made needs cleaning up for the last time. / Are you feeling weak and poor, or just tired?” In some ways Sick Of Hate also looks back towards Hurn’s old debt to David Sylvian; but where Sylvian wraps himself in impenetrable mystical robes and perfects the shamanic droop of his eyelids, the other David still cares about the realities ruling the strained existences of everyday people. “The value of our lives, that we would both die for – / but something’s telling me the truth matters more…”

The B-side – (For Missguided) – is Hurn at the ambient guitar sketchpad. He improvises with sombre, spinily picked chords on his acoustic and with moaning soundscapes of experimental string noise: pings, knocks and microtonal whale whispers. It’s like the spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’, or like Bill Nelson locked in with Bert Jansch during a rain-swept dusk. In its way, it continues Sick Of Hate’s autumnal atmosphere of regret, inertia and (with its empathic sense of resignation) even a touch of grace. While the bittersweet fog of sadcore usually blows, trapped, around the happysad streets of San Francisco (or wherever Will Oldham or Bill Callaghan might be hanging their battered hats), David Hurn, a prince of rueful shrugs, is establishing a bridgehead for it over here in the tired old brickwork of the Smoke.

David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’
day Release Records Ltd., DR105
7-inch vinyl single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
original vinyl single was a limited edition of 1,000 copies – buy it secondhand, or download from Bandcamp.

David Hurn online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterMySpaceSoundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

September 1999 – EP reviews – Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades of Black’s ‘Random Blinking Lights’ EP (“fifteen minutes before the machine blows”)

25 Sep
Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: 'Random Blinking Lights'

Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’

“Accept that you cannot find your friend – / accept defeat and step inside.”

Welcome to the Crumbler. It’s what Guns’N’Roses might have warned you about had they been singing about an older, tired-er city than L.A., minus even the toxic smoggy sunshine. Delicate AWOL capture the worn-down feel of London’s scrag-end districts pretty well: the blinded indifference of railway arches, the crumbling cliffs of Victorian brick, and the washed-up bewildered old communities herded aside by no-stopping rat-runs. Their restless, borderline-sinister art-rock could’ve been made for the King’s Cross snarl-up.

There are a few touches of The Fall and Throwing Muses here, a bit of disaffected Banshees too, perhaps. But with its hard-bitten lyrics of frustration (and the spurts of noise-guitar, like aural graffiti tags, on the corrugated-iron lines of the riffs) this music is most clearly the heir to the sounds Margaret Fiedler and Dave Callahan violently worried out of the original Moonshake: eyeball to eyeball and teeth in meat. ‘Random Blinking Lights’ is a sour but arresting low-life bar vignette, with a bleak tune that cuts like glass on a lip. Underneath a low ceiling, guitars clank like homicidal vacuum cleaners busting a gasket. Meanwhile a cast made up of embittered barmaids, and of sundry people who’ve come in to duck out of the light, continue to cadge and haggle with each other – all of them out for whatever relief they can get.

A rancid dissatisfaction bleeds through the song. “Cosy cashmere wives sitting at home are unaware / that their husbands visit here / when they say there’s extra paperwork…” No mention of what the men are after. Whores? Gambling? The sharp anaesthetic tang of a coveted drink, or just the chance to pull themselves in and away from the tugging hands? Caroline Ross (sliding and seesawing her voice around the spilled ashtrays, stale air and puddles) brings all of this to life,. Now she’s as strident as a bingo caller; now hovering behind people’s shoulders and murmuring drips of frustration into their ears (“When are you gonna see two feet in front of you?”); now closing her eyes and drifting off – all objective – for a second. She catches the tedium and pressure of trapped lives and brings their nagging internal questions up close: like the first venomous rumble of steam, fifteen minutes before the machine blows.

As you’d guess from this – and from song titles like Unreleasable Fear – Delicate AWOL seem fascinated by feelings of trappedness. Only an unhindered Mogwai-ish instrumental called Belisha (and recorded under their side-project name, 40 Shades Of Black) provides relief. They generally observe the whole trap from the side rather than – as hardcore heroes might – howling from the centre of the condemned cell. Unreleasable Fear itself caps compressed, Slint-y dot music with a keening chorus; wary gentleness skirting the surges of a panic attack. For Plateau, a vertiginous organ hangs queasily in mid-air while Jim Version’s pointy, serrated guitars jump like startled cats and peer suspiciously round corners. The whole thing sways back and forth on the edge of a forbidding brink as Caroline rasps “it’s not what you wanted it to be, / and never will be… / I’ve come to the end of my wisdom… I’ve come to the end of my plateau.” Compelling.

Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’
day Release Records Ltd., DR101CD (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: September 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

September 1999 – album reviews – John Ellis’ ‘Spic’n’Span’ (“a minor treasury of passing ideas”)

24 Sep
John Ellis: 'Spic'N'Span'

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’

The lifespans of pop musicians are usually measured in five-year units – generally just one each before they’re inserted into the “where are they now?” file. But for every ten who went into hostelry, college lecturing or millinery, one adapted and carried on the journey as best they could and perhaps saw how their talents and ideas could fit into the next stage.

As guitarist, songwriter and sound-shaper John Ellis is hardly a household name, but his work and adaptability have both been consistent. He’s already discreetly chameleoned his way through three decades of music. A founder member of The Vibrators during the punk era, he went on to play an integral role in the Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel bands over the cusp of the ’70s and ’80s. Links with Jean-Jacques Burnel eventually led him (along with Paul Roberts) into the post-Hugh-Cornwell Stranglers line-up; he developed an electronica sideline via his digressions into gallery music, There’s even a touch of prog beyond Gabriel and Hammill: John also plays guitar for Judge Smith’s ongoing “song-story” projects.

John’s journeyman credentials are unquestionable, and to each position he’s brought his own supporting voice and particular marks. However, always being the lieutenant means some of your ideas bounce off the boss (or the inflexibility of circumstances) and get stashed away. ‘Spic’N’Span’ corralls together unheard odds’n’sods from John’s curvy journey through music, and consequently it’s a musical scrapbook rather than an album.

A third of the tunes are the kind of thing that many working musicians knock out for TV music library discs – bright jingles and “we’re going somewhere” music, executed on cupboard synth orchestras. The synthetic Euro-funk/perky testcard tunes of Wild Talent and Tune-O-Matic fall into this category; as do the flying-over- mountains melody of Early Riding Daddy, the New Age-y pop march of The Needs Of The Soul and the rather more ambitious baroque-jazz stylings of Running Through The Trees. Still… behind many of these you can hear little pop chicks trying to hatch out of the multi-track demos, hoping to drop into the collective lap of an ’80s boy band, to do that five-year round; and to then cheat death by popping up in a nostalgia DJs record box, taking a ride on a revival. It might not have actually happened, but then the business of selling songs has always been a bit of a lottery.

Another third of ‘Spic’N’Span’ is a set of genuine ’80s pop songs. All of these are produced in the squeaky-clean studio fashion of the time; but all are executed with the restraint, intelligence and puritanical zeal of post-punk. The pin-sharp shimmy of John’s guitar is the linking factor – wailing away on E-bow sustain, sparking off claw-hand finger-picking, or adroitly yanked from note to note.

Three of these songs are sung by Alex Legg – his spooky vocal resemblance to Peter Gabriel shows us how things might have been had Gabriel and Ellis joined forces and run off together into the showy pop territory eventually colonised by Tears For Fears instead. The Space Between Us (a soulful, regretful R’n’B lament of hostility, injustice and enmity) could easily have fitted onto an album like ‘So’. Similarly, Joe Jackson would have been proud to have written the pumping Monopoly (the biting list song of an abusive marriage, a woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape it, and the grim consequences). Off on its own, the John Greaves-ish piano song Mumble Jumble (pointing up the Ellis art-school/art-rock background) ponders the confusions and blocks of language.

Two more songs are sung by John himself. Giving Up The Ghost, with its airbrushed console-blues sound and phantom horn section, strives after the authenticity of roots Americana only to arrive as a Eurythmics B-side instead. But the glinty, polished Elevator Man (which sounds more like Steve Harley doing J-pop) works better, capturing the arch giddiness of stardom from a slight but crucial degree of separation. “I went from rags to riches, from riches to rags. / I was an overnight sensation.”

Then there’s a third section: a couple of tunes which seem to be trying for the early ’80s link between electro, hip-hop, and primitive British synth pop. Such is the buzz and piping of Stutter Gun with its earnest, uptight vocal samples and its synaesthesic theme: “it’s beautiful… the colours will flash… the sounds will embrace you.” Jimi Jam studs its gurgling electro with little sampled Hendrix asides – “Hey, what’s happening?… Oh no, I think I’m out of tune.” Discreetly decorated with wobbling wails of clean sustained feedback, it’s so cheerfully plastic when compared to Hendrix’s controlled brinksmanship that it has to be a piss-take.

