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Posts Tagged ‘King Crimson’

Music Is My Only Friend – 2015 in Review

SDC14875

First off, I feel the need to apologize to my readers for the string of rather depressing titles given to my “Year in Review” posts. No matter how optimistic I try to be at the beginning of a new year, life always finds a way to disappoint my expectations. 2015, though, was special – for all the wrong reasons. Even now that things are going somewhat better (though far from ideal), I still occasionally feel the urge to withdraw from everyone – hence the not exactly uplifting title of this piece.

This sorry state of affairs obviously impacted my inspiration as regards writing reviews and the like. My blog was neglected for most of the year, with only 9 posts in 12 months, and the few label owners who regularly sent me their material took me off their mailing lists – which contributed to my feelings of isolation, even if I cannot blame them for that. Music remained nevertheless a constant source of comfort, thanks to the ready availability of new (and not so new) material on streaming services such as Progstreaming and Bandcamp. This allowed me to listen to most of the albums I was interested in, and keep in touch with a scene that I have been steadily supporting for the past few years. Some days I had to force myself to listen, but thankfully things got easier with time.

Although full-length reviews were thin on the ground, I kept up my collaboration with Andy Read’s excellent weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, as well as my activity as a member of the RIO/Avant/Zeuhl genre team (also known as ZART) at my “alma mater”, ProgArchives. In the second half of the year i was able to resume writing longer reviews, not only for my blog, but also for DPRP – though not yet on a regular basis. On the other hand, our concert attendance hit an all-time low. To be fair, ProgDay 2015’s extremely high level of quality more than made up for the many other gigs that we ended up missing. The only other show we attended was The Muffins’ one-off performance at the Orion Studios in mid-May, which unfortunately I was unable to enjoy as much as it would have deserved.

As usual, the amount of new music released in 2015 under the ever-expanding “prog” umbrella was staggering, and required a rather selective approach. The year just ended further proved that the scene is splintering in a way that, while it may help people more effectively to find music that appeals to their tastes, may also in the long run cause harm – especially as regards the live scene. Festivals in the US have further shrunk in number, with the cancellation (and apparent demise) of the NJ Proghouse Homecoming Weekend leaving only ROSfest and ProgDay still standing. Europe seems to be faring somewhat better (though one has to wonder how long this will last), and festivals appealing to a broad range of tastes within the prog spectrum continue to be reasonably well-attended.

On a positive note, websites dedicated to prog are going strong, as is the rather controversial Prog magazine (whose fan I am definitely not). It remains to be seen if what has always been a niche market (even in the Seventies, when bands that enjoyed commercial success were just the tip of a very large iceberg) will be able to keep up with such a vast output in the following years. In some ways, as I also observed in last year’s post, going underground has freed progressive rock from the constraints of appealing to market tastes, but (in my view at least) the opportunity for almost everyone to produce an album and put it on Bandcamp or Soundcloud poses a lot of questions as regards quality control.

Some of my readers will undoubtedly notice the absence of some of the year’s higher-profile releases. As I did last year, I decided to avoid mentioning albums I had found disappointing or just plain uninteresting, as well as those I have not yet managed to hear. A lot of other people have mentioned those albums in their own Year in Review pieces, and I think there is no use in pointing out the negative instead of concentrating on the positive. Compared with some of the previous years, 2015 started out in rather low-key fashion, with many highly anticipated releases concentrated in its second half. On the other hand, the first part of the year brought albums that are very well worth checking out, though they may never enjoy the status of other discs. It was also a year that, while prodigal with very good releases, mostly lacked genuine masterpieces. On the whole, I feel I have just scratched the surface, as perusing the myriad of Best of 2015 lists published on the web constantly reveals some album I have not heard of before.

As I mentioned in last year’s post, my tastes have been steadily moving away from “standard” prog, though a few albums that qualify as such have been included here. In fact, my personal #1 album of the year was released by a band that first got together in the late Seventies, and is probably closer to “conventional” prog than people would expect from me. However, Hands’ masterful Caviar Bobsled is a unique album that does not really sound like anything else, definitely fresher and more modern than a lot of highly praised albums by artists who have been active for a much shorter time.

Having promoted US prog for a while now, I am glad to report that the American scene produced some fine specimens over the past few months – with the NY/NJ region being again very much in evidence. Brilliant releases from The Tea Club (Grappling), 3RDegree (Ones & Zeros Vol. 1) and Advent (Silent Sentinel) highlighted the work of bands that have reached full maturity in terms of musicianship and compositional flair. To this outstanding trio I would also add Echolyn’s I Heard You Listening (more of a slow grower than their career-defining 2012 album) IZZ’s stylish Everlasting Instant, as well as a couple of well-crafted albums with a more traditional bent, both recommended to keyboard lovers – Kinetic Element’s sophomore effort, Travelog, and Theo’s debut, the dystopian concept The Game of Ouroboros.

All of the above-mentioned albums offer plenty of sophisticated music with great melodic potential, standing at the crossroads between tradition and modernity. The contemporary US scene, however, is also rife with cutting-edge artists that constantly challenge the perceptions of their intended audience. Works such as Upsilon Acrux’s highly charged Sun Square Dialect, the hypnotic math-rock of BattlesLa Di Da Di, Stern’s gloomily haunting Bone Turquoise, The Nerve Institute’s idiosyncratic Fictions (containing previously unreleased material), Ben Levin Group’s “pronk” opus Freak Machine (featuring most members of Bent Knee), Jack O’The Clock’s Outsider Songs (a collection of quirky covers), and Andrew Moore Chamber Works’ intriguing debut Indianapolis (steel drums meet chamber rock) proved the vitality of the US avant-garde scene. Thinking Plague (whose new album is expected in 2016), reissued their seminal debut, In This Life, while two albums involving previous or current members of the band – Ligeia Mare’s Amplifier and +1’s Future Perfect (the latter one of the many projects of keyboardist/composer Kimara Sajn) – helped to make the wait more bearable. Another fine Avant-related album (though in a more song-based vein), Omicron, came from former Alec K Redfearn and the Eyesore’s vocalist, Orion Rigel Dommisse.

