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King Crimson: Music is Our Friend: Live In Washington and Albany, 2021


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King Crimson: Music is Our Friend: Live In Washington and Albany, 2021
You probably know the old adage about assumptions. After seeing the current (slightly fluid) King Crimson lineup twice every time the perennially groundbreaking group made it to North American shores since 2014, with no Canadian dates available in 2021 and the COVID Delta variant running rampant across the United States, the decision was made to forego traveling south to the USA to catch the band. After all, with the band touring, for the first time, on double bills with the California Guitar Trio or the Frank Zappa band, and delivering shorter set lists with no new material included, how much would be missed?

Listening to Music is Our Friend: Live In Washington and Albany, 2021, which includes Crimson's final show of the entire tour in Washington, DC, plus four tracks from the band's more intimate, pre-tour "Friends and Family" show at the start of the tour's second leg in Albany, NY, the answer should come as no surprise. From a band that has, since finding its way back into activity in 2014, managed to evolve and improve in leaps and bounds from one tour to the next, the answer?

Plenty. Even more than plenty.

With the band's way of "taking the old and making it new again," virtually every song on Music is Our Friend demonstrates growth and a palpable collective paradigm shift with respect to its internal chemistry.

Even the opening "Introductory Soundscape" features a new pre-recording from the band's only original co-founder, guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp, welcoming the crowd, generating plenty of enthusiasm for Crimson's return to the road (even with the Delta variant still around) and, as positively as possible, setting the ground rules for recording/photographing the band. But it is when contrasting the proper set-opening trio feature for drummers Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison, "The Hell Hounds of Krim," with the last recorded version of the piece on Meltdown (Live in Mexico City) (Panegyric Recordings, 2018), it is clear that even material that is largely through composed has somehow expanded into something greater. Whether it is the recording or the tuning of the drummers' kits, the piece feels at once considerably bigger and more broadly dynamic.

For the first time since 1973, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part I" more closely approximates the original recording on Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Panegyric Recordings), even if it's considerably shorter. Following the fiery third section, where guitarist Jakko M. Jakszyk and Fripp trade off with raw energy, the incendiary fourth section, driven by Tony Levin's fuzz-toned bass and the three- drummer frontline, finds Fripp playing with as much fire in the belly as he ever has. The gentler fifth section has been restored, replacing reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins' usual flute solo with the original recordings' violin passage, though who is contributing it remains a question mark for those who missed the tour. But beyond restoring its overall structure to the 1973 original, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part I," along with "The Hell Hounds of Krim," represent a most ballsy set opening for a band looking to expand its audience. No compromises, no "let's deliver a more accessible set" here. Instead, King Crimson 2021 is as forward-thinking and boundary pushing as it's ever been.

As small a thing as it is, Stacey (who also doubles on keyboards) introduces "Pictures of a City," from In the Wake of Poseidon (Panegyric Recordings, 1970), with the simple but oblique four-note electric piano phrase that led the original album's "Peace: A Beginning" into the album's second, more jazz-inflected composition. It's a small but important change for the current Crimson, as it appears to be striving to more accurately replicate older material while, at the same time, making it fresh and new again. What's more significant, however, is Stacey's disposition towards sampled acoustic piano throughout the song, lending it a greater angularity that, in its own way, more closely resembles the late Keith Tippett's contributions to the original album.

Being the set's first vocal track, "Pictures of a City" also demonstrates just how far Jakszyk has come as the band's lead singer, even more fully owning the songs. Stacey's mellotron adds some symphonic depth mid-way through, while Collins' alto saxophone solo, now bolstered by Stacey's jazz-inflected, inside/outside pianism, is driven to even greater improvisational heights.

The Washington, DC show also brings King Crimson full circle with its first North American tour back in 1969. The very first piece that Crimson played in the USA at its very first show, at Goddard College, Montpelier, Vermont on October 29th, 1969, was also the very same song that completed the current lineup's tour 52 years later: "21st Century Schizoid Man," from In the Court of the Crimson King (Panegyric Recordings, 1969). It might be seen as a conceit or a device, but it isn't. Instead, it's simply a serendipitous event, as the current line-up wrapped its tour up on a most decided high point, mirroring what must have been an exhilarating beginning to its 1969 North American tour by ending its 2021 North American tour in the same city as the original 1969 lineup of In the Court of the Crimson King (Panegyric Recordings).

The band introduced the two-minute coda to the closing title track from In the Court of the Crimson King back in 2019, when the band was celebrating its 50th Anniversary, but a live recording of the song in its entirety had yet to be released...until now. In fact, there's been no new live recordings from King Crimson since Meltdown, which documented the band's summer 2017 series of Mexico City dates, making it a full three years since anything live has been heard from the band, and a full four years when considering the actual passing of time since that album was recorded. Which makes Music is Our Friend all the more important for a band that has, quite literally, gotten better and better with each and every passing year.