There are also a couple of genuine, delightful misfit chunks in the stew. The panoramic zither chug of One Way Street walks in step with Trans-Global Underground in its mess of world beats, the spine-shivering harmonies of crowd hums from old Lomax recordings, and the Republic serial dialogue snippets (“All the streets are one way!”; “What better way to commemorate the dead?”). John performs a solo joke on The Best Part Of The Cabbage: woozy slide guitar and sleepy voice shambling out a ramshackle joke-blues on cannibalism. (“Looking at you, I lick my lips…”) The sensuous laziness of the tune offsets the wonderfully appalling humour: “If you ain’t got a fridge yet, there’s not much on a midget – / a mouthful, or two.”

A minor treasury of passing ideas, ‘Spic’N’Span’ will never be more than a curio, but one that remains open and friendly throughout.

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’
Furious Productions (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only album
Released: September 1999

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand: this was released as a very-limited-edition run of 50 copies, so it’s extremely rare.

John Ellis online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud

The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’ single (“ugly things going about their business”)

18 Sep
The Nazgul: 'Plujectories/Habitually'

The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’

The Nazgul – shadowy figures from the most obscure Krautrock fringes of the ’70s – are back. And lurking in full public view.  They’ve been occasional housemates of Tom Waits, and probably got the chance to have a gnaw on his bone machine. They’ve been studio ghouls scratching atmospheres out of trash and implements down in the Turkish quarter of Cologne in the mid-’70s, and they’ve been people who don’t just seem to coax sound out of the most unlikely sources, but draw it out via seance. The rumour is that they’ve even developed a way of recording ghost voices from over-amplifying the signals impinging on bare wires. And these two tracks – crouching malignantly on a new slice of black vinyl – were recorded using only voice, twenty-foot drainpipe and 270 feet of microphone cable. Oh, plus an accordion, for that homely folk edge. As if.

Forget the motorik aspects of Krautrock; forget the shapes it scratches and growls, whatever its texture. The Nazgul have taken it to a point where there’s almost nothing but texture: a rhythmless, frighteningly impure cloud of sound shot through with disturbing noises. Plujectories is a thick worm of static hiss, whirring compressor grind and bass-bin hum, scratching through your ears like a fibreglass cotton swab. Lunging ghostlike through the centre are flattened steam-whistle screeches, the shrill treble songs of nerve-fibres being burnt through, sometimes a barely-recognisable voice stretched in a submerged roar. It’s the sort of sound you’re scared to imagine a microphone collecting, because of what that implies about the world it’s listening to. You close your eyes, and imagine the solar flares burning through your house.

Habitually is more accessible. Hmmm. As if that mattered at this stage of the game. Although as soon as it’s let you in, you feel as if something dark has closed in behind you and cut you off. It’s an experience, a sound picture of an unsteady walk along a polluted foreshore. The crunching and crackling noises that slide around you could be the sand crumbling beneath your feet and dissolving under the dirty water, could be the stone and mortar of the old dock wall disintegrating like perished rubber; could even be the air frying and corroding under the malignant fumes emanating from that squat, broad, frightening factory over the estuary. Distant boats slither past on the sullen greying surface of the water, no faces showing on deck. Occasionally harsh dark chords and dischords blow out, looming up to enormous foghorn dimensions – something to flinch at. There are slammings, as of giant train doors: and, always around, the barely-there voices. Whistling, rustling, wheezing and gasping, part of the architecture of this corner of nowhere good.

But The Nazgul somehow seem to make all of this sound like… just another dark day, ugly things going about their business as the world slowly chokes on the last polluted shreds of its poisoned lifetime. One of the scariest things to consider is the fact that people can get used to anything. The Nazgul are up on the harbour wall watching you as you come to realise this, while you’re knee-deep and imperceptibly sinking in the dull sand. And they’re wraithed in smiles.


The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’
day Release Records Ltd., DR103
12-inch vinyl-only single
Released: July 1999

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

The Nazgul online:
No dedicated websites available.

