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8 June 2018

Konono N°1 - 'Congotronics' (Ache)

Somehow this feels like a long time ago already; it has been 13 years, I guess, but this time has passed somehow both slowly and quickly at the same time. Which is maybe a cheap metaphor for describing the music of Konono?Congotronics arrived at the right time for me. Perhaps it had felt like I and my friends had exhausted our investigations of caucasian music as far as they could go, a feeling which was absolutely not true but certainly how I felt at the time. Perhaps the sheer awesomeness of this music, equal parts novelty, energy and magic, was undeniable. And why not? The newsprint poster included here explicitly maps out the connection between this recording and 'today's most underground forms of music', no doubt referring to their use of homemade electronic amplifiers. I guess that's something, though I've been to basement noise gigs in Ohio built around similar homemade amplifiers and it felt nothing like Congotronics. This isn't a blown out, distorted sound but one that is bathed in a warm fuzz. The bass likeme is the star of the show and the reason I like to listen to this on vinyl; its tones are soothing despite having a thump and kick. The percussion, well, it's all percussion I guess, but the non-likembe percussion, being pots, pans and tam-tam, feel more like a light dressing on top. The pulse here is not so much hypnotic as scatterbrained; there's an off-kilter balance throughout, constructed by the rising and interacting waves of likembes. The slow numbers, 'Kule Kule' and its reprise, are my favourites, as they have the same ability to pull my head and my heart together as I first felt when hearing Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The longer pieces, well, they're just a party that never seems to stop. I'm no expert on African music but have my fair share of Ocora releases and it's easy to make a superficial connection between the structures of those recordings and these. Horizontality is the game here, but that could just as easily work as a comparison to, well, 'today's most underground forms of music' circa 2005 (so, really, yesterday's). It's logical that this hit when it did; the predominantly white sounds of my life were struggling to accommodate more disparate influences, and I remember a lot of local rock/post-punk bands employing 'African' material, not to mention stuff like Vampire Weekend. Hey, it happened before in the early 80s too; white is always going to look to black for inspiration and I'm not one to get hung up on authenticity. But this still transports me to never-actually-experienced smoggy night in Kinshasa; it's this type of audiotourism that justifies owning so many goddamned records.

26 May 2018

Kommissar Hjuler / Mama Baer - 'Amerikanische Poesie Und Alkoholismus' (Feeding Tube)

I'm not sure what this became a roadblock to the project because while it's certainly a slab of extremely dissonant art-brut Fluxus madness, it's not the most difficult thing to write about. The truth is, I found myself listening to side A, by the Kommissar and Frau ('Once Again Concrete Poetry') repeatedly, injecting a musical reading onto something that probably was not intended to be seen that way. But this side-long live performance, a mixture of American poetry records, static hiss, and shouted readings through a low-quality amplifier, somehow succeeds in attaining some sort of mantra-like resonance. Hjuler's voice often resembles a comedic parody of a James Bond villain (like something out of Austin Powers) and it's lurching into 'ONCE AGAIN! CONCRETE POETRY' approximately eight million times starts to take on a visual element. By the end I feel like I'm there, imagining this surely big, sweaty and hairy German bounding across the stage behaving badly in the tradition of all central European performance art. And then on the flip is his partner, Mama Baer, though this is properly a split LP and not a collaboration. 'Alcoholisme - brut' parts 1 and 2 are somewhat more obtuse. It's collaged from tape material, in the greatest of pause-button edit styles, with splices and other distortions providing the rhythmic muscle like a Tall Dwarfs song on downers. Over this are various found materials, high pitched howls and whistles, and likely the wooden recorder on the cover. Baer sings in places, in English, and it's ragged and haunting, with words that comes surprisingly fast and deny any attempt to find narrative. A good use of the stereo field too; the little bursts and buzzes of static dance back and forth across the field and the tape-manipulated squealing making a lovely counterpoint. The second part builds in intensity, with Baer's chant of 'anymore, anymore, anymore' (I think) becoming hypnotic, and the recorder getting as aggressive as you've ever heard such an instruments. Through it all lies a good deal of space, however, and both sides of this record are remarkable in how they maintain a sense of control, never piling things on even when the aesthetic often drives towards it. I give the nod to the Mama Baer side here, as it seems to offer the most encouragement for repeated listens, even though I gave Kommissar & Frau more time myself.

