KING CRIMSON, Heaven & Earth (DGM, 2019)
PERSONNEL: Robert Fripp (guitar, soundscapes); Adrian Belew (guitar, V-Drums, vocals); Trey Gunn (Warr Guitar); Pat Mastelotto (acoustic and electronic drums, beats, samples). Featuring Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick); Bill Bruford (drums); Gavin Harrison (drums)
If anything, King Crimson‘s Heaven & Earth box set is the ultimate testament to what could have been. Covering the band’s activity between 1997 and 2008, this is not a compilation geared toward those with a short attention span. Featuring 18 CDs, 2 DVDs, and 4 Blu-ray discs, fans of this era of Crimson are treated to what feels like nearly every note played live and in the studio during this time frame. And of course, there are a few twists.
When the ’90s era Double Trio couldn’t find its musical footing after the release of Thrak (1995), King Crimson founder Robert Fripp decided that rather than break the band up (his usual M.O.), he would instead divide the band into assorted “FraKctals,” or sub-groups, whose musical efforts — both written and improvised — would ultimately shape the band’s future musical direction. Fripp dubbed these sub-groups the “ProjeKcts.” While casual fans are aware of the two studio albums that came from this period, The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003), there was much, much more to come from this era.
The Crimson box sets could be seen as the ultimate do-over for much of the band’s work, featuring re-mixes and re-masters of the original albums that have revealed musical gems long hidden in plain sight. This set is no exception, and features one of the band’s ultimate do-overs. While endeavoring to re-mix TCOL, it was discovered that the original drum tracks (played by Pat Mastelotto) had been lost, nearly causing the re-mix to be scrapped. Instead, Mastelotto re-recorded his drum parts, this time using an arsenal of acoustic as well as electronic drums, rather than just using the latter as he did on the original album. The result is a fascinating re-interpretation, giving music that was not completely well-received the first time new life and dimension.
Still, The ConstruKction of Light does not, to me, fully convey the potential of the “Double Duo” (Fripp, Adrian Belew, Trey Gunn, and Mastelotto) who created it. The new, younger rhythm section was looking to embrace the electronic sounds of the day, like “Drum ‘n’ Bass,” while the primary songwriters sought to maintain a more Classic Crimson-like approach. The juxtaposition is best illustrated by ProjeKct X, the Double Duo’s alter ego, and the Heaven and Earth (yeah, that’s where it came from) album released in tandem with TCOL. PX is much more adventurous and boundary pushing than anything King Crimson had ever done to date. But that’s another rant for another time.
While Crimson did not seem to fully embrace the electronic rhythms (though there are plenty of elements), they did grab hold of some serious metal tendencies by the time they released The Power to Believe. Taking a cue from bands like TOOL (whom Crimson opened for during a brief tour run in 2001), Fripp and company took “Nuovo Metal” to a higher plane, tearing asunder any dreams of those longing for the sound of “Islands” or “In the Court of the Crimson King.” It was exciting stuff, full of dynamics and best played at window-rattling volumes. This was the sound of King Crimson embracing the 21st century. Alas, Fripp has since decided to fall back and re-embrace the past, much to the delight of his, shall we say, more seasoned demographic. I for one, wanted to see where this new sound was going.
I found it best to explore this incredibly dense box set from two angles: either via King Crimson or via The ProjeKcts. The former appears to push the music as far as possible in 2003. After Gunn left the band and Levin returned, the two subsequent groups (the second of which added drum ace Gavin Harrison) took on a more ’90s-oriented sound that didn’t always work perfectly, but wasn’t bad. It was particularly great to watch the TCOL material grow and mature before our eyes and ears via the metric ton of video footage provided by Bootleg TV, who recorded the band’s European tour in 2000. The improvs created by this band are worth the price of admission alone.
The real joy of Heaven & Earth comes from The ProjeKcts. Like the best jazz artists, Fripp saw fit to put his sub-groups into improvisational situations directed by a couple of constant themes. (The exception to this rule being ProjeKct One, who bravely improvised eight sets of music over four nights in 1997.) The results were often positively remarkable, and just as often positively terrifying. The rhythm section (particularly Mastelotto) benefitted most from this approach, using electronic beats, samples, and loops to create blistering sonic territory for Gunn, Fripp and Levin to explore. Within ProjeKct Two, Belew becomes the band’s drummer, leaving Fripp and Gunn to create fascinating sonic landscapes at various speeds, often inspired by the remarkable sound coming from their drummer’s electronic kit. Belew does the same thing for Fripp in ProjeKct Six, where the two performed four live show in 2006.
Like any improvisational situation, not everything the ProjeKcts tried worked. But the musicians deserve nothing but the utmost respect for having the will and the bravery to venture boldly into the musical unknown without a planned destination or a net in front of a live audience. Fans were left both fascinated and flummoxed, depending on the level of expectation they brought with them to the gigs. This is why I enjoyed the band’s work. A true artist is capable of letting go of what got him to this level in order to embrace something new, and continue moving forward. One never knows what can be found outside the musical Comfort Zone. The ProjeKcts sought to find out.
The music’s overall sound is top-notch, but one would expect nothing less. This mixes are crisp and clean, and I look forward to experiencing it all in 5.1 surround, whenever I get around to getting a good system. The box is accompanied by a comprehensive booklet, with copious notes written by Crimson Chronicler Sid Smith. No doubt some of what he wrote will be a part of his updated book, In the Court of King Crimson, due later this year. There are a couple of additional knick-knacks included with this set. But in all honesty, they don’t really add much to the overall experience.
Like the other box sets, Heaven & Earth is geared toward King Crimson completists, and is much too large a financial investment for a neophyte. Fans interested in the baby rather than the labor pains are better off buying individual copies of the two studio albums, which are available.
For me, I look forward to ingesting every note offered in this mammoth set. Not just because it represents the King Crimson I hoped to continue hearing, but because it also represents the probable end of a personal musical era. But that’s another story altogether.
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