Saturday, August 10, 2013

Adrian Belew Power Hour #4 (Finale) Discipline

So we come to the end of our little journey, and in a lot of ways the end of Adrian's journey as well.  Amidst the imploding Talking Heads and souring of the Tom Tom Club sessions, Adrian was looking to do something that did not involve sitting in the middle of four New York art snobs bickering.  Fortunately for him, a better offer did come along.  The ever emotionally charged, yet musically gifted Robert Fripp offered Adrian to join his new band Discipline.  Adrian saw the sinking ship behind him and decided it would be a wise move to make.  Adrian would be joined by session heavy weight and the one of...maybe four people who could play a Chapman Stick Tony Levin, and former King Crimson and Yes drummer Bill Bruford to form what was called a "Rock Gamelon" group.

Discipline would quickly become King Crimson.  Whether it was because Robert Fripp felt the group deserved the name or because he wanted to ride on the promotional coattails of his former name we will never know, but what we do know is that this new 80s King Crimson would provide a new radically different sound to listeners.  Those eager for more Schizoid Men of the 21st century or instrumental progressive opuses would be disappointed.  Instead listeners would be welcomed to what I can only assume would be Robert Fripp's definition of 'pop' music.  More structured songs, that contained the traditional verse-chorus-verse design, albeit with an uncanny Crimson twist filled the three albums this line-up put out. Instrumental rock outs inspired by the nine circles of hell are gone and are replaced by creative layering of musical patterns that could easily be considered a precursor to future bands such as Battles, Don Caballero, Bosnian Rainbows, or Portishead.

Adrian Belew would after so many years of playing behind a front man be pushed to the front.  Robert Fripp had an affinity for wanting to play as far off stage as possible (and sometimes behind a curtain) which left a desperate need for a someone to take center stage.  Adrian would take double duty of singing and alternating between lead and back-up guitar to mastermind Fripp.  As mentioned, Tony Levin joined him stage right to do some back-up vocals, play bass, and a relatively new instrument, Chapman Stick.  The strange instrument provided a unique bass voice to the voice.  Bruford's kit had also been reinvented.  Gone is any semblence of a traditional 5 piece trap kit.  In its' stead we are given a somewhat Frankenstein's creation of a kit, composed of electronic and acoustic pieces along with percussion equipment. The amount of bands this freak of nature would work in are slim to none, which is why it worked so brilliantly in this band.  Fripp had truly organized a line-up that seemingly was grabbed from 20 years in the future in terms of style, technology, and sound.

(Can you figure out how to play this?  Neither can I)

It is no wonder then that this futuristic super group would completely fall apart in four short years. Adrian would eventually get a call about ten years later to return to King Crimson and would rejoin Tony and Bill for another go in the even short lived Thrak era, but that is a story for another time.


So let's take a moment to think of what the name King Crimson brings to mind.  The majority of people that have heard the name will recall seeing the desperately afraid face on the cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King and knowing 21st Century Schizoid Man.  More committed fans may have followed them through the 70s up until their epic Red.  In short, When people think King Crimson they think prog jazz from hell.  So when Fripp decided to bring back King Crimson in the 80s he was ready for a new sound, and a new direction.  Many fans were disappointed to hear this new-wave pop, oriented Crimson, as it was such a divergence from their original form.  Sure they would play Red or Lark's Tongue in Aspic Pt. II live, but gone were the improv jams and jazzy hooks.  So what did we get instead?

Discipline does a fantastic job laying its cards out on the table right off the bat with Elephant Talk.  Tony Levin leads us in with some mesmerizing Chapman Stick noodling, the casual build up leads to a swirling spiral of notes that finally breaks into his groove.  Unlike most new-wave, however, the bass-line is not designated to just one or two dull notes, but instead is a complex pattern in some sort of time signature that likely does not use numbers.  New-wave yes, but this is Crimson tier new-wave.  Levin's jumbled Stick pattern is matched with Belew's verbal cue that explodes into the multi-tiered musical patterns that would be the integral component of 80s Crimson.  Fripp, Levin, and Bruford each provide their intriguing patterns that seems to meet at the middle at various points. Like the planets in our solar system, they are not always aligned, but their is a lot of magic when they do.  Belew is commissioned mostly to animal sounds (on his guitar, not from his mouth) and vocals in this opener, listing verbal engagements of specific letters leading into the refrain.  Bruford's kit provides an odd mix of afro-beat and new-wave with his mix of electric drum pads and melodic toms which adds a refreshing touch to what could have been a static exercise in musical patterns.  Fripp, no longer overstating himself seems to sit in the back allowing Belew to finally get his center stage appearance, shout random words, and make his guitar sound like an elephant (oh....Elephant Talk....I get it!).  As an opener it works rather well, but it could easily make you wonder if Crimson would go down the path that many other British progressive rock bands did in the 80s.

