Tag Archives: Robert Fripp

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.
 

October 2012 – album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘Faith in Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from B. J. Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”) while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
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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.
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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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

April 1998 – album reviews – Bass Communion’s ‘Bass Communion’ (“things flirt round the edges of familiarity”)

29 Apr

Bass Communion: 'Bass Communion' ('Bass Communion I')

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)

The potential for making noise, making our own personalised sound via brain, limb or breath, has always been with us. In the sampler age – where you can trap any sound in a digital jar and then play musical Darwin with it – the option range has hurtled up several levels in the space of half a generation, and the serious sound addict can now personalise any noise no matter who or what the source.

Which brings us to Bass Communion, the latest brainchild of studio wizard Steven Wilson. As if he weren’t busy enough psych-rocking with Porcupine Tree, cult- popping with No-Man, or working out his Kraut/post-rock urges with The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. Let’s face it, few people are better qualified as a sound-addict.

Bass Communion (no thumpin’, pumpin’ house-music project, despite the suspicious name) is Wilson’s most direct attempt to date at riding this addiction. It’s also his most cryptic and esoteric, in which he rejects his usual battery of synthesizers in favour of the use of sounds “sampled, looped, transposed, layered, filtered, and processed into infinity” via electronic circuitry and sampler exploration. Wilson permits himself occasional real instruments (such as the skinny, echoing Bark Psychosis-style guitar on Drugged), but they sort of stand off to one side, like nervous uncles at parties. This isn’t really their show. For those who only skim the surface of Steven Wilson via the odd No-Man phuture-pop single, or hear the odd Porkies guitar blowout and maybe damn him as a wannabe Dave Gilmour, Bass Communion will come as a beautifully disorientating shock. This music shares secluded room-space with the work of Aphex Twin, Muslimgauze, Oval or Paul Schutze.

It might be a logical extension of Porcupine Tree’s ambient atmospherics or No-Man’s avant-garde leanings, but it’s also a giant leap of pure faith. There are no tunes, cheesy or otherwise. At all. And no attempts to please – there’s no equivalent to Aphex’s Come to Daddy on ‘Bass Communion’. Melodies, if they happen, seem to evolve almost by accident. Harmony is something that occurs occasionally when patterns coincide, rather than something that’s held to. Things flirt round the edges of familiarity, repeat and loop, but don’t so much hold the attention as massage it. When in doubt, it stays quiet. Actually, it’s always in doubt and always quiet, but never entirely at a loss about where to go. Bass Communion is profoundly experimental, but Wilson’s sharp, pop-attuned ear ensures that at least it never paints itself into a corner.


 
Shopping, the opener, deflects digital coldness from the off via its crackle and fluff of sampled vinyl noise: quiet, but almost drowning out the amnesiac wafts of melody which float, with disassociated loveliness, off to one side of the listening ear. They come in, they go; a wobbly snatch of Bach jumps out at you, trips over, cuts out. From then on, you’re on your own in Bass Communion’s subtly surreal electronic world.


 
Orphan Coal sounds like night in an abandoned telephone exchange. A clattering can drum pulses its elliptical way around and around. Echoing blips of voice trail after it – a hiccup in the system – and tones flicker irregularly like monitoring lights, going from ice to feather-stroke in seconds. Sheens of sound arch in ghostly fashion overhead: at peace, but disturbing yours. You almost expect HAL 9000 to be keeping a watchful red eye on it all. In which case the slow flood of Sleep Etc. is the digital limbo after the plugs are pulled and the lobotomy comes down, sending tides of electronic fluid trickling across the speakers, rising and implying a slow suffocation. Leafy rustles and long low scraping whale-like groans overlap deep subterranean booms and lost dizzy ringing sounds. Somewhere back in there there are hints of double basses, Rhodes pianos, and Mexican percussion – it could, conceivably, have started off as Wilson chopping up something like Weather Report and reducing it to sonic pulp for a new recipe. Whatever the source, now it sounds like icebergs having prolonged nightmares.


