Something happened to King Crimson between June 28, 2017 in Chicago, IL and the band's five-night run from July 14 to 19 (with a night off on the 17th), that same year, in Mexico City. Both engagements were exceptional, with the Chicago performance captured on Official Bootleg: Live In Chicago, June 28th, 2017
(DGM Live, 2017), and now, with Meltdown (Live in Mexico City)
serving as an audio and
video document of the best performances from those five Mexican nights (and more).
Chicago was undeniably extraordinary, so much so that the band decided to hold off the planned release of the more fully produced Live In Vienna, December 1st, 2016
(Panegyric), already released in Japan in a slightly different form, until Spring 2018, so that they could squeeze the Chicago soundboard recording into the schedule just four months after it was recorded, in October, 2017. Still, comparing it to Meltdown
renders emphatically that, in those 15 days between the two gigs, something did, indeed, happen
's liners (largely taken from sole original member, guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp
's diaries from the time), Fripp affirms that something significant certainly did take place during those five Mexico City shows (also described in his Vienna
notes): "The Seven-Headed Beast (2014) can be seen as KC 8.1 and Jeremy [Stacey] replacing Bill [Rieflin] (2016) as 8.2. So, from one point of view, the present Octet might be 8.3. For me, it's something more, and qualitatively different: King Crimson v. 9.1. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, the parts added together already impressive. But the focus of my interest is the overall performance of the group. In this incarnation there is no member/s who believes themself to be special, or their contribution privileged in some way."
For those who have followed the seemingly relentless growth of King Crimson 8.x, since reemerging in 2013 with its three-drummer frontline (playing its first dates in the USA in the fall of the following year, including two mind-blowing shows
at San Francisco's The Warfield), comparing these two live documents from just a couple weeks apart demonstrates how, even in such a relatively brief period of time, King Crimson has continued to evolve and, from an improvisational perspective, open up to an even greater extent. But it's also important to note that Crimson's evolution from 8.1 to 9 has been both organic and not without its challenges.
Indeed, sometimes crisis can become advantage. When one of the initial 2013 lineup's drummers (and part-time keyboardist) Bill Rieflin was forced to take an unanticipated break from touring in 2016, drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey
took his place, with the understanding that it would be a temporary position, as Rieflin's place would be held open for his return. But Stacey gelled so well with the band that, when Rieflin was ready to come back the following year, a collective decision was made to expand the group to an eight-piece. Stacey retained his middle position between drummers Pat Mastelotto
(a Crimson alum since the mid-'90s) and Gavin Harrison
(who, in addition to performing with the short-lived 2008 quintet, contributes the percussion section arrangements) as drummer and keyboardist. Rieflin, on the other hand, moved to the center space in the group's backline, which already included Fripp, guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk
, Tony Levin
(who, barring one four-year lineup from 1999-2003, has been the band's bassist/stick player since 1980) and, returning to the fold after a forty-year break, saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins
Even as a seven-piece lineup, Crimson 8.1 was already doing something no other Crimson had done (or, to be truthful, had been able
to do): refresh and revitalize material from (almost) across the band's entire history, by having enough hands on deck to interpret studio material that had originally included far more layers and instrumentation than any of Crimson's previous quartet configurations (or, even, the mid-'90s double trio and 2008's double-drum, double-guitar quintet) could manage in concert.
Expanded to an eight-piece has rendered Crimson 8.3/9 even more capable and filled with farther-reaching prospects. Beyond Harrison's innovative arrangements for three drummers, with both Stacey and Fripp also contributing on keys alongside Rieflin means that there can be up to three keyboardists at once, which further allows the group to develop as it brings together, for the first time, two guitarists, bass/stick and saxophones/flutes. And, of course, three drummers who, rather than following rock's semi-norm of playing largely the same parts, are, instead, more like a classical percussion section, albeit one with rock energy and a strong improvisational bent.
