Tag Archives: King Crimson

In memory of Vaughan Simons, 1971-2018

5 Dec

Vaughan Simons...

Vaughan Simons…

Sometime around the end of October, Vaughan Simons died.

I didn’t see it coming. As for Vaughan, he said that he didn’t want memorials, wakes or get-togethers. I’m finding it impossible to comply with all of that. For all of the self-erasing bluster we sometimes put out in our darkest moments, few of us can simply dissolve into the murk of other people’s forgetfulness after we die. Vaughan certainly won’t.

Probably many of you reading this won’t have heard of Vaughan. He won’t be on any of the end-of-year obituary lists of the great and good, or of the famous. If you have heard of him, most likely you’ll be one of the friends I’ve directed here… or you may, long ago in the mists of the late 1990s, have read one of his reviews in ‘Misfit City’. If so, you’ll been have scrolling through reams of clumsy HTML in order to alight upon one of his confections of barbed sugar, bile and forward-looking conviction.

If Vaughan were still here, he’d downplay any credit, but he was very much the ‘Misfit City’ co-founder. In the early days, while it was me who was driving the project, writing most of the material and doing much of the legwork, it was Vaughan who was ensuring that I was less lonely while doing so. Vaughan also played a big part in shaping the incipient webzine’s tastes, and its spirit of enquiry. He lifted some of my obsessive blinkers, gently challenged some of my own unacknowledged conservatism, opened a window or three. If you’re a regular reader, or you’re becoming one, much of what you probably like about ‘Misfit City’ is built on Vaughan’s efforts and encouragement.

I first met Vaughan in 1990, when both of us were new arrivals at the University of Hull. I was a Londoner, he was a West Country boy. Both of us were a little ill at ease in this battered city resting where east England shades into north England: out on its stalk of railway line, miles from anywhere much; a place where Northerners and Midlanders seemed so much more at ease, with their accents and outlooks settling better into the Humberside atmosphere. Vaughan and I had both shown up there looking for some kind of redemption or vindication: initially on the Drama course we both attended. Both of us being serious, thin-skinned people with a tendency to cover our fear with sardonic wit, we never quite figured out the rhythms and cues of a Hull social life.

This was one of the things that bound us. Another, in a jumpy and uneasy way, was music.

Again, we weren’t coming from the same place. I was formed from a background of musical theatre, classical, the pop I’d absorbed from years of independent library raids, and the extended palette of jazz and prog rock. Vaughan was more of a staunch indie-rock man. This was partially due to an affinity with that Lou Reed aesthetic, and partly due to close exposure to (and shoulder-rubbing with) arty indie strivers from his Yeovil hometown: The Becketts, The Chesterfields and Automatic Dlamini, the latter featuring future art-rock mainstay John Parish and a fledgling Polly Harvey. By the time I got into higher education, few people seemed to care all that much about music as something to listen to, something to think about. Vaughan was an exception.


 
The opportunities for clash and camaraderie were there from the start. During our first year, Vaughan and I would occasionally huddle opposite each other in our respective rooms, grumpily playing each other cassettes. Our sessions were sometimes aggressive, often temperamental: two lonely would-be tastemakers falling over each other’s feet, finding each other’s taste inexplicable. Notably, I tried to get him into Yes – the attempt was one of several five-second failures which I’ll not bother to list. But Vaughan, in turn, exposed me to Pixies, the nagging ennui of Bleach, the disillusioned angst of Furniture, bits of The Fall; my first dose of My Bloody Valentine’s holocaust guitar; the first fumblings into the Velvets and Lou Reed records I’d somehow missed as a teenager.

For what it’s worth, when we did reach a consensus it wasn’t entirely a matter of me being schooled. For instance, we reached a point of agreement over mid-’70s King Crimson (whose barrage of rattling noise, violin drone and gnarly guitar got through Vaughan’s resistance) and when I countered MBV’s microtonal pitch-bending hallucino-pop with the tonal guitar swerves of David Torn. As for me, I gradually absorbed what Vaughan was bringing to the table, and as I held onto my roots but expanded my tastes indiewards (into the likes of The House of Love, the rare-bird shimmer of Cocteau Twins and the classical-industrial sampler bombast of The Young Gods), we came more into line.





 
By then, of course, we’d become mutually accepting, mutually supportive friends, doing what we could to back each other up. Beyond the cassette sessions, there wasn’t much more music during this part of the tale. The story of our theatre work is probably best told some other time. We did once pitch in together for a cabaret cover version of Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (Vaughan as a bulky balaclava’d terrorist on piano, me as a leathered-up comedy rock-god on bass with balled-up sports socks shoved down my trousers). There was also a brief period working on a body-politics University revue, with future Suede member Neil Codling (a rapid, matter-of-fact composer and multi-instrumental jack-of-all-trades, who took one of my lyrics about fashion and tailoring and spun it to a jaunty tune that’s yet to appear as a Suede B-side).

Vaughan probably had fonder memories of his staging of Jim Cartwright’s dream play ‘Bed’, which we took to the Edinburgh fringe in 1993. I worked closely with him on that one: acting under his direction, serving as his auxiliary brain while we combed through the script’s allusive dream-logic, and tracking down Jean Michel Jarre’s ghostly, uncharacteristic ‘En Attendant Cousteau’ as intro music. (It was one of the few times when I got the Euro-prog side of my musical tastes past Vaughan’s implacable guard. I didn’t tell him who’d created it until he’d chosen it…)


 
Post-Hull, Vaughan and I regrouped in London during 1994. While bumbling along wondering whether life was ever going to start, we kept each other stimulated by swapping homemade music comps via cassettes through the post. Quicker off the mark with job-hunting than I was, Vaughan had more ready cash than I did. He spent a fair chunk of it on hunting down left-field tunes and textures. An early adopter of communication technology, he appreciated my geeky fascination with recording details. He’d picked up a little tiny printer, and would always indulge me by sending his cassettes with little typed-out slips filling me in on who played what. These always came with irreverent miniature essays, which I appreciated even more. Even after I’d bought the original CDs myself, I’d keep Vaughan’s essays and slip them into the booklets.

Nearly twenty-five years later, I’ve still got them all. I loved Vaughan’s delighted enthusiasms, which overturned his guarded cynicism and dispelled his intermittent grumpiness. He’d wax lyrical on the phoenix-like, post-folk return to action of Eyeless in Gaza. He’d provide me with perky little ruminations on dubtronicists Seefeel; on murmuring post-Pale Saints duo Spoonfed Hybrid; on indie-folk songstress Heidi Berry, her albums festooned with various former members of Cardiacs (another of Vaughan’s favourite bands, and one which would reduce him to a guileless smirking mess of joy).

Vaughan introduced me to what we’d both come to see as a “holy British quadrinity” of post-rock – Moonshake, Laika, AR Kane and Disco Inferno (who collectively, while less prominent than the Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky consensus we’re stuck with today, achieved and meant so much more). He once bought me a copy of White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ and sent it along by post – just as the song hit number one – with a handwritten letter raving unguardedly about its homemade aesthetic, pluck and left-wing in-jokes.


 
When I decided – circa 1996 – to set up ‘Misfit City’, one of the first things I thought of were Vaughan’s miniature essays. It was natural to invite Vaughan onboard, and to encourage him to expand his original off-the-cuff enthusings into longer reviews. Also, since I’d been spending the last few years on a prog rock zine (trying, with mixed success, to get classic/neo-prog fans to expand their outlook into a broader concept of “progressive”) I thought he’d expand my own scope.

Consequently, during the first three years of the original crude-format ‘Misfit City’ webzine you’d have been able to find assorted Vaughan’s-eye views dotted through the pages. His enthusiasm for Eyeless in Gaza, Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis made it into the early postings, and he was soon bringing in more. He covered Cranes (growling at them for slumping into college rock), one-off trip-hoppers Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra, and avant-pop trio R.O.C. (another new favourite).

Only a couple of years out of the closet himself, he explored Patrick Fitzgerald’s flagrantly gay post-Kitchens of Distinction romp, Fruit. He let his romantic side and his cynical side tussle it out over The Bathers. At a time when half of the arty writers in town were fawning over Spiritualized, he delivered a measured dissection of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ (and although I’m not one for outright critical bitchery, I think I’ll always treasure his brutally blunt putdown of their parent band, Spacemen 3, in the opening paragraph).

I’d also occasionally feed Vaughan things from outside his immediate knowledge base and comfort zone, and wait for a response: whether it was positive (Jocelyn Pook, John Greaves & David Cunningham) or scathing (State Of Grace). Vaughan and I would also collaborate, via various methods, as “Col Ainsley”, combining our insights, our perspectives and our occasional cheap shots. Mostly, this involved me adding odd gracings to Vaughan’s stern dressing-down of James’ ‘Whiplash’, his intrigued exploration of ‘Wappinschaw’ (by transfigured noiseniks Cindytalk), and his surprisingly warm response to The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. It also led to reviews of erratically ambitious skunk-rockers Lo Fidelity Allstars, of enigmatic early post-rockers Labradford and emergent art-tronica force Darkroom, and of Bill Nelson during his surprisingly successful drum-and-bass/Beat-poet period.

The Ainsley method generally involved Vaughan starting a review and me finishing it, chucking in an image or association which I thought was in keeping with his perspective. He always congratulated me when he thought I’d nailed it. When I didn’t, he kept a generous diplomatic silence. If he ever found me pushy or domineering, he didn’t say so.

Don’t expect any stories of wild times in grubby shared flats; or tales of baiting or celebrating indie-hopefuls to their faces. There are none. Likewise, there were no precarious nights out on coke, E or speed; and there were none of the I-Ching pranks, the gleeful bitching clubs or the twenty-four hour fire-station atmospheres which always seem to bubble up in the memoirs of the journalists who cut their writing teeth while working on the music weeklies. Vaughan and I were more sober, more obscure characters – mostly out of the music biz loop and generally half a city away from each other, with much of our contact by phone or email. While I spent several years in shared accommodation in Stoke Newington (turning my room and my shrinking amount of shared space into a man-cave), Vaughan was working his way up through one-bedroomers in Acton and, later, Clapham.


 
Occasionally I’d inveigle him out for gigs. I suspect that getting him over to Shepherds Bush to see Barenaked Ladies was an elaborate tease, but that seeing Sylvian & Fripp (and, later, a MIDI-ed-to-the-gills six-piece King Crimson) was more of a celebration of friendship. The camaraderie remained. We were a pair of lonely, earnest, sidelined brains; writing as and when we could; bobbing on the millions-strong sea of self-obsessed insomniac lights that made up London.

By 1999, however, things were changing. I was sulking in low-status clerical work by day and obsessively, stubbornly hammering out ‘Misfit City’ reviews by night. Vaughan, meanwhile, was shifting focus. He’d always been meticulous, but now he was going professional and doing it well, working for the BBC on then-nascent internet projects of the kind we take for granted now. He found the idea of “WAP phones” particularly hilarious, mostly because the name suggested Wile E. Coyote and slapstick. The irony is that you’re probably reading ‘Misfit City’ on one now; and Vaughan’s last-ever advice to me was on how I might tailor the blog to fit better into the world of phone-browsing.