New, highly eclectic releases by “jazzgrass proggers” Galactic Cowboy Orchestra (Earth Lift) and Yes-meets-country trio Dreadnaught (the EP Gettin’ Tight With Dreadnaught), Marbin’s fiery Aggressive Hippies, Djam Karet’s supremely trippy Swamp of Dreams, Fernwood’s delightful acoustic confection Arcadia, Mammatus’s monumental stoner-prog opus Sparkling Waters, and ethereal chamber-folk duo Fields Burning’s eponymous debut also illustrated the versatility  of a scene that is all too often associated with heavily AOR-tinged music.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British scene has been experiencing a renaissance in terms of creative modern progressive rock. Top of the heap, and definitely one of the best 2015 releases as far as I am concerned, were two Cardiacs-related albums: William D. Drake’s superb Revere Reach, one of those rare discs that are impossible to label, as well as being a delight from start to finish, and Guapo’s hypnotic, surging Obscure Knowledge. Thieves’ Kitchen’s stately, poignant The Clockwork Universe, with its original take on “classic” prog modes, completed my personal trinity of top 2015 British releases.

The runners-up, however, are all quite deserving of attention from discerning prog fans. Richard Wileman’s über-eclectic Karda Estra regaled its followers with a whopping three releases – the full-length Strange Relations (recorded with the involvement of The Muffins’ drummer extraordinaire Paul Sears), and the EPs The Seas and the Stars and Future Sounds (the latter also featuring Sears). Guitarist Matt Stevens’ The Fierce and the Dead made a comeback with the intense EP Magnet, and A Formal Horse’s second EP, Morning Jigsaw, provided a British answer to Bent Knee and MoeTar. John Bassett (of Kingbathmat fame) produced an exciting follow-up (simply titled II) to the 2014 debut of his instrumental, stoner-prog solo project, Arcade Messiah; in a similar vein, the cinematic psych/space of Teeth of the Sea’s Highly Deadly Black Tarantula. To further prove that the modern British prog is definitely not steeped in nostalgia, Colin Robinson’s Jumble Hole Clough brought us more of his quirky, electronics-infused antics with A List of Things That Never Happened, and Firefly Burning a heady dose of drone-folk with their latest effort, Skeleton Hill.

Plenty of great music also came out of continental Europe. From Scandinavia, one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums – Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts Are Gone – delivered amply in the quality stakes, as did the scintillating electro-jazz of Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire, Pixel’s warmer, more organic Golden Years, the rambling, keyboard-based jazz-rock of Hooffoot’s debut, Agusa’s space-rock workout Två, the quirky Avant-Prog of Simon Steensland’s A Farewell to Brains, Necromonkey’s all-electronic extravaganza Show Me Where It Hertz, and another long-overdue comeback – Dungen’s sunny Allas Sak – as well as guitarist Samuel Hällkvist’s highly original effort Variety of Live, recorded with an international cast including Pat Mastelotto and Richard Barbieri. Dungen’s guitarist, Reine Fiske, also appeared on elephant9’s highly praised Silver Mountain – the only album mentioned here that I have not yet managed to hear. Heading east, the intriguing, though not widely known, Russian scene produced the haunting psychedelic rock blended with shamanistic chanting of Ole Lukkoye’s Dyatly, The Grand Astoria’s ambitious crossover The Mighty Few, and the lush symphonic-Avant of Roz VitalisLavoro d’Amore.

The thriving French scene presented Avant fans with Unit Wail’s psyche-Zeuhl opus Beyond Space Edge, Ni’s electrifying Les Insurgés de Romilly, Ghost Rhythms’ elegant Madeleine, and Alco Frisbass’ Canterbury-inspired debut. Switzerland, on the other hand, seems to have become a hotbed for all forms of “post-jazz”, with two outstanding Cuneiform releases – Schnellertollermeier’s exhilarating X, and Sonar’s more understated Black Light – as well as IkarusEcho and Plaistow’s Titan. Germany brought the omnivorous jazz-metal of Panzerballett’s Breaking Brain, and Belgium Quantum Fantay’s pulsating space trip Dancing in Limbo. From the more southern climes of Greece and Spain came Ciccada’s lovely, pastoral sophomore effort, The Finest of Miracles, the intriguing Mediterranean math rock of El Tubo Elástico’s eponymous debut, and Ángel Ontalva’s sublime, Oriental-tinged Tierra Quemada.

Italy, as usual, did its part, turning out a panoply of albums of consistently high quality. Fans of the classic RPI sound found a lot to appreciate in La Coscienza di Zeno’s third effort, La Notte Anche di Giorno, Ubi Maior’s ambitious Incanti Bio-Meccanici, and also the harder-edged Babylon by VIII Strada. Not A Good Sign’s comeback, From A Distance, combined Italian melodic flair and Crimsonesque angularity, while Pensiero Nomade’s Da Nessun Luogo introduced haunting female vocals into jazzy/ambient textures. The very title of Slivovitz’s All You Can Eat illustrated the boisterous eclecticism of the Naples-based outfit, and feat.Esserelà’s classy debut Tuorl was a welcome addition to the ranks of modern jazz-rock.

2015 was a great year for fans of the Canterbury sound, witnessing the release of the third installment of the Romantic Warriors documentary series (aptly titled Canterbury Tales) just a few months after the passing of Daevid Allen, one of the scene’s most iconic figures. Moreover, two outstanding Canterbury-related albums came from two vastly different parts of the world: Blue Dogs, the debut by Manna/Mirage, The Muffins’ Dave Newhouse’s new project, and Sicilian outfit Homunculus Res’ brilliant second album, Come Si Diventa Ciò Che Si Era (with Newhouse guesting on the epic “Ospedale Civico”). The latter is one of the finest 2015 releases from my native Italy, a distinction shared with the supremely elegant chamber-rock of Breznev Fun Club’s second album, Il Misantropo Felice (both albums were released on the ever-reliable AltrOck Productions label), and with OTEME’s beautiful comeback, L’Agguato. L’Abbandono. Il Movimento.

AltrOck (whose 2016 schedule looks mouthwatering, to say the least) is also responsible for two of the year’s most distinctive albums: the ultra-eclectic, vocal-based Everyday Mythology by Loomings, a French-Italian ensemble put together by Yugen’s Jacopo Costa, and multinational quintet Rêve Général’s stunning debut Howl (the latest endeavour by former Etron Fou Leloublan drummer Guigou Chenevier). Another debut related to the original RIO scene came with Logos, by English-based quartet The Artaud Beats, featuring drummer Chris Cutler and bassist John Greaves; while Stepmother’s wacky, Zappaesque Calvary Greetings spotlights another multinational outfit, which includes legendary drummer Dave Kerman.

Though in 2015 the latest incarnation of King Crimson released Live at the Orpheum (recorded in LA during their 2014 US tour), there seems to be hardly any new material in sight from the legendary band. Luckily, last year brought a few KC-related albums that are well worth exploring – especially for those who favour the band’s harder-edged output: namely, Pat Mastelotto’s new trio KoMaRa’s dark, gritty self-titled debut (with disturbing artwork by Tool’s Adam Jones), Chicago-based math-rock trio Pavlov3 (featuring Markus Reuter) with Curvature-Induced Symmetry…Breaking, and Trey Gunn’s haunting, ambient-tinged The Waters, They Are Rising.