Beyond Tony Levin's slippery bass lines throughout the main part of the song, and the drum section's potent blend of support and driving thunder, Jakszyk's has, once again, grown into complete ownership of the song. Collins' flute work, multiple mellotrons and more make this a version unlike any that has come before. And with a circus-like pipe organ entering after rounds of applause from an audience that thinks the song is over, introduced by a series of simple cymbal shots, the song reprises its chorus but this time instrumentally, as Stacey adds copious layers of dissonance to make the ending more closely resemble the nightmarish conclusion to the original studio recording.

As is typical with this Crimson lineup, there are no spoken introductions, and so the title track from Red (Panegyric Recordings, 1974) is even more of a gut punch than any prior version. Levin's bowed bass, Fripp's jagged chords and Collins' soaring flute in the middle section ultimately return to the song's primary theme. This time, however, with Stacey injecting all manner of angular pianisms, this may be the definitive live version of a song that's been in King Crimson's set lists since the 1980s.

The first of two brief electric double bass solos from Levin, "Tony Cadenza Deals It Slitheryacious-To-The-Max" serves as an intro the the band's most positively swinging version of "Neurotica," originally from Beat (Panegyric Recordings, 1982). The combination of Levin's double bass and Stacey's drumming, in particular, really bring Crimson's jazz predilections to the fore, even as the jagged guitar voicings and funky chorus drive the only time Jakszyk sings on a track that originally possessed some beat-driven spoken word vocals from Belew. Elsewhere, however, and as he's done before, Jakszyk takes the spoken word lyrics to a longer, even more angular "Indiscipline," from the 1980s Crimson lineup's recorded debut, Discipline (Panegyric Recordings, 1981), delivering them in oblique unison with his guitar playing and Levin's harmony vocals.

Red's "One More Red Nightmare" is played with a similar arrangement as heard during the 2017 tour and on the live audio/video set, Radical Action (to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind). That said, if may possess a similar arrangement, but the three drummers drive the song right into the stratosphere, positively thundering their way through the song, whether it's the collective playing during Jakszyk's grittier than usual vocals or trading brief solo spots between the introductory phrases to each verse.

It is difficult to put a finger on why Music is Our Friend is such a step forward for the current Crimson. In a nutshell, Levin's bass work is as sinewy and inventive as it's ever been. Collins' playing, whether on flutes or saxophones, is as paradoxically sublime and visceral as ever, while all three drummers are playing at a collective level they've not attained before.

Individually, the drummers' role in the band has become even more significant, whether it's each player's unbridled virtuosity, or the individual personalities they contribute, from Mastelotto's increasingly "X factor" role, Harrison's impressive drum arrangements or Stacey, who somehow feels even more liberated, whether he's on kit or the many keyboard parts he adds to the set. Neither Jakszyk nor Fripp have played with such reckless abandon and sheer energy before, and that's no small praise given how superb their playing has been since the band reconvened in 2014.

At the end of the day, what makes this lineup so strong is its collective interpretation of music that dates as far back as 52 years, but has been rendered here as both refreshingly new and still relevant. It's no hyperbole to suggest that every song on Music is Our Friend has now replaced all prior live versions as the definitive ones. Given this group now possesses all the instrumentation it needs to deliver on the original songs' studio recordings, however, it's also no exaggeration to suggest that many of this group's live versions are now the definitive ones, period.

The second disc opens with In the Court of the Crimson King's symphonic "Epitaph," where Fripp's sustaining melody has never sounded so good, so purely emotive. Once again Jakszyk truly owns the song vocally, delivering its still relevant lyrics in a way that ought to lay any comparisons to past Crimson singers to waste.

That this material is all sourced from soundboard recordings only serves to demonstrate just how much the band's front of house sound engineer has also grown, alongside his instrumental and vocal band mates. As strong as Crimson's six previous live albums have been since 2015, the music has never leapt out of the speakers the way that Music is Our Friend does, with seemingly less compression than before.

Introduced by its familiar screeching intro, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part II" may be similar to past arrangements, but the ear splitting blend of three drummers and a most unshackled Levin create a potent underpinning for Fripp and Jakszyk to overlay their heavily overdriven guitar parts which, in turn, support one of Collins' most ear-shattering, mind-boggling saxophone solos.

None of this material is new to Crimson set lists, though the order of the set lists remain, as ever, fluid. Still, there are certain pieces that have grown to become connected. The relatively new instrumental, "Radical Action 2," once again segues directly into the metal-heavy "Level Five," first appearing on the live EP, Level 5 (Panegyric Recordings, 2001), followed by a proper place on Crimson's (so far) most recent, Nuevo Metal studio recording, The Power to Believe (Panegyric Recordings, 2003).

"Level Five" is breathtaking in its plangent authority and awe-inspiring in its thoroughly unrestrained firepower. It's also the perfect precursor to the band's usual set-closer, Red's "Starless." A confluence of symphonic elegance, which supports Jakszyk's evocative vocals, a riff-driven middle section that builds inexorably, with Jakszyk and Fripp's simple but gradually ascending "single note on two consecutive strings phrases," to a double time solo feature for Collins (on soprano saxophone), who ultimately doubles his own lines with a harmonizer. When Fripp takes over, however, there's something new: Stacey, on electric piano, accompanying and bolstering the guitarist's rapidly strummed voicings. It may seem like a relatively minor change, but it's not, reflecting the band's ongoing commitment to detailed revisions and refreshed and reinvigorated material, even on songs that date back nearly fifty years.

