Stick Men is a trio that’s effectively an offshoot of King Crimson, a band whose ancestral roots twist more than a mangrove forest. By Crimson standards, Stick Men’s line-up has been remarkably consistent: since 2010 it’s always been Chapman Stick player Tony Levin (who joined King Crimson in 1981 for the album Discipline), drummer Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson drummer since 1994) and Touch Guitar player Markus Reuter (who replaced Chapman Stick player Michael Bernier three years after the band’s formation in 2007 – the only personnel change in the trio’s history).
The Chapman Stick and Touch Guitar are both exotic but similar guitar-like instruments. Unlike normal guitars where the player frets with one hand and plucks the strings with the other, both the Stick and Touch Guitar are designed for two-handed tapping on the fretboard. The Stick has ten strings ranging from the bass to treble register, and Reuter’s Touch Guitar AU8 is a semi-acoustic eight-string with individual pickups per string designed by Markus Reuter himself. Both instruments offer enormous scope for polyphony and complex sound textures – possibilities further extended by the fact that Mastelotto plays both acoustic and electronic drums and percussion, much like his King Crimson predecessor Bill Bruford.
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The King Crimson connections go beyond the fact that two of the Stick Men are long-time members. Their albums and concerts include Crimson tracks, and two live albums recorded in Tokyo included former or current Crimson members: Midori (2015) featured David Cross on violin and keyboards, and Roppongi (2017) the saxophonist and flautist Mel Collins.
And now we have Owari – another Japanese concert, this one recorded in the jazz club Blue Note Nagoya on 28 February 2020. But there are some notable differences from the previous two. First, this concert features the legendary jazz and rock musician Gary Husband, remarkable for never having played in King Crimson and for playing keyboards, which are a rarity in Crimson’s typically guitar-led output. Second, unlike the other live albums, Owari sounds like a studio album with all evidence of an audience airbrushed out; the reason, I suspect, is that Covid-19 turned a sold-out concert into a sparsely attended one, and for driving rock-oriented music like this it’s better to hear no audience than hollow claps from a near-empty club. In fact, it’s a miracle the concert happened at all, because political unrest in Hong Kong then Covid-19 meant that this concert was the only one out of an Asian tour not to be cancelled – symbolically, Owari is Japanese for ‘end’.
Considering the band’s tour travails, and the fact the concert was Husband’s first public performance with the band after only a few hours of rehearsal at the sound-check, the results are impressively cohesive – it all sounds like a proper studio album rather than simply a concert sans audience. Crimson fans will love Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II, the abrasive and impasto-thick guitar and driving drums making it much heavier than the Crimson original; and Cusp, with its start-stop rhythms reminiscent of Crimson’s love of unusual time signatures. Stick Men fans will love hearing Prog Noir from the group’s eponymous first album, the only song on Owari and one that made me think of late-period Bowie. Open-minded newcomers will love the contrast of moods, from eerie filmic atmospherics to pounding metal that could silence a foundry. And even though half of the ten tracks (excluding the CD-only bonus track) also appear on Roppongi, Husband’s keyboard contributions alone warrant investing in this album, ranging from film-noir piano plinks on the multi-textured mood piece Hajime, to retro-sounding organ / Rhodes piano jabs on the muscular and funky Schattenhaft, to fluty ripples that start the atmospheric Swimming in T, to wild glissandi on the head-banger Level 5 that closes this most satisfying album.LINK: Stick Men on Bandcamp
Categories: CD reviews