Friday, September 07, 2012
Shapeshifter: In praise of Bruford/Wetton/Fripp King Crimson
Over the past few years, I've spent a lot of time self-educating re: rock from the ’70s. We always hear about the ’60s, specifically the end of the ’60s, as a rock heyday, but the next decade seems to me to be the One, when all the warning shots had been fired and the premier bands were all just, to use a term coined by Damión Reid, showing up to crush. As usual, I speak only for myself, oriented according to my inescapable biases, biases that go by names like Black Sabbath (who started out strong but attained some kind of exalted state of fried-mind excess around the time of 1975's Sabotage), Thin Lizzy (who issued their own fireball of a record that same year, just one of at least five all-time-great LPs they'd release throughout the decade) and Led Zeppelin (let's stick with the ’75 theme, and take a moment to reflect on two of the sickest grooves ever recorded: exhibits A and B).
I will love all of these bands/records for as long as I am on Earth, but at this point, they are like comfort food to me: known quantities with a predictable, though not commonplace effect, i.e., they yield ecstasy the way great coffee yields a buzz. But much of my RLT (recreational listening time) over the past week has been spent chasing down a different kind of feeling, furnished by a band that thrived contemporaneously to the woolly rock mammoths enumerated above, but was on, as they say, a whole different trip.
I'm speaking about King Crimson, specifically the version of King Crimson that existed—with more or less stable personnel, give or take percussionist Jamie Muir and violinist David Cross—from (I think I've got this right) the summer of 1972 through the fall of ’74. Aside from perennial KC mastermind Robert Fripp, this lineup was all about bassist-vocalist John Wetton and—I feel like I need to cross myself while typing this, so large does this musician currently loom in my personal pantheon—drummer Bill Bruford, who reported for Crimson duty as soon as he had finished laying down tracks for this prog monster.
If this specific version of King Crimson occupies a different galaxy than the Rock Gods I mentioned above, the Sabbaths, Zeppelins and Lizzys, it also has surprisingly little to do with what I think of as capital-p Prog. I love much of the output of the aforelinked Yes, as well as that of Rush, who really came into full flower later in the ’70s on albums like Hemispheres (some will point to 2112 as the Rush landmark from that period, but that was just the icebreaker), but at this point, those bands too are known quantities, both to me and the World of Rock. They really do exemplify most of the traits they're said to exemplify: long-ass songs, foregrounded virtuosity, helium-voiced vox, etc. (Those descriptions aren't loaded in any way; they're simply neutral catalogs of what those bands sounded like at that time.)
But BWFC (Bruford, Wetton, Fripp Crimson) is, again, something other, and I've spent the last week or so trying to get to the bottom of exactly what that is, or at least observe the full range of its behaviors. I'm finding those tasks extremely daunting but at the same time, I'm enjoying myself immensely. This is not a band you comprehend right away, and that is primarily because BWFC is a shapeshifter. You cannot get your head and heart around it via conventional means, i.e., albums; you have to experience it, live with it, in the wild—that is to say onstage. For several years now, I have really enjoyed the BWFC studio output, namely Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red. (I included the first chapter of the two-part Larks' title track in a math-rock mix I compiled a couple years back.) But to be honest, at this point, I'm considering this trilogy as little more than a digest version of BWFC. I feel like I never knew the band until very recently, when I started digging into the band's own immaculately maintained live archives, known as DGM—i.e., Discipline Global Mobile—Live. (Search 1973 and 1974 here to get a sense of what a treasure trove this is.)
So far, I've picked up three shows: 10/23/73 in Glasgow; 3/30/74 in Mainz, Germany; and 6/28/74 in Asbury Park—the latter of which is heard, in edited/meddled-with form, on the USA live album. (It's funny to think about how in June of ’74, Asbury Park's most famous musical export, Bruce Springsteen, a.k.a. prog's antithesis, was in the process of becoming a star.) My knowledge of these official bootlegs is no means encyclopedic—Steve Smith, the most avid/learned Crimsophile I know, is your man—but I can vouch for every one of these shows, and more specifically, for the way they complement each other. Yes, there are song overlaps—I'm starting to sound like a Deadhead here, and though I'm no die-hard there either, I do love me some cherry-picked live Dead—but these are three completely different concerts: different energies, different trajectories, different purposes. I was hoping I'd purchase three of these boots and feel like that was enough, but sadly (for my bank account, i.e.), I think I'm just getting started.
So what is it about BWFC? What's the big deal? I really wanted to link the Glasgow version of "Easy Money," one of BWFC's signature jams, here, so the music could do the talking, but it isn't on YouTube. I just put on a snippet of said track, to get the scent back in my nose. What is it? It's ear-bleeding art-funk, primed for maximum timbral abrasion, gritted-teeth extremity, with harsh and peculiar textures protruding from every strata of the sonic spectrum. That latter point is key for me. One of the chief joys I derive from BWFC is how strange and utterly distinct each sound you hear is. The timbres of the various instruments don't comfortably jell, as is the case in, say, Sabbath or Zeppelin; they war and clash. You've got the flopping, distorted, ungainly beast that is Wetton's bass tone in the low register—like the grotesquely exposed metal skeleton of a sci-fi cyborg—then you have Fripp's merciless high-end fuzz, scratching at your right ear like steel wool; and then there's Bruford's multifaceted soundmaker—I hesitate to call it something so mundane as a drum kit: the ugly wash of the hi-hat; those way-tight toms, which sound like crude timbales; and that piercing snare, softening often into a Tony Williams–y press-roll caress.