29 March 2018

Kodama - 'Turning Leaf Migrations' (Olde English Spelling Bee)

For some reason the title of this, Kodama's only LP, sticks in my head much more than the music does. Although I always think of it as 'tuning leaf' instead of turning, a sentiment I really like. A duo of American-in-Europe Michael Northam + Japanese-in-Switzerland Hitoshi Kojo, Kodama turn the dial slightly past halfway between field recordings and electro-acoustic composition. The musique concrete elements are more than just salad dressing; they're a fundament around which the instrumental interplay congeals, and it's not virtuoso riffing but a careful colouring based around mood and timbre. There's a thick, dense atmosphere that goes throughout almost the whole LP, either the result of buzzing midrange electronics, or acoustic sounds processed into something more - it's hard to say. The numerous tracks, all with great artsy names that are much easier to cut 'n paste from discogs than to re-type ('Backing Up Into A Cultural Ditch We Slobbered Through The Din Of The Alcoholics' Babble' is my fave), blend into one big suite. At their most spacious ('Uprooting Mycelium In The Night Forest Of "Grmade" We Spoke With The Bubilant Sage' being an excellent example), Northam & Kojo bring in just enough improvised instrumentation to genuinely integrate with the field recordings; the silence slowly gets taken over but first after a variety of flutes, small percussive sounds, bells, and other objects are brought in. There's no clear divide between human/machine here; the purity of performance maybe gets lost in service to the cohesive whole, but that's OK. It's a very busy record, and given the naturalistic, pastoral elements (not just the source material but the titles and artwork as well) it's a little bit overwhelming, not a meditative field recording platter at all. That's not to say one can't lose oneself in Kodama's music; it's the very definition of psychedelic, and uncompromising in its vision as it layers up the details. The opening of the first side actually hurts my head a bit, if I have it placed right between the speakers (which is, of course, the best way to listen to music); the opening of side two is made to sound like there's some huge gob of debris being dragged across by my stylus, but it's just a trompe l'oreille. Turning Leaf Migrations is definitely a playful record, not necessarily ha-ha funny or subterfuge-driven but awash in the potentiality of bringing sounds together. For something so carefully put together it manages to feel loose, and even the denser ringing parts feel like sketches, or at least that they feel like they have the intent of a sketch, because they move on quickly. Because the tracks all flow into two side-long pieces, it's arguable that Turning Leaf Migrations is really just one big composition, but there's something a bit scatterbrained about it all. Towards the middle of the second side the sound shifts into a more creeping, underwater/sci-fi feel, like an outtake from a Chrome session only with all of the benefits (and great stereo processing) that the technology of the time (the mid-00s) provide. This shift in tonality either adds complexity to the overall picture or maybe it distracts from it and sounds too generic; I can't really decide. By the end though, I'm glad to have revisited this, as it moves to a hypnotic, meditative drone ('Where Even Once We Slept By The Arctic Ocean When Cloud Drops Bounced On Our Strings') that is stunningly beautiful yet still has the presence of quiet rustling and other bits and bobs, quilted together perfectly. It could close on that but instead takes another tactic entirely, a closing track which is the album's longest and brings in pulsing, yet soft electronics, more ringing and buzzing, and some discordant voices. There's nary a trace of distortion across the whole album, except for maybe the aforementioned needle fakeout on side 2; it's a clean mix that gets thick when it needs to, but doesn't go for the thunder. By the end, I'm actually tired from such active listening.