 
With all the experimentation going on, it’s almost a shame to admit that it’s the two versions of Drugged – apparently the first parts of an evolving sound series – that hit the spot best. How to define them? As “not-duets”, probably. Collaborations with live musicians that aren’t live, aren’t jams, weren’t composed, yet still sound like immediate and co-operative performances even though they’re manipulated and mutated bits of taped sound sent through Wilson’s cloud chamber. The effect is eerie: you feel that if you lent Steven Wilson your soul, he’d hand it back to you within days polished, cleaned and reconditioned, and with a few welcome surprises in the pockets.


 
On the first Drugged, Theo Travis‘ plaintive soprano saxophone replicates and proliferates, dozens of birdsinging reeds fluttering and fading over the warm upholstery of reverently pastoral organ chords. His playing is the most directly human and emotive on the record, yet here he sounds as if his personality is being melted down even as he makes his mark. There’s somehow something of the swan-song to what he’s doing, as if he and Wilson were carrying out a voluntary, luxuriant suicide pact.


 
The second Drugged, featuring the celestial guitar Soundscapes of Robert Fripp, is an especially inspired bit of audio piracy: a close cousin to the similar and marvellous Born Simple from No-Man’s ‘Flowermix’. Seven seconds of Fripp lifted from an old No-Man source tape, then refracted through Wilsonian concepts and gizmos for twenty-five minutes of protracted, blissful imagination. Frippophiles might notice that it equals about any genuine Soundscape they care to name: everyone else will be up with Steve ‘n’ Bob, nuzzling the starry skies.

A deep-down indulgence well worth sharing. Filter me another one, bass-boy.

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 036CD (Barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
April 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Bandcamp, Burning Shed or Amazon
Bass Communion:
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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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May 1996 – EP reviews – No-Man’s ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ (“turning away from the light to embroil themselves in a polluted twilight”)

30 May

No-Man: 'Housewives Hooked on Heroin' EP

No-Man: ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ EP

Mumsy cover art, titillating tabloid title and five tracks of wilful wrongfooting? For their first new material in two years, No-Man are not relying on the comforts of familiarity. Compared to the ornate, orchestrated silkiness of their first three albums, the No-Man sound of ’96 is much more confrontational. Bigger, noisier, dirtier; a swamp rather than a garden; these aesthetes are turning away from the light to embroil themselves in a polluted twilight.

‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’ is the baleful first single from the forthcoming ‘Wild Opera‘ album – downbeat, low-key, opening on a bed of twangy guitar and suffocated electric piano chimes like a smog-ridden dawn over Las Vegas. A disaffected gasp of vocal pans over a landscape of weathered, weary icons – ageing pop starts, Howard Hughes – before enormous sour guitars slide in and drag it into a rolling chorus with the deathly beat-driven wallop of Sisters of Mercy. “Not even housewives hooked on heroin / could match my appetite for sin…”


 
No-Man come on like a flattened, ever-so-slightly Gothic Bowie, full of the empty hunger which you get on those evenings when there’s nothing you want to do, the heat’s pressing down and the light of day is stained by a sodium glow. Fittingly, Scanner’s Housewives Hooked on Methadone remix recasts the song in a fuzzy cloud of radio static, sirens and dusky synths hovering over a dry, frenetic junglist beat. I do miss his usual trademark dialogue samples, though, snatched illicitly from hidden conversations on mobile phones. Perhaps the housewives were on hold that evening.