At the same time, Vaughan’s musical stance was relaxing, and my former champion of esoteric left-field indie was guilelessly singing the praises of the early Coldplay singles. I wasn’t judgemental or stupid enough to feel that he was selling out, but I could recognise that he was unbending a little. He didn’t reject ‘Misfit City’ as such, but he no longer had the time to concentrate on it. We gradually, blamelessly drifted in our different directions, birthday meetings eventually yielding to radio silence.

Vaughan out and about...

Vaughan out and about…

The best part of a decade later, I reconnected with Vaughan via Facebook – not because I was looking for a writer, but because I missed my friend and because technology was now enticing old buddies back together again. By then, Vaughan had gained plenty more experience as a writer and solo blogger; as a sardonic forum star; as a man who knew how to put things together and lead teams. Musically, his fleeting enthusiasm for Coldplay and their ilk was long gone. During the last decade of his life he was sunk deeply and appreciatively in the world of Manchester indie-folk: Louis Barrabas, Ríoghnach Connolly’s ongoing adventures in Honeyfeet and The Breath. From what I can gather, it seemed to be one of the few things which dragged him out of his flat and out of London.

Vaughan was glad to hear from me, and we were talking on and off up until the month that he died; but we never met face-to-face again. There were various reasons for this. Throughout the whole time I’d known him, it had been obvious that Vaughan suffered from assorted illnesses and troubles which affected his self-image and how certain people were likely to view him (and even, sometimes, what he was allowed to do). Later on, these roadblocks even come to affect what he was capable of doing. On top of that, there were hauntings: tormenting bits of his past that circled like ghostly sharks and regularly savaged him. Often he preferred to be alone, ensconsced at home, safely insulated behind phones and wires – even while friendships remained central to his existence.

Despite his troubles, Vaughan soldiered on and, in many respects, achieved more than many of the unencumbered. This past month, I’ve been hearing from many people (most of them strangers) about how inspirational he was as a boss at the BBC internet coalface; or as someone to virtually cross swords/slap palms with on some forum or other; as a poster of vinegar-wry wit, or as an encourager of other people’s blossoming via their own blogs. In his last years, Vaughan single-handed ran the Pixel+Pilcrow web design company from his flat, assiduously providing excellent, state-of-the-art modular homepages for customers and friends (most of whom eventually overlapped, one way or the other).

Yet, metaphorically and literally, his illnesses and challenges were taking pieces out of him and eroding his life. As I saw these things happening (generally behind the fierce shield of Vaughan’s stubborn dignity, and often only perceptible via dropped hints) I came to regret my reticence. I wish that I’d had the brass neck to intervene sometimes, and maybe risk hurting his feelings, but perhaps providing the chance to help him to make things better.

And then, one morning, he was gone forever.

* * * * * * * *

When I relaunched ‘Misfit City’ in blog format about eight years ago, I’d decided to make it much more my own thing. By mutual consent, I didn’t re-mount Vaughan’s contributions. At that point, he considered them juvenilia and curios in a writing career which spanned original blogwork, technical writing and sardonic children’s stories.

Since his death, I’ve reconsidered my position, and those reviews are now all back up in ‘Misfit City’ as part of an ongoing reworking of the blog. You can read them via the links above; or, if you want to coast through them all, you can get them in a sorted sequence (with this memorial at the top) by following the tags for Vaughan’s name or for Col Ainsley.

Re-reading them now, two things occur to me: Vaughan was right about them being juvenilia, but it also doesn’t matter. Like many of my own writing at the time, these reviews betray many of the flaws, pretensions, awkwardnesses and quick judgements of writing by people not yet out of their twenties, yet also not quite on the ball as regards youth cool (whether spontaneous or studied), nor knowing which instinctive steps to take in order to pass themselves off as tastemakers.

Yet the man’s voice, and mind, razzes through regardless. Tart, salty, Anglo-Germanic; sometimes surprisingly coy or camp; clearly in love with his subject, and only partially covering up his enthusiasm with that deflecting humour and that peanut-gallery sarcasm. It was right for the zine. At the start, ‘Misfit City’ was unashamedly awkward, hopeful, geeky and anxious. It keeps those characteristics now; and Vaughan was, in those early years, an integral part of that spirit.

* * * * * * * *

Goodbye, Vaughanie. You never knew how much people were going to miss you. I know you hated phoney sentiment and how annoyed you got at people’s tendency to blather along with their half-arsed well-meaningness (when they should have been getting up and doing something solid to help), but I do what I can to commemorate you.

Right now, I’m tempted to pick up something I know you couldn’t get along with – one of the most balloon-headed Yes albums, say, or the Lloyd Webber ‘Requiem’ – just so that I can imagine telling you about it down the phone. Just so that I can invite you to write something about it. So I could hear the whistle of you sucking your cheeks in and squirming; and finally, hear that carefully polite, firm, impeccably-enunciated “er… No,” emerge from your mouth. As if you’d spent the intervening three seconds mouthing a sugar cube into a tiny statuette of a unicorn, and had just delicately spat it out, completed with its own little sculpted, candied glare.

You were always a sweetheart, in sarcastic-git’s clothing. Sleep well, you lovely fraud; you wise, spiky friend.
 

March 2018 – Stick Men on tour in Europe (2-31 March – also featuring Emanuele Cirani, The Fierce & The Dead and XaDu)

27 Feb

Throughout March, King Crimson-affiliated experimental rock trio Stick Men wind their bouncing, droning, percussive way around Europe. Fronted by veteran singing Chapman Stick maestro Tony Levin, propelled by drummer Pat Mastelotto (an ever-underrated master of electro-acoustic kit and rhythmic surprise) and completed by polydisciplinary Touch Guitarist Markus Reuter, their journey takes in assorted clubs, small theatres and music eateries in Austria, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, France, Finland, Spain and England. These venues might be somewhat smaller than the lofty theatres which Pat and Tony have recently been filling as part of the current eight-man Crimson, but this is a positive thing. It’s one of the few chances you’ll get to experience this level of inventive extended rock musicality in this size of venue, and Stick Men (playing to growing, enthusiastic knots of people) deserve far better than their spin-off status, a box they’ve long since wriggled their way out of.


 
Via both instrumentation and the inescapable Crimson connection, the 1980 template set by the latter band’s ‘Discipline’ album casts quite a long shadow over Stick Men – the knotty polyphonic staccato, the metrical puzzles, the whomp’n’chunk of two sets of hands hitting two touchstyle fretboards. But this was always a template partly shaped by Tony; and although the band’s musical direction does draw somewhat on the flinty, monolithic ecstasies of Crimson music (expect a few ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic’ instrumentals to make a bloody-knuckled showing, alongside a voyage through Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’) and their last album carried the tongue-in-cheek title of ‘Prog Noir’ title, they’re not constrained by style, choosing rather to percolate within it like one of Tony’s beloved espressos before flooding outwards in all directions.

In fact, there’s a surprisingly un-prog breeziness to what they do. Tony might have waited until his autumn years before turning to frontman work, but his warm easygoing nature and gently kidding demeanour proves a fine fit for the role; and it’s his flowing omnivorous musicality (rather than Robert Fripp’s looming shadow) which ultimately sets Stick Men’s tone and releases their flow. Prior to and parallel to Crimson, Tony had five decades of first-call sessionwork: his glomping basslines backed and coloured the songs of Paul Simon, John Lennon, James Taylor, Peter Gabriel et al in a manner closer to conversational doo-wop singing than to simple low-end rooting, and some of that singing quality’s migrated to this project.


 
To an extent, Markus is stuck with a Frippish guitar role (he provides formidable reflections of the latter’s magisterial chops, ambient auroras and swarming killer-bee solo tone) but he also brings a different game to the stage. Outside of Stick Men, his own output has included free-form electric improv, protracted psychedelic drones, tundra-fire accompaniment to Siberian throat-singers, wild higher-mathematical dance frenzies and immense algorithmic orchestral pieces. With Stick Men his sometimes stern, magisterial-seeming stage presence regularly breaks out into unguarded humour and bursts of cerebral romanticism played out through the fretboard. Meanwhile Pat’s bridging, gizmo-assisted drumming can (and does) slip easily and unshowily between tacit Ringo Starr accompaniment, mathematical sledge-blows and intricate polyrhythmic dance-club rushes a la Marque Gilmore.



 
While most dates see the band playing alone, in Italy their Veneto date features support from Italian Chapman Sticker/bass guitarist/singer Emanuele Cirani, who usually trades in haunted, distorted block riffage as Colpo Rosso. In England, their Wolverhampton date is shared with friendly British troupe The Fierce & The Dead, who’ve been rebounding around the gaps between garage rock, prog, highlife and post-hardcore since 2010 and now seem poised on the brink of a substantial breakthrough. In Spain, the opening act in Madrid is XaDu, the hanging, questioning, avant-progressive jazz-rock duo put together by cross-genre Spanish drummer Xavi Reija and Serbian texture-jazz guitarist Dusan Jevcovic, who play up a complex two-man interplay while simultaneously sousing it in a dirty, deconstructive electrical storm.




 

Full dates:

  • Planet Live Club, Via del Commercio 36, 00154 Roma, Italy, Friday 2nd March 2018, 9.00pm – information here and here
  • Viperclub, Via Pistoiese 309/4, Piazza Ilaria Alpi e Miran Hrovatin, 5, 50145 Firenze, Italy, Saturday 3rd March 2018, 9.00pm – information here and here
  • Blue Note, Via Pietro Borsieri 37, 20159 Milano,, Italy, Sunday 4th March 2018, 9.00pminformation
  • Club Il Giardino Lugagnano, Via Ugo Foscolo, 37060 Sona, Veneto, Italy, Monday 5th March 2018, 9.00pm (with Emanuele Cirani) – information here and here
  • Porgy & Bess, Riemergasse 11, 1010 Vienna, Austria, Wednesday 7th March 2018, 9.00pm – information here and here
  • Budapest Jazz Club, Hollán Ernő utca 7. 1136 Budapest, Hungary, Thursday 8th March 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • BlueNote Jazz & Music Restaurant, J.Hašku 18,
    915 01 Nové Mesto nad Váhom, Slovak Republic, Saturday 10th March 2018, 8.00pm
    – information here and here
  • Sono Centrum, Veveří 105, 603 00 Brno, Czech Republic, Sunday 11th March 2018, 8.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Lucerna Bar, Vodičkova 36, 110 00 Praha, Czech Republic, Tuesday 13th March 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Robin 2, 20-28 Mount Pleasant, Bilston, Wolverhampton, WV14 7LJ, England, Thursday 15th March 2018, 8.00pm (with The Fierce & The Dead) – information here and here
  • Acapela Studios, Capel Horeb, Heol Y Pentre, Pentyrch, Cardiff, CF15 9QD, Wales, Friday 16th March 2018, 9.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Trading Boundaries, Sheffield Green, near Fletching, East Sussex, TN22 3RB, England, Saturday 17th March 2018, 9.00pm – information here and here
  • L’Empreinte, 301 Avenue de l’Europe, Savigny-le-Temple, Paris, France, Sunday 18th March 2018, 6.00pm – information here and here
  • Tavastia, Urho Kekkosen katu 6, Helsinki 00100,Finland, Monday 19th March 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Validi Karkia Club, Pori, Finland, Tuesday 20th March 2018, 8.30pm – information here
  • Sala Bikini, Av.Diagonal 547, L’Illa Diagonal 08029, Barcelona, Espana, Thursday 29th March 2018 – information t.b.c.
  • Cool Stage, Madrid, Espana, Friday 30th March 2018, 8.00pm (with XaDu) – information here and here
  • La Cochera Cabaret, Avenida de los Guindos 19, 29004 Málaga, Espana, Saturday 31st March 2018, 9.00pm – information here

 

August 2016 – upcoming gigs – London goes prog-happy at the Lexington – The Gift + We Are Kin + Tiger Moth Tales’ Macmillan fundraiser (7th); the David Cross Band with David Jackson and Richard Palmer-James (9th)

5 Aug

I think I’ve previously described the Boston Music Room – one of my own local venues – as London’s current home of prog. If so, the Lexington, down in the hinterlands between Kings Cross and Angel, is making a good showing as a second home. Two imminent shows reinforce that reputation, making next week a good one for London’s prog village.