26 March 2018

Chris Knox - 'Not Given Lightly' (Flying Nun)

I went through a Chris Knox period in college and those first couple of solo LPs are great, something I'd recommend to everyone (and strangely, I don't have any of them as physical copies to place under analysis here). This is a 12" single with a slim (but technically existing) spine, which means I never remember it's here as it doesn't catch my eye when browsing (and the Ks are right in the middle of my line-of-sight when standing). It's the only Chris Knox vinyl I own, so I'm grateful for this project to remind me to listen to it. Side A is Knox's biggest hit, rendered here at 45rpm, a tune which actually even charted in some countries, though possibly only southern hemisphere ones (not that there's anything wrong with that). But Knox, being the generous genius that he is, surly figured 'Why have one B-side when you can have 10?'; this side is labeled Guppiplus!! as it's mostly made up of  material from Knox's very rare 1982 solo LP Songs for Cleaning Guppies, which I've never heard in its entirety. The ten songs here lean towards the more experimental side of early-80s Tall Dwarfs work, with a home-studio sound not too far off from the vibe of Seizure and Croaker. The more experimental parts come to the forefront in the way Knox treats his voice; 'Jesus Loves You' uses a processed silly baby voice as a harmony over a clanging percussive loop with backwards effects; it recalls early 80s UK electronic/industrial underground music, which may or may not have actually been an influence then. 'Indigestion' is a heavily rhythmic song approaching rap; 'Sandfly' is totally a-capella and calls out Bobby McFerrin in the liner notes. I can imagine people who bought this for 'Not Given Lightly' and the sweet romanticism of it would find little to enjoy here on the flip. Even the closer-to-pop songs, like 'Over and Out' or 'I Wanna Die With You' have more art-school swagger to them than 'Not Given Lightly', which is a wonderful song for sure but not one with any element of being damaged. My pick of Guppiplus may actually be 'More or Less [Lethargy]', which creeps through a sludgy guitar strum and has a great, classic Kiwi drone-melody. Rendered in Knox's cheerful croon, it sounds absolutely wonderful, but I do love the sound of his voice. The song stops and sputters but stays within the bedroom aesthetic; it's the shining example of what Knox does. 

25 March 2018

Kisses and Hugs (Raw Sugar/N=K)

This may seem like an oddity to have in my record collection but drummer Chris Strunk was (and is) a good friend, and he released this in 2001 though it documents a band he was in years before. Recorded in 1994,  Kisses and Hugs are pretty forgotten now and maybe weren't so well known outside of the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, but this compiled recordings that were meant to come out in other formats and never did. I'm not sure how this fits into the continuum of hardcore of the time or how they might be remembered now, if at all; certainly there are the spazzy explosions into blast beats and screaming, a genre known later as 'power violence', but that doesn't feel quite like the whole story to me. Yet Kisses and Hugs pulled things back from the brink and appeared to be more interested in a balance of mood and energy than just pure aggression. Certainly the 12 songs on this EP fly by quickly (it's 45rpm), and they mastered that thing 90s hardcore did where it would find a 'groove' around a thick, vaguely metallic riff and use it to slow down bits in the middle, if only to add drama to the fast explosive parts. Joe Carducci probably could dissect exactly how the bass, guitar and drums come together to make 'rock' but it's clearly visceral, though thoughtful. And for every anomaly such as 'Under the Rug', a long track with slow, moody post-rock interludes, it's followed up by something aggressive and scorching. Yes, there's a ferocious Negative Approach cover ('Kiss Me Kill Me') but it also has a mandolin and kazoo breakdown in the middle. It's not quite schizophrenic but rather suggestive of a larger vision, of a young band working within hardcore's boundaries but already frustrated at its orthodoxy. The members all went on to a lot of interesting future bands (Conversions, Sleeper Cell, An Oxygen Auction, etc.) making it a shame that there's so little left to listen to from this early projects's existence. Without a lyrics sheet, we'll never know exactly what 'Civ Lied' is about - I assume it's about the Gorilla Biscuits frontman but maybe about the Sid Meier computer game - and 'Why Do You Insist I Need College To Validate My Life, Fucker?' is a truly great title, and the song is little more than that shouted once.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk ‎- 'The Art Of Rahsaan Roland Kirk - The Atlantic Years' (Atlantic)