 
If you’re already missing the thought of that departed beauty, No-Man do allow a nod to their more recent past with Where I’m Calling From, another fragile, obscure No-Man ballad connecting the stagnation of the earthbound and isolated with the loneliness of the stars. Tingling Robert Fripp Soundscapes meld with a limpid Steven Wilson Stars Die melody and the bitter, uncertain comment of Ian Carr’s reedy trumpet. Tim Bowness sings as if encapsulated in a phone box, wheeling through the outskirts of the Milky Way, making one final disaffected farewell call. “Where I’m calling from, you wouldn’t want to know…/ Where I’m calling from, you wouldn’t want to go.” A dog barks suddenly in the middle of all of this – it’s like the real world trying to get a last foothold in this dangerous reverie.


 
But that’s about as familiar as it gets. The spidery twitch of Hit the Ceiling (written and recorded, from start to finish, in one hour) hurls the spontaneous risks of current No-Man working strategies straight into our faces. Breakneck rattling drum track, skeletal guitar and the reverberating coloratura of a disembodied diva – Halloween in the attic of the Paris Opera. Urban Disco deepens their dance content with a dystopian shadowy blur of suffocating beats and whispering, glancing lyrical swipes at the self-satisfaction of hedonism, leaving the solipsis of previous No-Man behind in order to flit like a malevolent ghost around the cigarette-ends of the high life.


 
The ‘Wild Opera’ overture has been played. People seduced by the warm caresses of ‘Flowermouth’ and ‘Heaven Taste’ look set to be in for a rude awakening, but an interesting trip.

No-Man: ‘Housewives Hooked on Heroin’
3rd Stone Ltd, STONE 026CD (5023693002651)
CD-only EP
Released:
28th May 1996
Get it from: (2020 update) Original EP best obtained second-hand or from Burning Shed; Housewives Hooked on Heroin appears on No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’ album, while Urban Disco reappeared on the ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ mini-album. All of the EP tracks bar Housewives Hooked on Methadone were included on the 2010 double CD remaster of ‘Wild Opera’.
No-Man online:
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March 1996 – live reviews – Robert Fripp’s South Bank Soundscapes @ Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, South Bank, London, 10th March (“more challenging abstractions than Fripp’s ever attempted before”)

12 Mar

'Now You See It...':  Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996

‘Now You See It…’: Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996

Tucked against a curving concrete wall, under a sweep of plate-glass windows, there’s the familiar stool with a beautiful rock-fetishist’s dream of a Les Paul guitar, flanked by rack-mounted gizmos like a gaggle of worshipful Artoo Detoos and a flat henge of volume pedals and multi-purpose stomp-boxes. Over to the right, David Singleton sits at the mixing desk, quite the portrait of the calm fixer for the artist’s determined leaps. Arranged in a long staggered curve in front of the opposite wall, lining the long walk between the entrance and the Purcell Room, are at least eight tall speaker cabinets. Occasionally in residence is the sleek, compact form of Wimborne’s most formidable musical son.

These Soundscapes are part of the ‘Now You See It…’ season of contemporary performance art, sharing the building with the Hypermusic Symposium (in which Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, David Toop and others debate the future of music, and people nervously finger such unorthodox instruments as literally musical chairs and picture frames or the Interactive Baton) while avant-garde dance groups hijack the Purcell Room and stick the audience on the stage, and (less happily) over at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith an appallingly pretentious bunch of Euro-thespians do a vandalistic mixed-media Schubert performance.

In these surroundings, Robert Fripp‘s increasingly out-there journeys in solo sound fit in surprisingly well, both physically and intellectually. When a squadron of incredibly young women in bare feet and little black dresses trot busily past (every quarter of an hour, on the dot) to meet their cues in a back-to-front theatre piece next door, it seems inexplicably appropriate. Tonight – Sunday 10th – is the fourth of Fripp’s residencies, a mere four-hour performance compared to the rear-numbing six- and even ten-hour marathons he’s performed earlier in the week. Some people have returned, regardless. Within that length of time, anything could happen: the music that Fripp claims to channel rather than compose could lead him anywhere.

