***** The heavenly music of the spheres
**** A musical epiphany at moonrise
*** An orchestral rendering of schizophrenia
** The soundtrack to Days of Our Lives
* The sound of a metronome
Music, depending on the style, can light the way in the dark…or darken the shine of a sunny day. Rock music generally pumps up the energy level and lights the room…but…as the progressive rock acts of the ’70s proved, sometimes, when given the nod to go beyond its three-chord skeleton, it can do much more. Sometimes it can lead the listener on an internal journey of fractured patterns spinning off blistering heat. Through caverns of icy stillness to peaks of breathless beauty. This issue of Bug Music takes a look at what one of the ’70s most inventive progressive rock acts is exploring today.
The ConstruKction of Light
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* * * 1/2
The Trey Gunn Band
The Joy of Molyboenum
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(First World Records, 2001)
* * * *
The California Guitar Trio
Rocks the West
* * * 1/2
In the ’70s King Crimson, with a shifting cast of players surrounding guitarist-leader Robert Fripp, helped define progressive rock with its sinister, sinuous rhythms and strangely geometric, alien instrumental solos.
In the ’80s, a slimmed down Crimson released a trio of stricter, angular guitar albums that defined avant rock. The band’s ’90s output has been sporadic and experimental, and not, perhaps, defining of anything. But Fripp’s creations are almost always, at the least, intriguing and adventurous. And they always set a decidedly left-of-normal mood.
Since re-engaging the experimental rock machine of the now four-decades old King Crimson in the mid-‘90s, Fripp has released a barrage of discs under the Crimson monicker, and encouraged his accompanists to do the same. Since the band now runs its own label, Discipline Global Mobile, there has been no shortage of King Crimson live and experimental studio material over the past five years Over the past year and a half, the band has released a studio album on Virgin, and Vrooom Vrooom, a document of its 1996 return tour as a “double trio” that included Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, Pat Mastelotto and Bill Bruford on percussion, Tony Levin on bass and Trey Gunn on guitar. And Trey gunn has been busy recording in the spare rooms of the Crimson house, releasing live and studio discs of his own.
Vroom Vroom is a two-disc set that finds the conceptual band experiment known as a “double trio” conquering mainly ‘90s material on the first disc, Vrooom Vrooom Live in Mexico City and the material of early ‘80s era Crimson on the second disc On Broadway Live in New York City. Included are jammy jagged guitar versions of the title track, “Thrak, “ “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part II),” “21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Conundrum,” “Indiscipline,” “Elephant Talk,” “Three of a Perfect Pair,” and a surprisingly quiet rendition of John Lennon’s “Free as a Bird.” The discs also include extensive liner notes and photos from the tour and an explanation of the rise and fall of the band’s incarnationas an experimental “double trio.”
The ConstruKction of Light, the band’s most recent studio disc, alternates between vocal tracks featuring Belew and instrumental rock guitar experiments, and at its best, is invigoratingly different. Unfortunately, at points, it’s also frustratingly tedious.
The opening track, “Prozakc Blues” is, well, godawful, with its processed blues vocal that sounds like it’s playing three speeds too slow. Maybe horror fans will use this as a soundtrack for a twisted dungeon scene. I just found it painful. But the next track, “The ConstruKction of Light” is what KC has been about for the past two decades – innovative guitar exploration which graduates to an exercise in otherworldly inventive vocal layering.
“Into the Frying Pan” is a slippery, but not particularly memorable Belew-heavy track. Things pick up with the nine-minute guitar opus “FraKtured,” which begs to be used as a sci-fi/horror soundtrack for a film like Pitch Black. The album’s centerpiece is a reworking of one Crimson’s ’70s era themes, “Larks Tongues in Aspic.” A nine-minute long piece of rhythmic and lead guitar grandeur, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic-Part IV” is worth the price of this album on its own for longtime Crimson fans, and should serve to turn newcomers on to the band’s incredible ’70s catalogue of innovation. The disc ends with an enjoyably atmospheric, 7-minute soundtrack-ish piece from a Crimson “alter ego” combo called ProjeKct X (it’s just the current King Crimson lineup under a different name).
The ConstruKction of Light is definitely a mixed bag, with its backwards-looking explorations of old themes and a couple of dead-end vocal exercises. Not as tightly focused as previous efforts, this CD still shows the Fripp fire burning angularly strong, abetted by the Belew, Mastelotto and Gunn lineup.
While the focus of Crimson has always been Fripp, the other members of the band have, over the past few years, participated in a variety of offshoot projects designed to let each splinter group experiment with sonic ideas that will ultimately expand the scope and sound of Crimson itself.
At least, that’s the theory.
Trey Gunn, a relatively recent addition to the Crimson fold works in his spare time with a guitar and drum trio, and released the excellent, though very Crimson-esque The Joy of Molyboenum on King Crimson’s Discipline Global Mobile label, as well as a live disc on another label. Gunn proves a well-taught pupil of Fripp; parts of Molyboenum sound more like King Crimson than the past couple of Crimson records have.
Part of that is, no doubt, because Gunn eschews any distracting vocals and concentrates on creating long, complex guitar and rhythm exercises with lots of touch guitar, “smokey” guitar, and even mellotron action. For fans of Crimson, and of mind-bending instrumental – but not tediously flashy – guitar work, this is an album to seek out. Gunn is an expressive, innovative player who spins an intricate web of angular string work, all the while tapping in a melodic texture that weaves it all together into a canny soundscape.
The Trey Gunn Band is one of many Crimson spin-offs, and as Gunn has set the guitar tone for Crimson with his unique eight-string touch guitar over the past decade, so his solo outings, which spotlight his instrumental guitar prowess, resonate with a jammy, rhythmic Crimson feel.
Live Encounter captures nine tracks recorded by the band during its September 2000 and February 2001 tours. Gunn takes a slightly more melodic approach to his material than Crimson’s often abusively avant rock attacks, which makes his live disc a slightly more enjoyable listen. His repeating, circular guitar loops grow increasingly hypnotic as the album plays, drawing the listener into his world of cool, symettrical melody.
Likewise, the California Guitar Trio, a group of former Fripp students, proves that instrumental guitar doesn’t have to be boring or based around heavy metal riffs. Backed by sometimes Crimson bassist Tony Levin, the California Guitar Trio unveiled its fifth album, Rocks The West, a live album recorded at shows in California and Boulder, Colo. through the Discipline Global Mobile label.
Working with a more acoustic sound than Crimson is wont to, the Trio finesses its way through Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” “Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and songs by Levin and the Trio. There’s even an expansive saxophone interlude midway through the disc.
It listens more like a classical guitar album than rock, but there in the shadows, like a godfather creaking back and forth, back and forth in his rocker, reveals the signature imprint of Fripp’s exploratory, six-string sense.
John Everson’s “Pop Stops” music column has appeared weekly in the Chicago-area Star Newspapers for more than a decade. He also writes reviews and interviews for Illinois Entertainer magazine and his “dark music” columns have appeared in Wetbones and Midnight Hour magazines His fiction has been published in recent anthologies like Bloodtype, TransVersions and The Dead Inn and in ‘zines like Bloodsongs, The Edge, Grue, Plot, Terminal Fright, Sirius Visions and Dead of Night. His first hardcover collection of erotic horror fiction, Cage of Bones & Other Deadly Obsessions is available from Delirium Books.