What a surprise: another high-quality, take-no-prisoners live album from the current King Crimson. Recorded at Vienna’s Museumsquartier Halle E on December 1, 2016, it’s a worthy successor to 2015’s Live in Toronto and Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. In fact, it pales only in comparison to 2017’s brilliant Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago (although I’m definitely biased in favor of that show). Which is the main reason its release was postponed from last fall until now.
The biggest change for Crimson 2016 was adding British studio whiz Jeremy Stacey on drums and keyboards, temporarily replacing Bill Rieflin. Stacey (with credits including Squackett, Steven Wilson, and Roger Daltrey’s upcoming album) fit in so well that Crimson became an eight-headed beast in 2017, as Rieflin returned to play full-time keyboards. Stacey is inspired here, providing plenty of meaty thwack to complement Gavin Harrison’s stylish elegance and Pat Mastelotto’s anarchic onslaught, all immediately evident in the opening “Hell Hounds of Krim” and consistently displayed throughout the evening.
As a result, this version of Crimson rocks, loose, limber and hard. The band opener “Pictures of A City” is riveting; the drumline and Tony Levin lay down a loping, patient groove that the rest of the group rides with grace and power. Jakko Jakszyk punches out the vocals, Robert Fripp launches face-melting, angular guitar lines, and Mel Collins sketches a steamy, curvaceous sax solo. When the whole thing shudders to a halt, you realize that breathing would be a good idea — it’s that immersive.
Newer originals like “Suitable Grounds for the Blues” and “Meltdown” prowl and pounce; chunks of 1980s and 1990s Crimson (including a stab at “Indiscipline,” with Jakszyk tentatively scatting Adrian Belew’s lyrics) are stripped down for maximum impact. But the heart of Live in Vienna is unquestionably the band’s 1970s repertoire; the septet throws everything they’ve got into stately versions of “Dawn Song” and “Epitaph”, sprawling takes on “The Letters” and “Sailors Tale”, an “Easy Money” that nearly disintegrates before it gathers itself and roars back to life, a “Larks Tongues’ in Aspic Part Two” set afire by Collins’ incandescent playing, and of course “Starless”– lyrical, elegaic, edgy and irresistible as ever.
With the encores on a separate disc, David Bowie’s “Heroes” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” (in which Collins quotes Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”!) are supplemented with a rare take on Starless and Bible Black’s “Fracture.” Recorded in Copenhagen, the 2016 version reimagines Fripp’s original guitar showcase as an ensemble piece — more controlled, but still heady and gutsy. The album even provides a post-concert comedown, with Fripp’s pre-show Soundscapes enhanced by Collins & Levin solos, a potent chaser to previous sound and fury.
Even at two years’ remove, Live in Vienna ably stakes out where King Crimson is now — committed, in Fripp’s words, to the proposition that “all the music is new, whenever it was written.” Be ready — the music may not go where you (and sometimes I) think it could, but it definitely goes somewhere special.
— Rick Krueger