Other, less widely exposed countries also yielded a wealth of interesting music during the past year. Out of Chile (one of the most vital modern prog scenes) came the good-time Avant-Prog of Akinetón Retard’s Azufre; while, on the other side of the Pacific, Indonesia continues to produce high-quality music, brought to light by Moonjune Records’ irrepressible Leonardo Pavkovic. Guitar hero Dewa Budjana’s Hasta Karma and Joged Kahyangan , and keyboardist Dwiki Dharmawan’s So Far, So Close showcase the unique fusion of Western jazz-rock and the island nation’s rich musical heritage.

No 2015 retrospective would be complete without a mention of the many losses sustained by the music world during the past year. The passing of legendary Yes bassist and founder Chris Squire was undoubtedly a traumatic event for prog fans, while the demise of heavy rock icon (and former Hawkwind member) Lemmy a few days before the end of the year was mourned by the rock community at large. Though, of course, the heroes of the Seventies are not getting any younger, neither of these seminal figures was old for today’s standards – unlike jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman and bluesman B.B. King, who had both reached respectable ages.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, most of the music I have recommended would not qualify as “real prog” for many listeners. It does, however, reflect the direction my tastes have taken in the past few years, and I hope it will lead to new discoveries. Whenever possible, I have provided links to the artists’ Bandcamp pages, where my readers will be able to stream the albums (and hopefully also buy them). For the vast majority of the artists mentioned in this article, music is a labour of love rather than a day job. Though progressive music is alive and well in the second decade of the third millennium, and 2016 already looks very promising in terms of new releases, the scene – now more than ever – needs to be supported if we really want it to survive.

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SETLIST:
Vroom Vroom
Smudge
Relentless
Slowglide
Cusp
Breathless
Open Pt. 3
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II
Firebird Suite Pt. 1-4
Indiscipline
Red

Jammin’ Java, the quaint coffee house/bar doubling up as music venue located in the charming neighbourhood of Vienna, in the Washington DC metro area, seems to have become a firm favourite with Tony Levin and his Stick Men bandmates, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter – even though the Boston-born bass/Chapman stick wizard must be used to much larger, flashier venues. Judging by his happy demeanour, Levin seems to have a soft spot for the place (as does his friend and former King Crimson partner, Adrian Belew) – even when, as in this case, the gig involves some considerable juggling.  Indeed, the April 27 date (following the triumphant, sold-out appearance by Two of a Perfect Trio in September 2011) had been rather oddly sandwiched between a date in Connecticut and one in upstate New York – forcing the band to cut their show rather shorter than usual to allow them to hit the road in good time.

The screen at the back of the stage proudly displayed the banner of the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR), a group that for the past few years has been quite active in promoting progressive music in the Washington/Baltimore area . Unfortunately, attendance was not what such a relatively high-profile outfit would usually command, and the long, dimly lit space before the stage was nowhere as crowded as it might have been in different circumstances. Indeed, having a concert start at 7.30 on a Friday night in a high-traffic area is quite likely to keep away quite a few prospective attendees.  Though all of the 25 VIP tickets had been sold, they were not really worth the extra $15, as the only advantage they gave was to be able to get inside early and listen to the soundcheck while partaking of food or drink in the Lobby Bar. The VIP seating area was also quite cramped, while the tables and seats that had been arranged in the general admission area were much more comfortable, and allowed a great view of the stage. Luckily, as I observed in my review of the Two of a Perfect Trio gig, the ear-shattering volume that had characterized my first two visits to the venue in 2009 has been toned down, so that people will not find themselves stunned by the sheer impact of an almost physical wall of sound.

For those who are still pining about the demise of King Crimson (at least in terms of live performances), bands like Stick Men are a godsend, as they retain all the energy and complexity of the original, coupled with a much more open, friendly attitude towards their audience. Although I have never seen Mr Fripp in action, I am well aware of his inflexible stance about taking pictures during concerts – which was replicated by Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project at NEARfest 2010 (much to the dismay of the audience). Seeing Levin, Mastelotto and Reuter smile and wave at the fans, take pictures of the audience at the end of the concert, take some time to chat with the fans, and generally enjoy themselves on stage – all the while retaining a thoroughly professional attitude – was incredibly refreshing, and a boon to everyone who had bought a ticket in spite of the inconvenient scheduling of the gig.

In spite of the time constraints, Stick Men produced a richly satisfying setlist, expanded from their September performance, and including enough King Crimson material to please the more nostalgic component of the crowd. However, their own compositions definitely stand up to comparisons with the “mother band”, following in its footsteps while avoiding the clone-like feel that occasionally mars the output of celebrated acts’ side projects. While highly proficient in the technical department, Stick Men’s music is powerful, muscular and strikingly modern –  the endless range of expressive possibilities offered by two polyphonic instruments such as the Chapman stick and Reuter’s custom-made touch guitar (a glossy red number deceptively looking like a traditional guitar) supported by Mastelotto’s rhythmic powerhouse.

In spite of their extensive touring schedule, Stich Men are busy working on their new album, which is slated for a fall release. In the meantime, they have been writing other material: Levin jokingly stated that they had written an album last Friday, and the audience was treated to one of those new pieces, titled “Open Pt. 3”. All the original compositions were very strong, ranging from the evenly paced, atmospheric “Slowglide” (featuring Levin on vocals, and an entrancing, effects-laden middle section) to the aptly titled “Relentless”, a hard-hitting piece reminiscent of King Crimson’s late ‘90s incarnation.

As could be expected, however, it was the King Crimson stuff that drew the most applause. Classics like “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt II” were rendered in a heavier, though perhaps less subtle fashion, proving once again the essential role played by King Crimson in the development of progressive metal. Reuter filled Fripp’s role with aplomb, and Levin’s Chapman stick was all over the place, aided and abetted by Mastelotto’s unflagging beat. A particularly intense version of “Indiscipline”, with a slo-mo, drawn-out introduction and Levin doing a decent Belew impersonation, was one of the undisputed highlights of the show, together with the stunning “Firebird Suite (Pt. 1-4)”. Mastelotto’s imperious drumming paralleled Stravinsky’s trademark percussive firepower, while Levin and Reuter seamlessly worked their way through the intricate orchestral arrangements, debunking the myth that banks of keyboards are indispensable to any reinterpretation of great classical music.