The cover of this compilation makes this seem like a fairly average cash-generating release, with forgettable graphic design and all previous released material. But as someone who doesn't own any of the original Atlantic records this culls from, The Art Of is a real treasure. It's well-assembled, and shows an incredibly diverse range of Kirk as a composer, bandleader and player. Like most of his records, the tunes are pretty evenly split between his compositions and covers, and there's raucous takes of songs like 'Sentimental Lady', Dvotrak, and Bacharach and Davis-via-Dionne Warwick ('I Say A Little Prayer'). We get a medley of Coltrane songs at the end of side two, from a live concert (as so much of this set is live, it really adds some energy to the mix). The Coltrane takes are fine enough, but they aren't anything I'd go back to; however, the medley at the beginning of side four, which is Kirk playing two instruments at once, is pretty great, with a wooly fidelity and occasional bursts of applause. I don't have any of these Atlantic LPs but I used to have a dub of The Inflated Tear which I would listen to while driving. That title track and its followup Ellington cover open up the second record, just as they opened side two of the original. It's a hell of a composition, sharply focused on its theme but then letting it's own weight break into the more melodic sections; it conveys pain, magic and relief while always in pursuit of beauty. I like Kirk's compositions a lot, whether they be spry, pinprick soundtrack jazz ('A Laugh for Rory'), or the Afro-centric colours that open and close the whole 2xLP set. 'Volunteered Slavery' is catchy, driving, and manages to quote 'Hey, Jude' though maybe that's just an accident - Kirk's voice is echoed by a rocking chorus and actually nothing else on the two LPs lives quite up to its potential. Side four ends with 'The Seeker', a suite of poetic improvisations which are the closest to AACM-type material I've ever heard from Kirk. Behind the verbal intonations of its 'Black Classical Rap' we hear extended technique and enough percussion and little instruments to at some points, actually sound like some electro-acoustic/concrete mix. The hard bop sounds from earlier in his career are spread throughout this record, but even in, say, 'The Seeker' movement of 'The Seeker', they are just passages of colour among a more beauteous whole. His own voice pops up throughout all four sides enough times that he starts to feel like a crazy companion. Singing a barroom drawl on 'Baby Let Met Shake Your Tree', informing about how the audience doesn't know about enough great jazz saxophonists during the Charlie Parker tribute in 'The Seeker', or just hollering and shouting in the backgrounds of other tracks - it infuses a great deal of personality into a record which already has it dripping off the music itself, no small feat for a record with a lot of covers, and standards as well. I'm not familiar enough with Kirk's overall work to know how his Atlantic Years stack up against everything else, but I would grab any of the LPs whose tracks are featured here if I came across them, for sure.

20 March 2018

Roland Kirk - 'Introducing' (Argo/Cadet)

