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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Concert Review: An Apocalyptic Kind of Party

The mighty King Crimson thraks NJPAC.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A slightly different version of King Crimson takes Radical Action.
 Photo by Sid Smith © 2017 DGM.
From their foundation in 1968, King Crimson  have never been a typical rock band. They have eschewed a linear existence for formation and reformation over the course of half a century, with the sole constant being guitarist, electronic music warrior and philosopher Robert Fripp. On Halloween night, Mr. Fripp brought the eighth and latest edition of Crimson to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, unleashing the band's peculiar brand of cheerful insanity upon an adoring, middle-aged crowd in Prudential Hall.

In their current iteration, King Crimson are eight players, or as the band calls it, a "double quartet." Mr. Fripp sat at the extreme right, armed with his Gibson Les Paul and accompanied by a mountainous effects rack. His compatriots includes bassist Tony Levin,   current singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk and Mel Collins, who played flute and sax on early albums. In the center of the vortex sat piano man Chris Gibson, the newest member of the group. Downstage, three drummers thundered at three separate (and very different) kits: Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacy.

From the signs as you entered forbidding audience photography during the set to the band's taste in dress (suits, ties and vests) there was every indication that this was not an ordinary rock concert. Crimson skipped the videos and Vari-Lites for a simple scrim and a static lighting rig. There was one change in the three hour concert as the band was bathed in red light at the climax of "Starless." Other than that, the setting was as staid and formal as a classical concert, with the music being allowed to make its own statement.

That statement started with Part One of "Larks Tongues in Aspic", delivered at thunderous and crystalline volume. The three percussionists played in unison at times, cooperated to create Doppler effects across the stage and in the most thrilling moments, battled each other. Each played a radically different kit. Mr. Mastelotto incorporating exotic struck instruments, hand percussion, suspended cymbals and a big metal plate. Mr. Harrison used small cymbals and an army of drums, arranged in a jazz setup. Mr. Stacy was the most traditional of the three, and also turned occasionally to play keyboards in support of Mr. Gibson.

The show featured almost three hours, cherrypicked from the band's long, diverse catalogue. The pieces were drawn from the previous seven iterations of the group, including sections of "Lizard", cuts like "Easy Money" and the new "Radical Action II." Finally they landed on "Epitaph” from their seminal 1968 debut In the Court of the Crimson King. Here, Mr. Jakszyk sounded eerily like the late Greg Lake, the band's first singer. Mr. Fripp stopped playing mind-bending guitar lines long enough to add electronic washes from a small keyboard setup. Occasionally Mr. Levin traded in his Chapman Stick (a ten-string, all-tapped bass instrument) for a more traditional bass emblazoned the band's logo.

The return of Mel Collins (he rejoined in 2013) is crucial to this band's resurgence. He switched between bass flute and flute, before playing saxophones in four different ranges. With the big baritone sax he added crunch and texture to the band at its heaviest, while his flute and soprano sax functioned as a second lead instrument in songs like "Islands." Mr. Gibson's keyboards included what is probably a modern approximation of the Mellotron (the cranky tape-driven keyboards that replaced orchestra on early progressive rock tracks) and added crucial, lush support.

The second set featured (among other songs) most of the rest of the first record, culminating in The Court of the Crimson King." This lush, epic track left plenty of room for the players to improvise. It was followed by Starless from the Red album, sweet, melodic and mournful in the first half, a rising minor-key bolero in the second driven by Mr. Fripp's guitar. The band returned for a 4/4 encore: a gorgeous, heartfelt performance of David Bowie's "Heroes" (a song Mr. Fripp played on in 1977). The finale was"21st Century Schizoid Man" capped off by a blistering series of improvisations, ranging from Mr. Levin's fleet Stick-handling to Mr. Harrison's impressive drum heroics. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.