In a few months, those who missed out on Friday’s gig will be able to see Stick Men perform again with Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (under the handle of Crimson ProjecKct), when they open for Dream Theater on their Washington DC date (July 13, Warner Theatre). Levin’s former partnership with John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess in Liquid Tension Experiment should be enough to explain this apparently odd pairing. It is to be hoped that this slot on a much longer and higher-profile tour will create more interest in Stick Men’s own original material, which deserves all the exposure it can get.

Links:
http://www.papabear.com/

http://www.dc-soar.org/

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Enigma 5 (4:07)
2. We Got It All (6:26)
3. Dialeto (3:50)
4. Está No Ar (4:43)
5. As Pedras Voam (3:29)
6. This Is The World (8:01)
7. Chromatic Freedom (6:26)
8. Eu Me Lembro (6:05)
9. Falsa Valsa (4:28)
10. Rainha Perversa (2:43)
11. Train Of Destruction (4:23)
12. Divided By Zero (3:09)

LINEUP:
Nelson Coelho – guitars, vocals
Andrei Ivanovic – fretless bass
Miguel Angel – drums, backing vocals

With:
Nice Juliano – backing vocals (1, 4, 6)

Hailing from the Brazilian metropolis of São Paulo – one of the largest cities in the world, and no less of a cultural melting pot than its North American equivalents – Dialeto are a modern take on the time-honoured rock stalwart of the power trio. Though they were formed as far back as 1987 by guitarist Nelson Coelho, bassist Andrei Ivanovic and drummer Miguel Angel – three musicians with extensive experience in the underground scene of their home town – and released an album in 1991, they went on hiatus in 1994, and surfaced again almost 15 years later. Will Exist Forever, released in 2008, featured the original content of their debut, including “Existence” (whose chorus line provided the title for the album itself), a composition based on a traditional theme from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Though the Middle Eastern connection may sound surprising to those who are not acquainted with Brazilian culture, it is deeply rooted in the social and ethnic makeup of the country. In a truly cosmopolitan city like São Paulo, people of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, northern European, Middle and Far Eastern origin and a myriad others live side by side, and cultural cross-fertilization – even in matters relating to everyday life, like food – is a common occurrence. The members of Dialeto  may have grown up listening to Western progressive rock, but in such an environment the influence of “world music” – as well as Brazil’s own peerless musical heritage – was always present in some way or another. The band’s music, a heady blend of angular, hard-edged prog as developed and perfected by King Crimson, haunting Eastern tunes, a pinch of that inimitably Brazilian sense of wistful melody, and more than a whiff of post-punk/new wave dynamics, seems to reflect their multicultural background.

The title of Dialeto’s second album, Chromatic Freedom, refers to a specific concept derived from influential Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and adapted to rock music – the exploration of the 12-note scale, also known as chromatic scale. The simple yet striking cover artwork reinforces the concept with a sort of visual pun. The essential role of cultural and ethnic integration in Dialeto’s sound is also rooted in Bartok’s artistic vision, as witnessed by the quote that introduces the band’s bio on their website. However, the album, far from being overly pretentious, is surprisingly approachable, its eclecticism realized in a streamlined rather than sprawling manner. Dialeto’s stripped-down format allows the three musicians remarkable freedom, their instruments emoting in synch or adopting a more free-form stance according to the requirements of the composition. They also produce an impressive amount of sound – a characteristic they share with the two King Crimson-related outfits that have been wowing American audiences these past few weeks, Tony Levin’s Stick Men and Adrian Belew’s Power Trio. All of these bands display an almost uncanny ability to produce endlessly intriguing textures using just the basic rock instruments – a markedly different approach to progressive rock than the traditional symphonic one.

Just like King Crimson and its offshoots, Dialeto allow vocals into the equation, often using them as an additional instrument – at times gentle and soothing, at others harsh and assertive. Lyrics are both in English and the band’s native Portuguese – the latter, in my view, a much more interesting choice, especially as the unique phonetic features of Portuguese and its proven effectiveness as a vehicle for music inject a sense of alluringly exotic warmth in the intricate fabric of Dialeto’s sound.

When listening to Chromatic Freedom, I was reminded of Texas-based band Herd of Instinct, another trio that made its recording debut earlier this year – though Dialeto lack the latter’s extensive use of touch guitars and the contribution of keyboards and other instruments to create eerie, ambient-like textures. The bare-bones instrumentation adopted by Dialeto, as well as the insistent, aggressively riff-based nature of many of their compositions, has prompted comparisons with punk and post-punk – reinforced by the vocal style in songs such as “Train of Destruction”. On the other hand, the analogy with Herd of Instinct’s debut (or even some of Trey Gunn’s output) is most evidently borne out by the album’s longest track, the hypnotic “This Is the World”, where the three instruments begin in a subdued tone – paralleled by the muted, almost whispered vocals – then the guitar gains strength towards the end.

Almost in a statement of intent, opener “Enigma”, propelled by Andrei Ivanovic’s pneumatic fretless bass and Miguel Angel’s tribal drum beat, skillfully blends echoes of King Crimson with Eastern-tinged chanting and eerie, drawn-out guitar sounds. The brooding bass line of “We Got It All” echoes the moody monotone of the singing, then the track takes a chaotic turn, with the vocals gaining a punk-like intensity; while the band’s signature tune “Dialeto” wanders into funky territory, with superb bass work throughout. The influence of Brazilian music emerges most clearly in the lovely, melodic “Falsa Valsa”, featuring a clear, piercing guitar solo, and in “Está No Ar” Brazil meets the Orient with a solid injection of abrasive Frippian guitar and towering bass lines. The most distinctly Crimsonian echoes, however, can be found the title-track, with its relentless, guitar-driven build-up, and the hauntingly atmospheric “Eu Me Lembro” – both of them bringing to mind the Wetton-Bruford period.

Although King Crimson have been frequently mentioned in the previous paragraphs, I wish to dispel any impressions that Chromatic Freedom is in any way a derivative effort. Dialeto have a very strong individual imprint, and any influences are reworked and integrated into the fabric of a sound made even more distinctive by the Brazilian and Middle Eastern suggestions. While the presence of vocals may be seen as disruptive by faithful devotees of purely instrumental music, in my view it contributes to making Dialeto an almost unique proposition. With an ideal running time below one hour and a nice balance between shorter, punchier numbers and longer, more atmospheric ones, Chromatic Freedom will appeal to the adventurous listener, and to everyone who still believes that prog can actually be progressive.

Links:
http://www.dialeto.org

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A few months ago, fans of King Crimson had reason to rejoice when the amusingly-named Two of a Perfect Trio tour was announced – an extensive North American tour that would feature Adrian Belew and Tony Levin with their respective bands, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (AB3 for short) and Stick Men. Many of those fans (including myself) had been waiting in vain for a full-fledged 40th anniversary tour, and in 2009 news of its cancellation had caused widespread consternation among the ranks of those who had been unable to attend any of the four 2008 concerts. Even if the release of A Scarcity of Miracles earlier this year brought some respite to the starved Crimson fans, the lack of live action and the uncertainty about the future of the band were discouraging to say the least.

