Tag Archives: King Crimson

Farewell John Wetton

John Wetton

Another of the major figures of progressive rock has left us; John Wetton passed away yesterday after a long illness. My Twitter feed was flooded with tributes both from fans and from fellow musicians. I never met him myself, but a lot of people I know knew him personally, and he was much loved as a person as well as a musician.

John Wetton is of course best known for King Crimson in the 1970s and Asia in the 1980s. The three albums he recorded with King Crimson, “Larks Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless and Bible Black” and “Red” remain landmarks in the progressive rock canon, pushing the envelope for what a rock band could be with a level of improvisation previously only seen in jazz, then switching gears with gorgeous elegaic ballads. “Starless”, which closes “Red” remains on of the greatest pieces of rock music ever recorded.

The supergroup Asia were an altogether different beast, sometimes dismissed as too commercial by genre purists, their polished sound emphasising Wetton’s songwriting and soaring voice, and that self-titled début remains a classic. And then there were all the other bands over the years, Family, the short-lived UK, and stints with Roxy Music and Uriah Heep.

So farewell John, and thanks for all the music. His bandmate in Asia, Geoff Downes has asked us all to listen this song in his memory.

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Best Albums of 2016 – Not only but also

Under my own self-imposed rules, only full-length albums made up wholly or largely of new material quality for the album rundown. But amongst the live albums, EPs and records comprising largely of reworkings of older material can be found some gems that deserve better than being overlooked. It’s not in any way a definitive list, since there’s a whole slew of live albums released in the run-up to Christmas that I have yet to hear.

The Heather Findlay Band – I Am Snow

i-am-snowThe former Mostly Autumn lead singer’s second album of 2016 celebrates the semi-acoustic folk-rock side of her music, combining new songs with reworkings of older numbers, with arrangements emphasising flute and harp. There’s a beautiful cover of Sandy Denny’s “Winter Winds”, and the two new songs, especially the seasonal title track, are gorgeous.

King Crimson – Live in Toronto

king-crimson-live-on-torontoA live snapshot of the latest incarnation of the legendary progressive rock band from their 2015 tour with a setlist combining brand new material alongside classics from the 60s, 70s and beyond. The seven-piece band including Tony Levin, saxophonist Mel Collins and no fewer than three drummers creatively re-imagine the older material while remaining faithful to the spirit, and the largely instrumental new numbers are impressive too. A great document from a tour that was memorable for all the right reasons.

Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

riverside-eye-of-the-soundscapePoland’s finest band released this ambient and largely electronic album to commemorate guitarist Piotr Grudziński, who died suddenly and unexpectedly early in the year. It’s a compilation of remixes and previously-released bonus material complemented by four completely new tracks, At times the shimmering electronic arpeggios and electronic pulsings are to Tangerine Dream what Riverside’s more guitar-based music was to Porcupine Tree, but as always they’ve far more than copyists.

Touchstone – Lights in the Sky

touchstone-lights-from-the-skyThis four track EP is first release by the new-look Touchstone with Aggie on vocals and Liam Holmes on keys. It’s a move away from the pared-back approach of “Oceans of Time”, with big guitars and soaring vocal lines, but the sound is still clearly identifiable as Touchstone, and they’re sounding like a coherent band in what is clearly a new beginning for the band.

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RIP Greg Lake

Another of the greats passes; Greg Lake, bassist and vocalist of ELP and King Crimson has left us at the age of 69.

He’s best known of course for Emerson Lake and Palmer, though his short tenure in the first incarnation of King Crimson runs it a very close second. “In The Court of the Crimson King” is one of those ground-breaking records that sounded quite unlike anything that had come before, and his soaring vocals were a big part of that. He also contributed to the follow-up “In the Wake of Poseidon” even though he’d left the band to join ELP at that point.

The wider public who aren’t familiar with the 1970s progressive rock canon probably know Greg Lake for his 1976 Christmas single “I Believe in Father Christmas”. Compared to the typical saccharine seasonal fare it’s surprisingly deep and thought provoking. It often gets described as dark and cynical with lines like “But instead it just kept on raining, a veil of tears for the virgin birth”. But I think there’s a positive message at the heart of it; Christmas is what we make of it.

So rest in peace, Greg, and thanks for all the music

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Those who moan that “There’s no good music any more” forget that in their “golden age” you wouldn’t hear a note of the good stuff on TV or daytime radio. When Yes and King Crimson were putting out “Relayer” and “Red”, Radio One was full of dreck like “Seasons in the Sun”. That was the Ed Sheeran of 1974.