Just listen to Crimson 8.3's look at "Indiscipline" and it's possible to kinetically feel the change in the air. Beyond being a popular song from the '80s Crim, "Indiscipline" (along with a revision of "Neurotica," from 1982's Beat
(Panegyric)) broke a rare Crimson 8.x rule up to that point, as the group finally began tackling vocal material from the '80s lineup that first introduced 28-year Crimson veteran, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew
, on 1981's game-changing Discipline
(Panegyric), from which "Indiscipline" was also drawn. The opening stick ostinato that lasts for three minutes, providing Harrison, Mastelotto and Stacey the opportunity to engage in a series of accelerating trade-offs, is certainly plenty exhilarating in Chicago, but what happens with the two different takes featured on Meltdown
's Blu Ray video and, in audio only, on one of Meltdown
's three CDs is something else entirely.
The drum-led intro demonstrates a major revision to the percussion arrangement, with each drummer's solo segment seeming to be largely through-composed; each drummer's parts seem similar between performances, while still leaving the freedom to interpret phrasing, timbre and dynamics, sometimes with surprising subtlety and elsewhere with greater thrust. But taken as a whole, the frontline intro feature assumes the kind of narrative build that, when wholly improvised, is a complete risk from night to night. Here, while still allowing enough interpretative room to render one performance different from the next, it assumes a compositional focus and more consistent (but no less thrilling) context.
Jakszyk's vocals on "Indiscipline," as have already been described in the review of Live in Chicago
, excel in the singer's decision to take Belew's original spoken-word lyrics and make them his own by reinventing them into a sung part, doubled on guitar and harmonized, vocally, by Levin.
But it's the overriding sense of freedomhow, even within the confines of structural forms and defined arrangements, anything can and will happen from one show to the nextthat renders these two versions of the same song worth inclusion in the set and worthy of comparison. Following the first vocal segment, the version on Blu Ray video features Fripp employing his silkily sustaining tone to layer melodies both lyrical and oblique over the arpeggio-rich foundation and frenetic percussive underpinning; but it's his solo on the audio-only version (also included, along with the rest of the CD content, in high resolution on the Blu Ray disc) that truly assaults the senses, beginning with an angular sequence, initially over Jakszyk's final words, that gradually leads to a frenzied build-up of rapidly strummed chords, ascending seemingly endlessly until Fripp cascades them all the way down into Jakszyk's second vocal segment.
It might be possible to assess these as just particularly good performances during an especially strong series of five shows defined, as much by the group's excellence as they are by the Mexico City audience's notable enthusiasm, which Fripp also writes about, from a number of perspectives: "The audience, the most enthusiastic we have seen, even wild at places; but mostly exceptionally courteous." ..."many young women dancing, singing along. Quite remarkable and very moving to see how KC music has touched so many." "This beginning-again KC can be seen as Formation 8.3. But, for me, the beginning again-again KC is properly Formation Nine, appearing at the Teatro Metropolitan, Mexico City on the evening of Friday, 14th. July 2017. The wonderful audience made the transition possible. In a sense, this audience was the midwife to Formation Nine." Meltdown
can, in some ways, be seen as the 2018 cousin of 2016's Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)
(Panegyric). Both are the only live documents of Crimson 8/9 to feature both audio and video content. Both, too, sum up the repertoire of that Crimson's lineup, though Radical Action
included performances of every song the lineup performed during the 2015 tour, while there are some notable absences ("The Errors," "Exiles," "VROOM") of songs played during the Mexico City run. And while Radical Action
included some material for the very first time on a Crimson 8.x live release, the only previously unheard piece included in the Mexico City set is "CatalytiKc No. 9," a percussion feature barely breaking the one-minute mark. The inclusion , however, of six bonus tracks, described as 2018 Official Bootleg
in their being soundboard recordings rather than the superb Rieflin-produced/Don Gunn mixes from the Mexico City performances, are certainly welcome as they bring Meltdown
's set list almost to the present. Almost.
But it really is in assessing just what happened in Mexico City, during five performances beginning a mere sixteen days after Chicago (and with only six live shows between them) that really makes Meltdown
such an essential document in the ongoing evolution of King Crimson 8/9.
Fripp's comment that "In this incarnation there is no member/s who believes themself to be special, or their contribution privileged in some way" mirrors a similar sentiment from a famous jazz guitarist (who will remain unnamed, as this was an off-the-record, private comment) that he was enjoying his then-current band so much because "There's no melodrama. Every night each member of the band comes to the gig with no other purpose than to play their very best."