The sleeve says Argo and I guess that's just the catalogue number, because this is really Cadet records, but it's actually the same label - it just changed names due to (I guess) anticipation of the Ben Affleck film 50 years before it came out. Despite the title, this is Roland Kirk's second album, as Triple Threat came out in '57. But this was certainly his introduction on the Argo label and maybe it was like a re-introduction to those who may have missed him the first time around. Kirk is an interesting figure to me; as a casual jazz fan who knows little about the culture,  I've always perceived him as a respected outsider, popular but never really part of the main continuum or scene. A bit like Neil Young maybe? Certainly the triple saxophone thing came off as gimmicky to some people, but when he does it here it doesn't overwhelm. The mix is pretty even here between Kirk's saxes, Ira Sullivan's trumpet, a fairly standard cool-style rhythm section of Don Garrett and Sonny Brown, and William Burton's organ. Yes, it's the Don Garrett, years before the Sea Ensemble, and it's nice trivia but there's almost nothing of his playing heard here that stands out from the pack, apart from a little bowing in the opening part of 'The Call' – which is not to say it's bad, certainly competent and responsive. 'The Call', the first track, seems to be missing the subtitle '(and Response)', as it mostly walks through a theme based on interplay between Kirk and Sullivan, after a slow and spacious intro. The record is half Kirk compositions - 'The Call', 'Soul Station' (which has a real 1960s Eurospy soundtrack feel to it) and 'Spirit Girl', maybe the album highlight – and half others. One is by Burton, one's David Rose, and Gershwin's 'Our Love is Here To Stay' rounds it out. Rose's 'Our Waltz' is not in 3/4 time, at least not by my count, and I'm not familiar with the original, so I'm not sure how their take changes things.  I like the Gershwin ballad; the band hangs heavy on the changes and it's sweet and soulful. This is recorded nicely; there's a lot of space between the instruments and the mood is warm and brassy, but without being overly echoey. The tracks with organ give it a very late 50s feel (this was released in '60) but when Burton's on the piano, it sounds more restrained and the trumpet really resonates. Restraint is overall the feeling; even the solos are rather contained within a certain framework. 'Soul Station' feels the liveliest (and has some hootin' and hollerin' in the background) but the band feels stuck in a lower gear, unable to generate enough momentum to really rip things apart. But this is early - and as the title indicates, it's only a hint at what is to come later.

11 March 2018

The Kinks - 'Muswell Hillbillies' (RCA Victor)

Muswell Hillbillies shouldn't work as well as it does; this is where the Davies brothers' move towards American blues and country styles becomes fully integrated into Ray's extreme Englishness; somehow the whole mess congeals, and it attains some great heights. Ray wrote all of the songs here, making this even more of a one-man vision than Village Green; this lyrical cohesiveness holds together a record which borrows musical motifs quite liberally from honky-tonk, Dixieland jazz, folk-rock and music hall traditions. Because this blog only covers my vinyl accumulation, we've skipped a run of classic albums in between Face to Face that I only have on CD, so this jump would make this almost an unrecognisable band to the unknowing. And a band it is - the bassist has changed from the classic Kinks lineup but the core quartet really grinds through these songs, augmented by a brass section on some tracks and some really heavy, swampy organ. The first side is essentially perfect, moving through a suite of exaggerated lyrical concerns, starting with '20th Century Man' and ending with 'Complicated Life'. In between we look at poverty, alcoholism and British seaside holidays through Ray's glasses (eyeglasses, but I suppose pub drinking glasses as well), which blend his usual nostalgia trip with the urban neighbourhood proclaimed by the title and cover art. There is no reason that 'Acute Schizophrenia Blues' should succeed as well as it does ; the mix of Felix Guattari and the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band is unlike anything else I've ever heard, but it's catchy as fuck. '20th Century Man' could be a Tory fight song in its most favourable viewing, or an EDL anthem in its least, but this Marxist happens to love it. I would declare if one of my guilty pleasures, except I try not to believe in guilty pleasures; it does seem like quite a reaction to the Harold Wilson government and the plan, plan, plan mentality; technocracy was still nascent at the time this was written, and I wonder how the elderly Mr. Davies would feel about these matter. He sings a bit weird on this album, like he's letting the words escape from the side of his mouth for the most part, in that casual half-spoken style of singing that Lou Reed popularised. Yet he belts it out in a few places, namely the choruses ('ladi dah de dah dah' in 'Complicated Life' most memorably, which is actually written out in the lyric sheet); the jazzy affectations work well here as brassy complements to it. Dave Davies's guitar playing has always had a hard, blues-driven edge; 'Skin and Bone' and 'Complicated Life' take the 'King Kong' buzzsaw tone and somehow integrate it into the country-fried songs. Side two admittedly slows down a bit, but that's a good move; the songs are all still solid, and 'Have a Cuppa Tea' is so over the top with its Englishness that I get slight Ukip shivers while listening. 'Oklahoma USA' is a delicate piano ballad which is catchy to the point of infectious but also directly confronts the influence of American culture on the British. The title track closes things out by most explicitly stating this fascination, while acknowledging the essential Londonness. Simplistic in ways, but the way the music and lyrics come together into such a total package that over the years this has probably become my favourite Kinks album, though I've never given the rock opera era a chance, and I've never heard Percy.