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Are Heritage Acts the Bed Blockers of Music?

The questions about AC/DC’s future following the forced retirement of frontman Bryan Johnson for health reasons has prompted the question: Are so-called “Heritage Bands” holding music back by denying opportunities to younger bands who still have something new to say?

The ultimate heritage act has to be The Rolling Stones, who still embark on mammoth stadium tours despite having added little of significance to their canon since the 1980s. Given the sort of ticket prices these bands charge, how much money are they hoovering up that might otherwise go to support dozens of smaller bands?

At least some older acts are willing to give bands from the next generation a leg up by inviting them as opening acts. Ritchie Blackmore giving Mostly Autumn the support his arena show in Birmingham is a very recent example. So is Steve Hackett; as well as Mostly Autumn, Anne-Marie Helder and Alan Reed have supported him in some sizeable venues. But at the other end of the scale we have those wretched “Package Tours” where two or three veteran acts share a bill and nobody below bus pass age gets a look in. They seem calculated to appeal to those for who the part of the brain that assimilates new music ceased to function when they had kids.

There isn’t a hard and fast definition of what is and isn’t a heritage act, and it’s not just down to age. I don’t think anyone would begrudge Robert Fripp for what is probably the victory lap for his long and innovative career. His new incarnation of King Crimson is playing brand new material and reinventing their older work. It would have been a different story had King Crimson been playing jukebox versions of “21st Century Schitzoid Man” and “Starless” round the circuit for decades. Likewise Curved Air have recorded an excellent recent album “North Star”, which is more than can be said for John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest’s embarrassingly awful “North”.

So, are older bands who refuse to retire the musical equivalent of bed-blockers in hospitals? Or is it simply that they appeal to an audience of their own generation who have no interest in new music?

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Of Genres and Canons

If you divide music into “Classical” and “Pop”, but don’t make any distinction between “Pop” from “Rock”, a record like King Crimson’s “Red” gives a divide-by-zero error.

It’s one of the high points  of the progressive rock movement, an ambitious and powerful collection of music far removed from simple top-40 pop songs. Yet it’s performed by a rock band with electric guitar as the main instrument rather than a symphony orchestra.

If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know all that. But this post isn’t really about Red, but about the wider divide between “high” and “low” art, and whether such a divide is still meaningful, or even if it ever was.

It reminds me a bit of my old school music teacher, Mr Macey. He was an old-school traditionalist for whom only orchestral music in the Western classical tradition qualified as real music. Anything played on electric instruments was ephemeral nonsense. I suspect he genuinely believed rock’n'roll was a passing fad and none of it would pass the test of time.

He was wrong, of course, but back in the mid-1970s it was still possible for someone to hold that position without looking like a ridiculous old reactionary. Much of what we now consider as the rock canon was either less than a decade old, or had yet to be written. The fact we’re still listening to some of that music forty years on shows that it has stood the test of time rather better than the so-called “squeaky hinge” work that some classical composers were writing at the same time. But it’s also notable that the way rock fans dismiss music made from samples and computer-generated rhythms sounds a lot like the arguments used against rock by my old music teacher.

The whole high art vs. low art thing is really about social class. In past centuries, “classical” was the music of the rich, and “folk” was the music of the poor, and the former was put on a pedestal at the expense of the latter because the people with the money wrote the histories. The rise of the middle classes and the development of amplified electric music disrupted that hierarchy, but old prejudices die hard.

I wonder how the music of the past fifty years will be regarded in a hundred years time? What will pass the test of time, and will today’s genres of classical, folk, jazz or rock still make any sense to listeners who encounter the music in a completely different cultural context?

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2015 in Live Music – Ten of the Best

Touchstone Farewell Gig

It’s harder to rank gigs in any kind of order than it is for records, since you can’t relive a one-off experience. These ten are those which have particularly stuck in the mind, and there is probably a bias towards the end of the year since those are freshest in the memory.

The Marillion Convention

There is nothing else quite like the fan conventions Marillion hold every other year. They see the band perform seven hours of music over three nights including a lot of rarely-played material, all before an audience of fanatical hardcore fans. This year’s was no exception, the highlight of which was the double album “Marbles” played in full on the Saturday night.