Not surprisingly, about a week before the event, tickets for the date in the Washington DC metro area were already sold out . While other dates of the tour had been booked in medium-sized theatres, the DC gig was slated to take place at a rather unlikely venue, considering the relative fame of the artists involved. In fact, the Jammin’ Java  (as its name suggests) is a café/bar that doubles up as a music club with a regular schedule of evening concerts. Incidentally, Adrian Belew’s Power Trio had performed there in the summer of 2009 (a week or so after the near-legendary performance of Eddie Jobson’s U-Z with Marco Minnemann, Simon Phillips, Greg Howe and Trey Gunn), so the venue was a known quantity at least to one of the artists involved.

Anyway, though rather unconventional and far from capacious, the Jammin’ Java is very conveniently situated for anyone living in the DC metro area, and also quite pleasant and full of character – even if the dim, cellar-like lighting does not allow for a lot of social interaction. For the occasion, though, the venue had been redesigned in order to allow as many people inside as possible: the seating had been removed, with the exception of the small, fenced “VIP area” and the bar benches at the entrance for those who were partaking of food bought on the premises. On my two previous visits to the club, the volume of the music had approached eardrum-shattering proportions; this time around, however, the sound system operated at a manageable decibel level, rendering the use of earplugs unnecessary even when standing very close to the stage. To be perfectly honest, I would have enjoyed the concert even more if I had been able to sit down, but the music was so incredibly good (and plentiful) that even the mild discomfort of having to stand up was considerably lessened.

The morning before the concert, as a warm-up, my husband and I had played the complete “red-blue-yellow” trilogy, and were expecting  an evening to remember, encouraged by some of the comments already available on the Internet. However, the concert exceeded those expectations, with nearly three hours of incredible music and a very warm, friendly atmosphere – and that in spite of its rather stripped-down nature. With no gimmicks or special effects besides a few well-placed lights, the two trios relied only on their considerable experience and creativity – letting the music do the talking, as clichéd as it may sound.

Though the music associated with King Crimson projects an aura of intellectualism and near-unapproachability, and is often indicted of being very “masculine”, lacking the necessary melodic quotient to attract women, there was quite a fair number of ladies crowding around the stage, and none of them appeared to be suffering. Personally, I believe that melody is a very important component of music, and do not generally enjoy “noise” for its own sake. However, King Crimson and its related projects simply transcend any specious conflict between  “accessible” and “difficult” progressive rock. Indeed,  the concert proved once again that King Crimson’s music possesses a freshness and cutting-edge appeal that have not been dimmed one whit by time. Not surprisingly, the music of both trios is indebted to the “mother band”, though not in an overtly derivative way, but rather as a form of development. I firmly believe that, while it is perfectly feasible to sound identical to Yes or Genesis (check the latest Wobbler album for confirmation), sounding exactly like King Crimson is next to impossible – due to the fluid, ever-evolving nature of the band’s musical output.

The concert was opened by Tony Levin’s Stick Men, introducing their new member Markus Reuter, who had replaced Michael Bernier earlier this year. Levin’s warm, gracious interaction with the enthusiastic crowd subtly complemented the sheer intensity of the music – as did his vocals, definitely not “beautiful” in any conventional sense, but still an oddly successful fit for the  band’s sound. Alongside tracks from his 2007  solo album Stick Man and the trio’s latest release, Soup, Levin surprised the audience with a blistering version of “VROOM” that  anticipated what would happen in the last half an hour or so of the show. The trio’s astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite proved once again progressive rock’s affinity for the works of the great Russian composer; while the rap intro and funky suggestions of  “Soup” were also warmly greeted by an audience clearly more open to all sorts of contaminations than the average fan of traditional prog. Markus Reuter, his serious mien occasionally softened by a friendly smile, with his touch guitar (designed and built by himself) offered a perfect foil for Levin’s acrobatic excursions on the Chapman stick – which included using a bow, Jimmy Page-style, as well as his famed “funk fingers”. With the supreme ease and confidence born of a long partnership, Pat Mastelotto provided an impeccable backbeat, meshing with the riveting patterns woven by the two string instruments, and creating textures of astounding beauty.

After a short break, Adrian Belew and his cohorts – Julie Slick on bass and Tobias Ralph (who had replaced Julie’s brother, Eric) on drums – took to the stage for some more humour-laced mayhem. Belew, ever the genial host, looked in excellent shape, his voice still capable of delivering the goods with confidence and flair, while the instrumental firepower unleashed by the three musicians was quite awe-inspiring.  In some ways, AB3’s music has an even sharper edge than Stick Men’s, as amply proved by the almost 10 minutes of  e, the title-track of the trio’s latest recording effort. Adrian’s twangy, trebly guitar tone, like his voice, may be an acquired taste, but makes for a gripping listening experience, especially when assisted by such an impeccable rhythm section – redefining the old warhorse of the power trio in thoroughly modern terms. As far as I am concerned, however, the real focal point of the trio’s performance was Julie Slick, a monster bassist with an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectly integrating with Tobias Ralph’s powerful yet restrained drumming– and a refreshing example of a new generation of women artists who are in the business of making great music rather than flaunting their physical charms. Though a very attractive young woman, with her bare feet and mop of curly hair, Julie is a musician first and foremost, who amply deserves all the respect due to any musician as skilled and dedicated as she is.

And then it was time for the “extended Crim-centric encore” everyone in the audience had been waiting for. Though I am usually a bit harsh on people whom I perceive as “living in the past” – failing thus to appreciate the excellent music put out by modern acts – I will proudly admit to not practicing what I preach when it comes to anything King Crimson-related. Having never been so lucky as to see them perform live (when they played in Rome in 2003 I had to give the concert a miss because I was not feeling well), this was the closest I had got to “real” Crimson live action. Moreover, unlike some more conservative proggers, I am a staunch fan of the Eighties trilogy, and Discipline ranks as one of my all-time favourite albums –  so I was understandably stoked at the very idea of witnessing a live performance of some of those classic songs.