* * * * * * * *

The Gift/We Are Kin/Tiger Moth Tales @ The Lexington, 7th August 2016

Resonance, in association with Prog Magazine and Orange Amplification present
The Gift + We Are Kin + Tiger Moth Tales
The Lexington, 96-98 Pentonville Road, Islington, London, N1 9JB, England
Sunday 7th August 2016, 6.30pm
– information here and here

The name that’s missing from the promoters’ line-up above is Bad Elephant Music: London’s ever-industrious cottage label for various types of prog, and home for two of the acts on the bill. In some respects, this is a shuffled and re-run of a similar gig back in February, in which The Gift’s mix of symph/prog/folk grandeur plus flashy AOR (and We Are Kin’s exploration of art rock shapes and northern English socialism) lined up with a pair of one-man bands in the shape of steampunk balladeer Tom Slatter and troubadour rocker jh. Now The Gift are back, and so are We Are Kin, with only the choice of one-man-band changed. Here’s the official blurb from the Elephant:

The Gift, fresh from their triumphant performance at An Evening Of Bad Elephant Music, will be headlining the event, bringing their own particular brand of symphonic progressive rock on stage. The band is currently working on the followup to 2014’s ‘Land of Shadows’, and may well be previewing a song or two here.


 
“Making the journey down to ‘that London’ all the way from Manchester, We Are Kin will be playing a selection of songs from their new album, ‘The Waiting Room’, as well as from their acclaimed debut, ‘Pandora’. Their twin vocal lineup wowed the audience at Abel Ganz’s Christmas party last year, and is sure to be a highlight of this event.


 
Tiger Moth Tales is the brainchild of Pete Jones, who will be performing solo for this event. His live shows have been widely acclaimed for their virtuosity, emotion and huge sense of fun. Pete’s two album releases ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Storytellers Part One’ will both be represented in his performance, and he may well throw in one or two cover versions of the prog classics!”



 

Just one final note – the gig’s a fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Trust, emphasising a community that’s broader than just the prog one.

* * * * * * * *

David Cross Band @ The Lexington, 9th August 2016

The David Cross Band (with special guest David Jackson) + Richard Palmer-James
The Lexington, 96-98 Pentonville Road, Islington, London, N1 9JB, England
Tuesday 9th August 2016, 7:30 pm
– information here and here

Despite nearly five decades in music, David Cross is still best known for his contributions to three albums at the start of his career. During a two-year early-‘70s stint with King Crimson (incorporating ‘Starless And Bible Black’, ‘Larks’ Tongues In Aspic’ and ‘Red’) David added “delicacy, and wood” to what some consider to be the band’s finest incarnation – part proto-punk-Mahavishu Orchestra, part stately electric-classical chamber group, and part droning/clattering/blaring building site. In its relatively brief and always restless lifespan, this particular Crimson lineup lay athwart the path of progressive rock, heavy metal and European improvisation like a splinter-ridden sleeper across the tracks: innovative, stern and ornery.

David’s amplified violin was a key part of the band’s powerful Euronoise, bringing in evocative melodies and moods which varied between Roma scurries, fall-of-Rome dramatics, foggy drones and angry squeals. As was the case with many of the departures from Crimson, David’s was passionate, painful and galling: progressively swamped by the band’s incremental climb towards avant-rock brutality, he was eventually forced out by its bruising, bristling volume and the implacable battering of its rhythm section. It took a few decades for him to salvage a more cordial relationship with Crimson leader Robert Fripp: nonetheless, the reconciliation has led to a return to the large extended Crimson family including guest spots and latterday Soundscape duets as well as recent electric chamber music with Crim-connected composer Andrew Keeling.)

Immediately after Crimson, though, David had to follow a different winding path of his own. From mid-‘70s work with trans-Manche psych/prog/fusioneers Clearlight (and experiments with big-band improv whilst leading the sadly undocumented Ascend) he went on to a long learning process during which, by his own admission, he failed at jazz. On the other hand, he successfully honed an affinity with alternative improvisation and with other forms. Theatre, in particular, proved to be a natural home, with David working up on stage and behind the scenes as well as in the pit band or composer’s slot. Theatricality also bled through into his other musical work. A trio he formed with keyboard player Sheila Maloney and saxophonist Pete McPhail took to the arts centres to perform musical interpretations of Samuel Beckett plays, while from the turn of the 1980s David was carrying out interdisciplinary performances with dancers, painters and the like (something he’s continued up until the present day).

After a decade away, a return to fusion and avant-rock in the late 1980s saw David becoming a keystone of Geoff Serle’s Radius band; an interesting, if airlessly pastoral, British answer to Material’s electro-funk. He was also a quarter of one-shot project Low Flying Aircraft, in which he joined forces with Crimson-orbit jazz pianist Keith Tippett, drummer Dan Maurer and budding teenaged guitar whiz Jim Juhn in a leaf-storm of nervy electroacoustic frenzy and scattered early sampler sputters. (For my money, it’s probably his most interesting post-Crimson bandwork to date.). He’s stayed busy ever since – this year, for instance, saw the release of violin-and-electronica duo album with Sean Quinn of Tiny Magnetic Pets, plus a live album from Japanese dates in which he guested with Crimson spinoff trio Stick Men.


 

All of this suggests the work of a musician whose reputation should be broader and better respected. It’s probably only the taint of grand prog – and of the “wrong kind” of fusion – which keeps him from it. In experimental rock (or, more accurately, in the media commentary which covers it, particularly on the British side) there still seem to be very clear, if dubious and snobbish, rules about who’s allowed credibility, and why. It’s not easy to escape from those fencings; and without this side of his history, David might have had his due.


 

For better or for worse, David’s most enduring project has been his own David Cross Band. Anchored since the mid-’90s by cohorts and co-composers Mick Paul (bass) and Paul Clark (guitars), it displays his electric violin – by turns stately, romantic, gnarled or locustlike – coursing fluently over a grandiose, detailed bed of prog pomp, deep metal, and flaring jazz-rock gestures. This year, however, the band’s taken an intriguing and strategic left-turn. With their latest album ‘Sign Of The Crow’ barely out of the gate, they’ve unexpectedly replaced keyboard player Alex Hall with veteran avant-prog sax hero David Jackson, once of Van Der Graaf Generator.

David Jackson in full 1970s effect (photographer unknown)

David Jackson in full 1970s effect (photographer unknown)

Musically adventurous and visually iconic, Jackson spent his Van Der Graaf years festooned with multiple instruments, blowing double-horn brass sections through brain-buggering electronics and being described as “a Third Reich bus conductor”. Since then, he’s spent much of his time working on the gesture-to-MIDI Soundbeam electronic project (bringing out the musicality of disabled children) while sometimes venturing out for gigs on the strength of his experimental rock reputation. Since crossing paths with David Cross at one such gig in Verona years ago, Jackson has been one of his frequent improvisation partners, making him an overdue natural fit for something like this. Regarding their chemistry, here’s a lengthy fly-on-the-wall video of the two of them playing (alongside Yumi Hara and Tony Lowe) at a release show for the Cross/Fripp ‘Starless Starlight’ album of Crimson-inspired Soundscape duets. Covering the show from rehearsal to performance, it hints at some of what the Cross/Jackson duo might be bringing to bear on the band shows; something which might well be transformational, pulling the band up and out of its shiny prog-metal box and perhaps delivering David Cross some of the broader respect he deserves.


 

The new Cross Band lineup, completed by Space Cowboys singer Jinian Wilde and by poly-disciplinary drummer Craig Blundell (who displays a heartening taste for post-dubstep playing when people let him off the prog leash), made their live debut in Wolverhampton last month. While no videos have emerged from this, there have been enthusiastic reports; and as King Crimson tours as a grand septet with a long-denied, fervently-delivered battery of archived ’70s classics, the Cross band are studding their own set with live deliveries of 21st Century Schizoid Man and Starless.

The London gig’s also intriguing in that it features a rare-as-rocking-horse-shit British solo slot from Richard Palmer-James. Originally the embattled first guitarist and wordsmith for Supertramp (a long time before they hit big at the American breakfast bar), Richard was the long-distance lyricist for King Crimson during David’s tenure and has subsequently carried out the same favour for twenty years of various Cross bands. Based in Bavaria for forty-odd years, he’s spent most of it embedded in production and writing work for German pop: since the turn of the century, however, he’s revived his original love for playing blues and country guitar. Most likely it will be this side of him that we’ll see at the Lexington on Tuesday. Still, who knows what the sense of occasion might bring out?
 

May 2015 – through the feed – free single/upcoming crowdfunder from The Duke Of Norfolk; Cardiacs and Knifeworld reissues; a new Tim Bowness album; disinterring lost Levitation

21 May

I can tell I’ve not kept my eye on the ball – nothing makes a person feel less alert than suddenly finding that three of his favourite musical projects (plus one new recent favourite and one older interest) are suddenly pouncing out new releases and. I step out for a moment, for another writing project, and someone moves all of the furniture around.