For those experiencing this lineup for the first time on Meltdown
, it bears repeating that Fripp is clearly enjoying playing with an incarnation of King Crimson that, it would seem for the first time, is about the collective, with egos checked at the door and no purpose other than to deliver the best performance possible on any given night, with the assumption that as consistently superb as they are, some nightssome specific performances of particular compositionsare better than others. As has been written about shows seen in San Francisco, Montréal
between 2014 and '17, this is the first Crimson in decades: where Fripp is as well-lit as the rest of the band; where the guitarist can be seen engaging in frequent eye contact with his band mates, his slight grin a clear encouragement and response to what's happening around him; and where he can also be seen looking out at the audience.
But for all that, this is, indeed, a Crimson where nobody is featured yet everyone shines. Ok, not entirely true, as everyone in the band has moments where the spotlight would be on them...if there actually was
a spotlight. But this version of King Crimson has eschewed anything visual beyond the massive import of its lineup and the eye-grabbing performances of everyone in the group...sometimes, so many taking place concurrently that it's difficult to know where to look.
And that is where the video content of Meltdown
really helps elucidate everything, but most notably who is playing what. Radical Action
's video portion utilized fixed webcams, and so it was up to the editor to move between cameras and utilize cross-fades, split screens and more to create the sense of motion that was absent from using this type of technology. With Meltdown
, better cameras are used, though still none getting in the way of the group's performances as is so often the case, with camera operators climbing all around the stage to get angles and shots. Here, David Taylor's cameras are judiciously arranged so that it's possible to get a full-on look at the band, as if sitting in a great central seat. There are also cameras that focus, from various angles, on each member of the band, along with side and back views that provide perspectives no ticket holder can get. And, just as importantly, video director Matt Skerritt avoids the rapid cuts that make so many contemporaneous music performance videos just plain irritating.
Instead, Skerritt allows plenty of time with each shot, in order to absorb what is going on, also utilizing split screens (from two and three to, at one point, all eight) to demonstrate when members of the group are playing key parts either alone or together with others. It makes for an enlightening watch (even for those who've seen the group multiple times since it began touring in 2014), as it's finally possible to see, for example, which keyboardist is doing what during the three-keyboard segments of "Cirkus," or how the three drummers' parts are sometimes constructed like a thundering yet still fragile house of cards: remove any one part from the equation and the entire rhythmic whole would collapse. But, of course, it never does.
There are so many highlights that it would be impossible to list them all, but suffice to say that the biggest walkaway from Meltdown
is how each band member has really grown so much into his own skin with this group over the past half decade. Comparing material that's been in Crimson's set lists since 2014 to Meltdown
and it's hard to deny just how much better everyone is getting, both individually and collectively. While confined, to some extent, by some monumentally complex arrangements, the freedom that has been one of Crimson 8/9's cornerstones since its inception has only become greater, broader, deeper.
And that is what, in many ways, makes the Mexico City performances drawn together to shape Meltdown
so definitive, and so justifying of Fripp's assertion that they have elevated King Crimson 8.3 to Crimson 9. A deep look into how this eight-piece Crimson tackles one of the group's most enduringly challenging compositions, the whole tone-driven "Fracture," from 1974's Starless and Bible Black
(Panegyric), compared to the seven-piece version included as a bonus track on Live in Vienna
It's a tune that, with its relentlessly blinding moto perpetuo
middle section, was a challenge for Fripp even when he played it, almost nightly, between 1973 and '74. Now, with 72 year-old fingers, the guitarist has already written about its even greater challenges, made all the more so by having to adapt it to the New Standard Tuning that he introduced in the early '80s, and which has rendered unwieldy some of his '70s music (consequently and thankfully, passed along to Jakszyk, who continues to prove himself increasingly capable to those who were previously unaware of just how strong a guitarist he is).
Written with a four-piece group in mindand, with the version introduced on Starless and Bible Black
culled from a live recording that was subsequently brought back to the studio for some post-production work"Fracture" doesn't so much benefit from the expanded lineup in its ability to execute all the original's parts. Rather, it is one of the best examples of how Crimson 8.3 (or, now, 9) can take a legacy piece from over forty years ago and not just orchestrate it in a fashion Fripp might not have conceived when he first wrote it, but bring it into the new millennium with thorough modernity. All manner of added, enhanced and re-envisaged parts are bolstered by a compelling interpretive freedom that even the quartet which originally played it, strong as it was, was simply incapable.
