On the verge of their 50th anniversary, neverending juggernaut deliver expansive report from the road – to hear and behold.
If there’s something this erudite team refuse to know it’s repetition, and there’s little wonder in the steady influx of on-stage recordings Robert Fripp’s combo serve up yearly, of which many are full of surprises, so the topology of CRIMSO universe is somewhat strange. The more interesting, then, would be to explore the melodious space, and “Meltdown” must present a perfect opportunity to zoom in on the group’s mechanics: three CDs and Blu-ray culled from five 2017 concerts run deep and wide and form an impressive panorama of the ensemble’s current possibilities. Devouring the 39 cuts in one sitting might seem quite taxing, of course, but for all the extensive span of the band’s live catalogue, no previous release offered a close-up view of what’s really going on before the spectator’s eyes – and no previous release focused on the eight-strong line-up, the latest development in the veterans’ saga.
As befits an institution, KC’s collective attire and static (in visual, not aural terms) performance could amount to an academic conference, were it not so visceral as it is cerebral. United front has suited this octet well – and suits unite the players, too, yet the many aspects of “Meltdown” allow the listener peek beyond the front to evaluate the legend currently incarnate in the black-and-white ensemble and perceive how down-to-earth, though still otherworldly, they are. But the devil is in the details, and various angles and split screen let one savor such fragments of the intricate whole as the different methods the line-up’s three drummers – Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison – meld together, creating a mighty groove which would lend itself to deeper scrutiny in a solely sonic environment, and the likes of opener “Walk On” gravitate toward ritualistic jazz-rock, what with Mel Collins’ blaring sax and Tony Levin’s jaunty basses – the armory of two musicians who, together with the often smirking Robert, tie the narrative to the group’s earlier advents and dissolve any trace of sterility that could be there.
Music stored on the CDs and on the Blu-ray aren’t exactly the same versions (as if the word “exactly” could be applied to KC’s modus operandi) which enriches the entire experience stressing the ensemble’s ever-fluctuating nature. More so, from what might seem as strict discipline emerges freedom Fripp has always been giving his colleagues to make the resulting noise so special and facilitate the revitalizing of classic – and not-so-classic but worthy to be resurrected – material from all eras of the band’s existence. There’s new expanse to pieces like “Fracture” whose two-guitar picking and unison hint at another dimension lurking between the waves of percussive synchronicity; conversely, “Epitaph” is rendered rather hermetic – an approach emphasizing its message – yet the meticulously opulent detailing stripped “Easy Money” of its inherent raw menace while threading fresh blood vessels through “Red” for additional carnal grandeur.
With reverential suspense reigning once Robert has launched the “Lizard” suite – an enchanting trip to a territory the group never visited on-stage before – Tony’s beatific countenance at the onset of “Islands” provides an ultimate reflection of the music where delicate fiber is as important as an intense assault, especially on the latter number which would find not only the array of reeds being employed but also every note being weighed and passed along to the relevant instruments. One can’t be sure that every sound Pat’s multitudinous devices produce is heard – and one surely can’t hear the difference between the squeaks of rubber pig and rubber panda – yet it’s all a strand of the overall texture. And it’s not so serious as the band’s status should suggest, because mischief is never far from the surface here, coming up with tom-tom acrobatics on “Devil Dogs Of Tessellation Row” or the humorous ping-pong on “Indiscipline” – and, unexpectedly, on “21st Century Schizoid Man” with a snippet of bossa nova and a quote from “Smoke On The Water” submitted by Harrison, the arranger of a 12-stick action on “The Hell Hounds Of Krim” and other surface-hitting histrionics.
It doesn’t require epics to fold out the band’s orchestral power – there are short dialogues between drums interspersing larger cuts and the fresh fragility of “Peace – An End” contrasting the mature agility of “Pictures Of A City” – but it’s longer pieces that let the ensemble wreak the blistering, and blissful, onslaught upon “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part One” to reassemble its elements and pour pastorale in its cauldron, as the players also do on “Cirkus” which sees the original lyricism elevated thanks to Stacey’s piano, Bill Rieflin’s shimmering ivories and Jakko Jakszyk‘s translucent vocals. The singer would join Mel on flute for “The Letters” – the most romantic number in the set – to wrap Levin’s sparse throb in folk anxiety, the acoustic vibe infusing the expectancy of subsequent sweet squeal with immense warmth, yet Jakszyk strains every nerve to do justice to “Starless” so Collins’ brass is to the rescue with a truly stellar part.
Whereas the album’s title track takes the nervousness outlined in the beginning by “Neurotica” to the next level, with delirious delicacy poured in – something that the frenetic “Level Five” will remove in order to clear the room for ecstatic jive – the cover of “Heroes” hardly suits the concert’s context, serving no purpose other than to show the octet can rock and they’re able to roll over pop idiom. Still, altogether the setlist entries reveal the recurrent motifs in KC’s canon which link the frantic “Fracture” and “Red” or “Fallen Angel” and “Starless” – the tapestry the band have been weaving for five decades now.
They remain invigoratingly intrepid – not fearful of their own past or the future, because they have no competition at any given time, yet if intrepidity has long become CRIMSOs defining characteristic, the stamina at this day and age is impossible not to admire. With no platitudes on display, there’s nothing to wear thin, so there’s a reason for the veterans to stay triumphant.