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

So… let’s start with news of fresh work from The Duke of Norfolk, a.k.a transplanted Oklahoman folkie Adam Howard, now resident in Edinburgh. He’s currently offering a free single – A Revolutionary Waltz – in part-promotion, commenting “I am launching a Kickstarter project in two weeks to fund the making of a live video EP, and would like to give you this recording in the meantime. It’s just a wee sonic experiment, but I hope you enjoy it!”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Scottish Nationalist tie-in here, given recent political events in Britain, Adam’s adopted hometown, and that beautifully sympathetic and country-tinged setting of Robbie Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss on which he duets with Neighbour, think otherwise. In fact, this song is a darker cousin to An Evening Waltz (from his 2013 album ‘Le Monde Tourne Toujours’): a foreboding meditation on the inexorable turn of fate’s wheel, tying together three histories of power, betrayal and fall. Despite its timeless trad-folk lyric, Adam’s busking roots (and the lusciously acoustic sound of much of his other material) it’s also a rough-and-ready take on digital folk, either demo-rough or intended to display Adam’s other roots in sound design. A clipped electrophonic waltz picks its way across a murky psychedelic smudge and a droning feedback pibroch: its characters sea-waltz to the grim, dry beat of a hand drum and a scattering of cowrie-shell percussion. It’s well worth a listen. As for progress on the Duke Of Norfolk video Kickstarter campaign, it’s probably best to keep tabs on his Facebook page.

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

Following the success of their double vinyl LP reissue of 1995’s ‘Sing To God‘ album, Cardiacs are doing the same with its 1999 follow-up, ‘Guns’. While it’s not the magnificent sprawler that ‘Sing To God’ is, ‘Guns’ offers a more concise take on the pepper-sharp 1990s Cardiacs quartet that featured Bob Leith and gonzo guitarist Jon Poole alongside the band-brothers core of Tim and Jim Smith. As Cardiacs albums go it’s an even brasher beast than usual, hiding its gnarly depths under brass-balled upfront confidence and strong seasonings of glam-bang, pell-mell punk, whirring Krautrock, and jags of heavy metal looning.

‘Guns’ is also one of the most obscure Cardiacs works. Drummer Bob joined Tim on lyric duties, helping to turn the album’s words into a dense hedge-witch thicket of allusion and play, in which typically naked Cardiacs preoccupations (dirt, wartime, suspicion, indeterminate life and death) are tied up into an almost impenetrable web, driven along by the music’s eight-legged gallop. The fact that Tim and Bob were slipping in random borrowings from ‘English As She Is Spoke‘,  a notoriously bungled Victorian phrasebook with its own wonky and unintentional poetry, only added to the tangle.

You can pre-order the ‘Guns’ reissue here for end-of-June shipping. It’s a single vinyl record, with no extra thrills or treats, but does come with the promise of beautiful packaging and pressing. You can expect to hear news on more Cardiacs reissues over the next few years. The current plan is to reissue the band’s whole back catalogue on vinyl after years of exile (predominantly spent huddled exclusively on iTunes).

Meanwhile, see below for a taste of ‘Guns’ magnificent oddness. Here’s the grinding drive of Spell With A Shell (which encompasses the lives of pets, the terror and wonder of transformation, and the cruelty, loneliness and confused loyalties of childhood). Here’s a collision of outsider folk and reggae in Wind And Rains Is Cold (via a fan video of clips from ‘Night Of The Hunter’, from which Cardiacs frequently filch scraps of lyric). Finally, here’s the scavenged, scratchy prog of Junior Is A Jitterbug with its prolonged and celebrated unravelling coda.

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

For those without turntables, there’s been a relatively recent CD reissue of Cardiacs’ 1991 EP ‘Day Is Gone’ – which I somehow managed to miss when it was first announced – and which includes the original three B-sides (No Bright Side, Ideal and concert favourite Joining The Plankton). This is from the pre-‘Sing To God’ lineup: another quartet but with Dominic Luckman on drums and, ostensibly, Bic Hayes on second guitar (prior to his explosive stints in Levitation and Dark Star, and to his current position etching dark psychedelic guitar shadings in ZOFFF).

Actually, since this was a time of shuffle and change in the band it’s unclear as to whether Bic or Jon Poole is providing the extra galactic bangs and shimmerings on the EP. However, for Day Is Gone itself the attention should be on Tim Smith’s grand bottle-rocket of a solo, capping what’s both one of Cardiacs’ most autumnal songs and one of their most headrushing cosmic efforts – a bout of November skygazing gone bright and vivid. See below for the original video in all of its low-budget saucer-eyed glory, and pick up the CD here.

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

Note also that a couple of other early-‘90s Cardiacs recordings have made it back on CD in the past six months. ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’ (the parent album for Day Is Gone) shows Cardiacs at their brightest and bashing-est, but hiding a wounded heart. ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ – the recording of a raucous 1990 septet concert at the Salisbury Arts Centre – was both the last hurrah of the 1980s lineup (with carousel keyboards, saxophone and half-a-scrapyard’s-worth of percussion rig) and, for my money, is also one of the greatest live rock recordings ever made. See if you agree.

Cardiacs: 'All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest' (2014 reissue)

Cardiacs: ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ (2014 reissue)


‘Mares Nest’ also made a welcome resurfacing on DVD a couple of years ago – see below for a typically quaking example of the band in action. It’s also worth repeating that all of the profits from the recording sales continue to go towards palliative care and physical therapy for Tim Smith, who’s still engaged in the slow painful recovery from his crippling stroke of 2008.

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Meanwhile, Knifeworld – who feature an ex-Cardiac and, while being very much their own eclectic and tuneful proposition, carry a certain continuation of the Cardiacs spirit along with them – have collated early, interim and now-unavailable tracks onto a full-length album, ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’. The seven tracks (dating from between 2009 and 2012) bridge the space between their ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ debut and last year’s tour-de-force ‘The Unravelling’.

If you want to read my thoughts on the original releases, visit the original ‘Misfit City’ reviews of the ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ and ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EPs from which six of the tracks are taken. (I’ve just had a look back myself and discovered that I’ve previously described them as a band who could drag up exultation with their very fingernails, as starchildren weighed down by dark matter, as possessing “a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand” and as “an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together.” I must have been pretty excitable, on each occasion.)

Alternatively, have a look at the videos below. Also, if you’re in England during the end of May, the band (in full eight-person glory) are out on a short tour featuring the debut of new music.

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

With his erstwhile/ongoing no-man bandmate Steven Wilson going from strength to strength as a solo act, Tim Bowness also continues to concentrate on work under his own name – sleek, melancholy art-pop with a very English restraint, fired with a desperate passion and shaded with subtleties and regrets. His third album, ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’, is due for release on July 17th; barely a year after his last effort ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (one of my own favourite records of 2014).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ features the ‘Abandoned…’ core band of Tim plus his usual cohorts Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, and Andrew Booker, and on spec sounds as if it’ll be a smooth progression and development from the previous album. It also features guest showings from three generations of art rock (Phil Manzanera and Peter Hammill; David Rhodes and Pat Mastelotto; Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord, Anna Phoebe and Rhys Marsh) and string arrangements by art-rock-friendly composer Andrew Keeling.

Expect a typically Burning Shed-ish range of format options: the double CD mediabook edition (with companion disc of alternate mixes and demos including an unreleased no-man demo from 1994), and LP versions in either black vinyl or transparent vinyl (CDs included with each). Pre-ordering gets you a downloadable FLAC version of the 5.1 mix, plus the usual cute postcard. Sorry – I have no early tasters for ‘Stupid Things…’, but here’s a taste of one of the slower, lusher tracks from ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ for the benefit of anyone who missed it last year.

Earlier on, while discussing Cardiacs, I briefly mentioned Bic Hayes and his time in Levitation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them – or who weren’t around in early ’90s Britain to witness their brief, Roman candle of a run – they were a band who eagerly fused together an enormous sound, leashing and running with a frenzied and energized take on psychedelic rock, driving post-punk noise and earnest, distressed chanting from their singer, the former House of Love guitar star Terry Bickers. Sadly, they’ve become best known as the springboard by which Terry catapulted himself first into frontmanhood, then into the uncharted and finally (via some tortured decisions and unfortunate outbursts) into the obscure.

In truth, Levitation were an equal conspiracy of five. As well as Terry and Bic, there was Robert White (a baby-faced free-festival veteran and secret-weapon multi-instrumentalist, who’d later lead The Milk & Honey Band), an undersung alt.rock bass hero called Laurence O’Keefe and David Francolini, an astounding and slightly demonic drummer who could run the gamut from pattering rain to pneumatic drill in a single roll round his kit (and who, within Levitation, had the perfect opportunity to do so). Fuelled equally by inspiration, drugs and sheer hard work, they strived for three intense years while living on the outside of their skins, and briefly came close to making some very unfashionable sounds current again.

While they were certainly a “head” band – hippy punks who joined floating threads of British counter-culture, spontaneity and resistance together – it’s vital to remember that Levitation were never your average festival band. They were never complacent, never entitled. More Yippie than trustafarian, they seemed (Bickers, in particular) to be desperately chasing revelations just over the rim of the horizon. Their ethos and experience was best summed up – or, more accurately, caught in a passing flare – in a lyric from their song Against Nature ), with Terry choking out “there is an answer, but I’ve yet to find out where” over a raging foam of guitars. Fingers (and not a few minds) got scorched along the way. In May 1993, it culminated in Terry’s wracked, brutal self-ejection from the band – in a spurt of slogans and despair – during a concert at the Tufnell Park Dome, just a short walk from Misfit City’s current home.

There have been some reconcilations since then (not least Bic, David and Laurence reuniting in the wonderful but equally short-lived Dark Star five years afterwards) but there have been no reunion, and no-one has ever seemed to want to go back. However, on Monday this week – Record Store Day 2015 – the Flashback label released the first Levitation music for twenty years – ‘Never Odd Or Even’, a vinyl-only EP containing three tracks from the band’s lost 1992 album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (these being Never Odd Or Even, Greymouth and Life Going Faster). More information is here, although if you want to pick up one of the five hundred copies you’d better find your nearest participating British record store here: they might have some left. (There’s an earlier version of the title track below, in perhaps a rawer form.)

I’ve described ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ as a lost album, which isn’t strictly true. Although the record was recorded prior to Terry’s explosive departure, there was life after Bickers, For just over a year, singer Steve Ludwin took on the frontman role; during this time the band took it upon themselves to partially re-work the album with Ludwin’s vocals rolled out firmly over Terry’s. The resulting version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ was only released briefly in Australia. Following the split of the Ludwin lineup and the final end of the band, it’s always been regarded (rightly or wrongly) as something of a bastard appendix to the Bickers-era albums.

The happier news is that, following up ‘Never Odd Or Even’, Flashback are about to give ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ its own new lease of life with the active collaboration of the original lineup (including Terry Bickers). The album’s original vocals have been restored, the songs polished to satisfaction and a final tracklisting agreed upon. Although former album tracks Graymouth and Life Going Faster have been ceded to the ‘Never Odd…’ EP, the 2015 version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ keeps four of the tracks familiar from the Ludwin version (Food For Powder, Gardens Overflowing, Even When Your Eyes Are Open and the vaulting soar of King of Mice) and adds five songs previously only available via bootlegs (Bodiless, Imagine The Sharks, Evergreen, I Believe, Burrows and Sacred Lover). Apparently, it’ll be out sometime in “summer 2015” as a single CD and limited-edition double LP, each coming with gatefold sleeve and new artwork by original Levitation cover artist Cally.

