Another year, another live King Crimson set? True, perhaps. But since reforming in a slightly shifting but conceptually constant form in 2013 to begin touring in the fall of the following year, the band's forward-looking, ever-growing repertoire of new music and revisitation of old music (from across its nearly half century career) made new again has been documented solely through live recordings. It's entirely appropriate, in fact, given the band's only remaining co-founder, guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp
's longtime assertion that Crimson's studio albums are "love letters," its live recordings "hot dates."
Some, like the teasing taunt of 2015's vinyl length Live at the Orpheum
(Panegyric), the full, warts-and-all concert of Live in Toronto: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, November 20, 2015
(Panegyric, 2016) and the same year's three-CD/Blu Ray (and/or two-DVD) audio/video summation of the band circa 2015, Radical Action (to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind
(Panegyric), have been formally mixed from live multi-track recordings.
But, in order to capture and release particularly fine live shows in shorter order, the band has also opted for less time-consuming productions with rawer, more direct sonics culled directly from the front of house soundboard mix, specifically Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017
(DGM Live). Add to that the EP-length Heroes
(Panegyric, 2017), also culled from live recordings (including the titular David Bowie
song from 1977, to which Fripp contributed what has become some truly classic guitar work), and the current Crimson has released five live recordings of varying lengths in just over three years.
Except that there was actually a sixth live album that documented another complete, particularly strong concert. Live in Vienna 2016 + Live in Tokyo 2015
(Panegyric) was only released in Japan in the fall of 2017: a three-CD set including the full December,1, 2016 Museumsquartier show on the first two discs, with the third containing a selection of songs from the group's 2015 tour of Japan. The international release of Live in Vienna (UK Edition)
represents King Crimson's second document of a full show mixed from the multi-tracks rather than the front-of-house soundboard mix. But in addition to Vienna being an especially compelling show, the band has nixed the original Japanese third disc, replacing it with something far more appealing; well, truth be told, actually containing, amidst its six tracks, a single piece for which many (most) Crimson fans have been waiting ever since the group reformed. There's more to recommend the third disc as well, however. More about that later.
The foundational concepts of the current Crimson have, indeed, remained constant. Most notably, its three-drummer front-lineinitially including Pat Mastelotto
, Bill Rieflin (who also played keyboards alongside, on occasion, Fripp) and Gavin Harrison
(responsible for the detailed drum arrangements)was a rare and significant decision, one which has provided this Crimson lineup as close to orchestral potential as it has ever achieved. The back-line, too, has remained largely constant and given the band more instrumental potential than any of its previous incarnations. Joining Fripp in the back-line: Jakko M. Jakszyk
, a superb guitarist who is also the group's lead singer; longtime (off and largely, since the 1980s, on) Crimson bassist/background singer, Tony Levin
; and, back in the band for the first time in 41 years and four recordings with the band (documented in great detail on the recent Sailors' Tales 1970-1972
(Panegyric, 2017) box set), reed and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins
There have been changes in Crimson's lineup since 2014, largely due to Rieflin's unexpected absences and returns. When Rieflin first had to take a sabbatical from the band in 2016, drummer and, like Rieflin, fine keyboardist Jeremy Stacey
was recruited. But (perhaps not so unexpectedly), Stacey was such a strong addition to the group that, when Rieflin was ready to return, everyone agreed that Stacey would remain in the front-line, with Rieflin assuming a center position in the back-line (literally, between Levin and Jakszyk) as King Crimson's first-ever full-time keyboardist. It was this even more powerful and orchestrally capable lineup that toured in 2017, captured on Live in Chicago
But none of the previous recordings have captured the seven-piece Crimson lineup with Stacey. Live in Vienna
captures the Stacey septet from 2016, when the drummer chose to employ a smaller kit, more in keeping with Rieflin's original rig, before moving to a much larger kit in 2017, after Rieflin returned in his new capacity as keyboardist. Situated, chronologically, between Live in Toronto
and Live in Chicago
, Live in Vienna
can be viewed as a transitional recording in more ways than one.
In addition to documenting this particular version of the current Crimson lineup, it also finds the ever-evolving Crimson repertoire expanding once again. The 2016 tour introduced two pieces from 1970's seminal but, until more recently, often and unfairly overlooked Lizard
. The septet's look at Lizard
's album-opening "Cirkus" is closer, in its nightmare-inducing, multi-layered and massive spirit, to the original studio version, even with this twin-keyboard, pre-Rieflin return lineup. For the first time, Crimson could, due to reasons of size and instrumentation, more closely interpret the song in ways that the 1971/72 touring quartet simply could not, all while bringing it well into the 21st Century.