To explain, the late 70s were cruel to progressive rock.  Punk music made the idea of intelligent rock music uninteresting to the general audience, even to the nerdy males that were the majority of the audience in prog concerts.  Most of the bands broke up such as Egg, Magma, King Crimson (already for the 3rd time), and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Some of these bands would never come back from the grave while others would resurface in the 90s when it was cool to not make shit music again.  Those bands that did survive into the 80s went into some knee-jerk conformist routine which resulted in some really dreadful music.  To put in bluntly, prog musicians could not make interesting pop-songs to save their life.  Naturally it was fair to be skeptical of Crimson's efforts in the 80s.

Any doubts are immediately cast away in Frame By Frame.  Fripp's guitar pattern rockets out like he just plunged face first into a mountain of cocaine.  The level of finesse is astounding as he does not simply choose to hit every note at full volume with max distortion like a second rate speed metal guitarist.  No, he is careful to provide unique accents to each individual note and pay respect to them.  His lightning fast pattern swells as it loops. Levin provides a cascading bass tone on the stick that adds another contextual layer to the already dense piece (and we are only about 10 seconds into the track).  Bruford tops it off with a heavy dose of electronic drumming, a fitting match to the sonic assault that is happening.  For those concerned Crimson would be churning out cheap lousy dance tunes your fears should be long gone at this point.  The intro is ferocious albeit technically advanced, which makes it wonderfully unmarketable.  As the song finally gets to any sort of resemblance of a verse the pattern changes into an interlocking medley between the two guitarists.  Belew is no longer forced to only make funny noises with his guitar, but is actually allowed to provide normal notes and music to the songs provided.  I have honestly no clue what Belew is talking about when he says "Frame by Frame, Death by Drowning", but it fits well.  Belew is easily the strongest vocalist the band has ever had, and it is great to hear finally belt out a few in Discipline.

This new King Crimson is more than just strange time signatures interlocking super rhythms.  Matte Kudasai grinds the music to a slow atmospheric crawl.  Fripp, although more known for his blinding fast guitar parts also learned quite a bit more creating atmosphere during his time off from the last form of Crimson.  His work with ambient mastermind Brian Eno helped create the technique of Frippertronics, using tape delays to create more expansive sounds from one instrument.  Frippertronics also provided new ideas for Fripp, creating more contextual layers as opposed to just hitting frantic notes like a jackhammer to pavement.  Kudasai seems to be an expression of that, everything is in place to create mood and atmosphere.  Belew's bird noises pair well with the delay infused guitar tones from Robert.  Bruford and Levin provide simpler backing compositions.  The track could easily be overlooked as a bad slow dance song for prom night, but simple observations such as that would be overlooking the creative contexts that are being illustrated.  Belew really gets a chance to exercise his lyric writing ability, and showcase that he indeed is a strong singer as well.  The background in Matte Kudasai is almost more interesting than the immediate music in front of you.  Although it does tread a bit close to schlock it steers clear of the cliff by providing intelligent layering and ambiance.

By the half way point we soon realize that no idea is going to be repeated twice.  Each song is really its own concept and idea and really does not play off any other track.  Sure, the "Rock Gamelan" concept bridges the songs with the idea of interlocking loops, but beyond that each track stands on its own.  Indiscipline makes sure this trend continues with an eerie build up that turns into an explosion of notes.  As the song returns to its lull Adrian reads the listener a note his then wife wrote him about a sculpture she had made.  Adrian does a fantastic job of sounding disturbed, brooding over the words and their meaning, almost giving them a second definition than their original intention.  The back and forth of tense build up and fierce musical discharge jerks the listener around giving them  musical whiplash.  Each time the groove comes to grinding halt you try to figure out what the heck just happened.  Adrian leaves you little time to figure it out though, screaming at you "I repeat myself when under stress!" over and over or "It remains consistent!".  The tension quickly transfers from the music to yourself as you just want the ride to finally end, only doing so with a final "I like it!".