It’s probably best to keep track of progress on the ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ release here; but meanwhile here’s the Bickers version of Even When Your Eyes Are Open (the last single the band released before he quit) and a bootleg-sourced version of the startling post-psychedelic stretchout Burrows – just to whet the appetite.

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo

Levitation online:
Homepage Facebook

January 2015 – single & track reviews – Giles Babel’s ‘2015’; Shot of Hornets’ ‘Elvis is Dead’; Heylel’s ‘I Talk to the Wind’; Marika Hackman’s ‘Animal Fear’; Tanya Tagaq’s ‘Uja’

10 Jan

Giles Babel: '2015'

Giles Babel: ‘2015’

Happy new year. How’s your irresolution?

Both as year and as song, ‘2015’ is another fitful emergence for Enfield polymath Glen Byford – poet, photographer, digital trinketer, small-time maker and on-off DJ. In the past, he’s put out his original music (anxious water-tank electronica, skinny-wistful glitch tunes, poppy plunderphonics and disillusioned spoken-word bedsit blurts) under the cover names of Hunchbakk or Giles Babel. As of this year, all projects seem to have merged under the Babel label and shrunk down to their most skeletal: or perhaps that’s just how it feels under a January hangover.

Peeling off and discarding his usual quilt of samples, the perpetually uncomfortable Glen distractedly slung this one together on an iPad app while reading and watching television – as if he was working behind his own back and didn’t want to catch himself at it. It’s downbeat, clipped and telegrammatic – budget-tronica pows and zips; a knocking and near-undanceable beat; minimal decoration. Rather than opting for best hopes and public drive, he chooses to sit back and take the poison pill – “Another new year, and another January of good intentions. / Another January of new perceptions, misconceptions that things could change.”

The music, though, seems to disagree – glitching and flipping into a rumble of double-time, or shoving the voice to the back of the drawer like an unwanted sock. Meanwhile, Glen fidgets between hope and cynicism (“This year will be my year – / yeah, just like last year, / and just like every year,”)and represents that year with a brief collage of Playstation chip music, pings and trills, mutters, and incongrous hip hop samples of block party shouts and cheering crowds (“we have a party, right?… I tell you what we do…” Uncertain inspirations reign. Glen pads, tentative and barefoot, around his room.

* * * *

Shot of Hornets: 'Elvis is Dead?'

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead?’

In the time that Glen would take to roll over twice and go back to sleep, Shot of Hornets would have squeezed five quick changes into a song. Apparently not much older than 2014’s Christmas wrapping-paper, this band’s blocky, power-oozing pounce-and-trap tones suggests a much longer-established band: they mingle math-metal’s block-feints with hot funk spaces, thrash riffs with anthemic grunge righteousness, but never entirely pin themselves to anything. When he’s not bursting into hardcore screams, the soulful wreck of singing drummer Conor Celahane’s vocals are reminiscent of gospel-tinged hard-rock heroes King’s X (as are the clotted, meaty guitar wails of his brother Dan), but there’s just as much of Megadeth’s grand irritation in the stew as well.

Elvis is Dead? is a shape-changing dust-off about nothing more specific than uncertainty, vague disappointment and finding the pieces to pick up. The King himself only shows up in a desultory moan about Spotify (so I’m guessing that there’s something being said about the commodification and shrinkage of cultural heroes here), but generally the song sees the band gathering together their compass-bearings and firing off the odd sarcastic broadside. “So here we are now, / no better and no worse off, / in the same world as everyone else,” notes Conor, going on to confess “I have a number of doubts.”

The music is sinewy and jumpy beneath the roaring guitar, and every couple of minutes, there’s a change – a glide of softer melody, a shift into death growls, a barrage of bouncing swipes and screams. “The first prize for gift of the gab / goes straight to you / how d’you feel about that?” Conor yells before the song turns anthemic, finding both the funk and its final feet. (“Turning my back on ignorance, turning my back on selfish people, turning my back on ignorance and lies.”) In a final riff-bout, the rhythm hurtles and rebounds like an evil-minded squash ball. Promising. Let’s see what they do when their concentration settles.

* * * *

Even compared to the other prog juggernauts of the ’70s, King Crimson aren’t given much credit for contributing to the classic songbook. Given the various song-gems lurking in their back catalogue, this is unfair. It probably owes more to Robert Fripp’s unfortunate (and somewhat unfair) reputation as a lofty demon headmaster, verbally withering casual listeners from his lectern before immolating them with sprays of burning guitar sludge – an image which does his Bowie collaborations no harm, but which drags his main band down like a concrete overcoat. The fact remains that outside of slavish interpretations from neo-prog bands, as far as Crimson cover versions go there’s been little more than a speckling.

In the past few years, though, this has changed significantly. In 2011, The Unthanks transformed Crimson’s Starless into a haunting Northumbrian chorale. The year before, Symbolyc One ripped 21st Century Schizoid Man to ominous ribbons and recombined them for Kanye West’s ‘Power’. A year before that, Maynard James Keenan of Tool snarled his way through a pure Schizoid Man cover for The Human Experimente (It was impressive, in an art-metal way, although personally I’m keener on Johnny G’s lo-fi delta-blues version from 1982).

I Talk to the Wind, however, is probably the closest King Crimson has to a standard. A ghostly, semi-existential folk song from their first album, it’s already attracted several reinterpretations. Italian new-wavers Violet Eves did a respectfully mournful and elegant cover in 1985; Camper Van Beethoven and Eugene Chadbourne tore up a hilarious country-punk version in 1987. Probably the most famous version is Opus III’s techno-house take from 1992 (complete with New Romantic Gilliam-cum-Dali fantasy video, mashing up ‘Dune’, ‘Logopolis’ and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ as Kirsty Hawkshaw’s androgynous glam-waif stalks, slinks and smoulders her way around a desert lodge).

For their own version, Heylel have chosen to recapture some of the original Crimson’s sumptuousness. Serving as a coda to the Red Giant sequence on the epic prog/folk/metal of their ‘Nebulae’ album, their take on I Talk To The Wind is solemn and sealed. The ceremonial pace, the full-scale orchestral tremble, the fathoms of shoegaze-guitar shudder and the solemn, Gilmourian guitar solo render it inter-generationally grand: touching on the string-swoons of Craig Armstrong or Sinatra’s orchestras, the stadium turbulence of ‘The Wall’ and the mournful psychedelic drones of Spiritualized or Slowdive. The video suggests that they’re heading up the live sessions in the Black Lodge from ‘Twin Peaks’.

Yet the original song is a small, lonesome beast – lyrical flute, a gentle fug of guitar, a pre-ELP Greg Lake singing the melancholy words with a vulnerable humility that he’d never show again. Heylel singer Ana Batista keeps this in mind. Her vocal might be full of assured, implicit soul-pop power, but she’s never tempted to let rip, never loses sight of that original restraint: and, restored to a waking dream, the song’s allowed to settle over us once again.

* * * *
Despite the underlying wildness of her songwriting, Marika Hackman also appreciates and makes use of the power of restraint. Previous songs such as Bath Is Black and Itchy Teeth have revealed a compelling songwriter with a cool fascination for messy play, for psychological dirt and guilt and the wracked physicality of the uneasy soul. That she doesn’t scream these things out adds to her power. Her cool, polished folk tones deliver her surreal, slithering insights and her deft, subtle analyses with the same thoughtful poise, whether she’s chiding or sharing, empathizing or emphasizing.

Underneath the spooky Latinesque folktronica groove of ‘Animal Fear’ (full of Shankar-ish string wails and spaghetti western gunshots) a menstrual werewolf subtext is swirling. Part ‘Ginger Snaps’ and part ‘Being Human’, it embraces blood and feminity, bandages, and the helpless stink of male terror. “I’ve been weeping silent like a wound. / Would you stitch me up or let the blood soak through, / watching my world turn from white to blue?” She sings as if she might be dying; she sings as if to a lover or a brother; but she’s never really pleading, never wholly dependent. She sits inside her transforming body and watches the changes come; watches the fumblings of her companion with the same half-resigned curiosity. “Look into my eyes and convince us both that I’ll last through the night; / I could land on my feet if I tried. / I’ve never jumped a chasm so wide / and made it to the opposite side. / Even now as we’re standing here, / I can see the doubt in your eyes, / I can smell the animal fear.”

The song is a tender, chiding mixture of vulnerability and disappointment, but its observations are shot through with self-awareness. “I was not a heavenly child,” admits Marika, “savage, with a temperament wild.” As the song travels through the changes, it blends into acceptance, a new understanding bleeding through in flashes (“oh, my body trembling… / and teeth… / I won’t bite.. / Sweet too soon, treacherous night.”) We don’t get to find out how this ends, but even as Marika (now more initiate than invalid) murmurs “she calls my name” you’re left with her finely-honed sense of self. Under the fur and nipples, under the wracking pain, an image emerges of a woman who may wander but will never be truly lost.

* * * *

Tanya Tagaq – a Canadian Inuit throat singer – also seems to have some empathy with this kind of lycanthropic humanity. She’s recently delivered a forthright cover of Pixies’ ‘Caribou’ like a tundra bolero with violins and horns, picking up on its occult hints and dreams of a changed, more animal life outside the city and slinging it back with an Inuit twist and the bloody-minded wit of a hard-bitten outdoorswoman. Tanya first came to broader attention a decade ago (thanks to her four-song turn on Björk’s ‘Medúlla’), and has continued to work her way into Western musical awareness via work with the Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton. This kind of collaborator choice suggests a determination to broaden and involve her music rather than dilute it. With last year’s award-winning Canadian success for her ‘Animism’ album, she’s pitched to continue making breakthroughs on her own terms.

‘Uja’ confirms this. A trailer single for a broader overseas release of ‘Animism’, it has something in common with previous deeply-involved folktronic endeavours such as or Foxout! and Mouth Music. It might mate and merge with electronic beats in longstanding worldbeat fashion, but rather than pandering to easy tastes it’s a stirring textural affair, deliberately pitched between ritual and pounding. It feels like an Arctic club night with all of the technology freezing round the edges and only kept functional by fierce body-warmth.

Log-clock ticks, harsh electronic reverb, and a ragged fabric of synth-noise and incisive drumming make up a base and a blanket. Over, under and around this Tanya works in multiple layers of percussive hum-grunts, drawls, gasps, seal barks and harmonic growls. Occasional shamanic interjections in Inuit (sliding in over the top like a wake-up call filtering through sleep) might be terse warnings, defiant fuck-you statements or camouflaged jokes at the expense of Anglo monolinguals. With Tanya being an assertively political artists and performer, they could be any or all. If I’m the butt of the joke, though, I can take it this time. ‘Uja’ made the blood jump in my feet and in my temples.