8 March 2018

Kinks - 'Face to Face' (Pye/Zafiro)

When I lived in Scotland, someone once drunkenly ranted at me about how annoying they found the American music hipster fascination with the Kinks, particularly their more English-empire themed material. This may have been a case of a Scottish guy feeling irritated with something so English as to be almost like musical imperialism, so I understood it, but there's also the fact that local Glaswegians were buying Trinidad & Tobago football jerseys en masse that year, since they faced England in the same World Cup group, and that's when it just gets silly. The English have a lot of crimes to answer for, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson merely being the latest, but things are a bit more complicated than that, so I took with a grain of salt (though I perhaps slightly dialled back my outward passion for this music after that conversation). It's been a few years since I fell into a Kinks hole, but this section of the blog-project comes at a nice time, because these songs are brightening up the dark end of this winter, or at least they are tonight. Face to Face is the one where the truly GREAT run starts - I had all of them between this and Arthur on the Castle reissue CDs, which featured all of the right bonus tracks in the right places. And to be honest, I'd put the Face to Face - Muswell Hillbillies era up against any of the other unfuckwithable streaks in rock music history; maybe it doesn't quite equal, say, Propeller through Under the Bushes in terms of total amazement, but it comes close. And like GbV then, there's a plethora of non-album material that turned up over the years in various places (compilations, singles, etc.) which are part of the complete picture. So used to the CD am I that this LP feels a bit weak without 'This is Where I Belong' and 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else', but that's ok, cause I still have the CD (we're just way out of sync between the two blogs, sorry!). Comparing this to Kinda Kinks just a few albums back, the difference is remarkable - where the Kinks in 1965 were a singles band who padded out their album with some filler, just a year later they're creating near-complete statements of purpose. Even the lighter fare here - 'Holiday in Waikiki', 'Party Line', 'Session Man' - are great songs. There's a sense of drama that doesn't compromise the catchiness - 'Rainy Day in June' is positively epic, but when the chorus comes in, it's a slow and addictive march that shows messrs. Quaife and Avery as being so much more than just backing musicians. Track two, 'Rosy Won't You Please Come Home', is a work of heartbreaking beauty, though maybe I'm just a sucker for these family dramas. 'House in the Country' doesn't quite reach Village Green levels of pastoral nostalgia, but the seeds are sown. It's all bound up in Shel Talmy production again, so the guitars ring, the drums quake, and everything is more psychedelic than you might remember it being, with flourishes of harpsichord on 'Rosy', musique concrete overlays on 'Rainy Day', and Dave Davies' hard guitar edge starting to emerge (listen to that crazy tone on 'Waikiki'!).  No, it's not their best album, but it's undeniably solid throughout.

7 March 2018

Kinks - 'Kinda Kinks' (Marble Arch)

This is the second outing from the brothers Davies, a sound which feels so 'classic' from the shimmer on the guitars all the way to the graphic design of this Canadian pressing's sleeve. Conventional wisdom usually rates the Kinks as getting really interesting around the time of Kontroversy, but there's a few gems here for sure. 'Don't Ever Change' has a syncopated vocal delivery which adds an edge to its genteel folk-rock strum; 'Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worrying About That Girl' is a totally classic, though I'm not sure if it was before it appeared in Rushmore. 'Tired of Waiting' is the biggest hit from here, I think, and the deceptively simple hook conveys the frustration and impatience with musical motifs to match the lyrics. One can't deny the musicianship here - these guys could really play.  'Come On Now' has a hard-boogie beat which is driving and catchy, amplified by that Shel Talmy production. Davies hasn't yet emerged as the Empire-loving nostaligia king that he would soon become, but even this early on he's able to deliver earnest material ('So Long', 'Something Better Beginning') with a believable authenticity, the echo on his voice drifting things towards the melancholy as required. Stompers like 'Got My Feet on the Ground' are less memorable, but that's okay cause they're still basking in the glow of 'You Really Got Me' here (remember how fast these records were turned out - they made like 5 albums in 1965 alone). 'Dancing in the Street' I could do without, but that's true for every version of it (except for Fred Frith's on Gravity). It's an easy record to overlook and the sound is so rooted to a time and a place that it's almost hard to take it on its own merit, but Kinda Kinks is kinda great, and certainly fun to listen to now and then.

