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Listening Report: Robert Fripp’s Exposures 32-Disc Boxed Set (Part 1, A Frippertronics Primer, Surround Sound & More)

Mark Smotroff takes a very deep dive into an academia-worthy artistic profile…

If you know David Bowie’s hit song “Heroes” you are familiar with the sound of Robert Fripp’s guitar playing of its signature riff. If you’ve ever heard the landmark progressive rock album by King Crimson called “In The Court of the Crimson King” then you know some of Robert Fripp’s early work as well.  There is so much more…

That said, if you haven’t heard his 1979 release called Exposure you probably don’t have a complete picture of what Robert Fripp and his music is about: where it came from, where it went and where it might still be going. Arguably, in many ways this album helped shape the sound of popular music in the ‘80s and beyond.

The genesis of Exposure is a very involved story worthy of super deluxe boxed set. The new 32-disc boxed set, appropriately named Exposures, celebrates the album and this fertile period of Mr. Fripp’s life. This collection tells his story in music and words  about the evolution and exploration of a new sound, the power of a rich artistic statement which would effectively drive his career through into present times. 

Central to  Exposures was the development of his tape-loop recording process known as “Frippertonics” which blossomed from his work with Brian Eno on 1973’s No Pussyfooting and 1975’s Evening Star, in particular.

More Frippertronics music emerged, including solo live performances as a self-contained “small, intelligent, mobile unit.” Fripp toured with his guitar and several Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders, along the way refining and redefining his sound. The resulting performances and a series of formally released albums were immediately mind-boggling and breathtaking, simultaneously timeless and futuristic.

This music — and musical mindset — which Fripp crafted between the years of 1977 and 1983 (or thereabouts) is the heart and soul of the Exposures boxed set. 

As a Fripp fan from way back, I find this new boxed set as exhilarating as it is exhausting — but its a good exhausting! However, I can certainly understand that many casual listeners might not be able to wrap their head around an undertaking this massive. However if you are into the King Crimson universe and all things Fripp – and there are millions of us out there around the world – you probably want to invest in this madly wonderful collection if you haven’t already.

In Exposures we get several original albums from the period Including Exposure (and its several variant incarnations which the album underwent due to music industry machinations) Let The Power Fall, Under Heavy Manners, and The League of Gentlemen. We get this music on CD and on DVD Audio discs. And, we also get everything and more on Blu-ray Discs including brand new Steven Wilson produced remixes into 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound and even 7.1 Dolby Atmos! 

But wait, Krimson shoppers… There’s more!

On the Blu-ray especially we get the full archive of Fripp’s real-time tape loop performances from his concert series and other appearances, recorded between 1977 and 1982.  These stereo sequences seem to last on average about 30 minutes each, filling up two entire Blu-ray discs. This is a whole lot of music! I did some crude math and it seems that one of the discs alone has something like 30 hours of Frippertronics on it!

We get live concerts including the spectacular Washington Square Church show from 1981 which has also been mixed into 4.1 quadrophonic sound.

This is admittedly a bit involved and takes a great deal of open minded-ness to get one’s head around all that is happening here. In that sense, this set is a fantastic academia-worthy study not only on the artistic process but also on the evolution of new musical concepts and sounds. Nothing before or since sounded quite like Frippertronics!

“But for the uninitiated, what exactly does Frippertronics sound like?,” you ask…

That is a good question and it is difficult to answer easily in a way that anyone might be able to understand… but I’ll try (and I’m sure I’ll fail even though I’ve been trying to explain it to people since the early 1980s!). Fortunately in the boxed set Mr. Fripp has not only given us a replica of his press kit from that period of his career — with requisite publicity photos and lovely reproductions of concert posters, ticket stubs and memorabilia one would hope for in a super deluxe boxed set of this nature —  but he’s also included a photocopied background document explaining how it all works!