Even more significant, however, is the inclusion of"Dawn Song." This brief, foreboding opening to the 11-minute "Battle of the Glass Tears" (which also includes the chaotic "Last Skirmish" and elegiac "Prince Rupert's Lament") represents the first time anything
's second side-long suite has been performed live. While the entire "Battle of the Glass Tears" would enter the set list in 2017 (and can be heard on Live in Chicago
), the band's first live performance of anything from Lizard
's second vinyl side acts as a perfect set up for "Suitable Grounds for the Blues," a significantly altered, metal-tinged yet eminently funky 7/4 blues first introduced to the Crimson repertoire in 2015 and documented, for the first time, on Radical Action
Other than the dark-hued miniature, "Fairy Dust of the Drumsons," which begins with a brief soundscape before turning to a sparse combination of cymbals and thunder-like metal sheets, the rest of Live in Vienna
's first two discs (and, on the third, its encores of "Heroes" and, from the band's 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King
, the epic "21st Century Schizoid Man") feature just one other new/old piece introduced to the set-list, despite representing, at the time, a major philosophical shift for the group.
Until this tour, current Crimson lineups included just a small selection of instrumentals from the period 1980-2003. This was the period when the group was dominated, to some extent, by guitarist/lead vocalist Adrian Belew
, who has often polarized Crimson fans, pre-2014, into "pre-" and "post-Belew" factions). Until the fall, 2016 tour, the current Crimson had never performed any of that era's vocal material.
With the introduction of the angular, drum-heavy and aggressive "Indiscipline," however (from 1981's Discipline
), King Crimson announced that this material was no longer sacrosanct. A slightly longer version than on Live in Chicago
, "Indiscipline" renders crystal clear just how liberally this lineup can treat legacy material. Jakszyk, rather than emulating Belew's dramatic spoken word (from a letter he received from his wife about a sculpture she'd made), sings a surprisingly lyrical melody, first doubled on his guitar but then harmonized with Levin's background vocal, ending (as he would continue to do) with the words "I like it," yelled out in the language of whatever country the band was in.
But just because all but Vienna
's "Fairy Dust of the Drumsons" has already appeared on existing live recordings, Crimson's habit of shaking up the order of its two nightly sets (plus encores) creates some intriguing and unexpectedly wonderful combinations. Following the ever-present opening soundscape from Fripp that ultimately becomes grist for some in-the-moment interaction with flautist Collins and upright bassist Levin, the knotty percussion feature, "The Hell Hounds of Krim" (often heard as an intro to the current Crimson's sonically expanded title track from 1999's The ConstruKction of Light
), is heard here as a set opener, leading to "Pictures of a City," from 1970's In the Wake of Poseidon
. A fiery, jazz-centric, sometimes shuffle-driven but otherwise hard-edged, rock-driven song, "Pictures" provides plenty of improvisational space, both individual and collective.
And while it's true that some songs afford less extemporaneous opportunities, such as the symphonic "Epitaph" and "The Court of the Crimson King," others, like the dramatically dynamic "The Letters" (where Collins can often be heard at his most extreme) and 6/8 instrumentally epic "Sailor's Tale" (both from 1971's Islands
and, here, played back-to-back), provide plenty of moving room for everyone in the band. Even with Harrison's detailed drum arrangements, there are plenty of interpretive openings for the front-line.
Crimson's arrangements are rarely static. Poseidon
's brief "Peace" is significantly different here than on Radical Action
, where the first verse is sung (in Japanese) by Jakszyk, with Fripp layering soundscapes underneath. On Vienna
, the first verse is an entirely instrumental duo, with Jakszyk's spare chord changes supporting Fripp delay-drenched, warmly sustaining lines. This longest yet recorded version of "Easy Money," from 1973's Larks' Tongues In Aspic
, opens up to a rhythm-driven but still totally open-ended mid-section feature for Fripp, Collins and, ultimately, Jakszyk's vocal improvs, with Levin and the drummers taking no fewer risks as they bolster, and push and pull their band mates. Even Jakszyk's lyric-driven vocals during the first verse are supported by all manner of unpredictably quirky guitar, keyboard and electronic percussion sonics, with the second verse combining mellotron and some (almost) funky electric keys.