September 1999 – album reissue reviews – King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ & ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ 30th anniversary reissues (“an indisputable classic, but one which sits uncomfortably in the role: forever pulling at the seamless stylistic joins that hold it together, as if to test them to destruction”)

17 Sep

What can one say about a legendary record? Well, just have a look at the magazine racks in any record store and you’ll find that everyone’s got something to say about ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sergeant Pepper’, ‘Marquee Moon’, ‘Innervisions’… Dealing with the legend of King Crimson‘s debut is different, though. Partly because its impact is perpetually obscured by the revisionism of punk and current Americana; and partly because overtly literary qualities of legend are already there, squatting in the barbs of the flamboyant lyrics and present in every razz of saxophone.

King Crimson: 'In the Court of the Crimson King'

King Crimson: ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

There are various legends about the making of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. Collapsing producers. Good fairies with a taste for evil-sounding music, marching out of the astral plane to guide the compositions and performances. Even painter Barry Godber’s sudden death shortly after creating the distorted face that yells, horrified, from the cover. But then, few albums have engaged so flagrantly with the mythic straight from the first moment.

For better or for worse, ‘…Court…’ is the prog wellspring, responsible for all the dark castles, capering grotesques and mediaeval garments that’ve festooned its followers ever since. Whatever your expectations, you’ll find that it still sounds amazing. Remastering gives more savour to the feast, of course, but ‘…Court…’ has always been a record that jumps out and grabs you by the scruff of the ears.

No surprise here: that feverish pitch of attention has just been made a few inches larger all round, a bigger take on a picture that was big to begin with. It took, as its frame, a strongly European perspective – mediaeval-to-modern cities rubbed in the blood, flags and dirt of history and repeating cruelties, in which all that Tennysonian mooning around sundials and gardens is an integral, complementary part of that world. Later proggies fell in love with the idyll alone. Few besides Crimson had the capacity to engage with the violence that maintained that idyll, to relate it to modern-day realities so effectively, or to represent in music the confusing threads of history that made up that picture.

In the band’s sound you can hear the haughty, ghostly artificiality of Mellotron orchestras, the angry saxophone protest of Civil Rights jazz, and the squall of avant-garde chaos. However, it draws equally on hotel dance-bands from the wilderness of ’50s England and from the stormy wildness of Stravinsky, Bartok and the troubled classicism of the Eastern Frontier, with all the elements bound together by the expansive rock sensibility ruling the revolutionary roost at the time. And although Peter Sinfield‘s words are chock-a-block with excessively mannered Gothic metaphor and allusion, at their best they evoke plenty of the monstrosities that hung over the late ’60s. Spectres of Vietnam war trauma, twisted agriculture, political manipulation and malignant science all dance alongside his tarot-card shuffles of yellow jesters and purple pipers.

Although it’s guitar strategist Robert Fripp who’s forever seen as the boss of King Crimson, it was Ian McDonald who was the major player at this point. He’s the only musician listed on every single song credit, and he who left the band within a year because he felt (amongst other things) that Fripp was butchering his music. Standing between classical formality and jazz passion, he could leap readily into either with the intelligence to know just what to use. His fiery saxophones, elegant flutes and assured keyboards shaped King Crimson into the full-soundtrack monster they were, even now putting the lie to the idea that prog’s ornamentations were a flabby irrelevance. Michael Giles’s jazzy drumming is a masterclass in compressed percussive thinking: and as for Fripp, even this early glimpse of his playing displays a unique balance between cerebral focus and emotional demands – at least as intent as it is intense, from the humming wail of his electric solos to the spidery precision of his hooded acoustics.


 
The music itself has sustained pretty well across the album and across history. Perhaps its claws seem fussily manicured compared to the raw filth’n’fury The Stooges would unleash a few years later, and which would ultimately leave a stronger mark on today’s underground. But then again, the Stooges never flung their ideas as wide as Crimson did. 21st Century Schizoid Man remains among the most accurate and nasty rock pieces ever laid down on tape, as ferocious as any punk body-blow. McDonald’s brass-knuckled horn attack and the ugly strands of distortion add a raucous streetfighter’s edge, Sinfield contributes a tearing sketch of distress and conflict, and the entire band roar off across a delicious violent staccato charge like a murderous hunt closing in on the prey.