Soundscapes, the successor to the layered sound-loops of Frippertronics, is a major leap forwards, sideways, anyways from its progenitor: the digital technology stores his patterns and transforms his tones to the point where there isn’t a single recognisable Crimsonic guitar sound to be heard all evening. In effect, Fripp and Singleton are playing a wholly new collective instrument, a community of speakers, desk, guitar and digital cyberspace. The end results are a swathe of overlapping, opposing electrophonic voices, sometimes beautiful and sometimes disturbing – polytextural hums; a sound like a seventy-foot high piece of glass being torn like cloth; wailing, spectral swells like American freight trains blowing a blue whistle into a desert of ghosts; aquatic, gem-faceted calls of a Loch Ness Monster; tingling pianistic or xylophonic ringing; squiggling crystal-bat chitters. It emerges as a sound that’s on the brink of being recognisable, somewhere deep down in the soul… but not quite.

As it rolls on, evolving like strata, burying what’s come before like the march of ages, you may find it impossible to concentrate on (four hours is a long time) but it saturates your mind regardless: you’ll sure as hell be thinking differently. While I’m here, I meet somebody who ascribes near-mystical powers to the first Soundscapes album, ‘A Blessing of Tears’ – “any pain you have, any problem, it will heal it…” Even on the basis of what I’m personally experiencing in the music tonight (the rollers, breakers, capricious tides and immense flickering lulls of an alien sea under a midnight-blue sky, occasionally rent by sheets of violet lightning and mile-wide twists in the current… I think I’m in for a night on the ocean wave) I can believe him. This isn’t New Age pretty-stuff.

And so the Soundscapes are installed, piece by lambent unsettling piece, more challenging abstractions than Fripp’s ever attempted before. But most of the people here seem to have missed the point – sitting deferentially in the arc of chairs facing Robert and his little cliffs of winking lights, watching him silently manipulate his gold-top Les Paul or peer into his effects racks, they pay a silent tribute. This isn’t how to do it. When Fripp calls what he does “Soundscapes”, he means it literally. There’s a fifth element in that communal instrumentation: three-dimensional space. Each of the eight speakers arranged in an arc behind the audience is fed by a slightly different sound source. Walking slowly back and forth across the foyer, one passes in and out of phase with the sounds: a different listening angle provides a different piece, an ability and opportunity to concentrate on a different section of the Fripp orchestra. Music to literally explore.

I feel a bit of a fool, though, pacing up and down the floor to curious glances from the audience; it’s not quite the same as hanging around, in gig-approved fashion, with a drink in your hand and lunging up and down gently to your favourite song. Mind you, the rest of the audience are behaving exactly in the way you’d expect at a Fripp-related gig or an art installation. Here are a couple snogging vigorously, French-kissing amidst the unsettling washes of the music; three rows in from the front, a man appears to have passed out, lolling over the back of his chair with his wide-open mouth pointing wetly at the ceiling. Music to intoxicate? Perhaps: it ignores standard musical dimensions in a way that one only otherwise hears in the most deliriously spaced-out Lee Perry dubscapes, although the notoriously drug-free Fripp looks more composed than I’ve even seen him before.

'Now You See It...':  Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996 (programme)

‘Now You See It…’: Robert Fripp Soundscapes, 10th March 1996 (programme)

But then perhaps once the music slips beyond the control of his fretting fingers, flexing feet and console-fondling fingers, it ceases to be his responsibility anyway. The nature of Soundscapes is such that Fripp’s very presence can become little more than a trigger. Turn away at the wrong time and you’ll turn back to find the guitar leaned against the stool and Fripp gone, sipping at a cup of coffee over by the mixing desk as the music wreathes onwards without him, or wandering out through the audience to check a corner of the sound. It’s a little disturbing when, conversing quietly and walking around the circuit of speakers to experience the different sounds, one comes within six inches of Fripp padding lightly in the opposite direction, close enough for you to sense the implacability of his will, pushing at the realms of the possible like a smooth arrowhead.