The third part of the show began with only the three tenured KC members on stage, effortlessly running through the funky pace and engagingly nonsensical vocals of “Elephant Talk” (in which the influence of Talking Heads’ take on afrobeat was hard to miss) and the more laid-back strains of “Three of a Perfect Pair”. When the trio was joined by Reuter, the audience was treated to a barnstorming rendition of the iconic “Red”, beefed up by the distinctive contribution of the touch guitar. The infectious “Dinosaur” and the angular “Frame by Frame” had the crowd eating out of the two combined trio’s hands; while  the eerie soundscapes and double-drum spot of “B’Boom” (the latter reminding me of Simon Phillips and Marco Minnemann’s drum duel during the Eddie Jobson set in 2009) and the soothing, almost seductive “One Time” laid the groundwork for the show’s white-hot climax.

Though women are not generally expected to like such stuff, “Indiscipline” ranks as one of my all-time favourite King Crimson tracks, so you can imagine my delight when I heard Levin (assisted by Slick and Reuter) sketch the song’s unmistakable intro – this time stretched into an almost unbearable build-up of tension and false starts, then exploding into a maelstrom of slashing, wailing guitar. Heavier than the heaviest metal, and totally mind-blowing, the song oozed with the pure beauty of chaos. After briefly bowing out, leaving the audience wrung out but deliriously happy, the two bands came back on stage and got everyone to dance and sing along with the irrestistible “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. Who said you cannot dance at a prog gig?

If I wanted to nitpick, I might say that I missed some of my favourites – particularly “Level Five” and “Sleepless” with its killer bass line – but I suppose that, after such a performance, quibbling would sound a bit excessive. Almost three hours of music at that level of quality and intensity are anything but an everyday occurrence, and the two trios delivered everything their dedicated fans were expecting – and then some. They made music written over 30 years ago sound as fresh and relevant as if it had been released today, reaffirming King Crimson’s essential role in the continuing evolution of progressive rock.

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TRACKLISTING:

CD1
1. Hymn (4:29)
2. The Joy of Molybdenum (feat. The Trey Gunn Band) (5:29)
3. The Fifth Spin of the Sun (2:04)
4. Val El Diablo (feat. Alonso Arreola) (4:35)
5. Morning Dream (feat. Sergey Klevensky) (6:49)
6. Real Life (5:12)
7. Maslenitsa (feat. The Farlanders) (9:31)
8. Gallina (1:05)
9. Dziban (6:15)
10. Misery, Misery, Die, Die, Die… (feat. TU) (1:55)
11. Pole (0:44)
12. Thick and Thorny (feat. Quodia) (2:35)
13. Down Spin (1:13) 14. Absinthe & A Cracker (feat. TU) (3:17)
15. The Shimmering (2:23)
16. Fandango (feat. TU) (4:05)
17. Well (feat. Inna Zhelannaya) (5:56)

CD2
1. Jacaranda (feat. KTU) (3:57)
2. The Magnificent Jinn (3:24)
3. Contact (3:50)
4. Drunk (feat. Inna Zhelannaya) (6:26)
5. Killing for London (6:32)
6. Kuma (4:29)
7. Single Cell Shark (feat. Matte Henderson) (3:31)
8. Cheeky (feat. matt Chamberlin) (3:33)
9. Make My Grave in the Shape of a Heart (feat. TU) (1:24)
10. Spectra (1:57)
11. Capturing the Beam (1:23)
12. Hard Winds (3:05)
13. Arrakis (feat. The Trey Gunn Band) (6:54)
14. Flood (3:17)
15. Untamed Chicken (feat. TU) (4:15)
16. Down in Shadows (feat. N.Y.X.) (4:44)
17. Californ-a-tron (0:49)
18. Vals (feat. Sergey Klevensky) (3:18)
19. 9:47 P.M. (feat. Saro Cosentina) (5:03)

Reviewing a compilation obviously involves a rather different process than reviewing an album of completely new material. My readers will forgive me if this write-up is not as detailed as my reviews usually are, and, for instance, does not include information on all the musicians featured on every track. In this particular case, the compilation is a 2-CD package, comprising a total of 36 tracks spanning almost 20 years of the career of one of the most interesting artists on the current music scene – Texas-born touch guitarist, composer and multimedia storyteller  Trey Gunn, known to the majority of prog fans for his 10-year stint in King Crimson.

I have to admit to having been for quite a long time largely unfamiliar with Gunn’s musical output outside Fripp’s legendary band and a handful of scattered tracks from some of his solo projects. However, two years ago I had the opportunity to see him perform live as a guest of Eddie Jobson’s UKZ project, and was highly impressed by his skills and warm stage personality. Later, I found out that he was born exactly two days before me – perhaps not very relevant from a musical point of view, but an interesting bit of trivia nonetheless.

Released in November 2010, I’ll Tell What I Saw is jam-packed with extremely stimulating music taken from the numerous albums recorded by Gunn in the years from 1993 to the present day, both in his own name or with various other projects featuring international artists. Running at over 2 hours, it manages to sustain a consistently high level of quality, with hardly any filler at all, offering a heady mix of musical styles interpreted with flair, skill and soul. Indeed, Trey Gunn’s output might easily be held up as an example of a genuinely progressive approach to music-making, open-minded and eclectic, always looking for new sources of inspiration, and never letting his creative impulse grow stale.

The oldest items included in the compilation date back from Gunn’s debut album One Thousand Years (released in 1993), and (perhaps unsurprisingly) reveal a strong King Crimson influence, with “Kuma” in particular sounding like something out of the magnificent Discipline. As a matter of fact, the Crimsonian vibe can be heard in all of Gunn’s Nineties material, as witnessed by “Hard Winds”, another track characterized by the insistent, interlocking guitar lines and heavy yet intricate drumming typical of Fripp’s crew in their Eighties and Nineties incarnations. Gunn’s two more recent projects involving drummers – TU with fellow KC alum Pat Mastelotto, and Modulator with German-born wunderkind Marco Minnemann (who was also part of Eddie Jobson’s band when I saw them in 2009) – spotlight the marriage between the drums and the stunning versatility of Gunn’s trademark Warr guitar, with dramatic, mesmerizing textures and plenty of driving energy. However, while the TU tracks are more structured, the Modulator stuff (originally conceived as a 51-minute guitar solo) is largely improvisational in nature. Some of these numbers, especially the thunderous “Untamed Chicken”, seem to emphasize the drum-driven heaviness that characterizes compositions like “Level Five” (from King Crimson’s 2003 album The Power to Believe). Italian outfit N.Y.X.’s “Down in the Shadows” carries nuances of ‘alternative prog’ in the dark, industrial-tinged style perfected by Tool; while the bass-powered “Arrakis”, recorded live in 2001, foreshadows the avant-fusion of contemporary bands such as Zevious.