Even what has largely become the regular set-closer, "Starless" (from 1974's Red
), provides extemporaneous grist, from Collins' interweaves soprano saxophone, during the beginning vocal section, to the adjacent-string, single-note guitar soloing that begins the second section, anchored by Levin's firm bass line and some increasingly busy percussion, that turns more frenetic still as it leads to a double-time solo section for Collins (again on soprano) and, finally, for Jakszyk and, then, Fripp, strumming both furiously and relentlessly as the song moves to its final, climatic conclusion.
Every live recording Crimson has released has been sourced from particularly strong performances. Live in Chicago
may, as a raw soundboard recording, still trump the more produced sonics of Live in Vienna
; still, there's little doubt that Crimson's Austrian date was well worth preserving. Collins, Jakszyk and Fripp are clearly having a particularly good night, but it's Levin, who manages to anchor the band with scripted lines when necessary while expanding upon them in ways no other Crimson bassist has that elevates Vienna
to, if not Chicago
's level, then certainly a very, very close second. Jakszyk was always the perfect choice as this lineup's singer, but over the past couple of years he has emerged as the only
Crimson vocalist capable of handling a diverse repertoire that draws, now, on every single Crimson studio release, barring 1983's Three of a Perfect Pair
The Vienna show's two sets and two encores are plenty good enough reason to dive into yet another exceptional Crimson performance. But beyond that, the disc's three compelling closing tracks also give the release a fundamental difference from the four live releases and EP that have come before.
While conceptually similar to the seamlessly edited-together improvisations from the band's THRAK
tour on Thrakattak
, the overall tenor of these three flawlessly stitched together extracts and collages, culled from nine show-opening Fripp, Levin and Collins soundscape/improvisations from the last half of Crimson's 2016 European tour, is considerably less aggressive. Still, ranging from nearly 12 minutes to a mere 59 seconds, Fripp's underlying soundscapes move from darkly brooding to positively angular and, even, pastorally beautiful, providing a landscape for Collins (on flutes and saxophones) and Levin (on upright bass, plucked and bowed) to move fluidly across every shifting terrain.
Fripp's innovative Soundscape concept was the logical next step to Frippertronics, the pre-looping looping concept, innovated by Fripp and ambient forefather Brian Eno
, by connecting two Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders together so that Fripp could build layer upon layer of guitar in real time, creating the rich sonic landscapes first introduced on 1973's groundbreaking No Pussyfooting
and 1975 follow-up Evening Star
(both reissued by DGM Live/Panegyric in 2008).
But, with the advent of guitar synthesizers, sampling, digital looping technology and more, Fripp was able to migrate the more primitive Frippertronics towards truly orchestral proportions in the 1990s, leading to more recent Soundscapes releases like Love Cannot Bear
(DGM Live, 2005) and particularly innovative The Wine of Silence
(DGM Live, 2012), along with his ongoing series of duo recordings with reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis
that includes Follow
(Panegyric, 2012). Never static, however, Fripp has constantly moved his Soundscape work forward, with those found on Live in Vienna
's three closing pieces, most notably the lengthy "Schoenberg Softened His Hat," forward-reaching in their invention and spontaneously composed constructs.
That Fripp's opening Soundscapes to current Crimson performances are newly minted each and every night is an achievement in and of itself. Add Levin (himself, originally a jazz player with no shortage of improvisational cred) and the equally keen-eared Collins, and the result is a perfect way to gently break pre-performance audience chatter and refocus attention in a truly unique way. Here, however, these three studio constructions of live performances, appropriately co-credited to Fripp, Levin, Collins and
DGM label partner, producer and engineer (amongst many other things) David Singleton, the brief "Walk On" music to Crimson shows become something more significant. A particularly evocative engagement of Collins' soaring flute lines, Levin's gentle but still deep-in-the-gut phrases and some of Fripp's most flat-out beautiful Soundscapes, the closing "Spenta's Counter Claim," brief though it may be, acts as the perfect closing bookend to the Vienna concert-opening "Monk Morph Music of the Chamber."
But, perhaps, the most compelling raison d'être
for Live In Vienna, December 1st, 2016 (UK Edition)
, beyond documenting another strong Crimson performance and the three Fripp/Collins/Levin/Singleton collages, is its inclusion of the group's rarely played reinvention of "Fracture," first heard on 1974's Starless and Bible Black
and truly the holy grail that many Crimson fans have sought from this seven/eight-piece Crimson incarnation.
