Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The First Round Finale: THRaK vs Lizard

And after nearly two months of endless writing we come to the finale.....of the first round.  I wonder to myself what in the world I signed myself up to do, as this task is beyond overly indulgent and relentlessly time consuming.  On the other hand, I am not stressed to think of new writing topics at this time, able to simply gush about one of my favorite bands.  Time consuming yes, but in the midst of academic paper writing this is an exercise in self-care.

Here we have the pairing I avoided for the longest time.  While the Starless and Bible Black v Beat match-up was a challenge this one is kind of a nightmare, mainly due to the fact that Lizard was off my radar for so long.  I hated Lizard after listening to it the first.  I thought it was a nerdy indulgence from then lyricist Pete Sinfield with less than stellar music.

People gush over Sinfield citing him as some sort of "Prog-Rock God" a master of capturing Progressive Rock in lyrical form.  I cite him as being the influence that sank Prog-Rock into a pit of nerdom and social exclusion.  His obsession with fantasy and wonder was less exciting as it was eye-rolling.  One has to look no further than the break down of the title track Lizard to see how groan inducing his vision was when left to his own device.

Over time I have grown to appreciate Lizard more and more.  The album is clever and explores a more jazz-influenced sound than any of the other albums in the Crimson discography.  Its tones are more challenging than before, and is a big enough break from big brother In The Court to be observed for its own merits instead of just lingering in the shadow of the inaugural juggernaut.

THRaK is a different beast altogether.  A collection of thunderous hammer blows and sweet soothing melodies.  Make no joke about it, it will kill you if you turn its back on it.  Even the name "Thrak" gives you a vibe that makes you not want to mess with it.  THRaK sounds like a vicious monster from outer space, foaming at the mouth, clubbing the unsuspecting astronauts to death.  It is also just a fun word to say.

THRaK is an oddity of a line-up, and raises a whole load of "what-ifs".  Despite extensive touring and hype, the 90s line-up lasted only one album before dissolving into the ProjeKcts, a collection of off-shoots featuring members of this line-up.  It is a shame too, because there is infinite potential here; two guitarists, two bassists/stick players, and two drummers each with unique set-ups.  It has the feeling of having unlimited possibilities to make your head explode with  its sheer savage power. 

This is evident by the first track VROOM which immediately lets you know that you are not getting the soft or confusing malarkey that plagued the preceding Three Of a Perfect Pair.  No, instead your head will politely collapse in on itself at the sound of that purely crippling rhythm section.  Fripp now has decided to hide as much as possible, nestled between the two drummers, being more of an ambiance provider than straight musician.  Belew's control is in full throttle at this point, but it works.  Throughout the album his lyrics are witty and fun, discussing topics such as aging and how interesting people are.

Lizard's Cirkus is a complete contrast.  Although we get some truly sinister sounding tones from the mellotron, the sound is more refined and sophisticated.  It has a playfulness to it that you almost never get in this band.  The jazzy sound encapsulates a much more different vibe than had ever been produced from the court.  Gordon Haskell has the duty of singing Sinfeld's lyrics and you gotta feel bad for the guy.  Like Harrison Ford reading George Lucas' script for Star Wars for the first time you have to imagine him going "Pete you can't actually say this shit."  The Cirkus metaphor parades on and is groan inducing. I think this is why I despised the album so much on the first go around.  It is hard to get past how completely ridiculous the content here is.  If you ever wonder why there are no women at a prog concert your answer is here

 After their inaugural tracks each album throws out their first pop song.  Dinosaur is fresh and exciting, Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto  bounce the drum duty back and forth with Adrian lamenting his age...or maybe he just watched Jurassic Park, who knows.  By the same token we get Indoor Games from Lizard, a bouncy song that rides on the coat tails of Cat Food, but never provides anything new or particularly interesting. 

Happy Family, a song about the dismantling of The Beatles is an interesting number if only for its free jazz style interlude and synthesizer introduction.  The rest of the song, while not bad is also not great.  Much like most of Lizard the song is just kind of there.  This isn't it to say that THRaK is perfect either.  Walking on Air is oddly placed at this early point in the album, although sounding like a ballady album closer.  It is a weird song especially after how aggressive the beginning of the album is.  You are sucked out of the moment pretty abruptly.

We eventually get to Lizard which is essentially half the album.  At this point THRaK is still futzing around with One Time, another Belew style ballad akin to Matte Kudasai or Two Hands.  I love a long song like Lizard; the epic feel of being sucked into something so indecently grandiose.  Like your Stairway to Heavens, your Cassandra Geminis, or your  De Futuras a long song captures something bigger than a simple thought.  They are a gamble though, as it can be so easily crushed under the weight of its own pompous intentions.  As a band you got to have pretty big balls to put anything over ten minutes on an album. You are essentially saying that this one idea is worth a hell of a lot of the listener's time.  When it works it is a jaw dropping stunner; having you grab all your friends and make them sit down and listen to the monster you just did.  Fail, and its a bunch of groans and eye rolling as listeners hit the next button on their music player.  Lizard is amazing in that it doesn't quite do either.  It's just 20 minutes of....good music, but I'm never wigging out, or agonizing.  The first half is Pete Sinfield at his best...or worst, with "Prince Rupert" waking to head to the battle field.  Rupert is a terrible name, and should never happen in a song.

The second half explodes with intensity and excitement.  It is here where the song truly shines and is enjoyable.  Moments of free jazz clash with the swelling rhythms.  It is a great ending.  I just wish the rest was just as good.   By the same token, however, THRaK ends with VROOM VROOM one of the great Crimson instrumentals.  It is grungy and dirty; giving nods to the Seattle based chart toppers at the time.   

Lizard leaves you deflated, wishing everything was just a bit better while THRaK leaves you feeling as if you had been drugged last night, and you are left to wonder why you are in a bath tub full of ice.  Lizard is glossed over all too easily mostly because it just fails to really strike me in any sort of interesting way.  It is not an album I actively seek out, more so I stumble onto it once in a while, feeling bad its been so heavily ignored compared to its superior peers.

If it is not clear, THRaK is the winner.  A bold combination of spacey ambiance and spine shattering brutality.  Lizard is not the worst King Crimson album, but it just does not do anything for me.  I tolerate (at best) Pete's fairy tail lyrics, and I am just not interested in Robert Fripp and companies attempts at jazz.


So we finally made it past the first round.  Two months of writing has finally paid off.  Round two will begin soon where we will see the strong albums surface and the weak sink.  You can no longer get by on a lucky match-up.