This leads into Thela Hun Ginjeet, an anagram for "heat in the jungle", which mixes more pensive Belew singing with an audio recording of Adrian retelling the story of him being harassed by a gang in London while trying to make a real life drama story.  This is backed with a somewhat tribal sounding multi-tiered rhythm.  Levin switches to an actual bass this time providing a chunky rhythm for Bruford to bounce off of.  The non-conventional drum kit works to its full advantage here providing plenty of varying tom sounds and not relying on cymbal crashes for added emphasis.  The two are the real starts of the song personally.  Belew and Fripp exercise the thematics of the album, providing interlocking guitar rhythms during the verses, and switching into more distorted guitar play during the spoken word segments.  The track is definite highlight for the album.  While Frame by Frame really show how technically powerful the band was, Thela Hun Ginjeet shows their more experimental side, their connection with world music, and their willingness to go far beyond anything they have ever done.

The album wraps up with The Sheltering Sky and Discipline.  Both instrumental songs, but they do completely different things.  The Sheltering Sky continues some of the ideas over from Matte Kudasai with an emphasis on mood and ambiance.  The song is very understated, but it works to its advantage after being sonically assaulted by Thela Hun Ginjeet.  Fripp does amazing guitar work creating truly twisted guitar tones that sound like a computer going haywire.  Bruford's rhythm, however, almost gives a peaceful feeling, reminded you of nature.  The conflicting ideas surprisingly pair well.  Discipline rounds up the experience with a text book definition of what this new band is about.  All four members operate on their own little musical loops, interconnecting at various points throughout and with each other at varying times.  If you recall, the idea existed in Remain in Light as well, but King Crimson elevates the concept into a much more sophisticated level.  All new versions of this album also feature an alternate version of Matte Kudasai which sounds completely different, but its a hugely welcome B-side.

That is what King Crimson does though, they pick an idea and try to take it into a new realm.  Throughout their career Fripp would lead his band into new territories, rarely treading on one topic for too long before getting bored and breaking up the band again.  While for fans of Crimson his actions may come across as infuriating it also yields some great rewards.  Fripp is not one to stay on a topic for long, he is always looking to change and create new forms of his band.  If he feels he has gone as far as he can with a group he will then scrap it and wait for a new idea to take him, that or he ends up hating everyone he hired and needs a quick way to handle the situation.  Fripp is not alone in his approach and throughout these Power Hours we have seen that in action, primarily with Bowie and Zappa, who also had the tendency to scrap everything and start over again from square one in order to get a fresh start.  Fripp also had the brains to keep rehiring the musicians he could personally tolerate in order to maintain some consistencies, which also kept fans happy too.

Overall you are left with a glorious example of a band redefining itself after already having done so a few times already.  While certain bands like Genesis and Yes would play it safe with pop albums during the 80s, sheltering themselves until they could reemerge as truly progressive groups in the 90s and 00s, Crimson barreled full steam ahead into a proverbial suicide mission.  It then is not surprising that as mentioned the band would burn out in a few short years, probably for the better.  That is how Crimson works though.  It is never a long standing act, but short bursts of genius and in 1981 music lovers who were trying to ward off the oncoming tide of new-wave and pop trash found high ground in Discipline.

So a near full summer later we come to the end of our Power Hour.  I hope you enjoyed this little experiment.  As I stated in the beginning, Adrian Belew is a truly amazing musician who too often gets looked over in favor of other guitarists.  Adrian's focus on soundscapes and tones means he will forever be overlooked by the cock-thrusting shredders that arose during the same time he did.  It is a shame too, as someone so versatile and creative as him truly deserves special recognition, and hopefully after reading these obnoxiously long reviews you have possibly picked up these four albums and learned to appreciate him as well.  The next special series will be coming soon so keep looking at Riff 'N Ralk Music Tock.