King Crimson: Park West, Chicago, 7 Aug 2008

It is one of the greater musical sorrows in my life that I will probably never get to see King Crimson play live. I had a slimmer of a chance on 2003 when the Power to Believe tour visited Copenhagen but I missed it. In 2008, I had no chance whatsoever.

Luckily, pretty much everything KC do is recorded, especially concerts, and the best bits are released as downloads on the DGM Live website. There are two formats, flac and mp3, of which flac offers the best sound quality (essentially uncompressed cd-quality sound in a compressed format). DGM generally only release soundboard recordings as downloads – there are numerous multitrack recordings in the archives, but these take much more time and a bigger budget to release with any frequency and are generally released as cds.

This gig starts out with a brief and sparse soundscape from Robert Fripp which is at the same time questioning, cautious and unsettling. After a short while the rest of the band take to the stage and Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison do a short duet on the drums.

Then, the first proper song – “The Construction of Light” from the album of that name. This was one Trey Gunn’s real show pieces during the 1999-2003 KC, and Tony Levin does not play it perfectly. This is fine, it is live, but I feel a certain flow and grace is lacking. Also, the guitars are not quite in tune with each other. This is not normally a big problem in a rock setting, but for this song – very distracting.

They must have tuned up quickly, for “Red” comes hot on the heels of “TCoL” – and it is an absolute monster. Now, it usually is pretty heavy and the guitars do their usual stomping about with the drums. It is Levin’s distorted Chapman Stick that really crushes everything in its way here. It becomes so absurdly heavy that I actually laughed out loud when I first heard it, it is a sound like nothing else. Maybe a collapsing mountainside comes close, but I can not imagine what else possibly could. Metal has nothing on King Crimson when it comes to heaviness.

Next up is perennial KC crowd pleaser “Frame By Frame” and thankfully all guitars are vibrating happily together. It sounds pretty good, but with a strangely tired tinge to it. A big surprise to me was when after the second verse and fast part the guitars suddenly play harmonically and not in unison, with the Stick coming in to play the main riff as well, I have never heard that before.

Now, “Neurotica” should be amazing with two drummers – and the drummers are great! But when Fripp’s frantic chord stabbing is gone from the intro and the parts in between verses, it sounds very very empty. Also no guitar solo! The song simply lacks the frenzy it needs to carry it to the end. Probably they meant the drums to provide this, but they just do not, at least without the visuals and sound volume  of a live performance. “Three of A Perfect Pair”, next, is another decent performance that, like “FxF” before, adds little new to the song.

The time traveling backwards continues with “The Talking Drum” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic II” – and finally some decent guitar solos during the “Drum” (yes I know KC music is not about the solos). “Larks’ II” sounds much like it did with the Double Trio KC during the 90’s, but somewhat heavier. Fripp’s guitar is distorted all the way through, and Levin plays the Stick rather than bass guitar. The distortion makes him sound a bit like John Wetton from the ’73-’74 Crimson!

In “One Time”, things are as usual, with the exception of the middle portion. Fripps builds a looped soundscape, but then solos over it with a muted guitar sound, quoting the beautiful solo from “The Power to Believe II” – very nice. A short transitory guitar synth burst then precedes the drum duet “B’Boom”, executed with, as one might expect from these players, amazing accuracy.

I would have loved to hear what this band could have done with “TRaK”, but instead comes “Dinosaur” with a very vicious sounding Fripp in the verses. The solo after the full band dead stop goes all over the fretboard, between menacing rumbling to high squeals. The faux-mellotron string intro/outros are back, somewhat unnecessarily for my tastes – I like the simpler version from the Double Duo.

“Level Five” must be one of the most unforgiving benchmarks for any band to play, and this KC does it pretty good. Again, like in “Neurotica”, between the sections with very fast guitar and Stick unison lines only the drums play without chord stabs on guitar – and again, like in “Neurotica”, it sounds very empty. And I miss a proper low bottom end on this track, the Stick does not provide the foundation it should. “Level Five” concludes the first disc of this release.

First out on disc two is “Sleepless” which has been given a very ProjeKct-y feel. The drums are all techno-beat-with-some-hi hat, with various sound effects sprinkled all over. Levin plays his signature digital delay-riff, Belew’s guitar does all kinds of eerie noise and Fripp plays his ominous arpeggios – but it just does not feel very alive and it even sounds like Belew makes a bit of a mess of the middle of his solo. This is a song I’ve always thought made more sense in its studio and remix versions, an impression which is reinforced here.

And then it happens again – “VROOOM” suffers the fate of “Dinosaur” and has to endure a mellotron/string intro. They sound wonderfully creepy on record, but live they simply do not work. Besides this, it sounds good with the odd miffed note due to lack of routine that really is not a big deal. For the first time in a long while, “VROOOM” is followed by its coda, “Marine 475” which  unfortunately suffers from a terminal lack of guitar solos. They usually add enormously to the drama, but Fripp chooses to abstain and just focus on some very creepy soundscapes. And creepy soundscapes are fine and can be excellent for a song, but this time it is just 2.20 minutes of a rhythm section stomping out a rhythm with no change in dynamics. It gets boring, frankly.

The soundscapes continue to loop for a few minutes and are then silenced by the steady introductory beat of “Drum Duet”.  The beat quickly becomes decidedly less steady and more ambiguous as the dummers execute their duet with flawless timing. It is certainly more interesting to listen to than a drum solo and must have been great to see live. With the visual input, it loses some of its charm but rewards attentive listening.

The duet comes to a sudden and dead stop, to be replaced by the frantic riffing of “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. It is performed with its usual verve and some surprises (Fripp’s sudden switch to a piano sound, ray gun samples from the drummers etc). Some things are a bit unfortunate – the somewhat too murky guitar sounds, the old “this is a dangerous place” spoken recording of Belew being played over, and obscuring, Belew’s excellent soloing in the middle part and the fact that Fripp’s solo is buried too deep down in the mix.

After some enthusiastic cheering from the audience, Levin plays the immortal Stick intro to “Elephant Talk”. While the pace is more stately than before and the guitars (again) sound a bit muddy, it is well delivered with lots of humour – bicycle bells from the drummers, wonderfully weird Belew solos. So far, the best delivered ’80s song of the evening.

And once again, it is Levin who gets to start the very last piece – “Indiscipline”. When the mayhem starts, Belew plays just as well as you would guess but the drums just marches in step with the beat and the Stick disappears in the mix. Fripp’s soloing is absolutely explosive and played in the way that probably only he on the whole planet is capable of – strumming (dissonant) chords so fast that it becomes one continuous sound. It is an astounding thing to hear.

And then they bow out, to the cheers of the crowd. I believe this is the swan song of King Crimson, the last hurrah. King Crimson currently requires Robert Fripp and for him it is an enormous effort to re-activate Crimson with all that it entails. I suppose it is possible it could happen, but nowhere near likely. A King Crimson without Robert Fripp is the other option – but who could possibly pick up the mantle? No one I can think of.

Also, all of the players in the band are incredibly busy. Tony Levin has to fight off work with a (cough) stick, Adrian Belew has the time of his life with his Power Trio, Gavin Harrison has a full time job in Porcupine Tree and Pat Mastelotto is working in several constellations with among others Tony Levin and Trey Gunn.

And as for my constant nitpicking throughout this review – this was recorded in the very beginning of the tour and by all accounts they got a lot better later on.

King Crimson: Park West, Chicago, 7 Aug 2008. DGM Live flac download released 20 Aug 2008.

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