The element of hazard plays its role too. Sometimes, amongst the layers of harmonic tissue that Fripp is laying down, a mismatch occurs. Or a part decays too soon, or a speaker refuses to cooperate with the vision, and the musical organism is deformed, loses balance, develops cancer. At such times Fripp shrugs in frustration and looks over to Singleton, or out to the audience in the only acknowledgement he ever gives them, lets go of the guitar with palms turned upwards in the universal gesture of helplessness. The music thins out and he begins to build his organism again.

This continues for four hours: time to get several drinks, chat quietly in the background, arrange assignations with other musicians and writers, even formulate whole arguments about what we’re seeing (in other words, make our own contributions to the Soundscape ambience), and still not miss out on the crystallising veils of sound that drift around the foyer, perplexing this evening’s Mozart concertgoers, putting thoughtful expressions on the faces of the cloakroom attendants as it numbs their resistance. At the end, Fripp puts the guitar down, as he’s done so many times before during the evening, and walks slowly away to vanish down the passageway leading to the dressing rooms. The applause that follows his retreating back is sincere, but oddly unfocussed, as if the audience is unsure whether they should be applauding him or the air that’s been buoying up the music and carrying it around like a whispered ritual, I catch the train home, as I usually do; things seem just a touch sharper than normal. Soundscapes don’t so much take you to another world as grant you a shimmering new lens to experience this one through.

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November 1995 – live reviews – David Sylvian’s ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ @ Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London, 4th November (“self-effacing chameleonics”)

6 Nov

David Sylvian: 'Slow Fire - A Personal Retrospective' 4th November 1995

David Sylvian: ‘Slow Fire – A Personal Retrospective’ 4th November 1995

With former Japan leader David Sylvian, a show or an album is rarely as simple as being just a show or an album. Since 1983 he’s swum in and out of focus on a collection of artistic cross-fertilisations (sombrely beautiful songs albums, collaborative ambient vaguenesses, art installations): a shadowed, near-invisible chameleon with an enigmatic past ranging from over-exposed greasepaint-and-trash glamour to composer-effacing sound-sculpture. Tonight’s show – given extra weight by its ponderous title of ‘Slow Fire’ – is billed as a solo retrospective plus work in progress. Given Sylvian’s occasional tendency to enmire himself in inconsequential sound-tapestries, this could be grim. But the reality of ‘Slow Fire’ is more straightforward. Since we last saw him, touring with Robert Fripp, David Sylvian (like so many progressive artists) has decided to re-examine himself, unplugged.

With any contemporary electric musician, this is a risk: for Sylvian, much more so. The man now best known, post-Japan, for wall-to-wall electronic shrouding spends most of tonight perched on a stool behind a classical guitar. It’s the old rebirth scenario: once a travelling encrypter of decadent European and subtle Oriental sensibilities, Sylvian’s currently settled down into domestic bliss in America with a new wife (Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez), a new accent (decidedly transatlantic) and – judging by the credits on the appallingly pretentious programme – a guru. This would explain the brilliant white kaftan (has Jon Anderson missed any clothes recently?) and the four-cornered bowing as he takes the stage.

Though he’s dropped a few clues about an acoustic direction on recent recordings (on the Sylvian/Fripp B-side Endgame, for example), accepting Sylvian as an acoustic musician is not so easy. That marvellous voice, deep and rich as fortified honey, is still there, but over the years he’s made so much mileage out of his electrophonic atmospheres that his actual songs have been able to camouflage any flaws within the soundcraft.

The often disappointing collaboration with Fripp laid bare the aridity that Sylvian songs can often shrink into – tonight, Jean the Birdman is tricky and interesting but (even with a ludicrous attempt at scat singing) ultimately uninvolving, and there’s nothing like an acoustic performance for exposing juicelessness. Unsurprisingly, material from Sylvian’s song-centric 1987 album ‘Secrets of the Beehive’ fare well (the lilting menace in the folk-premonitions of The Boy with the Gun, a magnificent Orpheus and a hushed Waterfront) as do the few treasured songs from the Rain Tree Crow project: a reverberant Every Colour You Are, and a version of Blackwater which releases the song’s submerged country elements.

