King Crimson – Music is Our Friend: Live in Washington and Albany 2021 (2 CDs)
Robert Fripp – Music for Quiet Moments (8-CD Set)
(Panegyric. Album reviews by John Bungey)
There are lots of ways in which artists arrive at the final lap: you can just go on too long (Nina Simone, Sinatra); you can play simpler stuff (Miles Davis); you can play the same old stuff (the Stones). What the umpteenth version of King Crimson have been doing appears to be unique. Superficially this septet, led by the sole original member Robert Fripp, appears to be the world’s best tribute band, delivering a crowd-pleasing set of oldies on what was reportedly the band’s final US tour. Unlike previous line-ups of this forward-thinking progressive rock band, the latest King Crimson, born in 2013, has mostly looked backwards and scarcely generated any new material.
Tribute band? If that tag in any way fits, then this formation boasts the accolade of often improving on the original – of being more capable of realising the potential of the music than the line-ups it supersedes. Is there another band pigeon-holed into the “rock” genre with their level of technical skill?
For the concert-goer the big development, aurally and visually, is the deployment of three drummers at the front of the stage. Their intricate, powerful – but never overwhelming – manoeuvres intersperse and underpin the repertoire, which on these two CDs stretches back to the daddy of all prog-rock albums, In the Court of the Crimson King, from 1969. In other developments, striking keyboard counter-melodies add new textures to Red and Starless. The line-up’s sax and flute player, Mel Collins, is now better integrated into the group sound. In earlier tours there was a “make a jazz noise here” quality at times. Here his soprano lines on Red or his post-Coltrane tenor blast on Pictures of a City sound utterly right. And who said Crimson did not have a sense of humour? He adds a cheeky quote from Take the A Train in – of all the places – 21st Century Schizoid Man before it is swiftly shredded by Fripp’s guitar. And sometimes these older, wiser musicians simply realise the material better: Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part I, now played in its entirety, becomes a roaring avalanche with duelling guitars before a serene closing section swathed in Collins’s flute. There’s a swagger the 1973 studio recording did not possess.
For me, the only disappointment is the final piece, the somewhat drippy Islands, which develops into a meandering two-chord blow that could be anyone. But in the fug of nostalgia that inevitably envelops such oldies it will be some fans’ favourite.
Crimson completists may sigh at the prospect of finding shelf space for Epitaph, Discipline and other familiar friends yet again, but by this late summer tour the line-up – tribute band or not – in all its neo-orchestral grandeur, had become frighteningly good at its job.
After so much sturm and drang and clang, another Frippian release offers the polar opposite. Music for Quiet Moments boxes up eight CDs of guitar soundscapes. Instead of the demon Schizoid slasher, this is the guitarist digitally multiplied into a gentle cosmic orchestra. The pieces were recorded around the world between 2004 and 2009. Long yards of gently undulating melody unfurl, chords pass in scudding clouds. Tonally it’s all cellos and violins. Fripp talks of the music in spiritual terms, although it’s sometimes hard to know whether it should be absorbed as an ambient mood enhancer requiring 20 per cent of brain space or a meditational deep-dive demanding 100 per cent. Perhaps it’s your choice.
Anyway, if you are already mentally exhausted at the prospect of another Covid-spattered yuletide, insert Fripp into your sound machine, dim the lights and experience balm.