Written by 4:01 am Audiophile Music

21st Century Band : King Crimson Reimagined

Mark Smotroff acknowledges that even heavy metal pioneers have a sensitive side…


One word you rarely hear affiliated with progressive rock pioneers King Crimson is “beautiful.” People know of this group for its wildly eclectic musical palate, breathtaking guitar heroics and all-around spectacular musicianship… 

But rarely does anyone talk of the grand sense of finesse underlying this assemblage and its music.

Throughout its career there have been strong moments of light to counterbalance the dark in the King Crimson canon. Be it a guest vocalist like Yes’s Jon Anderson (Prince Rupert Awakes from 1970’s Lizard album) … or the late great John Wetten (RIP) delivering “Book of Saturday” and “Lament” … or original member Greg Lake (also RIP) delivering delicate breath to “I Talk To The Wind” as well as the title track to that first album, “In the Court of the Crimson King.”  Gordon Haskell’s “Cadence and Cascade” on the second album In The Wake of Poseidon is also lovely. 

Perhaps best remembered for his sensitivity is singer/guitarist Adrian Belew who joined the group in the early 1980s and remained with them until the early 00s. He was responsible for some absolutely gorgeous vocalizing, especially on songs like “Matte Kudadai,” “Heart Beat” and “Walking On Air.” And coming full circle, current singer/guitarist Jakko Jakzsyk continues that tradition in his soaring interpretations of early Crim obscurities like “Peace” — from the second album from 1970 — and the newer “A Scarcity of Miracles” (from his album of the same name made with Robert Fripp, a precursor to his joining the band).

Beauty.

But those are just the singers who usually get the spotlight when it comes to sensitivity… 

What about the other musicians and their sensitivity to the music? What about the ability of the overall group to function as a living breathing entity, pulsing according to the demands of the music. 

Light when it needs to be light. Dark when it needs to be dark. That is one of the hallmarks of greatness and its not an easy thing to pull off…

That very detail was oddly enough made very apparent to me when I start exploring the new King Crimson live set called Radical Action (to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind). Here on this dramatic audio-visual documentary-of-sorts showcasing the 2015 edition of King Crimson, we see a new seven-headed beast with no less than three drummers complementing a bassist, two guitars and a saxophone / flute player. It is in this incarnation, where old meets new to create something fresh and different, with early band members like Mel Collins returning on woodwinds and 80s / 90-s era bassist Tony Levin driving the low-end. 

Perhaps also complementing this new lightness of being is the reality of seeing King Crimson founder and driving force Robert Fripp seemingly quite happily finally out in the spotlight again, playing his guitar out in the open for all to see in all his glory. Crim-heads I’ve talked with consider this a very positive occurrence indeed since for many years Mr. Fripp performed only with the stage lights turned down on him, to the befuddlement of many a fan.

Anyhow, you are probably wondering how this new album is?  In short: it’s pretty fantastic! 

The three standard resolution (44.1 kHz, 16-bit) CDs in the set give you a healthy snapshot of all the music that was played on the tour, all of which was recorded live but intentionally mixed sans audience and crowd noise, so it plays more like a studio release.  

On the Blu-ray Disc you get rich high resolution audio and crisp images of the band’s performance of the same songs, but inclusive of the live audience — the producers intentionally give you two ways to enjoy this new Crim music!  The audio is presented both in PCM Stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound in DTS HD Master Audio or PCM, all at 48 kHz, 24-bit resolution.  

Visually, the concert video looks great. They only had one camera person apparently but through creative placement of mobile cameras (ie. probably GoPros), they have been able to create a quite compelling presentation of the band and its players from multiple angles that is really quite enjoyable to watch. 

This imagined performance — again, the “set-list” is compiled from performances across the band’s entire 2015 tour of Canada, France and Japan, with most of the recordings culled from the latter — opens up with a “soundscape” simulating orchestral string quartet sounds (violins, cellos, etc, all probably played by Robert Fripp via his guitar synthesizer) that is just gorgeous.

Mel Collins soon enters the stage and begins a flute solo on top of the quartet while Tony Levin enters to play his upright electric bass, but using a bow so it sounds more like a cello or double bass 

This lush orchestral start to the show is brought to you by the same group that made proto-metal gems like “One More Red Nightmare” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

Beauty. 

]]>The surround sound mix on Radical Action is deeply immersive (it would have to be so given the three drummers!) so expect to hear bells and cymbals and other percussive things tinkling around you in quite dramatic fashion. 

But… but… but… don’t freak out, Dear Surround-Sound-Purist Readers!  Producers Robert Fripp and David Singleton have kept the general sound stage front and center to vibe with the video. It’s a very tasteful surround sound mix, ultimately. 

A track like “The ConstruKtion of Light” from the early 2000’s — an often overlooked and some what darkly-hued period for the band — takes on a new sense of levity in this new recording. This current incarnation of the band lends a more sympathetic ear to the music, most notably (I think, anyhow) because of the presence of Mel Collins’ lovely flute and saxophone swirls overlaid on the intricate guitar interplay between Fripp and Jakko. Add to that the effervescent presence of Tony Levin — who was not in the band when this particular song was originally recorded — and the song takes on a very different sonic perspective.

Beauty.

There are even points where are you can see Robert Fripp kind of smiling during this track, seemingly enjoying the new dimensions that the song is taking on. 

So it is really beautiful and wonderful and magical to hear this music from earlier eras of the band being reconsidered and reinvented, with new ideas and approaches. This album presents the nearly 30 songs the band played at different points on the tour. Its not one complete concert, but the feeling of it is that of a single performance. It works for me so far — and in fact, there is so much music there I have not finished watching the whole Blu-ray!  If I discover any special points of note along the way, I will certainly update this review in the comments section below. 

Oh, and by the way, included on this set is some brand NEW King Crimson music (such as the title track)!  So it is great to know that new Crim music is more than on just the horizon — it is being made and fine tuned on-the-road.  I’ll save my reviews of those new songs for when the final new album gets released. 

But for now I am more than satiated with this fine set, a very welcome addition to the Crim cannon and a much better snapshot of what this version of the band is about than the 2014 release Live at the Orpheum.

In these strange and uncertain times, it is comforting to know that some of our musical heroes are still alive and well and pushing their boundaries while continuing to challenge our minds and hearts. 

To that, the title of the album says it all: Radical Action To Unseat The Hold of Monkey Mind

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