Tuesday 29 March 2016

King Crimson, Live in Toronto, an alternative review

Quick thoughts on the new King Crimson live album, Live in Toronto, a 2015 recording by the new septet, playing a set ranging from “The Court of the Crimson King” to some new material. This isn't a bad album, but it is a long way from being a great album. The five albums I got before this one happened to be:

Delta Saxophone Quartet with Gwilym Simcock: Crimson! (a mostly covers album of Crimson pieces)
The Morgaua Quartet: Atom Heart Mother is on the Edge (a Japanese string quartet doing prog pieces, including “Red” and “Peace-Fallen Angel including Epitaph”)
Eddie Jobson: Four Decades
UK: Curtain Call
Zakir Hussain: Making Music

... and they're all better.

The latest incarnation of King Crimson has abandoned the band's usual approach and gone for the nostalgia market that dominates the prog rock scene, a market the band have already targeted with umpteen mega-deluxe collectors' edition re-releases. In that context, after several bank-account-busting box sets, this release is value for money, a 2CD release for just £10.

Some Crim fans have argued that it's not nostalgia because of magic reasons to do with Crimson being different. I understand why bands focus on nostalgia. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia. The set/track list offers your 'greatest hits', so to speak, of King Crimson, save for skipping over the 1980s. These are good picks.

There is a little bit of new material. Ignoring the filler, like the intro soundscape, the new pieces amount to just “Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind”/“Meltdown”. Classic bands are in a bind: dismissed as nostalgia if they don't play new pieces, but criticised when the new pieces aren't up to scratch. Well, yes, the same applies here: “Radical Action...” is generic, Crimson-by-numbers. “Meltdown” is the better piece and a chance for Jakszyk to bring something of himself to the role. It mixes a bit of Jakszyk's style with a Crimson sound. But it also feels a bit unfinished. “Meltdown” could be compared to UKZ's “Radiation”, but the latter is the better piece of music and a better piece of Crimson music.

We do get two new drum trio pieces as well, but neither does all that much with the format. “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” is over before its begun. “Hell Hounds of Krim” bores. Compare One, the album by Pete Lockett's Network of Sparks feat. Bill Bruford, for what a multi-percussion piece can do.

By the way, the ever more boastful and grandiose titles, like “Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind” and “Hell Hounds of Krim”, ring ever more hollow when paired with below-average offerings!

But the core problem with this recording is a certain stilted, lumpen quality to the performance. Just in places, but enough that I spent as much time remembering better versions of these songs than coming back to these versions. It's the Wetton-era material that seems to suffer most, like “Red” and “Easy Money”, both lacking bite (compare Wetton and Jobson on Curtain Call), although “Level Five” also drags. Some have suggested this is a result of the band using a click track and the challenges of keeping the three drummers in sync. If that is the case, it wasn't a price worth paying.

The inclusion of three percussionists and of Collins does add a distinct flavour to the affair and they are sometimes used well, like as on parts of “Larks 1” and “Red”. Collins is good on “Starless”. Yet despite the unusual line-up, the material is not radically re-worked: compare what the Delta Saxophone Quartet + Simcock do, or The Morgaua Quartet.

The band are best on the material from the first four albums, a reminder at this time of what Greg Lake could do, but why not just crack out your old 21st Century Schizoid Band albums if you want to hear Collins and Jaksyzk play those classics?

What the band does well is give a sense of unity to the diverse Crimson back catalogue. There is this almost steampunk sound the line-up brings across piece, uniting the likes of “Larks 1”, “Pictures of a City” and “VROOOM”. At best, we get some solid performances: “The ConstruKction of Light” and “The Letters/Sailor's Tale” stood out for me.

If the unity of the band, a certain crispness, is missing, the individuals play well when considered separately. Jakszyk sings well. I'd single out Levin for praise, and why he isn't allowed a greater role in coming up with new material, I don't know.

A great jazz musician once said that music is a reflection of who and where you are. If that is the case, then this King Crimson is about Fripp's comfort. Nothing here challenges our idea of what Crimson can be... which thus means it misses the whole point of being King Crimson.

I am reacting against some overly hagiographic reviews of the album and have written more of negatives than positives. This isn't a bad album. You get some classic Crimson played by some classic Crimson members (plus a fine substitute). If you want a more radical deconstruction of old Crimson numbers, I do recommend the Delta Saxophone Quartet's Crimson! If you want some '70s classics played with more fire, Four Decades and Curtain Call are now available at a reasonable price on iTunes after an earlier Japanese physical release.

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