On the other hand, Gunn’s collaboration with Russian singer Inna Zhelennaya on her 2009 album Cocoon and on the eponymous 2005 album by The Farlanders explore the fascinating reaches of world music, injecting a welcome dose of thoroughly un-cheesy melody (also evidenced in gorgeous opening “Hymn”) in the proceedings. Zhelennaya’s hauntingly keening Russian-language vocals, somehow reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard’s otherworldly chanting, blend uncannily well with Gunn’s quicksilver guitar, producing some very distinctive results in the likes of the hypnotic “Maslenitsa” (the longest track on the album at almost 10 minutes, and possibly its highlight), “Well” and “Drunk”. Entrancing ambient tones, coloured with a feel of gentle melancholy, surface in Gunn’s collaboration with Russian clarinetist Sergey Klevezny; while the slow, liquid “9:47 PM Eastern Time” brings to mind KC’s “The Sheltering Sky”. KTU’s accordion-laden ”Jacaranda” and the Middle Eastern-flavoured “The Magnificent Jinn” branch further out in world music territory, though combining those ethnic influences with the angular dynamics typical of King Crimson.

As exciting and eclectic as I’ll Tell What I Saw is, I would not recommend listening to the whole 2-CD set in one take, since music this challenging and edgy might induce a sense of sonic overload, especially in those listeners who are used to more conventionally structured fare. Thankfully, there is enough diversity within those 36 tracks to keep the most demanding listeners happy. It is, however, music with a high level of complexity, even in the case of the shorter compositions, and needs to be approached with the right attitude. All in all, this is an excellent summary of Trey Gunn’s adventurous, ever-changing career, and an outstanding introduction to the work of one of the most intriguing purveyors of genuinely progressive music on the current scene.

Links:
http://www.treygunn.com

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Le Labyrinthe Du Cochon (9:15)
2. Jeudi (De) Poisson (10:34)
3. Sombre Trafic Sur Le Nil (3:40)
4. La Marmite Du Pygmée (8:55)
5. Le Château De L’Eléphant (6:26)
6. Cravate Sauvage (9:27)
7. Oppression, Dépression, Les Valeurs Du Cool (13:37)

LINEUP:
Arnaud M’Doihoma – bass, vocals
Gregory Pozzoli – guitars, vocals
Thomas Larsen – drums, percussion, vocals
Philippe Prebet – guitars, vocals

Just like Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd (“by the way, which one’s Pink?”), Jack Dupon is not a solo artist, but a French quartet whose debut album, L’Echelle du Désir, was released in the second half of 2008. It is also the name of the fictitious character whose picaresque stories are told in the band’s songs and live performances. Formed in 2001 by three school mates, Arnaud M’Doihoma, Gregory Pozzoli and Thomas Larsen (now in their late twenties), in 2004 Jack Dupon was joined by an older, more experienced musician, guitarist Philippe Prebet.  In September 2010 the band embarked on their first US tour, playing in venues such as the legendary Orion Studios in Baltimore, as well as the ProgDay Festival Pre-Show – their quirky, theatrical performances leaving a strong impression on American audiences.

My first contact with Jack Dupon occurred in 2009, when I reviewed L’Echelle du Désir, and was left with mixed feelings. While I could not help appreciating the band’s eclecticism and the undeniable impact of their music, I also felt they had been overambitious in recording an album that clocked in at nearly 75 minutes, and opened with a 30-minute epic. It seemed that the members of Jack Dupon, as talented and inventive as they obviously were, had not yet learned the valuable lesson that sometimes less is more – with the result that the album, after a while, overstayed its welcome. This time around, however, they seem to have heeded the advice of most reviewers, and gone for a relatively pared-down offering, slightly over an hour long, and avoiding the over-indulgence of L’Echelle du Désir’s two sprawling epics.

Unlike other bands placed under the RIO/Avant umbrella (a subgenre that is much more diverse than its detractors might think), Jack Dupon use a very traditional rock instrumentation – which means no strings, no woodwinds, no saxes, and even no keyboards. Indeed, their configuration (two guitars plus rhythm section) closely resembles King Crimson’s in the Eighties and onward – and Fripp’s crew, together with Frank Zappa, are clearly one of the main inspirations behind Jack Dupon’s output. However, the theatrical bent of the band, as well as the ‘mythology’ on which their music is based,  possess an unmistakably European flavour. While their French origins bring to mind concept-based bands like Magma and Gong (as well as Ange, a clear blueprint for the vocal department), some Italian bands of the Seventies are also evoked, especially those that, like Jumbo and the short-lived Pholas Dactylus, pushed the dramatic element at the forefront of their sound.

One of the biggest obstacles for people who approach Jack Dupon’s music are undeniably the vocals, mostly handled by bassist Arnaud M’Doihoma with the assistance of his bandmates. Harsh, grating and exaggerated, reminiscent of Ange’s Christian Descamps or even Jumbo’s Alvaro Fella, M’Doihoma’s singing style fits the music like a glove, but is likely to put off those who like a more traditional approach. Personally, I see the vocals very much as another instrument.  From the instrumental point of view, though there is plenty of razor-sharp riffing, Jack Dupon’s sound hardly ever suggests the heaviness of metal, but rather the angularity of King Crimson – with interlocking guitar lines very much in Fripp/Belew style, insistent to the point of occasional monotonousness, and frequent surges followed by pauses of relative calm that create sonic peaks and valleys. The undercurrent of zany, Dadaist humour running through the album (also reflected by the titles, as well as by the nonsensical lyrics and distinctive artwork suggestive of German Expressionism) – echoes not only Zappa, but also Gong (whose flying teapots are referenced in “Le Château de l’Eléphant”), RIO/Avant bands like Samla Mammas Manna and Höyry-Kone, and borderline progressive bands like Primus and Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade.

The tracks on Démon Hardi (“Bold Demon”), with the sole exception of the Middle-Eastern-tinged instrumental “Sombre Trafic Sur le Nil”, an unusually melodic, guitar-driven piece, are all over 6 minutes in length, though this time the longest number is strategically placed at the album’s close. The remaining tracks are prevailingly similar in structure, with an ‘ebb and flow’ movement that alternates slow, almost ominous passages and frantic ones, the vocals used sparingly but forcefully to add further intensity to the musical texture. The Zappa influence clearly surfaces in the more upbeat sections, as in the almost cheerful “Le Château de l’Eléphant”, a veritable drum tour de force with a classic rock feel in the guitar parts and occasionally funky touches. “Cravate Sauvage”, on the other hand, is somber and somewhat monotonous, spiced up with effects-laden guitars seemingly ‘conversing’ with the drums in the style perfected by King Crimson in their Eighties period; while “La Marmite du Pygmée” drags a bit at times, but features some outstanding guitar work. The longer tracks (such as opener “Le Labyrinthe du Cochon” or the jazz-meets-King-Crimson “Jeudi (de) Poisson”) offer plenty of changes, even though an impression of patchiness may occasionally emerge – as on closing track “Oppression, Dépression, Les Valeurs du Cool” (at 13 minutes the longest track on the album), whose riff-driven intro hints at metal and is then followed by a sedate, melodic section with a bluesy guitar solo, then climaxes with a choppy, funky passage.