The band does kick and slam as one but what makes BWFC special is the way they elude and toy with the groove—each player off on his own orbit like a planet in a solar system—as though no one member wants to be caught playing it straight. Bruford in particular seems to love the delicious tension that comes from hinting at a metallic stomp; he could easily Bonham (to coin a verb) his way through the grooves—"Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One" comes to mind—but so often chooses to keep the beach ball in the air, so to speak, giving the band the low-end kick it needs but satisfying his own improvisational drive with destabilizing fills and other purposeful inconsistencies. He is not exactly a busy drummer; it's more that he's a restless one. The lumbering doomgroove in the middle of the Red track "Starless"—the definition of a musical slow burn—is a great place to hear what I'm talking about. During the Mainz show, the band draws out the off-kilter riff for more than two ominous minutes, with Bruford limiting himself to minute cymbal taps, before kicking in. But even when Fripp and Wetton near their crescendo, the drummer is still strutting and stuttering along, totally unperturbed; he increases his volume and power, but rarely goes two measures without throwing in some sort of ungainly fill or daring syncopation. In this section, Bruford makes me think of a train-jumper who toys with a slow-moving freighter for miles, flamboyantly hopping on and off as he pleases, never content to simply pick a car and ride. (You get a sense of what I mean around 6:30 in this 1974 TV clip, though the out-of-sync-ness of the audio and video bums me out sufficiently that I held off on an embed. You can view the full four-song performance in excellent fidelity on the 2009 CD/DVD reissue of Red.)
All the band members' performances during this period—my apologies for short-shrifting the often-breathtaking David Cross, whose keening violin is a key feature of these gigs I've been checking out—tend toward the same controlled-chaos brilliance, to the extent that it's easy to forget just how special the material itself is. The variety is simply awesome. Yesterday I marveled at the four-song run at the end of the Mainz show: After "Starless," you've got the relatively concise "Lament," maybe the single strangest piece in BWFC's repertoire. It starts off exemplifying one of the band's key song types, i.e., the brief, ballad-like, almost stagy ditty (I wish I could think of a more dignified word), in which Wetton—whom I've begun to regard as quite possibly the most compelling singer in so-called progressive rock, and one of the most underrated in rock, period—plays the husky yet tender straight man to lyricist Richard Palmer-James's wry satirist. Then, much like in "Starless" itself, the scene changes completely: after a brief instrumental interlude, the band explodes in a deranged art-funk riff fest, with Wetton sounding like he's coming completely unglued. Next up is "Improv Trio," one of the many impromptu interludes that marks this period of Crimson; these pieces take all different shapes (there are four very different ones in the Mainz show alone), but this one is like a pastoral bit of drumless soundtrack music, on which I believe Fripp and Cross are both playing sparkly Mellotron while Wetton lays down a chilled-out bass skeleton. The piece leads into the grandaddy of BWFC's many balls-out jams, the aforementioned "Easy Money," rendered here as stumbling, seething, drunken death funk, with Wetton's signature scat episode at the beginning coming off as a burlesque of airheaded rock & roll. "Easy Money" is always a set highlight, but this version is particularly dire and ragged—a noisy morass. And this very punk element of BWFC is part of what sets them apart from any other contemporary band that you might be tempted to label prog: BWFC understands the value of pure amplified slop, and how effective it can be when juxtaposed with a very British kind of proper-ness and refinement (I think of other brief, chill tracks of the "ditty" variety," such as "The Night Watch"). And there are so many other elements and imperatives at play in the BWFC repertoire: quirky, riffy, Woodstocky blues-rock (see "Cat Food," a track from the pre-BWFC Crimson album In the Wake of Poseidon, which closes the Glasgow show) sits next to obsessive-compulsive epics like "Fracture" and "Larks' Tongues… Part Two." Anyone with even a passing interest in math rock needs get familiar with the former (the Glasgow version is tremendous); the juxtaposition in moods—from notey geekery to flailing violence—is something later exponents of the style have rarely been able to capture in such an organic way. And I'm still getting my brain around the many improvisations that dot these set lists.
There's something very unusual going on in these performances—a marriage of prog's grandeur and virtuosic flash with an almost proto–mid-’80s–Black Flag live-wire scrappiness—that I'm not sure you hear in any other band of the period. Mahavishnu does skew "punk" on their first two records, but they never let themselves sound as frenetic, as hungry, as wild (or on the other hand, as unmoored or abstract) as BWFC do in these performances. This version of Crimson seems to embody the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses—each one pushed to the limit—in a single uncanny unit. I've yet to really get to know Crimson before or after this period, but from what little I do know, BWFC was a unique episode in the history of the band, and maybe of music, period, at least the Western styles I know and love best (rock and jazz).
BWFC was a meteor shower, smashing the airlocks that separated the proto-metal space station from the fusion one and the postbop ones and setting all those impulses free. Pretty much everything I love about music from the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s is here somehow: the mercurial looseness of the Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams quintet, the bombed-out bash of early Sabbath, the D&D-presaging sweep of Yes, the white-hot shred of Mahavishnu and even an undercurrent of especially grimy funk. It didn't last, of course, but for that glorious moment, BWFC had it all, and we are extremely fortunate that the fossil record is so complete. If you need me, I'll be in the DGM archives…
P.S. Speaking of archives, a mammoth new Larks' Tongues in Aspic box set—bulging with extra live audio and video—is coming 10/15. Scroll down a bit here for details.