The Session at The Swansea Jazz Festival

One cannot live on prog alone, so The Swansea Jazz festival is always a good opportunity to explore something outside of the usual comfort zone. Some sets had far too many bass solos, but this New Orleans-based quintet were the undoubted highlight, with a frontline of sax and trumpet. The first solo from trumpeter Steven Lande was like hearing a really good blues or metal guitarist cutting loose.

Ramblin Man Fair

My first open air festival since High Voltage in London a few years back took place in leafy Maidstone. Saturday saw great sets in the sunshine from Touchstone, Blue Öyster Cult and the legendary Camel, the only disappointment being the lacklustre phoned-in set from Dream Theater. But the musical highlight was much of Sunday, with a bill beginning in the rain with Anna Phoebe, Knifeworld (“Excuse me while I towel down my guitar”), The Pineapple Thief and Riverside, and ending in a mesmerising set from headliners Marillion after the clouds cleared and the moon came out.

King Crimson at Hackney Empire

The unexpected emergence of a new incarnation of King Crimson didn’t disappoint in the slightest, and the seven-piece lineup with three drummers went from intense improvised jazz-metal workouts to fresh interpretations of the stately magnificence of their 70s classics. Some too-cool-for-school mainstream critics just didn’t get it at all, but it was their loss; the set included superb performances of some of the greatest music of the 20th Century, and that’s not something you say lightly.

Steven Wilson at The Royal Albert Hall

In terms of profile, Steven Wilson stands head and shoulders above any other contemporary progressive rock act, able to sell out venues that are otherwise the preserve of the 70s legends of the genre. I made the mistake of booking for just one of the two nights rather than both, for the sets were completely different. So I didn’t get to see the bulk of “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” played live, but did see Porcupine Tree classics and an intense “Raider II”. It was still an amazing experience.

Gazpacho & Iamthemorning at Islington Academy

I got wind of this gig via a fan of Iamthemorning who was wondering aloud if headliners Gazpacho were worth seeing live. Both bands turned out to be mesmerising; the way you could have heard a pin drop during the acoustic support act really says it all, and the headliner’s absolute mastery of atmospherics managed to outdo even Marillion. Progressive rock needs more violins.

Gloryhammer at Islington Academy

One support band of 2015 deserve a mention. Scotland’s heroes were special guests to Finnish power-metallers Stratovarious, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a support act so completely outclass the headliners. They has better songs, better stagecraft, and a level of fire & passion that the headliners completely lacked.

Public Image Limited at Reading Sub89

The artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten has still got it, and his singing style is totally unique. The other three quarters of PiL are tremendous musicians; a tight rhythm section and always inventive guitarist in Lu Edmonds meant that you spent as much time listening to the bass grooves or the guitar lines as the vocals. It’s a long way from classic rock, but it’s got more in common with the avant-garde end of progressive rock than you might think.

Touchstone & Magenta at Leamington Assembly

The farewell show for Kim Seviour and Rob Cottingham pulled a packed crowd to the magnificent central England venue. Because Kim had suffered a throat infection days before they gig, they added former Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay to the band as cover, and the band turned into a kind of heavy metal ABBA. It certainly brought a triumphal close to one chapter in the Touchstone story. And that’s before any mention of special guests Magenta, with a performance strong enough have been in this list in its own right.

Mostly Autumn at Leamington Assembly

Rather than their customary multi-date Christmas tour, Mostly Autumn decided to end 2015 with a single showcase gig in a central venue, what an event it turned out to be. Five hours of music included remarkably varied acoustic set that featured Angela Gordon singing lead at one point, a mesmerising but all-too-short set from violinist Anna Phoebe, what was probably the last full performance of “Dressed in Voices”, a Mostly Floyd set that was far, far better than any sceptics expected, and those traditional Christmas covers. And stunning versions of the rarely-played “The Night Sky” and “The Gap Is Too Wide”.

Those were just some of the many highlights of a great year of live music. Honourable mentions to Panic Room, Karnataka, Chantel McGregor and Luna Rossa, which have featured in this blog a lot, and to New Model Army and Lazuli, both “new” to me in terms of seeing live.

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In The Court of the Crimson King

No photos, because you know what Robert Fripp is like Today is the 46th anniversary of the release of King Crimson’s first album, “In The Court of the Crimson King”.

This is an album that’s been a cornerstone of the progressive rock canon ever since its release in 1969. The intense and jagged “21st Century Schizoid Man” set the template for prog-metal before metal itself had emerged as a genre, since it would be another year before Black Sabbath released their eponymous début. The stately Mellotron-drenched magnificence of “Epitaph” and the title track showcased the evocative poetry of Pete Sinfield’s lyrics, which still divide opinion two generations later. It was an tremendous and unexpected privilege to hear all three performed live a month ago. And that instantly-recognisable cover artwork remains one of rock’s iconic images.

