Despite wholesale rejection by the mainstream record industry, the rise of the Internet coupled with independent artist-led labels gave spin-off "prog" bands a renewed lease on their strong market potential and ever growing fan base. During the past five years, "prog culture" has proliferated relentlessly on web-sites and Internet mailing lists, and some labels, such as Tony Levin's Papa Bear Records now offer releases exclusively through mail-order or Internet ordering. Thus the lion's share of album royalties are handed back to the artist, cutting large distributors/labels out of the loop. What a novel concept!
Progressive rock's foremost progenitor, guitarist Robert Fripp along with his King Crimson associate, bassist Tony Levin, were two of the most prominent musicians to catch on early to this opportunity. Levin's web site, www.papabear.com, now offers three CD releases, and the latest, Upper Extremeties proves to be of vital interest to fusion and prog aficionados alike. Rock's certifiably "most awesome" rhythm section works in a highly improvisational context with guitarist David Torn and trumpeter Chris Botti. Yes, the thundering pulse of King Crimson looms here, but a bold new fusion finds its wings, and soars beyond reasonable expectations. The music's inspired collective spirit frequently recalls something more akin to Miles Davis' best experimental work from his "Filmore" period. That of course is only one of a multitude of applicable comparisons to this workshop of great musicians, largely liberated from the elaborate structures of prog rock. This is a supreme collection of musical risk taking, replete with playful interludes featuring odd instruments like Levin's drumbass. When this juggernaut rhythm train leaves the station on track one, we're pulled between both pastoral and frenetic urban landscapes, enchanted by incidental jams, restaurant conversations, primal riffing, curious contemplation, and exquisite improvisations.
The wealth of spontaneity and musical communication found here at once is both overwhelming and intoxicating-the chemistry at times is similar to David Torn's Cloud About Mercury (ECM) project, however Botti's trumpet brings both a focus and jazz sensibility to this maelstrom of musical talent. Bill Bruford's magnificent drumming, always amazing in a rock context, seems looser and more spontaneous here as compared to his work with Earthworks. David Torn receives credit for rendering "wack guitar" "brokenbird," or "guitar sphere," apt descriptions which reveal new guitar textures and ambience; he always manages to find a perfectly eccentric compliment to Levin and Bill Bruford in mostly quartet and some trio settings. On "Original Sin," it becomes readily apparent that Botti's personality and lyricism on his instrument, along with Torn's electronic wizardry, realize a joyous and hypnotic balance to the ferocious undercurrents unleashed by Bruford and Levin. Levin's mercurial instrumental work on the Chapman Stick is also prominently featured, along with his electric upright NS bass, and bass with "funkfingers" (another product marketed through Papa Bear). Though made possible by the growing global network of artist cottage industries, the group jams and compositions here are world class, and one doesn't necessarily have to be wild about King Crimson to find much to appreciate here.
If you are wild about King Crimson (like me), Terry Bozzio's Black Light Syndrome serves up one of the best instrumental rock outings of recent years. While there is a lot here that is delightfully Crimsonesque in terms of stylings and construction, Steve Stevens emerges as another lesser- known monster in the realm of fusion and progressive music. His career up until recently has been as a sideman with major pop acts (Billy Idol, Michael Jackson), and here, anchored by Levin's stick and bass lines, he runs a fiery gamut across a multitude of styles. Clearly homage is paid to Robert Fripp on several tracks, and Steven's creative chordal and lead work here demonstrates how adept he is tackling progressive and flamenco styles. Terry Bozzio, who's prog credentials include Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, and U.K., finds an ideal trio in which to contain his percussive hurricane. Bozzio put this project together for the prog-oriented, independent Magna Carta label, and the recording and playing is first-rate throughout (check out www.magnacarta.net).
Instrumental rock is largely the territory of excess sport riffing-but occasionally we're treated to pleasant exceptions. If you find Joe Satriani records delving too much into to clever but sophomoric metal-riffing, Black Light Syndrome delivers an intelligent, imaginative alternative. And it's delightful to hear Bozzio concentrating on very subtle, intricate chops and counter-rhythms here. In terms of sheer rocking energy, speed, and raw output, Bozzio has no peers-he consistently blasts through superhuman chops, but here they're left for only the appropriate passages. This is less not an occasion for testosterone levels off the charts; instead three very mature rock musicians work harmoniously through a well paced set of engaging compositions, and for instrumental rock and fusion fans, it's a rare gem of a find.