Ryko Disc // 1999 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // December 27th, 1999
Digital bits in the service of the Crimson King.
There is a scene in the Woodstock documentary -- and I mean the one in '69 in case you think Nine Inch Nails were there -- where the classical Indian musician Ravi Shankar is playing. If you've ever heard any classical Indian music, you know it is sometimes almost unimaginably frenetic and syncopated. At one point, where the musicians are just flailing away like mad, the camera pans across the crowd and stops on a girl, a girl who is obviously on acid. You can just see in her eyes that her mind is going at approximately light speed and taking in every blazing note and drum beat. She looks like she's about halfway between an orgasm, a seizure, and a complete brain stem meltdown.
King Crimson plays rock based music that is mixed with the technical capabilities normally associated with jazz musicians and the kind of extremely complex timings that almost killed that poor girl at Woodstock. The big difference though is that they do it with a raft of electronic instruments instead of classical instruments, making the sound even more dangerous to users of recreational pharmaceuticals.
This DVD captures the band doing some of their best work, in an innovative format that makes more use of the medium than probably anything done so far.
King Crimson is the brain child of Robert Fripp, who periodically lured extremely talented musicians away from other bands and corrupted them into playing music so complex that it can only be loosely categorized as rock music. The obvious point of comparison for King Crimson is probably the band Yes. But, where Yes tended to make the technique serve the emotional content, King Crimson is closer to the other end of the spectrum. Their music is sometimes quite challenging with little relation to the original blues cycle that still drives the majority of pop/rock music. Another point of comparison, for younger readers, would be with the band Rush during their Moving Pictures era, but even more technical.
One of the musicians that Fripp stole was actually from Yes. Bill Bruford was the drummer for Yes during the period where they created some of the greatest popular music that has even been made. Albums like Close to the Edge and Fragile are epic rock monuments not likely to be replicated any time soon. If you have never listened to these albums, be assured that Bruford and bassist Chris Squire were God's Personal Rhythm Section. Their work was so absolutely immaculate that it was depressing to anyone with avante rock aspirations. Why bother when someone has already done everything that you could imagine?
The other musicians include Tony Levine and Adrian Belew, the bassist and guitarist who have played with many people and who seem to do a lot of studio work. Tony Levine is a master of an odd musical instrument, called the Chapman Stick. Its a stringed instrument, worn basically like a guitar, which is played with both hands somewhat like a keyboard. I.e. instead of one hand fretting and one hand strumming or plucking, both hands are used in a complex interplay of hammering and pulling techniques. Again, for the youngsters, think about Eddie Van Halen's "Spanish Fly" times about ten and including a bass and guitar on the same instrument.
This particular arrangement of the band is made up of musicians from a couple different band incarnations, so there are two drummers, two bassists, and two guitarists. The two bassists trade off between playing traditional bases, upright electronic bowed basses, and Chapman sticks, which provides a lot of variety in the sound. Also, Belew and Fripp are both masters of electronic guitar processing and feedback techniques, so they can create sounds that you would normally associate with a much larger band of synthesizers and stringed instruments. Belew in particular will perform any sort of required instrument torture to get the needed sound, using something that looks for all the world like a Dremel power tool on his guitar at some point. Not quite the same as setting your guitar alight, but if it works...
The material on this disc is drawn mostly from the Discipline and Thrak albums, and a little but of stuff from Three of a Perfect Pair. This music, to someone unfamiliar, might all sound like electronic mumbo jumbo, but it actually covers a good bit of ground. There are things like Matte Kudasai which is basically a '50s ballad put through the Crimson blender. At the other end, there are things like Larks Tongue in Aspic, which is a long avante garde electronic thrash. In between you might hear a little of everything, such as a Cold Sweat funk guitar riff, backwards grunge guitar a la Hendrix, or a kind of intellectual elephant testicle grunge like if Neil Young and Crazy Horse had gone to music school instead of taking a lot of 'ludes.