Giles Babel: ‘2015’
Hunchbakk (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’
Shot of Hornets (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’
Heylel (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single (released 7th January 2015)

Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’
Dirty Hit Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download-only single (released 9th January 2015)

Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’
Six Shooter Records (no barcode or catalogue number
Stream-only single (released 6th January 2015)

Get them from:
Giles Babel: ‘2015’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’ – Bandcamp or iTunes (as part of ‘Nebulae’ album)
Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’ – Soundcloud stream or iTunes (as part of ‘We Slept At Last’ album)
Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’ – Youtube stream; or Six Shooter Records store or iTunes (as part of ‘Animism’ album)

Giles Babel/Hunchbakk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp

Shot of Hornets online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Heylel online:
Homepage Facebook Bandcamp YouTube

Marika Hackman online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

Tanya Tagaq online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

May 2014 – through the feed – Tim Bowness/Stars In Battledress pre-orders

9 May

News on two long-awaited second albums, both now available for pre-order.

(Brief rant first. Up until now ‘Misfit City’ has avoided reproducing or paraphrasing current news releases, apart from the odd crowdfunding mention. Too many music blogs are rolling shills, just throwing out links and one or two lines of PR blurb – fine if you only want a quick squirt of info, but I prefer to provide something to read and reflect on. Now I’m relaxing my stance: partly because release schedules are moving too fast for me to keep up with them properly, and also because ‘Misfit City’ readers probably appreciate the opportunity to pursue a few things on their own. Hence this first “through the feed” post, passing on and personalising info on promising upcoming releases or events which I’ve heard about. This will flesh out the City’s posting schedules and also allow me to indulge myself as pure enthusiast, minus the more sober and serious responsibilities that come with in-depth reviewing. Having unbent myself a little, I’ve found I’m enjoying it. Wheedling rant over. Now…)

Tim Bowness: 'Abandoned Dancehall Dreams'

Tim Bowness: ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’

On 23rd June, Tim Bowness releases ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ on Inside Out Music. I know I wasn’t alone in hoping for Tim to release a new no-man album this year, but thanks to bandmate Steven Wilson’s ongoing commitments to his own solo career, we get this as an alternative: a might-have-been no-man album reworked as a Bowness solo effort. The album features contributions from the no-man live band (including Darkroom‘s Mike Bearpark and Henry Fool‘s Stephen Bennett) plus a scatter of interesting guest players (King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto, Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin, Anna Phoebe from Trans-Siberian Orchestra, composer/string arranger Andrew Keeling).

Those who’ll still miss the presence of Steven Wilson can console themselves by the fact that he’s done the album mix, but it’s always worth pointing out that no-man is an equal partnership for a very good reason – and that Tim’s work outside no-man during the band’s lengthy absences over the past decade has flowered into much broader areas and accomplishments. For ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’, expect plenty of violins, choirs, an edgy croon and some immediate art-rock songs which should effortlessly combine the wracked, the sleek and a very English blend of wryness and longing. One song, The Warm-Up Man Forever, was premiered as a highlight of the no-man tour back in 2012.

A download version comes later, but as regards the solid options the usual Burning Shed boutique format options apply for the pre-order. For turntable worshippers, there’s not only a vinyl version but also a very limited white vinyl edition, both of which come with a free CD version. For musical completists and sleeve-note fans, the double CD version comes with alternate/outtake versions plus remixes by Richard Barbieri, UXB and Grasscut, as well as a nice fat 16-page essay booklet (of the kind I used to write, once upon a time). Sweet. Some live dates follow in July, featuring members of the erstwhile Bowness band, the no-man live band, and Henry Fool (all of whom appear to have morphed together into an overlapping art-rock amoeba). Loop-guitar thresher Matt Stevens and silky Italian art-rockers Nosound appear as support at some dates.

Stars In Battledress: 'In Droplet Form'

Stars In Battledress: ‘In Droplet Form’

The week before that, on June 16th, sibling duo James and Richard Larcombe – a.k.a Stars In Battledress – release their own second album ‘In Droplet Form’ on Believers Roast. Their debut album was one of 2003’s hidden, intricate gems – a marvellous multi-levelled faux-antique toybox of sepia-ed wit, sophisticated arrangements, sly poetry and clambering harmony. Fans of Neil Hannon, Robert Wyatt, Stephen Merritt and Cyril Tawney should all have had a field day with it, but for a variety of reasons, it remained hidden. (I’m sure that my own wretched inability to complete a review at the time didn’t help…)

Since then Stars In Battledress have only reappeared sporadically, although the brothers have kept busy both separately and together. Both have worked as ensemble members of North Sea Radio Orchestra and of William D. Drake & Friends: James has played keyboards in Arch Garrison and Zag & The Coloured Beads; Richard has kept himself busy with his Sparkysongs project for children, no less of a challenge than keeping cranky art-rock fans happy. Yet absolutely nothing else that the Larcombes do can top the particular magic they cook up when they’re together and completely in control of their own songs.

With an eleven year gap between albums, some of these songs have been around for quite a while. The romping wit of Hollywood Says So, the rambling melodic spikes of Fluent English (an oblique essay on rebellion, Empire, personal misplacement and embarrassment) and the haunting cadences of The Women From The Ministry – all of these were highlights of Battledress sets back in the early Noughties, so it’s lovely to finally have them arriving in recorded form. If you want some idea of what Stars In Battledress are like live, here’s a review of them at Roastfest in 2011. As a taster for the new album, here’s their video for the opening track A Winning Decree (directed by Ashley Jones of Chaos Engineers).

‘In Droplet Form’ is a CD-only release for now, and can be pre-ordered here, with a London album launch (also featuring Arch Garrison and Prescott) downstairs at the Roundhouse on April 13th.

Also in June, the Laura Moody debut album should be appearing. I’m really looking forward to that one too.

Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

October 2000 – album reissue reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Lizard’ & ‘Islands’ 30th anniversary reissues (“some of their most surprising – yet most neglected – music”)

7 Oct

From 1970 to 1972, King Crimson existed as a kind of invalid’s cats-cradle between its two ideas men (guitarist/composer Robert Fripp and lyricist/lights man/presentation polymath Peter Sinfield), with one faithful and exceptionally talented sax’n’flute player (Mel Collins) hanging on philosophically to the bouncing threads.

Perhaps it was a comedown for the band who, only a couple of years previously, had single-handedly redefined British rock music and almost stolen Hyde Park from the Rolling Stones in concert. However, this was still a time when they produced prolifically. Matters weren’t helped by internal conflict and a regular turnover of personnel (lead singers in particular). But despite having already lost key members to ELP (magisterial manchild singer Greg Lake), the sessions world (dazzling but personally wayward drummer Michael Giles) and Foreigner (composer and jack-of-all-instruments Ian McDonald, though strictly speaking he wouldn’t help form the AOR collossi for another few years yet), Crimson soldiered on. And, in the process, came up with some of their most surprising – yet most neglected – music.

King Crimson: 'Lizard'

King Crimson: ‘Lizard’

Psychologically, ‘Lizard’ has always felt like the oddest King Crimson album. Hurtling out at the tail-end of 1970 (less than a year after ‘In the Wake of Poseidon‘) and with a shroud of silence surrounding its making, it’s like a black hole in King Crimson’s history. No-one involved in the making of ‘Lizard’ seems to talk about it much. The fact that the band started recordings with a brand new vocal/rhythm section (singing bassist Gordon Haskell from Fleur De Lys and ex-Manfred Mann drummer Andy McCulloch), and ended the sessions with both men shot out of the saddle and vanishing before even playing a note onstage, has given the album’s reputation more than a tinge of sulphur and daggers drawn. Haskell still doesn’t talk to Fripp, and his contributions have been ostentatiously removed from Crimson compilations ever since. Silent prickles. Ooh, nasty.

The new remaster provides few clues to the musical politics behind ‘Lizard’, but does throw its obsessive ambition into sharp relief. It’s a remarkable record – the most panoramic thing Robert Fripp ever attempted until he blew up ambient music with his Soundscapes twenty years later. And it’s also the most anti-rock record he’s released to this day; as far from being a “band” album as this particular Crimson were from being a live band.

The music comes in floods of cryptic decoration, riding on the back of Fripp’s dark and abrasive chordal imagination. Both leaders are on intriguingly different form: Fripp mostly leaving his Les Paul untouched and playing devilishly tricky acoustic guitar, Sinfield throwing away most of his clotted Gothic lyric totems in favour of shifting psychedelic parlour tricks. But pride of place goes to semi-detached piano player Keith Tippett, a jazz guerilla who constantly refused Fripp’s offers of joint musical leadership of King Crimson but (for ‘Lizard’, anyhow) seems to have taken it on anyway.


 
Fripp had produced and played with Tippett’s band Centipede; and the jazzer returns the favour in full measure here, bringing along oboe player Robin Millar, trombonist Nick Evans and cornet player Mark Charig (all reknowned for Soft Machine contributions) to join Mel Collins and himself in expanding King Crimson’s musical voicings. Consequently ‘Lizard’ jangles and loons with a bright, big-band free-jazz sound as the horn section and Tippett’s fulsomely unpredictable pianos joust with Fripp’s gargantuan Mellotron sounds and the blooping cartoon synthesizers. Certain songs – Happy Family in particular, seem to abandon the rigorous Crimson discipline altogether and worry themselves to bits, with Tippett keeping a relaxed but steady grip on the anarchic play.


 
Peter Sinfield, for his part, stays in an almost domestic realm for the first half of the album. His lyric for the perky Indoor Games is a bizarre Bunuel-meets-Doctor-Seuss poke at the pretentions of bourgeois bohemians, his protagonist barely keeping himself afloat in the showy menagerie of his household. The Cirkus which opens the album is reached in a dream-voyage, a gaudy cruel entertainment which immediately succumbs to stampede and peril. Happy Family is one of the acts which could’ve been performed there – an impossibly tortuous metaphorical tribute to the sorry end of The Beatles. Throughout, Tippett tops every surreal word-twist with another kink in his piano playing.


 
Tippett, in fact, is far more at home than half of the official Crimsons. Gordon Haskell’s a great bluesy singer; but while sunk in this whirling confection of oboes and exploding pianos, drowning in Sinfield’s crossword puzzle wordplay, he struggles even to be heard (let alone draw meaning out of the songs). Andy McCulloch copes better with music that requires him to jump between drum approaches from jazz hiss to orchestral percussion and military rattle. Still, you can almost hear him furrowing his brow and wondering what the hell all this has got to do with headlining the Marquee Club.


 
Poor old Haskell – a good guy in a bad position – gets some respite on Lady of the Dancing Waters where they give him a wistful tune with a trombone and a little English clearing to serenade in… only for him to be upstaged by the beautifully husky choirboy vocals of Yes singer Jon Anderson for the next song. At the conclusion of Indoor Games he unleashes one of the most fascinating laughs in rock history – a demented, yelping hiccup of crazed, fearful mirth which the engineer picks up and slaps back and forth across the speakers. It’s all in keeping with the chamber-jazz-on-laughing-gas feel of ‘Lizard’. But it also sounds like a helplessly honest reaction to the horribly sinister undercurrent beneath the playfulness – the oily black saw of Mellotron, the thousand little knives in Fripp’s clean cross-picking and Tippett’s electric piano jabs.