King Crimson - 'Starless and Bible Black' (Polydor)

Where did the time go? 2018 is not looking like it will match 2017 in terms of Underbite posting productivity. Sorry about that. So, skipping ahead a few, we're into the good Crimson shit now. The lineup has almost completely changed; Greg Lake is out, John Wetton is the new vocalist, and David Cross (no, not the Mr. Show guy) takes care of the non-power trio instruments (viola/violin and keyboards). Bill Bruford is a hell of an upgrade on Michael Giles, and the overall vibe is darker, more cutting, and fierce. Even when singing about ice-cream cones and the devil, it never gets silly as progressive rock often does, and this is progressive rock to a tee. Fripp's guitar tone is sharp, metallic and buzzing, and flashy without being clichéd - he genuinely doesn't sound like any other guitar player I can think of. Even when he rips into a searing, chorus-laden lead line (such as in 'The Night Watch') it feels like it can only be compared to Fripp's other work as it attains a fluidity that I don't remember Yes, ELP, etc having in their sound. Bruford, like all good prog drummers, has clearly studied jazz, and he's an anchor who grounds everything, occasionally poking his way to the foreground but not in a 'solo' way. He's mixed up high enough to be an audible centre when the rest of the band starts to focus on circular, instrumental aggression (such as the end of 'Lament'); they show that collectively, they can just as easily shift into the sneaky improvisations hinted at towards the end of their first album. If later period King Crimson has a reputation of being joyless, they're still having fun here, and the ren-faire trappings have been shaken off. There's still a dedicated lyricist as there was from the beginning, a decision that seems almost admirable. Listening to this now, I keep thinking of the time-signature obsessed wave of indie post-rock in the 90s, following in the wake of Slint and Bitch Magnet and those types of bands. Those bands would have never had vocals like this, but many of the harder surfaces on Starless must have inspired some of them. Fripp's guitar sometimes does the two-hand tap thing, while sometimes is just like a grinding machine (listen to the opening cut, 'The Great Deceiver', for immediate evidence of that), which could be a Don Caballero texture. But there's a tendency towards pure beauty here, which is an admirable one, even if one may not feel that they attain it. Moments of Starless are utterly gorgeous, like the shimmering percussive sheen at the beginning of 'The Night Watch', the way it resolves to silence, and then segues into 'Trio', which is straight and almost neo-classical. The longer pieces on the second side struggle to hold my attentions, but this along with Larks Tongues prove to be the King Crimson records for a 'casual' fan; if only I can remember to listen to it more often.

8 February 2018

King Crimson - 'In the Court of the Crimson King' (Atlantic)

