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King Crimson
Live At The Orpheum Joe Banks , January 16th, 2015 13:36

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This month sees King Crimson enter their 47th year of existence. Glance at the live ads in the mainstream music media, and you'll see that what was once the nostalgia circuit now makes up a sizeable proportion of all available gigs. As rock enters its autumn years, the refusal of the old guard to retire gracefully has all kinds of implications for modern music, psychologically as well as practically. But are King Crimson part of the problem? On the evidence of Live At The Orpheum, KC still sound like they're transmitting from a future we haven't reached yet, which frankly renders the question null.

However, given Robert Fripp's announcement of his retirement from the music business in 2012, it's surprising they're here at all. It wasn't the first time that Fripp had declared creative burn-out, but the circumstances on this occasion were different: his long-running battle with Universal Music Group over rights and money had led him to describe participation in the industry as "a joyless exercise in futility". So what changed? Well, it looks like he won (for instance, there's barely a trace of King Crimson on streaming services such as Spotify), but the happiness that ensued didn't sit well with the notoriously 'difficult' Fripp. And so KC were reconvened once again, with Live At The Orpheum culled from two shows played in Los Angeles during a short US tour at the end of last year.

The machinations of the music business clearly remain uppermost in Fripp's mind though. The small print on the back of the CD reads: "The phonographic copyright in these performances is operated by Discipline Global Mobile (Fripp's label) on behalf of the artists, with whom it resides, contrary to common practice in the record industry. Discipline accepts no reason for artists to assign the copyright interests in their work to either record company or management by virtue of a "common practice" which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible." It sounds like Fripp is also on the side of the angels in the loudness wars, as this is the most quietly mastered CD I've ever heard.

Played live for the first time on this tour, the lurching, bottom-heavy riff of 'One More Red Nightmare' sounds positively demonic, like the devil pimp rolling along some seedy, neon-lit broadwalk. Returning saxophonist Mel Collins (whose initial tenure with the band was in the early 70s) ghosts the guitar and bass lines to create a menacing swing time feel, while the song's clipped funk breakdowns showcase his freewheeling but melodic soloing. An intriguing feature of the latest KC configuration is its three drummer 'frontline' (including new recruit Bill Rieflin, ex-Ministry and Nine Inch Nails), who have fun interpreting the cacophonous percussive clatter of the original version (though Bill Bruford must be smiling to himself that it takes three people to reproduce what he did on his own). '…Nightmare' is one of KC's most direct songs, and its reanimation here makes you wonder what direction the band might have taken if they hadn't imploded (for the first time) just before the release of its parent album Red in 1974.

'Banshee Legs Bell Hassle' is an ambient percussion interlude that recalls the start of 'Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part 1' and leads into 'The ConstruKcution Of Light', a track from the band's turn of the century incarnation. Like a shadowy Penguin Café Orchestra, it's a subtly tense cat's cradle of guitar arpeggios underpinned by Tony Levin's busy bass, and a less synapse-blasting example of the distinctive picking techniques that Fripp has been perfecting for five decades. But it's the rebooting of older tracks that still provide the most pleasure, with a couple of highlights from 1971's Islands up next. 'The Letters' starts off as the type of tremulous post-rock ballad that Piano Magic might have once recorded, only for a rude blast of strutting brass to come in and start spoiling for a fight. It breaks down to just melancholy sax before gradually building to an angry and dramatic ending. 'Sailor's Tale' is even better, a quintessential prog jazz instrumental driven along by a fantastic undulating bass line, waves beating against the bow of the ship as Fripp and Collins go wild in the surf. There's an eye-of-the-storm lull to provide space for a section of more constrained and precise shredding from Fripp, before the swell returns and a simple chord change introduces a new sense of scale.

The album ends with a faithful version of 'Starless', perhaps the band's greatest song. The Mellotron intro remains beautiful and eerie, and Fripp's playing is more liquid than ever. But while Jakko Jakszyk's vocal hits all the right notes, his performance misses the cracked soulfulness that John Wetton brought to the original. Nevertheless, when that mid-section of lugubrious bass and trickling ice-water guitar begins, it still raises the hairs on the back of the neck, the power of restraint stretched to beyond breaking point, even if the song's conclusion lacks the manic intensity of yore.

Live albums are inevitably products of a particular time and place, and Live At The Orpheum sometimes sounds like a band still testing its limits, pleasingly proficient rather than definitively awesome. But it's hard to think of any other group of their vintage that still sounds so vital and forward-looking. With UK live dates promised for later this year, this album augurs well for King Crimson's continuing disruptive influence.

caonai
Jan 16, 2015 1:56pm

"As rock enters its autumn years, the refusal of the old guard to retire gracefully has all kinds of implications for modern music, psychologically as well as practically."
Can anybody recommend any good essays / think pieces on this subject? Or could tQ commission one?