The second half – the Lizard suite itself – is King Crimson’s most ambitious conception up until that point, in which chamber symphonics and iconic mediaeval imagery return to the band’s music again. Prince Rupert Awakes opens the suite with a tragic cryptic ballad: a heraldic Anderson singing over Tippett’s rippling piano, tension intruding from the wind-chimes which ripple the surface of the beauty and from the deliberately discordant Mellotron which flicks ghastly shadows across the daylight.

Although Sinfield’s overcooked poetry is almost impenetrable, there’s substance here. Near-suffocated beneath rococo imagery of temple wax, peacocks and “tarnished devil’s spoons” is a small saga of civilisations clashing in a profitless war. Rather than a tale of heroism, it represents the fear, frenzied mood swings and devastation that war visits on human beings. Bolero (anchored on McCulloch’s half-march/half-dance drumming) starts with a long, lyrically sad oboe line bidding farewell to peace, but soon moves into a jagged desperate revelry, the partying before the fight. Slurring, drunken trombone and sax grab the oboe theme and o roaring off with it as Tippett’s piano becomes steadily more impressionistic and jumpy and Fripp’s Mellotron infuses an uneasy, compromised warmth.


 
Dawn Song is the morning after: Haskell sings softly and haltingly, to sparse piano and oboe, of broken ploughs and spokeless wheels, and of soldiers “burnt with dream and taut with fear” waiting for the inevitable reckoning of spears and armour. Which duly arrives in Last Skirmish with brutally knotted jazz snare and more typically Frippish minor key riffs, stately and dark – initially on Mellotron, then taken up by harsh baritone sax with a petrified overblown flute dipping and waving above. As battle commences in earnest, bluesier saxes and an enraged elephantine trombone wail alongside a resurgent Fripp guitar and Tippett’s increasingly shattered piano attack.

In the background, Fripp jacks up an initially sweet and civilised Mellotron string part until the pitch is tortured beyond endurance. Then there’s a brief respite (glimmering lucid guitar and distant rills of piano) before the sound of a hue and cry, galloping brass and hunting horn clamour in the most frantic moment yet. Finally, Prince Rupert’s Lament, the wreckage of bodies and hopes on the battlefield afterwards. A tolling bass ostinato, exhausted kettle drum rolls and a distant bagpipe shriek of Fripp guitar, utterly bereft and angry. ‘Lizard’ is over.

Abstract, absurdist and oblique it may be, but if you avoid involving yourself too literally in Sinfield’s wordplay and just allow the music to speak into you, ‘Lizard’ is an album which has plenty to offer. The game-playing cast of its music only adds to its power, puncturing prog pomposity and adding new dimensions of conceptual menace which the band had never previously achieved. At times, it’s like observing a particularly venomous orgy.

As the last part of ‘Lizard’ fades away, Big Top careens out of the silence – a quease-inducing carousel of circus music in which the pitch spirals further up and out of control than ever before, snagging the ensemble players like a Kansas tornado and dragging them off into the unknown skies, still squiggling out treacherous silvery worms of music.

King Crimson: 'Islands'

King Crimson: ‘Islands’

Although the ever-underrated ‘Lizard’ now jumps out of the speakers with renewed animation and significance, the real rediscovery from King Crimson’s current reissue phase is 1971’s ‘Islands’.
Long-unavailable on CD, this album was recorded by those Crimsoneers who’d survived the latest falling out (Sinfield, Collins and Fripp) with two new full-time recruits – Boz Burrell and Ian Wallace.

The new boys were grounded in rootsy jazz and rhythm’n’blues. Boz, in particular, seems antithetical to the perceived Way Of Crimson – a brash and commanding singer with scatting tendencies, and perhaps suspicious of Crimson’s grand designs as hatched on prog touchstone ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and further honed on ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ and the formal dementia of ‘Lizard’.

In spite of this, ‘Islands’ is the King Crimson album that’s furthest from the roots heartlands. There is one exception – Ladies of the Road, in which Sinfield turns in a salacious lyric of international groupie action that allows the band to engage in their dirtiest and most gleeful playing ever. Collins roars boozily on dick-grabbing tenor sax; Fripp plays as if his guitar’s strung with Mississippi baling wire and slams down some gloriously sloppy, sleazy little solos; and Boz revels in the rampant bluesy shouting. Even the flute and the fragrant Paul McCartney harmonies in the chorus can’t shake the sweat off this one.

 
It’s certainly a sharp contrast to The Letters. This is the album’s main sticking point, with aggressively stilted music rescued from Crimson’s early days and a lyric of pure antiquated Jacobean melodrama (poison pens, adultery, madness and suicide) in which sex is the engine of betrayal and degradation.

However, neither of these pieces fairly represent the unprecedented warmth and clarity of intent on ‘Islands’. If the preceding ‘Lizard’ was perhaps Tippett and Sinfield’s album – liberally dusted with the excitement and lawlessness of free jazz and untrammeled purple poetry – ‘Islands’ is most definitely Fripp’s, its scope narrowed down with superb clarity. It’s King Crimson’s simplest album by far, one in which the tunes and the placing of changes and instruments are far more important than complexity or the thrill of clash.

Several ‘Lizard’ buddies – jazz pianist Keith Tippett, Marc Charig on cornet and Robin Millar on oboe – are all along for the album sessions, and ‘Islands’ is also suffused with the warmth, light and mesmeric relaxing qualities of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, inspired by Sinfield’s travelling. After the demented rush of ‘Lizard’ it’s a much more contemplative work, with Tippett returning to a reflective supporting role and with that Crimson intensity redirected towards knowledge and timing instead of flamboyant theatre. Formentera Lady (introduced by fluttering flute, romantic swirls of piano and the deep bowed chording of Harry Miller’s double bass) sees Sinfield “shadowed by a dragon fig tree’s fan, /rRinged by ants and musing over man”, and that’s to be the central flavour of the album.


 
Ian Wallace was the perfect drummer for this music – well aware of the jazz and rock heat needed for the Crimson repertoire, but equally capable of the delicate timekeeping needed for the gentler pace of the new material. Formentera Lady ticks along on his hushed bass drum and cymbals, his trickles of wind chime and seed-pod percussion, and Boz’s gentle two-note bass riff. And whatever Boz’s feelings for the material might have been (he’s the prime suspect for having described much of ‘Islands’ as “airy-fairy shit”) he sings Sinfield’s contented landlocked reveries in a nostalgic, light tenor with a surprisingly humble and innocent charm. The gentle pulse of Fripp’s supportive acoustic guitar arrives four-and-a-half minutes in. Greek strings hum in trapezoidal shapes, and when King Crimson’s first familiar slip into the texture of legend arrives it happens seamlessly, cued by “here Odysseus charmed for dark Circe fell”, when guest soprano Paulina Lucas opens her throat for prolonged eerie siren singing, merging with Collins’s explorations on tenor sax.

Equally seamlessly, it gives way – on the rising heat of Wallace’s ride cymbal – to Sailor’s Tale, Fripp’s musical portrait of Odysseus’ doomed navigation between the parallel forces of destruction, Scylla and Charybdis. If Formentera Lady is King Crimson entranced in siesta time, Sailor’s Tale is a slow awakening to peril. Not the Gothic nightmares that the band used to specialise in. This time, what’s central to the piece’s power is the sheer excitement it generates.

Fripp and Collins (the former back on his rich drone of overdriven guitar) play prolonged horn notes off each other above Wallace’s rapid triple-time jazz pulse, reaching a peak at which they split off and howl their own paths – Collins squalling like Ayler or Coltrane, while Fripp prepares to deliver the most colossally dirty solo of his career. Played on a shattering echo like a deranged banjo, it passes through a maelstrom crescendo of hellish Mellotron and frantic cymballing out into free space, disintegrates spectacularly and falls into nothingness. Only the dark primeval bass of Sinfield’s prolonged oceanic synthesizer chords to witness its passing. The hairs don’t settle on the back of the neck for a good few minutes.


 
The rest of the album returns to the sun- and sea-warmed peace of Formentera Lady. The Song of the Gulls prelude is a small Fripp-written study for Robin Millar’s oboe and polite strings: no more than a serene intro to the album’s title-track finale, bridging the huge stylistic gap between Ladies of the Road and the final resolution of Sinfield’s escape. Islands itself is a subtle compositional triumph: King Crimson’s own miniature ‘Sketches of Spain’, finally proving that they can sustain a gentle and nourishing rhapsody without tweeness or needing to pounce back into violence. Wallace is almost invisible but for a few lightly brushed cymbals, letting Collins’s miraculously tender bass flute and Tippett’s delicately shaded Bill Evans-ish piano set the atmosphere. Fripp abandons guitar altogether to quietly pump a small harmonium (you can hear his feet patiently working the pedals).

Boz sings alone and unaffected, again displaying a surprising empathy for Sinfield’s lyric of separateness yielding to inclusion over time – “grain after grain love erodes / the high weathered walls which fend off the tide… / Equal in love, bound in circles. / Earth stream and tree return to the sea. / Waves sweep the sand from my island, / from me.” Mark Charig’s jazzy, sleepy cornet plays a crucial part, taking up the melody and soaking it in acceptance and the weary joy of homecoming, before a softly swelling finale where sedate and harmonious Mellotron strings lift the ensemble to resolution. “Beneath the wind turned wave, / infinite peace. / Islands join hands / ‘neath heaven’s sea.”


 
But for a brief hidden track (in which we hear a burst of studio tune-ups and Fripp’s soft Dorset burr patiently instructing the oboe and string players) that’s the end. Incidentally, it was also the end of King Crimson’s “grand design” phase. The core five-piece would briefly tour and squabble (with Peter Sinfield’s departure forever closing the early Crimson songbook) and the rootsy bar-band which lurked in the ‘Islands’ line-up would then honk its way across the States, jettisoning all the Debussy and fragrance of the album as it went.

It would all end in tooth-sucking enmity and anger, with everyone but Fripp abandoning King Crimson in favour of rhythm’n’blues. Boz would even end up thumping bass for Bad Company, which evidently pleased him musically and financially but seems a sorry waste of talent after his showing on ‘Islands’. The next time that Fripp surfaced, he’d be leading a far louder, far more cryptic improvisatory band, which would immediately overshadow his work here. This period of King Crimson’s existence is always outshone by the horns and flurries of the band’s debut years, by the bold and bitter brute minimalism of ‘Red’, by the stalking menace of the European improv years or the poppy art-rock of their New Wave era.

But both ‘Islands’ and its companion ‘Lizard’ – two of the most unusual to emerge from the body of rock – contain some of King Crimson’s best-planned, best executed and most intricately beautiful work, with a unified conceptual scope the bands would never really match again. These reissues bring that buried treasure back to light, revealing an exciting early ’70s meeting point between musical forms that’s been poorly served by an increasing suspect official history. It’s time to put it back on the chart. If more of today’s bands had the same open-minded determination – stumbles and all – that King Crimson exhibit here, we’d be better served ourselves.