Whoa, I still have this? And it still bears the $2.99 price tag from when I grabbed it, a distinct memory during my college years, the only decent record in an otherwise worthless store if I recall correctly. I took what's a fairly standard path through 'punk' and out the other side - King Crimson were a symbol of ridiculous bombast and awfulness to me in high school, as by that point the Belew years had turned them into a symbol of overly technical, emotionless music for intelligent white men that likely have some social problems. (Whether that's true or not, I dunno; I suspect that a reevaluation of 80s Crimson through today's ears would be significantly more positive in outlook.) Then I got into experimental music, eventually looking back toward progressive sounds from the 70s, and then Crimson is a force you have to reckon with. For me, Fripp's work with Eno came first (not so much the full collaborations but even just that hot-shit solo on 'St. Elmo's Fire'); then, the Giles, Giles and Fripp record. Eventually, I wound up hearing Larks Tongues in Aspic and admitting that, yes, King Crimson had some undeniably cool material. And this all started here, their debut, which sounds a lot more like Genesis than the percussive time signature journeys on Larks or Red. The last time I played this record, which was likely the only time, my verdict was that In The Court of the Crimson King was an uneasy mix; mid-tempo prog-pop built around flutes + epic male vocals for the most part, not bad but not earth-shattering – and then the infallible power of '21st Century Schizoid Man'. It's been covered and parodied a bunch (Unrest comes to mind but I'm sure there's others) but when I put this on on a snowy February morning in Helsinki, I had to crank it and jump around the room with glee. The rest of the record is the easier material to parody, but it's a solid entry in the genre. Greg Lake's singing is quite good, and as he ruminates on the foibles of mankind in 'Epitaph' it's rather convincing, particularly in the epic fade out, 'I fear tomorrow I'll be crying', and that's before late capitalism had really started twisting the screws as fiercely as today. 'Moonchild including The Dream and The Illusion' would be memorable enough just for the title, but the romantic, wistful lyrics are actually rather beautiful and there's a great improvised breakdown 3/4 of the way through that gets into some good call and response jib-jabs. Here, Fripp's guitar is jazzing around some spazzy (but not aggressive percussion); it suggest that they were listening to (if not outright being influenced by) European improvisation of the time, Brötzmann and the Dutch guys, etc. There's a false ending on the last track, which allows just enough pause to contemplate how idiosyncratic this album actually is. It sounds more like 2 or 3 different bands, like a compilation. Given how big King Crimson became subsequently, I know that there's hardcore fans with far deeper insights than I, who are scoffing at this writeup. But this is a personal journey through a wall of vinyl, so I can close this writeup by saying simply: 'I just like how it sounds'. Even early on in his career, Fripp was focused on getting a good recording - and anyway, the scary face on the front cover is great, and would be worthy enough to appear on a future Voivod album cover. Camper Van Chadbourne did a pretty great cover of 'I Talk To The Wind' which I prefer to the original, but maybe I'm just more familiar with it.

1 February 2018

Killing Joke (EG/Malicious Damage)

I'm always remembering this record as much more harsh and aggressive than it actually is. I blame the cover artwork, a masterpiece of bleak dystopia, which makes even Crass records seem cuddly by comparison.  The photos are actually taken from actual uprisings in Northern Ireland, so the spirit of unrest is prevalent throughout Killing Joke. This stark monochrome presentation, the weird typeface for the song titles which looks backwards until you squint and see it's not, and the presence of synthesisers are factors which probably cause me to remember this as some sort of Ministry-like wall of industrial noise, or even sounding a little like Big Black. That's not really true, as the opener 'Requiem' actually has some new wave residue and the songs tend to favour soaring, majestic vocals. So each time I listen to this, somewhat less often than once per year, I'm reminded that it's not as scary or nasty as I thought – which is not to say it lacks 'tude. It's a confident debut by a band who amassed a decent career, though I never heard any of their subsequent music, content as I am with my incorrect conception. 'The Wait' is the closest to my memory's image, a punchy stomper with growled vocals, and it's followed up by 'Complications', where the vocalist's English accent is most prevalent, poking out form the echo effects. 'Bloodsport' brings in a somewhat infectious rhythm and the synths punctuate buzzsaw guitars which amass into something, well, rather accessible. It's not hard to imagine this playing in a disco for drunk youngsters, at least in an interesting disco. I am 99% sure I chronicled this anecdote before somewhere on this blog but it's too funny not to mention again: In my high school, there was a kid who wrote band names on his notebook and jacket, to be cool, even though he didn't actually listen to to the bands, which made him the ultimate early 90s sinner - a 'poseur'. Anyway, he would frequently get the band names wrong, mostly just misspellings like 'IRON MAYDEN' or whatever, but I remember he had written 'KILLER JOKE' on either his notebook or jacket, I don't remember which, and, well, that's the whole story. But KILLER JOKE is a great band name, an even better one than Killing Joke.