In contrast, Epitaph is a theatrical, lushly orchestrated anthem of doubt and foreboding – mannered by the standards of the bombast that’s followed (from Yes to Oasis), but universal enough for any era of coming trouble. Mellotron strings and kettle drums lumber into the darkness like the Flying Dutchman. While the young Greg Lake’s impeccably enunciated singing (still a year or two away from his ringmaster swagger with Emerson, Lake & Palmer) might’ve always been too formal, too educated to make him a real rock’n’roller, the apprehensive angst of his delivery here is perfect – “If we make it we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying…”


 
Perhaps it was inevitable that ‘…Court…’ would be touched by the flower-strewn, Anglo-Celtic folk impressions that were also sweeping through pop music at the time – and this is possibly the album’s Achilles’ heel. I Talk to the Wind (midway between McCartney and Donovan, dominated by McDonald’s dusky flutes) ultimately proved universal enough to be reinvented for the ’90s dance crowd by Opus III, and the original still sounds as lovely today, a more melancholy existential take on Fool On The Hill. But Moonchild risks sending new Crimson initiates away snarling. Only Fripp’s eldritch vacuum-draining howl of guitar raises any question of a world outside this bubble of mediaeval English hippydom, winsomely sucking in its cheeks and playing at courtly love; its talk of silver wands and milk-white gowns only a whisker away from a simper.


 
And the excessively muted free improv that follows – broken whispers, pings and shuffles between guitar, drums and vibraphone – is guaranteed to piss off anyone who was fired up by Schizoid Man’s driven nerve or Epitaph’s towering romantic majesty. If you listen hard, though, the remaster reveals in full the telepathy of the Fripp/Giles/McDonald interplay, allowing you almost to hear the thoughts that kick out each nimble, abbreviated scurry of sub-audible notes… But you’ll need to listen. Even then, King Crimson could be uncompromising about the value of all of their music; and however much perspective thirty-odd years may have given us on their intentions, the consequent imbalances on their debut remain as frustrating to the floating musical voter as they ever did.


 
The title track of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ – also the finale – sets the seal on the album. For good or ill, it leaves us with another slab of McDonald/Sinfield orchestral folk balladry, closing the record with a mediaeval flavour (tootling pipe organs, choirs of monks, thunderheads of Early Music strings) and without a hint of the alchemical rock momentum to counterweight Sinfield’s Gothic metaphors of palaces and fire-witches.


 
‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ is an indisputable classic, but one which sits uncomfortably in the role: forever pulling at the seamless stylistic joins that hold it together, as if to test them to destruction. It’s one that forever splits the voters. As they watch the music pounce from peak to dissimilar peak, many realise that it suffers from the way it never entirely resolves the band’s magnificent talents for more than nine minutes at any one time.

King Crimson: 'In the Wake of Poseidon'

King Crimson: ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’

It’s odd to find that King Crimson’s second album ‘In The Wake Of Poseidon’ – recorded with a depleted band and a floating pool of guests, and usually seen as the debut’s feebler brother – should solve many of these problems. But solve them it does. Remastering, like the cleaning of an oil painting, has restored plenty of the innate presence of an album which always seemed to suffer from the whispers in between the shouts. It’s subdued compared to the brazen ambition of ‘…Court…’, with the recurring acoustic Peace theme sounding apologetic compared to former roarings.


 
There is, admittedly, a sense of people arranging things tidily before they leave. Ian McDonald – then seen as King Crimson’s heart – had already vanished by that point, off to fashion a lighter, more summery pastoral prog elsewhere. Mike Giles would shortly be off to join him, but – drumming on ‘…Poseidon…’ as a goodbye favour – he turns in a tremendously sympathetic farewell performance of subtlety and fire, far outshining his work on ‘…Court…’. Greg Lake, too, has his own hand on the doorknob, waiting to depart to the ‘Top Gun’ frolics of ELP (meaning that Gordon Haskell‘s soft bumblebee tones take over lead vocals for ‘Cadence And Cascade’). Only Fripp and Sinfield – guitar and lyrics’n’lights respectively – would still be travelling in Crimson once the tape reels stopped moving.

 
Whatever the weaknesses of a splitting band, though, they are countered by the strengths of the guest players. Peter Giles (the remaining part of the pre-Crimson Giles, Giles & Fripp trio) provides rich, intuitive bass playing. Mel Collins‘ saxophones and flutes are bold and assured in interpretation; and while most of the expansive ensemble keyboards on ‘…Court…’ departed with McDonald, the inspired British jazz pianist Keith Tippett provides perfect contributions wherever needed (with Fripp picking gamely up on Mellotron and celeste).

Ironically, King Crimson as enforced studio project recorded more convincingly on album than King Crimson as gigging band. The textures are fuller, the dynamics subtler and more secretive (check out Fripp’s near-inaudible fretboard sighs on the midsection of Pictures of a City). And although McDonald’s absence is felt, and his musical imprint haunts ‘…Poseidon…’ from beginning to end, King Crimson were learning more about consistent balance.