King Crimson: ‘Lizard’
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX3 (7243 8 48947 2 6)
King Crimson: ‘Islands’
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX4 (7243 8 48949 2 4 )
CD-only reissue albums
Released:
4th October 2000
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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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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May 1997 – live album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’ (” maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak”)

10 May

King Crimson: 'Epitaph: Live in 1969'

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’

With guitarist Robert Fripp as the only constant factor (he once memorably described himself as not so much the leader as “a kind of glue”), King Crimson have negotiated the peaks and troughs of a three-decade career in rock music and at least six distinct and differing incarnations. In the process, they’ve become one of those bands carrying a distinctly hazy reputation.

Where to place them? Not with the evergreen Beatles, Stones or Byrds; or with the narcotic, perversely cynical tradition of the Velvet Underground. Not in punk’s vigorous righteousness, or New Wave’s beat-smarts; or in the ever-credible European avant-rock field. Not even in old-school retro-rock (you won’t find Oasis ripping off one of their riffs). Outside of the healthy Crimson cult, the 1994 description in an LA newssheet (“prog-rock pond scum, set to bum you out”) seems to sum up the rough consensus. To many, King Crimson are and always will be one of the dinosaurs, if not the rotten egg that spawned the whole prog-rock movement. They’re pretentious, ludicrous, and sexless Mellotron fondlers; or they’re just a little too damn strange and perverse, winning your friendship only to kick you in the shins the next moment. Or they just don’t fit onto your party tape. Whatever.

‘Epitaph’ spearheads the series of archive live recordings which are just starting to sluice down the conduit of Fripp’s self-propelled record company (Discipline Global Mobile), each accompanied by the oft-prickly but ever-passionate guitarist’s commentary on the time, place and ethics of Crimson activity. Fripp’s hopes are obviously set on a fairer deal from history, or at least on providing a chance to reassess King Crimson in all of its painfully evolving forms.

His rogue-academic sleevenotes – witty and painstaking, pedantic and enlightening – might play a big part in reinstating this hidden legacy; but the superb “digital necromancy” of DGM engineer David Singleton is equally vital. On ‘Epitaph’, entrusted with the oldest and most variable Crimson live recordings, Singleton has spliced incomplete recording reels together to recreate concerts; wrestled listenable (even impressive) live sound from crumbling BBC master reels; and coaxed atmosphere and clarity from second-generation sound-desk recordings, unwanted overdubs, even crappy home recordings from interference-dogged radio broadcast.

But beyond the Frippertations, and even with the static and the eccentric degrees of muffling, ‘Epitaph’ is a welcome display of the power of the very first King Crimson. This is the band which bowled over Jimi Hendrix, who once approached Fripp saying “shake my left hand, man: it’s closer to my heart.” This is also the group who recorded 1969’s pivotal ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, then gouged a magnificent trail of dates across Britain and America before fissioning at the end of the year. A band which original frontman Greg Lake still describes as being “without fear.” Perhaps it was the briefly-potent whiff of Faerie which fluttered around English psychedelia at the time, but King Crimson felt itself pervaded by something extraordinary and supernatural (which the members jokingly referred to as “the good fairy”). Of the five original Crims, only Fripp has subsequently regained the same artistic heights which he did here. Yet even he considers this version of the band to be particularly special, embodying a time when “music leant over and took us into its confidence.”

It’s certainly true that on ‘Epitaph’ King Crimson seems to be drawing from something beyond its members. Those mousy young English boys making shyly urbane stage announcements are also those inspired, demonic note-hammerers who are deforming your speakers by brute force. Racking rock’s power up several notches beyond any previous record, King Crimson swarmed like warrior ants through careering unison choruses and stabbing staccato assaults. Here you’ll hear pastoral flute pieces and folk ballads juxtaposed with brain-curdling electrics, jazz effects that scurry from lounge-y hokeyness to bebop and free-fired whiteouts. You’ll also hear the sound of Wagner and Bartok being wrung dry. Unlike many subsequent prog outings, King Crimson provided the feeling that, rather than being cuddled up to, classical music’s cage was being rattled until it screamed.


 
Fripp’s guitar playing is the closest thing that King Crimson have ever had to a trademark sound. Here, though, it’s merely part of the ensemble – it was an approach which was applied far more to underpinning the band’s hefty array of textures and sonics than to taking on the guru trappings it would later assume. And it was up against formidable, if beneficial, competition. Yet to become the self-satisfied face of ELP, a pre-pomp Greg Lake was already achieving a career best. Michael Giles was providing an object lesson in how to drum with subtle, taut complexity and economy rather than bombast, yet simultaneously make yourself unmissable.

Seen from the here and now, the overwhelming musicality of Ian McDonald is a particular shock. A few years later he’d be reduced to providing Foreigner with a horribly diluted version of Crimson’s hybrid sounds, but here he’s untouchable. His robotic Mellotron orchestras were a benchmark in violent grandeur – as structurally stressed and queasy as sailing ships, and played with demented intensity. Hearing him stabbing and slamming the ‘Tron into an inferno of junked but coherent string-death noise on Mars is little short of a revelation. As are the moments when he leads the band on a blazing, wailing saxophone that strained towards Albert Ayler’s fierce free jazz rather than British dance-bands or pirated Stax records.

Off in the wings, Peter Sinfield is the silent participant here – only audible in the odd buzz (since his then-revolutionary stage lights also affected the speakers). However, he was also present in the ornamental lyrics which – even at their most floridly Victorian and romantic – got to grips with the contradictions implied in the music and in the civilisation of its time.


 
The four BBC radio session recordings display a group already far more ambitious than even the ’60s norm – maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak – and a good deal more haunted in outlook. 21st Century Schizoid Man is still one of the most calculatedly vicious pop songs ever – a ‘Mad Max’ duelling-car of a piece, studded with flails, razor blades and serpentine instrumentation – and one of the notable occasions on which Sinfield’s flamboyant verbosity hit the mark on every line. The inflated stateliness of In the Court of the Crimson King’s title track, soaked in mediaeval imagery (jesters, witches and all), may well have given the green light to every sub-Gothic fantasy that would blight prog during the ’70s. But here it still looms sad, bad, blood-soaked and as steeped in pitiless history as the Tower of London – a heavy, tattered tapestry of the creeping and destructive blights that come with civilisation. Lake delivers it with a wounded and disaffected majesty.


 
For all their pomp and ceremony, their purple filters, King Crimson were as political as any of their contemporaries. It seems odd to hear a group featuring the notoriously abstemious Fripp singing “let’s all get stoned” on their unexpected, woozy but ballsy cover of Donovan’s Get Thy Bearings. But Crimson – a band with strong working-class roots, despite the bourgeois tag prog-rock was to be lumbered with by punk revisionists – identified themselves far more with the ’60s counter-culture (drugs notwithstanding) than they did with the establishment. On one concert recording, Fripp pointedly dedicates Schizoid Man to Spiro Agnew. The shadows of Altamont’s rude awakening, Vietnam’s ongoing barbarities, and the precarious threat to a future Utopia are all present in the bleak scary screech of the band’s wilder moments and in the epic mourning of their ballads. Of which Epitaph itself takes the crown – ageless, with Fripp’s watchful guitars rolling out acoustic swathes and quietly brimming electric tears, Mellotrons sweeping across like opera house curtains, and Lake singing with trepidation into the face of an uncertain future.


 
The concert recordings stem from that first, final, fatal American tour, including the ’69 Crimson’s last bow in its entirety (the concerts at San Francisco’s Filmore West just before both McDonald and Giles quit). As expected, magnificent string-drenched versions of Epitaph and a couple of overwhelming breakneck runthroughs of Schizoid Man rear their heads; but you also get earlier, raw versions of evolving new material.


 
Drop In is a version of The Letters (the Jacobean nightmare from ‘Islands‘) with a different lyric. But the violent emotional sentiments remain the same – the form is lazy bluesy pop, the words are typically detached, sardonic Crimson menace. “Why don’t you just drop in, / and let the game begin? / You wished you’d learned to play, / and lived to die another day. / The rules you pick and you choose. / The odds are stacked for you to lose.” The music has a far nastier focus. Chopped and diced, riff-stamping, the sneer of McDonald’s deadly tenor sax and Giles’ explosive, spasmodic bop drums bring it closer to the level of a Coltrane scream.


 
A Man, a City would later evolve into Pictures of a City. Here, you can hear King Crimson attempting to blend New York’s pitiless industry with a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare, via a lurching Gothically-proportioned snarl of R’n’B sax riffs and metal-tearing guitar. On the road, their painstakingly written rock texts were transformed by interpretation and improvisation (from McDonald and Giles in particular). Though the results were inescapably lofty and English – and also rigidly stark – they make an interesting parallel to the electrified jazz-scapes Miles Davis and Tony Williams were pursuing on ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Lifetime’, or which John McLaughlin had already carved into for ‘Extrapolation’.


 
At Filmore West, in the home of the hippy movement, King Crimson opened up with In the Court of the Crimson King, lacing English roses into Haight-Ashbury hair. Typically, this was a sly and malevolent seduction to soften them up for the full Schizoid onslaught. Perhaps as an adjunct to this, Crimson also showed more of their softer, more fragrant side. Travel Weary Capricorn was one of their few moments of hippyish peace: a fragment of boppy Traffic-y pop, with Lake almost scatting and McDonald’s blissy jazz flute darting and scurrying like Herbie Mann over the band’s deconstructing, half-melted bluesiness.


 
Although Mantra shows its age (pleasant kaftan-y stuff with, admittedly, some ravishing flute solos – bits of it would later show up on Exiles), Travel Bleary Capricorn has them accidentally anticipating the post-modern dissections of the ’90s as they turn, briefly, into an improvising lounge act. Spanish guitar wobbles while McDonald pisses about on the Mellotron presets (cheesy piano and lounge rhythms), as King Crimson pay a quizzical visit back to their hideous apprenticeships in hotel dance groups, army bands and cabaret backings. Right from the start, Fripp’s humour was always a tad elliptical, and his glimpses into a future of “chance and hazard” are often surprising in retrospect.

But what you’ll remember most is the head-crunching power and violence in their improv treatments of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’. Each version builds from a gentle bass and drum throb, with McDonald unwinding the harmonies out of the dark, bloodied guts of a Mellotron. Growing ever more loud, staccato and harsh, the theme is psychotically smacked against the back wall; and ends up in blistering ray-gun effects over the stabbing, splintering, deafening unison riffs – the first sighting of thrash-classical. You can hear the seeds of math-rock, Mogwai/Slint crunch, and Foetus-style orchestral-industrial here; and The Young Gods clearly owe Crimson everything.


 
What must those stoned California hippies have made of it, with their storybook pictures of England? It must have been like being stomped into the ground by a full-armour cavalry charge, just when you were expecting Maid Marion to give you an apple. Listen back to Crimson’s second, post-split album ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’, and you can catch a persistent flutter of Frippish hands clutching at the memories of that jaw-dropping tour.

Some music takes years to fade. For all its baroque bloodiness, this still sounds freshly minted. A remarkable rediscovery.

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9607A (5 028676 900252)
CD-only double live album
Released:
6th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
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