From the introductory guitar linesinitially played alone by Fripp but with Jakko soon entering as it evolves into the kind of interlocking dual-guitar parts initially introduced with '80s Crim, with a split screen of the two guitarists illustrating how a guitar part once played by one has now been reworked for two"Fracture" exemplifies how Crimson can now retrofit innovations from later lineups into material from those that came before. When the band enters for the familiar, metallic theme of alternating meters that is returned to, again and again, throughout the eleven-minute piece like a rallying point (or, more accurately, a lightning rod), it's Levin and Mastelottoinitially, alone, and one of many passages throughout the concert that help delineate each individual drummer's particular strengths, before passing it first to Stacey and then to Harrisonwho provide it its thundering heft.
Collins' potent baritone saxophone doubles Levin's part while, at the same time, providing the bassist some freedom to orbit in, out and around it, while Jakszyk adds searing upper register lines as the composition then moves into the lengthy moto perpetuo
section. It's a section which has now evolved from being a still-frightening display of Fripp's technical acumen into a movement made all the richer for the confluence of three drummers, Jakszyk's scorched earth extemporizations, injected between passages where he adds additional weight to Fripp's rapid-fire playing with a counter theme, and Rieflin's supportive keyboard insertions.
Skerritt's use of a variety of split screens adds not just elucidation but actual movement to the piece, whether it's Jakszyk and Fripp, Levin and Rieflinor, in particular (and, even if ever so briefly), Mastelotto, Stacey and Harrison's seemingly impossible division of labor, with each drummer holding down a completely different pulse, the collective result being a wild cacophony of interlocking, converging and diverging polyrhythms.
Elsewhere, a line that used to be played by Fripp alone, and which was divided between Fripp and Jakszyk on Live in Vienna
, is split even further by including Rieflin, allowing for notes to sustain over each other in ways that were previously not possible, as they lead into a harder-rocking series of shifting bar linessix beats to the measure, followed by five, then four and, finally, three, before starting all over againwith Levin pumping a single note in a completely different meter as the section reiterates the previously divided line as a new section. Three-part harmonies from Fripp, Jakszyk and Rieflin are anchored by Levin's alternating (and fuzz-toned) bars of four, three, five and three beats, before Collins enters on flute, soloing with wild abandon over an equally reckless percussion three-way as Fripp, Jakszyk and Rieflin's lines ascend to the composition's ultimate conclusion.
It's a truly staggering performance from every member of the band (though Fripp still gets the highest marks for managing the moto perpetuo
with such remarkable accuracy and finesse), turning into the most breathtakingly complex and climactic high point of the first set, which concludes with an appropriate breather in the lyrical, optimistic title track to Islands
(Panegyric, 1971). "Islands" highlights a completely different set of strengths and skills from Crimson 9, largely based around the concept of simplicity: Jakszyk's emotive yet restrained vocals; Stacey's thoroughly beautiful piano work; Fripp's combination of warm-toned guitar, and mellotron and oboe-like keyboard samples; Rieflin's harmonium colors; Levin's meshing of fulcrum (over which the entire group balances) and ever-astute interpretive choices; and Harrison and Mastelotto's combination of groove and texture, all acting as various foundations for Collins' evocative work on alto flute, and soprano and alto saxophones.
Along with "Indiscipline," Crimson's look at "Fallen Angel," from 1975's seminal Red
(Panegyric, 1975) is another of just a couple of tracks on Meltdown
that feature different audio and video takes. Collins, amongst other differences, takes a little longer to enter with his alto solo after the first arpeggio-driven "Fallen Angel" chorus on the video version, but when he does it's a set highlight, with greater power and, it feels, intent, versus the audio-only take, where his alto mirrors Jakszyk's gritty octaves before soaring off into upper-register explorations.