The presentation of this work is also quite advanced, being one of the most ambitious DVDs to date. It offers both DTS 5.1 and Dolby 5.1 sound tracks, and includes alternate angles and soundtracks on selected songs. These alternate tracks allow you to bring a particular musician to the foreground. This brings their instrument more full front and puts more camera emphasis on them that would be given in the default cut. It also includes pretty extensive DVD-ROM material, which I can not comment on since I cannot access that material. As you may have read, the menus are intended more as a target of exploration than as a convenient mechanism to navigate the disc. This is interesting at first, but might get a little old after a while, as do many overly elaborate menuing systems, in my opinion. Also included is a small 'on the road again' documentary made up of material shot by bassist Levine.
The video quality seems to be high, but the material is filmed in such a way that its not really an issue, leaning more towards a soft, somewhat dark, and often over-exposed look that is not unreasonable for a live performance such as this. The editing seems pretty intelligent, putting the camera by default at the point where the most interesting action is at the moment. There are a few moments though that are questionable, like a cut to Fripp's right hand that is so dark its almost impossible to see what it is.
The audio quality is quite good in almost all cases. The mix is definitely not the standard 'front stage plus ambience' mix that is often used. Its more aggressive and instruments are placed around you in interesting ways. This is a tricky business though because different styles of surround speakers will cause the mix to come out differently.
Its also interesting to note that the booklet that comes with the disc is full of Fripp's philosophy. I find it somewhat ironic that this band, which would probably be considered quite conservative by young people today, is actually driven by quite radical ideas of a world community and individual responsibility.
Many people just wouldn't know where to put a band like King Crimson. It's not really rock and not really jazz and its not intended to sooth your emotions or make you comfortable. It's quirky, challenging, sometimes grating and complex music, which some folks consider an oxymoron I guess. If you are one of those, you probably wouldn't at all enjoy this disc. You might find it interesting for its technical aspects perhaps, but not as a musical event.
In a few places, and unfortunately in particular on a favorite song of mine -- Three of Perfect Pair, the mix is somewhat muddled in the base and not nearly as satisfying as it might have been. Since this was not the case elsewhere, its not any kind of overall problem, but that makes it even more noticeable. As noted above, its not a traditional mix and you might find that the 'up on the stage' type of surround mix might not be to your taste if you are a purist. I only listened to the DTS sound track so the Dolby track might be somewhat different.
Also, I sometimes find that Belew, though very talented, can tend to get into a bit of a rut. He has a large bag of techniques, but sometimes reuses them so relentlessly that it gets old. Also, though his more emotive and bluesy style often provides a good counterbalance to the intellect of the rest of the crew, sometimes it is in danger of just not fitting in at all. Having said that though, I must say that when he is good, he is very, very good.
I thoroughly enjoyed this disc and will definitely watch it again, and explore some of its more obscure options. If you are a fan of King Crimson; or, if you like more advanced rock music in the Yes or Rush vein and would like to explore something even a little beyond that, this would a great disc to have. It shows you more of what DVD can offer than anything else out there yet, and its just great music even if you don't feel up to figuring it all out.
Acquitted because its complex arguments were too finely crafted for me to refute.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ryko Disc
* Full Frame
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Seven Camera Angles During "Vrooom Vrooom" -- The Full Band Plus an Angle for Each of the Six Band Members -- Plus Seven Dolby Surround Mixes to Choose From, Highlighting Each Instrument
* Two Camera Angles Available During "Frame By Frame," "Three of a Perfect Pair," "Indiscipline," And "People"
* "21St Century Schizoid Band" -- A Revolutionary Interactive Musical Game, Where the Player May Compile Their Own Version of "21St Century Schizoid Man" by Choosing One of Four Rhythm Sections, Vocal Tracks, and Soloists From Any of Various Incarnations of King Crimson
* "Tony's Road Movies" Behind-The-Scenes Footage from Bass Player Tony Levin
* Excerpts of Written Commentaries by Robert Fripp