I only heard it a decade after its release when it was already an established classic, so it’s difficult to imagine how something so revolutionary must have sounded to first-time listeners at the end of the 1960s. That period must have been an exciting time to have been a rock fan, with music evolving at an unprecedented rate. King Crimson themselves, having defined a genre out of nowhere, went on to leave it behind just as rapidly as they explored stranger and more experemental directions. Later King Crimsons had an influence on post-punk; when PiL recently played live you could hear a lot of Robert Fripp in Lu Edmond’s guitar work.

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King Crimson, Hackney Empire

No photos, because you know what Robert Fripp is likeNobody really expected this tour. A couple of years ago Robert Fripp announced his retirement from music, burned out after a protracted legal dispute with his former record company over royalties. So it was a very pleasant surprise to see the announcement that he was putting together a new incarnation of King Crimson. Even more of a surprise was the news that unlike previous King Crimsons of the 70s, 80s and 90s, this one would would be performing music from right across their career. It was to be an interesting lineup, a seven-piece band including saxophonist Mel Collins alongside bass virtuoso Tony Levin, and no fewer than three drummers. What wasn’t a surprise was the speed at which many of the gigs sold out.

I wasn’t planning on reviewing this gig; just to enjoy the music without having to think about what to write about it. But then then a major broadsheet newspaper sent a too-cool-for-school NME type who filled his review with clichéd references to Spinal Tap, baby boomer fans and a “vermillian gash of sheer cosmic hogwash” that made him wish he was stoned. Somebody needs to set the record straight.

Let’s start with the presentation. The stage setup wasn’t that of a traditional rock band, with three drum kits at the front of the stage and the other four musicians on a raised platform behind them. Neither was there much of a light show. But King Crimson have never been a traditional rock band. Robert Fripp eschewed guitar hero poses by remaining seated on the far right-hand side of the stage, and the show proceeding without a single word to the audience, simply letting the music speak for itself. The iconic cover art from their first album adorning the body of Jakko Jakszyk’s guitar was a nice touch, though.

The two hour show began with the rock symphony that is “Larks Tongues in Aspic”. The early part of the set featured more recent material, some of it completely new, largely instrumental and showcasing the complex interplay between the three drummers alongside Mel Collins’ squalling sax as well as some abrasive guitar soundscapes. This was as much experimental jazz or avant-garde classical music as it was rock, and was thrilling in its sheer energy and intensity.

The second half of the show took us back to their best known work from the 1970s, when Jakko Jakszyk came into his own as a singer, easily doing justice to material originally sung by Greg Lake and John Wetton. “Easy Money” was loud and metallic, Bill Rieflin switched from drums to keys for the soaring Mellotron-drenched “Epitaph”, the first song of the evening to feature Pete Sinfield’s poetic lyrics that so enrage those who have fixed ideas of what rock lyrics should be.

They continued with “The Letters” and an astonishing “Sailor’s Tale” from the sometimes overlooked 1971 album “Islands”. The main set ended with two of their defining songs, “21st Century Schizoid Man” including a spectacular drum solo from Gavin Harrison and lyrics that sound even more prophetic now than in 1969, and finally the majestic and peerless “Starless”. After some well-deserved standing ovations, they came back for encores finishing with the stately magnificence of “In the Court of the Crimson King”.

“Prog-rock” is too narrow a label to define King Crimson’s music, even if their début album formed the template for so many lesser prog bands. Even “Rock” itself is too narrow; this is a band who demonstrate they’re capable of playing full-blown jazz when they want to. Indeed, some of the most exciting moments were in the first half of the show, with the crowd-pleasing favourites towards the end feeling like a victory lap. There was a lot to take in, so much so that you can see why many people were prepared to see them two, three, or even four or five times on the tour. Whatever genre it may or may nor be, everyone in that room with the sole exception of that one cynical hack who just didn’t get it knew they had just witnessed something quite extraordinary.

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45 years ago today, on Friday 13th Feburary 1970, Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album. Just like King Crimson’s “In The Court of the Crimson King” a few months earlier, it was an album that sounded quite unlike anything that had come before, and launched a whole new genre of music. Has any album remotely as groundbreaking as those two been released in the past decade?

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