Still, while Meltdown
differs from Radical Action
in that those versions shared in both video and audio-only are mixed the same (only sounding different, between CD and Blu Ray, due to the latter medium's higher resolution), there are still some significant differences. Beyond the CDs (and high res Blu Ray audio only) containing an additional nine tracks from the Mexico City dates, by arranging the order of the music on the CDs into three sets, ordered with considerable differences to the two on video, it makes the audio only experience a different one, whether it's ending the "first set," following the pastoral ambience of "Islands" with the more exhilarating one-two punch of "The Talking Drum" and "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two"; the "second set" ending with the usual set-closing "Starless"; or the "third set" a shorter, fifty-minute set that opens with the lovely miniature, "PeaceAn End," from 1970's In The Wake of Poseidon
(Panegyric) and ending, as ever, with a high octane version of this Crimson's typical closing encore, "21st Century Schizoid Man."
"21st Century Schizoid Man," the opening track from the group's 1969 sound that shook the world, In the Court of the Crimson King
(Panegyric), has also evolved considerably from early Crimson 8.1 performances. Initially, it was largely a solo feature for Harrison; over time, it's become more extended, growing from roughly ten to, more recently, as long as thirteeneven, at times, sixteenminutes. Harrison still gets plenty of time to demonstrate his combination of forceful chops and compositional focusand, with this version, a dash of humor when he injects, using tuned percussion samples, the first few chords from Deep Purple's mega-hit "Smoke on the Water." Still, the clearly completely open-ended solo section also provides room for briefer (but still significant) turns for Levin and Stacey (who trade-off at the beginning of the section); Fripp's lengthier alternations between silkily sustained lines and gritty, wah-inflected chordal injections; and Collins, who takes a freewheeling solo that, as he often does, references his jazz proclivities by quoting Duke Ellington
's "Take the 'A' Train," all bolstered by some chordal injections from Levin and heated support from Stacey, who remains the solo section's sole drummer until he hands things off to Harrison.
All told, the concert video portion runs a little over two-and-a-half hours, while the Mexico City portion of the audio-only content runs a full 202 minutes. And if this collection of "best of" performances culled from Mexico City in the summer of 2017 aren't enoughmixed and produced (by Don Gunn and Bill Rieflin, respectively) into one of the group's meatiest-sounding live documents ever, the majority of it brought to captivating and revelatory video by camera man David Taylor and editor Matt Skerrittthe third CD (and Blu Ray high res audio) also includes an additional eighteen minutes of music from Crimson 9's 2018 UK/European tour, including: a beautifully expanded version of Discipline
's knotty yet viscerally grooving title track; the dark-hued ballad "Moonchild," from In the Court of the Crimson King
, followed by two improvised cadenzas from Levin (both arco and pizzicato) and, on piano, Stacey; the thundering post-Red
instrumental "Breathless," from Fripp's 1979 solo album Exposure
(DGM Live); and a short group improv, "Cool Jam," that demonstrates this lineup can, indeed, get down and get funky with its bad self, albeit in a way that's still pure Crimson.
These aren't the only tracks that Crimson has introduced into its 2018 set lists. Amongst the others: "BoleroThe Peacock's Tale" which, introducing the triptych of "Dawn Song," "Last Skirmish" and "Prince Rupert's Lament," all four found as part of the title suite from 1970's Lizard
(Panegyric) and which have never been played by any previous Crimson incarnation; "Larks' Tongues In Aspic (Part IV)," taken from the same album from which Crimson 8/9 has drawn the idiosyncratic first part of the title track to The ConstruKction of Light
(Virgin, 2000); the new "Radical Action III," a series of "Drumsons" percussion pieces including, amongst others, "Drumsons Launch a Maritime Empire," "Drumsons Sink a City" and "Drumsons Reverse Global Warming," and the already performed "Suitable Grounds for the Blues," but with a new piano introduction by Stacey; and Poseidon
's lyrical "Cadence and Cascade."
When Crimson 8.1 first hit the stage in the fall of 2014, it was possible to hear that group's entire repertoire over the course of two back-to-back shows. Now, alongside material from Exposure
and the Jakszyk, Collins & Fripp precursor to Crimson 8.1, A Scarcity of Miracles
(Panegyric, 2011), Crimson is drawing legacy additions from every past studio album, with the exception of Three of a Perfect Pair
(Panegyric, 1983). Add to that a slowly growing repertoire of new music, and it would likely require three, maybe even four shows to hear it all...and that's assuming they'd cooperatively ensure, since each night's set is now so different, that every song in the group's vast repertoire was covered across those four performances.