Anyhow, first recognize this music was made in pre-digital times — Frippertronics was initially an all analog process — many years before sampling and looping foot pedals existed. Using professional tape recorders, Fripp was able to record loops of very long, warm sounding, distorted and sometimes arpeggiated electric guitar tones which would regenerate upon themselves and decay naturally over time as new layers of sound were added.

The core of Fripp’s musical constructions feel almost classical in nature, almost waltz-like, often build upon a progression of single string picked short notes which — as they loop upon themselves — start to form chord-like washes of musical sound.  These loops would then become the musical bed for Fripp’s solo guitar improvisation on top of it all. 

The result is a haunting kaleidoscopic and hypnotic music which I can feel fairly safe in saying that it sounded like nothing else before or since. 

It is this intersection of structured musical invention and spontaneous improvisation which makes Frippertonics so powerful.  You know that the artist has had to think about certain sounds and note structures from the start before interacting with those recordings live without a net. 

Its almost like Jazz but it isn’t anything like Jazz. Its almost like minimalist classical music but it isn’t anything like minimalist classical music. It is just… Frippertronics!  When you stop to think about all he was doing then on these recordings, you realize this is the work of a master musician/composer at an early peak. 

If this Frippertronics music doesn’t sound enticing enough as a simple Stereo experience, try to consider how it might sound in surround sound.  I have been dreaming of hearing this music in a multi-speaker environment since I first started listening to it in the early 1980s… Talk about dreams coming true!

I’ve began my journey into Exposures by listening to two of the original albums included in the set on the Blu-ray Discs. These showcase very different aspects of the Frippertronics process, presented in rich sounding 96 kHz, 24-bit DTS HD Master Audio (you can also listen in high resolution PCM Stereo).

Let The Power Fall (navigation screen)

Let The Power Fall is a powerful pure Frippertronics listening experience, all taken from live performances. Steven Wilson’s wonderful and sympathetic new surround sound mix is gently immersive without feeling gimmicky — it is quite subtle and tasteful as the burbling bubbling layers of free flowing Frippery gently envelope the listener via the surround channels. At times, the music seems to fill the room and almost wash over and through you. Imagine if you were lying in the sun on an isolated island beach as small waves of gentle tropical waters lapped their way over you. 

It must have been a temptation to avoid having Frippertronic musical passages ping-ponging around the room in a discrete speaker-to-speaker manner.  As fun as that might be for one listen I am glad they took this more musical and non-gimmicky approach to the mix. 

The bigger surprise was how great the new wave punk oriented League of Gentlemen album fairs in surround sound: it’s almost like hearing an entirely new album and I mean that in the best possible way.  This album came out in the early 1980s — featuring Barry Andrews from XTC on keyboards and Sara Lee on bass who would soon after join The Gang Of Four — and it was an effort to mix Frippertronics with rock song structures. It was effectively a stepping stone toward the new incarnation of Fripp’s King Crimson which emerged later that year.   

The League Of Gentlemen (navigation screen)

The surround mix opens up this very dense and angular music significantly and seems to rock a lot harder than my old LP version. While I haven’t had a chance to compare/contrast it with the new remix, that idea seems almost a moot point here — the original vinyl mix will always be there and it will always be what it is (I have heard from some folks online that there have been some edits made to this new version). 

This surround sound mix is a new way of appreciating this music and this short lived band. You can better appreciate the connectivity between the supporting instruments and Fripp’s interwoven guitar tapestries. One of the bigger stand outs whose playing I appreciate much more on this mix is keyboardist Barry Andrews. His parts just jump out of the speakers in the best possible way, interlocking wonderfully with Fripp’s playing to unleash fascinating new sound combinations. The League of Gentlemen album still sounds fresh and energetic after all these years and even more so in surround sound.

Yes, this is Frippertronics that you can dance around to in the mosh pit!

There’s so much more to go into in this review series exploring Robert Fripp’s epic Exposures boxed set. Please stay tuned as my journey into this set will continue…

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