The original version, played by the then-quartet lineup of Crimson, with violinist/keyboardist David Cross
, bassist/vocalist John Wetton
and drummer/percussionist Bill Bruford
, was a musical masterclass of guitar technique, largely based around a whole tone scale and some particular fast single-note picking that remains, 44 years after its first release, a guitar "right of passage" not unlike fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius
' Weather Report
composition, "Teen Town." "Teen Town" may be a challenging piece for any aspiring bassist, but few guitarists can manage the relentless moto perpetuo
section of "Fracture." The composition has remained a challenging one, even for Fripp. First introduced to the current Crimson's set lists at the first of its fall, 2016 European tour on September 3, it remained in rotation most nights through to its November 12 date in Rome, after which it fell off the set list entirely for the balance of the tour.
When Crimson began its 2017 summer and fall tours of North America and Mexico, it was nowhere to be found, barring just a handful of showsfour, in totalfrom the tour's 45 live dates. Why was such a popular and hoped-for piece from the Crimson canon introduced, setting many expectations, only to ultimately be dropped? The best person to explain this is, without a doubt, Fripp himself. Excerpted from one of his ongoing diary entries at DGM Live
on November 30, 2016: "It took a year to bring my practising up to speed, as it were, and four months directly and specifically on 'Fracture.' For the first Euro-leg, between 6.5-8 on a scale of 10...upon my return, the athlete was not in race-ready condition. My intention was to play 'Fracture' when I was back in top condition. But as I became aware that it was on strong demand in Italy, I did the best I could, although not quite ready. Nevertheless, it seemed well-received.
"To keep 'Fracture'-fit takes 80% of my time and attention. Which is too much, And it's almost improper that a man of 70 should be doing the high-wire every night when there's a younger generation who might take it on!"
Recorded at Crimson's September 24, 2016 date in Copenhagen, this version of "Fracture" may only be, in Fripp's view, somewhere between a 6.5 and 8 out of 10. It's also unlikely that many fans will, despite few having any comparative performances with which to refer, give this performance anything less than an 8 (or, even, a 9.5). Beyond Fripp still managing a slightly reworked version of the moto perpetuo
with the kind of instrumental mastery that truly few guitarists can match, what makes this seven-piece look at one of the guitarist's most mind-boggling, classic compositions so compelling, with its multiple sections and mix of shifting and overlaid time signatures, is how it is, indeed, rearranged for the larger lineup.
Various guitar lines, both interlocking and migrating back and forth between Fripp and Jakszyk (who demonstrates his own mettle as a six-stringer here and, indeed, throughout the set) make for a provocative reinterpretation, in particular during its lengthy introduction but also during the moto perpetuo
and following rubato section, where Collins solos at length on flute.
In addition to layered flute improvs at various points throughout (including, surprisingly, during the composition's ferocious climax), Collins also adds some effective baritone saxophone lines that sometimes double Levin while, at other times, acting contrapuntally. Levin ensures that original bassist Wetton's signature lines remain similarly massive while, being a more versatile, flexible and fluid player, also changing things up considerably, both extemporaneously and through moving between bass guitar (clean and heavily overdriven) to upright bass. His rapid-fire electric bass lines near the song's climactic conclusion mirror Harrison's especially attention-grabbing, wildly complex drum arrangement. Adding a (relatively) simple backbeat during parts of the moto perpetuo
only shines a greater spotlight on the drum parts in the more frenetic sections that follow.
It's a true tour de force
that may, sacrilegiously, even surpass and supplant performances by the 1972-'74 band in conception and explosive energy. It absolutely is, alongside the three soundscape improvisations that close the third disc, a primary reason to consider Live in Vienna
an essential listen.
But, truth be told, as Crimson prepares for its fifth year of touring since returning to activity in 2013 (and the band just seems to be getting better and better with each passing year), the appeals of Live in Vienna [UK Edition)
are many, with the studio mix of the main concert also providing a pristine clarity matched only by Radical Action
, Live in Toronto
and the briefer Live at the Orpheum
. Live in Vienna
fills in an important gap in the current Crimson's evolution from the "Seven-Headed Beast of Crim" to its even greater instrumental possibilities as an eight-piece "double quartet." And if one King Crimson fan has expressed, on Facebook, to favoring Live in Toronto
and Live in Chicago
over the "prettier" Radical Action
for their warts-in enthusiasm, Live In Vienna, December 1st, 2016 (UK Edition)
may well change his mind, striking a perfect balance between post-production soundstaging and a potent, hellacious performance filled with penetrating power and resplendent beauty.
Mel Collins: saxophones, flutes; Robert Fripp: guitar, keyboards; Tony Levin: basses, stick, voice; Pat Mastelotto: drums; Gavin Harrison: drums; Jakko Jakszyk: guitar, voice; Jeremy Stacey: drums, keyboards.