 
They were also learning about how to reconcile their taste for baroque fantasy with a closer reflection of reality. Pictures of a City, rejoicing in a delectably nasty jazz-horn vamp and razor-wire Fripp guitar, reinvents New York as an overground circle of Dante’s Inferno in which Sinfield runs wild with information overload (“bright light, scream, beam, brake and squeal / Red, white, green, white, neon wheel”). Cadence and Cascade’s sleepy song of groupie courtship sees Tippett and Fripp trading glimmers of piano and celeste beyond an atypically gentle acoustic guitar, anticipating Nick Drake’s riverside reveries by several years. And even if the huge title song’s laden with yet more layers of Mellotron and Edgar Allen Poe imagery (harlequins, hags, midnight queens, chains and madmen all jostled together), Greg Lake – in a last burst of empathy – cuts right through to the heart of Sinfield’s overwrought symbolism, and delivers it as a magnificently poignant galactic swan song.


 
The first half of ‘…Poseidon…’ might mirror that of the previous album (matching the violent/pastoral/symphonic alternation of Schizoid Man, I Talk to the Wind and Epitaph) but the second half is a very different story. There’s Cat Food, for instance – one of the few Crimson singles, and as tuneful and as cheeky as anything on ‘The White Album’. This pulls out all the stops so far left untouched. In one lateral-thinker’s spring, Tippett advances from sensitive accompanist to aggressive frontline collaborator, hammering out explosive scrambles of piano notes and barrelhouse staccato. Lake hollers an absurdist Sinfield supermarket tale, Fripp toots and yelps jazzily and the Giles brothers jump in and out of each others’ syncopated footprints. It winds down in an animated mixture of excited jazz stutter and beautiful Debussian piano flourish, having blown apart King Crimson’s po-faced reputation for a few minutes. At the same time, it’s given them access to pop’s wonderful holy-fool zone, where playful silliness cracks open a reservoir of sheer joyous inspiration.

 
Matters turn far more serious when Fripp – whose musical responsibilities were doubled and weighed heavy on him after McDonald’s departure – takes over the remainder of the album. For The Devil’s Triangle he’s left pretty much to his own devices, putting his guitar aside to lean heavily on occult Mellotron and keyboard textures. Although the initial results draw heavily on Crimson’s infamous live interpretation of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’, they go far beyond it and into the dark shadows of avant-garde sound-sculpting and musique concrète.

Dark, trapped minor-key harmonies hover on the edge of terrifying dissonance, a constantly pitched battle march is suddenly hideously yanked up in pitch as Fripp assaults the tape speed, and found sounds (bits of orchestra, samples from the previous album) glint in the fog. Tippett contributes butcher’s piano, like a sledgehammer through glassware. At one point, hot wind scours the studio of all other sounds save that of an interrupted metronome. The full band return for an unresolved finale, surrounded by shrieks, whistles and a baroque circus melody on a tinny keyboard playing scratchily over the top of them, before Mel Collins’ cloud of flutes cast down the tension and bring it to a close as the Peace theme returns for a hushed (if ultimately unresolved) finale.


 
If the mark of a classic is tight conceptual continuity, then ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ fares little better than ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. But in a quieter way, it achieves its ambitions with greater consistency, taking on King Crimson’s multi-levelled world view and presenting it with less arriviste flash and a more mature grip on its latent chaos – something which Fripp and Sinfield would pursue further on the next album.

Beyond that, both albums still remain as another high-water mark (flaws notwithstanding) in rock’s assimilation of other musical forms. Held together, they’re a fascinating (if frequently stiff) European counterpart to the multi-media explorations of The Velvet Underground or Miles Davis’ polychromatic meltdown music on ‘Bitches’ Brew’. This music still sounds mythic, enrobed, and somehow atavistic; as if it was made for Old English giants to knock down the world’s cities to.

King Crimson: ‘In the Court of the Crimson King”
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX1 (7243 8 48099 2 8)
King Crimson: ‘In the Wake of Poseidon”
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX2 (7243 8 48948 2 5)
CD-only reissue albums
Released:
14th September 1999
Get them from: (2020 update) Both records have now been superseded by 40th Anniversary Editions with new remastering and additional tracks. Current or former versions can be obtained from the King Crimson stores at Burning Shed and the Schizoid Shop.
King Crimson online:
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