King Crimson - Eyes Wide Open Review
Anyone starting out to produce King Crimson’s rock family tree had better invest in some wall-sized sheets of paper. Over 35 years the band’s line-up has changed almost as often as its musical style, with players chosen to suit the Mellotron-driven prog-rock of the early days, the chamber jazz phase, the ambient diversion, and the recent variants on what can only be called rock and roll plus.
And yet there is one common trunk running down the tree in the shape of founder, guitarist and electronics master Robert Fripp, the undisputed leader and shaper of the band’s formation and music. As long as Fripp wants it to, King Crimson will survive.
The current survivors are featured in this two-DVD set, which covers almost five hours of live footage from the Kouseinenkin Kaikan in Tokyo earlier this year and – more prosaically – the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in 2000. The time gap is wide enough to keep the overlap in track listings at a minimum, but short enough for the band line-up to stay the same; Robert Fripp on guitar, Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, Trey Gunn on the absurdly complex-looking Warr ‘touch guitar’, and Pat Mastelotto on drums.
But that does not quite indicate the kinds of sounds that the band can produce, as all the instruments pass through electronic shapers, samplers, sequencers, pedals and delay lines. You will never have heard a Gibson guitar produce the range of sounds that Fripp can coax out of it, and Gunn can do anything from standard rock bass to pedal steel and dulcimer effects. This makes each track unpredictable, and the overall sound hard to pin down.
Unpredictability is even built explicitly into these DVDs. Each King Crimson performance involves at least two free-form improvisations, and extra features on each disk showcase this aspect of the band. The sound and camera check included on the Tokyo disk involves a lot more than shouting ‘one’ into microphones, and includes three improvisations created on the spot, while the London disk goes even further. The first viewing of the show includes the original two improvisations and version of The Deception of the Thrush, but on subsequent viewings these are seamlessly replaced with improvisations and versions taken from other venues on the 2000 tour.
The shows themselves also have very different atmospheres, partly thanks to the venues and partly thanks to the two audiences. The Tokyo performance takes place in what looks like an orchestral concert hall, with the audience a long way from the stage and prepared to listen politely to music deserving of close attention. In contrast, the London show has a raucous audience close round the stage and willing to sing along, as far as that’s possible at all with King Crimson. Perhaps as a result, the London performance seems much more enjoyable for everybody involved, including the band members. Or perhaps its just that the band developed some personal and musical differences in the intervening years.
Most of the visual interest in what is pretty much standard, conventionally-directed concert footage comes from Belew and Gunn. As usual, Fripp perches on a stool at the side of the stage – he once, famously, played on a Peter Gabriel tour sitting in the wings, invisible to the audience – and never changes his expression or makes broader movements than reaching out to adjust his enormous pile of electronica. Belew is more of a performer, perhaps coming from his days with Frank Zappa and Talking Heads, while Gunn’s dexterity on the ten-string touch guitar, playing with both hands everywhere up the fretboard and back, is close to hypnotising. Mastelotto, almost hidden behind the giant drum kit, is just a solid and thunderous presence.
Yet there is no doubt who is the real leader. There are times in both shows where Belew and Gunn turn dubiously towards Fripp as he sets a track off in a new direction, and then exchanges of looks and signals all round as they follow his lead. The fact that this happens without major collisions of notes, keys and rhythms is a tribute to the fact that this line-up, rather unusually for King Crimson, has stayed together on and off for about a decade.
The basic shapes of the music itself will be familiar to anyone who’s listened to King Crimson albums over that period. Fripp’s short, repeated guitar phrases, complex time signatures and sudden changes of gear are all here, as well as some historical fragments of ‘Frippertronics’ recalling his work with Brian Eno in the 1970s. It’s hard to clap along, but you have to admire the virtuosity of all four players as instrumentalists.
Belew’s vocals and lyrics may be more of a problem for the casual listener, as his apparent obsessions about drugs, mental problems, sex, death and light make repeated appearances in a rather thin and strangulated vocal sound. But he provides one of the stand-out moments single handed, performing a solo acoustic version of Three of a Perfect Pair from the 1980s that actually does give the London audience a sing-along chance. And the other great moment comes right at the end, during the London encore of David Bowie’s Heroes, when Fripp gets a chance to demonstrate just who produced that track’s unique guitar sound in the first place.
This isn’t really a package for those who aren’t already King Crimson fans. Those who have followed all the changes over the years and kept up will grab it as a record of the band at the height of its technical powers, but those who feel that recent releases have tended to disappear up their own complexity may not be so keen. Fripp is an undoubted genius, but a difficult and rather unapproachable one if you’re starting from here.
And Fripp himself may have to start again too. Just as these disks reached the shelves, Trey Gunn announced that he was leaving the band to concentrate on those notorious ‘other projects’. Another new line-up, and perhaps another new direction are already in the wind. Whatever you think of King Crimson’s music, it’ll be fascinating to see just what Fripp comes up with next.
Technical Aspects of the discs reviewed by Andy Hall
The video ratios on these disc presentations differ between the two; the Japanese concert on disc 1 is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, whereas the London concert on disc 2 is presented in 4x3 full screen. Both concerts feature very similar lighting, with dark stages bathed only in primary coloured lights of blues, reds and greens. Although this in no way falls apart the way that VHS would do in these situations, it’s not the most impressive video quality ever seen on DVD. However, as it isn’t really the video that is of the most interest here, an acceptable-only quality will suffice.
Once again the audio presentation varies between the discs, as disc 1 provides a choice between Dolby Digital 5.0 and Stereo 2.0 tracks, whereas disc 2 only provides a stereo 2.0 track. Unfortunately the menu layout for disc 1 makes selecting the desired track a confusing business, as it is buried inside the song (or chapter) selection menu.
The tracks themselves are both of good quality, though perhaps a criticism of the 2.0 track on disc 2 is that it can sound occasionally slightly harsh. The 5.0 track is definitely preferable on disc 1, as it provides much more depth and involvement, especially on tracks such as Elektrik.
(The audio score of 8 is an average of 7 for the 2.0 stereo tracks and 9 for the 5.0 track).
Disk 1 - Live in Japan - Tokyo, Kouseinenkin Kaikan, April 16, 2003
01 Introductory Soundscape
02 The Power To Believe I: A Cappella
03 Level Five
04 ProzaKc Blues
05 The ConstruKction Of Light
06 Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With
08 One Time
09 Facts Of Life
10 The Power To Believe II (Power Circle)
11 Dangerous Curves
12 Larks' Tongues In Aspic: Part IV
13 The Deception Of The Thrush
14 The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum
Disk 2 - Live at the Shepherds Bush Empire - London, July 3, 2000.
01 Into The Frying Pan
02 The ConstruKction Of Light
04 One Time
02 London Improv 1: Blasticus SS Blastica
06 The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum
07 London Improv 2: C Blasticum Cage
08 ProzaKc Blues
09 Larks' Tongues In Aspic: Part IV
10 Three Of A Perfect Pair
11 The Deception Of The Thrush
12 Sex, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Dream