The group has also begun dropping material from a current touring repertoire, only to add it back in on a subsequent tour. So the best way to "get it all" is through its ongoing series of live documents, ranging from audio-only to audio/video, and from "warts and all" soundboard mixes to proper post-production mixing. Meltdown
documents Crimson's unexpected leap from 8.3 to 9. Considering there has been no change in personnel between the two, what lifts Crimson to a newly considered incarnation is more about an approach to both legacy and new music, elevated to an entirely new plane of form and freedom, individual and collective engagement and interaction, and an overall sound that now renders King Crimson 9 as the most capable, most portent-filled and most unpredictable lineup as the band's nears its fiftieth anniversary in 2019.
Fripp has never sounded so completely engaged with his band mates, as he takes the kinds of risks he's not taken in decades but, now, combining all the various tones and timbres he's evolved over the decades, sounding the best he ever has. Jakszyk has never sounded so confident and emotive as a singer and increasingly revelatory as a guitarist, also taking more risks and adding more of his own personality to the music. Levin continues to approach the material with increasing freedom, all while anchoring a multitude of grooves on a multitude of instruments. Rieflin has, since coming on as the band's first full-time keyboardist, developed a unique place as sonic texturalist and melodic foil. Irrespective of the multiple saxophones and flutes he employs, Collins has simply never sounded better, whether anchoring or bolstering the lower registers or soaring high above his band mates in flights of improvisational fancy.
And what of the three-drummer frontline? Harrison's mega-kit of electric and acoustic instruments, along with his arrangements for the frontline, allows him to also be a colorist while, at the same time, combining unshakable pulses with outrageous chops. Stacey, a masterful technician as well, brings some jazz credentials to the frontline, both on kit and keyboards, and it's great to see the band making increasing use of both, in music that isn't exactly jazz but is possessed, at times, of its freewheeling spirit. And Mastelotto, between his acoustic and electronic kit and a bevy of weird and wonderful percussion, ranging from odd-shaped plates of metal to small devices that he cranks to get subtle but essential sonics, remains the percussion section's true "X-Factor."
It's also worth noting the absence of the term "progressive rock" in this review...and, it seems, increasingly amongst its fan base. Fripp notes: "The audiences heard/saw the band from outside the prism of Prog Rock. To be free of that categorisation is a joy." Indeed, when compared to the ongoing renewal of that genre in the past two decades, it's significant to note that, while employing certain touchstones that are associated with it, and performing music that was once considered a part of it, it's a joy to see that King Crimson 9 has finally unshackled itself from a reductionist classification that has unfairly plagued the group, almost since inceptionand even if its 1969 debut is still considered one of the cornerstones of the genre.
King Crimson 9 plays music
, plain and simple, that compositionally draws upon a multitude of forms and formats. With its individual and collective approach to improvisation, interaction reinvention and interpretation, the band is also impossible to easily categorize. Every member of the band is also improving from tour to tour: in their playing; in how they approach the music (no previous Crimson has ever been so marvelously unfettered within such challenging structures and arrangements); in their evolution, with so much touring under their collective belt, at an accelerating rate; and in how they now mesh as one, a unified, eight-headed organism. As much of a joy as it is to witness, imagine how it must be to be a part of it?
Fripp, again in his diary entries, addresses an important question raised by manager, engineer and producer David Singleton: can music change the world?
The answer, according to Fripp, raises as many questions as it does provide answers. But one thing is certain, from the experience of following King Crimson since its return to active duty in 2013 and, now, with a document in Meltdown
that continues to support the suggestion that this is a lineup that just keeps getting better and better, even with such a short gap between Live in Chicago
and Mexico City's five exceptional performances. Is it changing the world? That might be presumptuous. But, on the merits of Meltdown (Live in Mexico City)
's extraordinary audio and video presentations, it's certainly no hyperbole to suggest that King Crimson 9 is certainly stretching the limits of what music is and what it can be, to the legion of fans who've seen or heard the band over the past five years.
And, as is absolutely true here, if music is as essential to the lives of even some of its fans, something without which life would simply not be as rich, rewarding and enlightening an experience, then perhaps musicwhich certainly brings people together in an all-too-often (and increasingly) divided worldreally can
change the world.