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Joe Banks
Jan 16, 2015 11:55pm

In reply to caonai:

Luke Turner of this parish addressed a similar subject in this piece:
http://thequietus.com/articles/13500-music-golden-age-60s-beatles-dylan-balls

For my own part, I think the really interesting part of this equation is the fact that there's clearly a compelling demand from music fans of all stripes for nostalgia as mainstream entertainment. Why do we seem to have developed a morbid inability to just let go of the past? It's like we're participating in the collective recital of a Really Important Dream, lest its details slip away...

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james
Jan 17, 2015 12:33am

In reply to Joe Banks:

Neither artists making art into their old age nor people enjoying old art are inherently nostalgiac. Was Beethoven's 9th an act of nostalgia? Or Scott O))? Why is a Fleetwood Mac (to pick a random band) tour nostalgiac but Nick Cave not? He's been at it for 35 years. I don't believe that the creation of new art has anything to do with it since Dylan and his fans are accused of being nostalgiac too. If the artist is playing old stuff, that's not necessarily nostalgiac either. They're just doing what they do. Why should they not perform their songs? And if they are performing them to a new audience, many of whom are seeing them for the first time, how can that be nostalgiac? Nostalgia in relationship to music is an overused and essentially meaningless term, second only to "pretentious". Artists make art, and the passage of time doesn't mean that they should ignore large portions of what they've done, and it doesn't mean that they're trying to return to a time that's gone. They're just making art. That being said, cultural nostalgia is a curse and is bringing about the death of western civilization. It comes mainly from the media saying "Oh things were so much better when X was occuring" though, not from bands playing their songs.

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caonai
Jan 17, 2015 8:52am

In reply to Joe Banks:

hi joe, appreciate the personal reply - i'll take a look at the article after this.

@james - I think you raise good points. personally, when an artist/band has stopped is exclusively playing the 'old' songs or else using a half hearted new release to justify what's essentially a greatest hits tour, then we're into nostalgia territory. (particularly when the results show that the past is better left there).
but like the old cliché all (good) things in moderation*, a little nostalgia is probably even a healthy thing (not everything that's new is 'good') keeping certain concepts/memories etc. in the present conscience. it's when it becomes overwhelming, a sign of chronophobia that it becomes a problem - like you say, stifling for a civilization / culture.
* … including moderation!

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Nick Kent
Jan 17, 2015 7:56pm

In reply to caonai:

@ Caonai: Simon Reynolds' brilliant "Retromania", the last word on the subject to date.....

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Joe Banks
Jan 17, 2015 10:33pm

In reply to james:

I'm not saying that old bands playing old songs is inherently retrogressive or nostalgic - for one thing, see this review. And yes, I understand the desire to see something you missed first time around (I've indulged on plenty of occasions myself). But it's exactly that wider point around cultural nostalgia that I think is a problem, and it's not just the fault of the media. It's our fault too, because we're the people who have created this demand for bands to continue past the point of any artistic relevance, or to keep replaying the past, whether as part of some anniversary package or performing 'classic album' live shows. And for the most part, bands are more than happy to oblige if it means they get the payday they were originally denied. Even the tribute band circuit is big business these days. What intrigues/bothers me is why that demand is so high now? Is it just a case of this veneration of the past having reached critical mass ie. it's an economic model that's proved to be successful enough for it to now be repeated ad infinitum, or is it part of a deeper cultural malaise, where the comfort of the familiar is forever destined to trump the shock of the new?

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caonai
Jan 18, 2015 5:45am

In reply to Nick Kent:

heard many good things about this - the book has been sitting on my amazon wish list for far too long - i really need to just get it and dive in!

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caonai
Jan 18, 2015 6:01am

In reply to Joe Banks:

just thinking on the stop having read this - but maybe the current wave of nostalgia regarding bands will dissipate at some point due partly to the fact that a lot of the acts presently involved started out in the era when most were never widely filmed or videoed, resulting in a sort of attitude of 'catch them while you can', whereas these days every act has their shows recorded on one manner or another. that might explain things from an audience perspective - for the band the collapse of revenue via royalties is surely a driving force in having to get out there.

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underlander
Jan 18, 2015 4:44pm

Now, one word I simply cannot link to Robert Fripp is "nostalgia". Or retromania (no offence to Mr. Reynolds intended!) or anything like this.
So I think Joe hits the nail on the head when he says that KC still sound like they're transmitting from a future we haven't reached yet.
This particular lineup, or, as Fripp justly puts it, incarnation of KC does exactly this - transmits from a future. Like, say, "Sailor's Tale" is a piece from the past only because it happened to be written back in 1971/72, and the same goes for most of KC/Fripp's output.

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Mike Rednour
May 26, 2015 4:17pm

I love posts like this. Keep up the good work. Mike Rednour has been following this blog for quite some time now.

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