There are even one or two surprises during the guitar set, such as a rich rendition of Before the Bullfight and the shocking reinvention of keystone Japan hit Ghosts. From the beatless, icy original, Sylvian turns it into a wry Latin pop-inflected shrug of acknowledged doubt, Gilberto Gil meets Scott Walker. Even more shockingly, it works. But material from the schizophrenic ‘Brilliant Trees’ era has a tougher time making the jump to simple gut strings. Twitchy artiness such as Red Guitar and a limp Pulling Punches stumble out as embarrassing feynesses. Weathered Wall becomes a dull drone when denied the support of Jon Hassell‘s vaporous trumpet. With his shamanic atmospheric arrangements missing, too much of Sylvian’s once-epochal material is revealed as mere spectral verbiage, irresistibly crooned but superficially moodist. “Words with the charlatan,” mutters someone next to me, sarcastically.

It’s when he’s at the keyboard, with renewed access to a broader range of textures, that Sylvian delivers real magic – the rueful piano balladry in September and Earthbound Starblind, or the swathes of synth around the frozen pain and stone tears of Damage. When he allows himself the luxury of backing tapes, the dream deepens. A medley of Maria and Rain Tree Crow sees him keening over a wafting mist of chilling ambience punctuated by a ghostly chuckle. The First Day (graced with a wisp of taped Fripp skysaw) is as lushly majestic as ever. The deep dark indigo melancholy of Let the Happiness In acquires a meditative drum loop along with the shadowy orchestras of synth: it becomes hymnal, filling the great yearning emptiness at its heart with a sense of renewal, of return and redemption. It’s at moments like these that faith returns, and we can remember the subtle yet profound impact that Sylvian’s music has made in the past.

The trouble is that that was the past; and that the present is looking decidedly lumpen. The keyboard is also where Sylvian unveils his new material. For work in progress, it seems suspiciously complete… and already possesses a distinct form. A piano version of Tim Hardin’s It’ll Never Happen Again is the touchstone, with the interminable Ingrid’s Wheels and the rambling I Do Nothing (the latter most notable for its repeated, listless “alleluia”s) sketching Sylvian’s way forwards. Dusky, Americanised ballads with a strong element of that empty piano-bar pomposity that’s invariably damned with the kiss-of-death tag “quality songwriting”. Superficial sheen generating superficial applause. It’s difficult to escape the thought that David Sylvian’s self-effacing chameleonics have finally led him into a trap, a territory where he can no longer find his own face, where he will blur into a line of indistinguishable piano-song hacks whose albums will receive polite plaudits and gather dust on the lower shelves, where the fire will slow to a flicker.

The old Japan acolytes queue up tonight to touch the hem of King David’s gown. He smiles and bows like a bashful messiah. I can appreciate his showman’s smoothness… but I’ve lost my faith. I have a horrible suspicion that despite the handful of wonderful moments held to the light this evening, the shaman has swapped his books and his wisdom for a Cadillac, and the tin drum which once sounded out a musical challenge has just stopped beating.

David Sylvian online:
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Additional notes: While there’s no footage available for the London ‘Slow Fire’ show, you can get an approximation of it from footage of the Bari show from the same tour, in Italy, which is compiled here.
 

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

31 Oct

King Crimson: 'VROOOM'

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 0004 (5 028676 900016)
CD-only mini-album
Released:
31st October 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) some original copies still available from Burning Shed – also reissued, along with the material from its companion volume ‘The VROOOM Sessions’, as part of 2015’s 16-disc ‘THRAK BOX (King Crimson Live and Studio Recordings 1994-1997)’, also available from Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
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