Sunday, November 17, 2013

Round 2: Discipline v THRaK

There is a definite challenge I have realized in writing about an album more than once.  As I began to process the thoughts that would be this project I realized I would have to talk about an album up to four different times.  I found myself purposefully omitting thoughts and ideas to allow for myself to have something to discuss in the next round.  As was probably obvious, usually the losing album just received a verbal lashing as the winning album just had an occasional nod.  This, going back, was most apparent in the final pairing of the first round.  Upon completion of the write-up I realized THRaK only had the briefest of mentions, hiding off stage as Lizard received its judgment.  Do not worry my few readers, for now we finally explore the THRaK conundrum.  I guess I will have to discuss Discipline too....


As I mentioned last time THRaK is astounding for its exercise in excess.  I have seen bands with far more than six members, but rarely do you see the majority of those instruments reside in the rhythm section.  Two bassists and two drummers should make for a terrifying sound, one that will cause your eardrums to erupt like a teenager's squeezed zit. The grand feeling of "what the hell just happened to my ears" mirrored by the oozing white puss that dribbles out afterwards.  Perhaps too gross of an analogy, but I tend to prefer to avoid anything referring to ejaculate in my writings.

Discipline,on the other hand, is an exercise in contradiction.  So many components of it on the surface look to showcase a more tame and composed format for the legendary prog band.  Despite the sensible 4 minute pop songs, clean haircuts, and suit laden members embedded in its vinyl grooves, the album oozes madness, destruction, and futuristic sounds.  In my years of exploring music I have yet to find an album like it that came before.  Discipline is the genesis of this kind of futuristic New Wave dystopian pop music.  Here, at its peak, the band is somewhere still far into a future we could hardly comprehend.  The album is very deliberate, every component in place for a specific purpose and little to no waste is present.

This is where THRaK begins to pale in comparison.  When you hear the names attached to it, you begin to develop a pretty specific idea about what its going to sound like.  Two drummers?  Two Bassists (stick players...whatever) and two of the most eccentric sounding guitar players in the business?  How could this go wrong?  "How could this go wrong" is a crucial question in the equation here, and will help us to understand how THRaK is a weaker whole than its parts.  This is in comparison to Discipline which is a near perfect synthesis of its all-star pieces.

With a six-piece line-up you figure that THRaK could either come out in one of two ways, either an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions or something so outside of our comprehension that it would be impossible to describe.  It does neither.  THRaK is a pretty damn brilliant creation, and after roughly ten years of dormancy the King came back with a force as awe inspiring as Tyson after his first stint in prison.  The initial VROOM rains musical blows  upon you akin to the poor copy machine in Office Space.  Its coda bringing you to a slightly more relaxed albeit tense place before moving into the ricocheting Dinosaur.  The three pieces excel at showing why this line-up is something to marvel and fear.  Even with that said the album already begins to show its cracks and faults.

Discipline has a different approach.  It lulls you into a sense of confusion instead of giving you a concussion.  Elephant Talk is so far removed from anything the band had done before which is why it works so well as an introduction to their 80's line-up.  It is brand new and even today  few things sound like it.  The band was showcasing once again how ahead of its time it was, but it did not need to beat you with a musical sack of door knobs.

There is a dichotomy with THRaK of being truly impressed with the songs crafted, but being disappointing at the same time.  The core of is because you expect something completed different with such an intense line-up that just never happens.  Most of the time I am left wondering where 2/6s of the members are in the mix.  Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn seem consistently lost in the mix or feel like nothing more than some added dressing to music that was really intended for four people.  This is in contrast to Discipline where the cohesion of interlocking rhythms from all four members is so clearly deliberate  and if one member were to be removed the song would be sorely lacking.  Remove a Chapman stick or drummer from a THRaK song and you more or less get the same thing.  There are obvious exceptions such as the tribal infused B'Boom, but these are fewer and farther between than one would expect.

Again, this is all in opposition to Discipline's ever so fitting name where each track was developed with the line-up in mind.  No-one was shoehorned in at the last moment to fit an already premeditated mold.  When we compare that to the alleged stories by Bill Bruford that he campaigned for his inclusion in this 90s format it seems clear that THRaK was not exactly designed for the line-up it had produced.

The heavier songs are indeed concussion inducing in their ferocity, and are some of the most exciting Crimson songs of the modern age.  VROOM and VROOM VROOM are truly epic instrumentals that do a brilliant job of marrying both the progressive tendencies of the third line-up with the interlocking polyrhythms of the fourth.  These tracks are genius on every level.  I would argue that VROOM VROOM is easily one of King Crimson's most engaging and enjoyable instrumental epics.  After the complete dud that was Three Of A Perfect Pair, hearing opener VROOM gives you hope that a better age has begun.

Now while songs like Matte Kudasai fit the 80s future-pop Crimson, the tempo halting ballads of THRaK stick out worse than Miley Cyrus at a classy fundraiser. Walking On Air is such a beautiful song and one of Crimson's best ballads. The minimal percussion works rather well here.  THRaK does a great job at this moment of balancing the heavy amount of musicians, although it does sound like half of them are not on the song.  It reminds me a lot of The Sheltering Sky, in that it took the theme of the album and properly slowed it down.   Not to hark on the same theme, but I believe The Sheltering Sky does a better job of cohesively including all the members. Walking On Air is a great song, but is strangely placed after the hyper aggressive VROOM and Dinosaur.  I always felt it would be a great album closer, a soft ballad to help you cope with being musically assaulted.

Inner Garden, while equally guilty, works a bit better as each iteration is short and succinct, and seem to be in place to allow the listener to take a quick breath before the beatings continue.  People, a brilliant hybrid of pop fusion, thunderous drumming, and pulsating rhythms, showcases the logic of having all these instruments on one stage.  It is something Discipline's personnel could never accomplish fully.  

We are left then with two clearly different philosophies for an album here.  Discipline was designed with the members in mind, it was developed to use the four members involved, no more, no less.  THRaK seems like the songs were made first with no consideration for who was going to be in this new line-up.  It is frustrating because deep down I truly enjoy THRaK as it is a wonderful synthesis of everything the band had done prior, but I can not get over the fact that so much of the album seems to disregard what should be the exciting component of this line-up.  One of the best things about a new King Crimson line-up is what is going to come out of it. Each line-up has such a different format that we expect something fresh and unique that truly captures the qualities of the members.  THRaK, while enjoyable, does not do the double-trio concept justice.  The songs that do are too few and far between, and too many of the tracks do little to make the listener excited for this catastrophic two drummer format.

What is stranger is that some brilliant songs showcased how inventive this format could be when they were live.  Conundrum and Prism (a cover song to be fair) both demonstrated the power of this two drummer format, and the reinvention of older songs did right by this as well.  I am curious if all my bemoaning would also be squashed by the soon to be released 5.1 mix of THRaK.  Then again Discipline does not need the live setting or a surround sound system to showcase how brilliant it is.  A cheap pair of earbuds will bring all of its glory to you on its own.