In the Court of the Crimson King's usual "21st Century Schizoid Man" closes the the Washington show with unbridled muscle. Collins' solo, as it leads to his usual quote of Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," is joined by some of Fripp's most fiery playing of the set. Crimson may not play many free improvs, as it did with the 1972-74 and 2000-2003 lineups, but it doesn't need to. Every song is open to interpretation, rendering every version different in some way, shape or form

As ever, however, "21st Century Schizoid Man" is largely a feature for Harrison. His sheer, seemingly effortless instrumental mastery makes every extended solo, in this case lasting over four and a half minutes, not just an exercise in virtuosity, but a demonstration of his ability to draw compositionally focused music from of the ether.

To flesh out Washington's relatively short set, three tracks from the band's early "family and friends" shows in Albany, NY, are significant. Another Levin solo miniature, "Tony Cadenza Serves It Piping Hot" leads into a surprisingly scorched version of Discipline's closing instrumental title track. As impressive as "Discipline" is, however, it is the album-closing title track from Islands (Panegyric Recordings, 1971) that may represent Music is Our Friend's most sublime high point.

Jakszyk has sung this song before, most notably in 2017, and it is also heard on Meltdown (Live in Mexico City). As one of only two King Crimson vocalists to sing this beautiful confluence of music and lyric, not only has time given him even greater confidence in owning and delivering its lyrics but, after nearly two years off the road during the pandemic, Jakszyk has somehow managed to connect to Pete Sinfield's melancholic yet ultimately optimistic words in an even more palpable way:

Earth, stream and tree, encircled by sea
Waves sweep the sand from my island
My sunsets fade, field and glade
Wait only for rain, grain after grain
Love erodes my high weathered walls
Which fend off the tide
Cradle the wind to my island

Gaunt granite climbs where gulls wheel and glide
Mournfully cry o'er my island
My dawn bride's veil damp and pale
Dissolves in the sun, love's web is spun
Cats prowl, mice run
Wreathe snatch-hand briars where owls know my eyes
Violet skies touch my island, touch me

Beneath the wind turned wave
Infinite peace
Islands join hands
'Neath heaven's sea

Dark harbour quays like fingers of stone
Hungrily reach from my island
Clutch sailor's words, pearls and gourds
Are strewn on my shore
Equal in love bound in circles
Earth, stream and tree return to the sea
Waves sweep the sand from my island, from me

Beneath the wind turned wave
Infinite peace
Islands join hands
'Neath heaven's sea.

Beyond Jakszyk's definitive singing on "Islands" and his elegant, warm-toned guitar injections, four other Crimson members stand out on this often overlooked Crimson gem. Jeremy Stacey's piano work is glorious in its delicate grace, as are his contributions on harmonium. Levin's bowed upright electric bass during the song's instrumental middle section, along with Collins' subtle yet occasionally soaring soprano saxophone work (before he returns to alto), further elevate the song's impact. Fripp's injection of sampled oboe and mellotron strings render the song in a way that was never possible during the Islands band's touring days back in late 1971 and early '72. And if any still believe that three (or, as in this song, two) drummers is too much, when Mastelotto and Harrison enter to provide a pulse during the closing instrumental section, they provide a perfectly conjoined rhythmic support.

It's a gorgeous closer to a live album that may, by definition, be shorter than the previous full-concert (or more) releases since 2015. Still, Music is Our Friend: Live In Washington and Albany, 2021 not only demonstrates that King Crimson's nearly two-year touring hiatus didn't weaken the band's approach to a far-reaching repertoire that spans half a century. Sometimes a little distance can go a long way in furthering a band's intrinsic chemistry and, based on Music is Our Friend, the biggest takeaway for anyone who could have caught the band's 2021 US tour but didn't?


Track Listing

CD1: Introductory Soundscape; The Hell Hounds Of Krim; Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part I; Pictures Of A City; The Court Of The Crimson King; Red; Tony Cadenza Deals It Slitheryacious-To-The-Max; Neurotica; One More Red Nightmare; Indiscipline.

CD2: Epitaph; Radical Action II; Level Five; Starless; 21st Century Schizoid Man; Tony Cadenza Serves It Piping Hot; Discipline; Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part II; Islands.


King Crimson
band / ensemble / orchestra
Mel Collins
Additional Instrumentation

Mel Collins: saxophones, flutes, keyboards; Robert Fripp: guitar, keyboards; Gavin Harrison: drums; Jakko Jakszyk: guitar, voice, flute; Tony Levin: basses, stick, backing vocals, keyboards; Pat Mastelotto: drums, percussion; Jeremy Stacey: drums, keyboards.

Album information

Title: Music is Our Friend: Live In Washington and Albany, 2021 | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Panegyric Recordings

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