As other reviewers have pointed out, Jack Dupon’s music seems to be tailor-made for the stage – which means that its effectiveness is not always as strong as one might expect when heard on CD. While the vocals are undeniably an acquired taste, they go hand-in-hand with the music and the concept behind it, and it is not hard to imagine that a live setting would increase their impact exponentially. The somewhat repetitive, jam-like nature of the music, with its often hypnotic pacing, also seems to be much more suited to live performance than more or less ‘passive’ listening. On any account, even if clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, Démon Hardi is definitely an interesting album, and Jack Dupon a very promising band that have obviously grown a lot since their debut. Though their musical offer may not be to everyone’s taste, and needs the right disposition on the part of the listener to be appreciated in full, they manage to deliver a product in which the various influences are reworked in a genuinely personal manner. At the time of writing, Jack Dupon are about to embark on a European tour, and are scheduled to appear at the 2011 edition of the Rock in Opposition Festival (Carmaux, France) in September.

Links:
http://www.jack-dupon-rock-progressif.net/

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Tracklisting:
1. Elephant Talk (4:43)
2. Frame by Frame (5:09)
3. Matte Kudasai  (3:47)
4. Indiscipline  (4:33)
5. Thela Hun Ginjeet  (6:26)
6. The Sheltering Sky (8:22)
7. Discipline (5:13)

Lineup:
Adrian Belew – lead vocals, guitars
Robert Fripp – guitars, devices (Frippertronics)
Tony Levin – bass, Chapman stick, backing vocals
Bill Bruford – drums, percussion

After two posts dedicated to recent albums,  now it is time to go back almost thirty years – to the beginning of that decade that, in the eyes of many people, is synonymous with the ‘dark ages’ as far as progressive rock is concerned.  In the eyes of many, the Eighties marked the triumph of style over substance, and therefore offered very little of interest to anyone looking for authentically progressive music. Obviously, this is in many ways a misconception, because during those momentous ten years for the history of the world a lot of great music was  produced – even though it sounded different from anything released by the trailblazing acts of the early Seventies.

One of those bands, King Crimson (whose 1969 masterpiece, the legendary In the Court of the Crimson King, had reputedly marked the official birth of the progressive rock era), had been laid to rest by its mastermind Robert Fripp after the release of the monumental Red in 1974.  Very few people expected them to resurface at the beginning of the new decade, when prog had become all but a four-letter word – not just with the inevitable Fripp at the helm, but also drummer Bill Bruford on board, as well as two newcomers (though with already a sizable amount of experience behind them) – bassist Tony Levin with his Chapman stick, and guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew.

For those who had known King Crimson during their Seventies glory days, the release of Discipline in 1981 was nothing short of a shock.  No mellotrons (or any keyboards for that matter), no majestic vocal performances, no visionary lyrics – just a rhythm section to die for, two gifted guitarists trying to outdo each other at every opportunity, an incredibly expressive vocalist with an endearingly lazy American twang, and oodles of intriguing ethnic influences – notably Javanese gamelan music.  On the other hand, it would not be correct to say that Discipline has no connection with  the Crims ’70s  output.  Indeed, in some ways it takes up where “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic” left off – there is more than a touch of Jamie Muir’s crazy percussive brilliance in Bruford’s performance on this album.

One very evident influence on  Discipline,  especially as regards the  tracks featuring vocals,  is celebrated New Wave band Talking Heads, easily one of the most ‘progressive’ (in the true sense of the word) representatives of the so-called post-punk era – and no wonder, seen as Adrian Belew collaborated for some time with the New York band before being invited by Fripp to join the new incarnation of King Crimson. Belew’s manic, emotionally charged vocal delivery is noticeably influenced by David Byrne’s, although in my view Belew is by far the better vocalist. Needless to say, his style is light years removed from Greg Lake’s smooth, quintessentially English tones, or John Wetton’s rawer yet powerful delivery: as much of an acquired taste as Belew’s vocals may be, they are a perfect fit for the music showcased on Discipline.

It must be pointed out, however, that the numbers which feature more or less traditional singing amount to just half of the album. The true strength of “Discipline” lies in its magnificent instrumental tracks: the tense electric storm of “Indiscipline”, slashed by almost violent guitar flurries, and featuring a slightly disturbing spoken-word section; the ambient-influenced, African-tinged mood piece of “The Sheltering Sky” (inspired, like The Police’s  “Tea in the Sahara”, by Paul Bowles’ novel of the same title), which provides a welcome respite from the overall intensity of the album; and the title-track, which rounds things off in style with Fripp and Belew’s dueling guitars weaving in and out of Bruford’s and Levin’s thunderous, intricate rhythmic background.

Of the tracks featuring vocals, the laid-back, atmospheric ballad “Matte Kudasai” (Japanese for “please wait”), an alternate version of which is provided as a bonus track in the 2004 edition of the album, is the closest the album gets to the mainstream.  Though it is not a bad song by any means, displaying Belew’s gentler side as a vocalist, it feels somewhat out of place among the other, more exciting and innovative tracks. Conversely, opener “Elephant Talk”, spiked by all sorts of weird noises (courtesy of Belew’s notorious “elephant guitar”), a real vocal tour de force, with Belew half-singing, half-reciting his whimsical lyrics, sets immediately the scene, making it clear what the new Crimson are all about.  In a similar vein are the dynamic, though not as frantic, “Frame by Frame”, and the funky, percussion-driven “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (anagram of “Heat in the Jungle”), in whose central section Belew relates his narrow escape from muggers in NYC.

King Crimson  have always been quite famous for their stunning cover art, and Discipline is no exception, though – almost paralleling the album’s musical content  – the cover is much more minimalistic and streamlined than such baroque masterpieces as ITCOTCK and “Lizard”. Incidentally, the background colour is that shade of dark red commonly known as crimson, framing a spectacularly intricate Celtic knot – deceptively simple, extremely stylish, just like the album it contains.  However, do not be mistaken into thinking that Discipline might be – in true Eighties fashion – a triumph of style over substance. Although it may not everyone’s cup of tea, it is one of the undisputed masterpieces of progressive rock, and an enormously influential effort – as pointed out by Edward Macan, who dedicated a whole chapter of his seminal book Rocking the Classics to King Crimson’s comeback album.

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