Levin Torn White, an album review by Lee in Limbo
What do you do when you have a hankering for new King Crimson, but Robert Fripp isn’t ready to record? Get Tony Levin to form a new supergroup and tear it up instrumentally.
tl;dr Version: Just exactly what it says on the tin. Three masters, no compromise. Please fasten your seat belts.
‘Splain Lucy version: If you like King Crimson, Tony Levin, David Torn, intense instrumental progressive music in general, or would just like to hear what the state of Alan White’s drumming chops really are in 2011, you MUST play this album.
Boring Version: Actually, after you hear the first two minutes of the album, I’m sure you’ll have as much trouble as I do thinking of a boring way to explain this album. But in the interest of science, I shall try.
First off, uncustomarily, I know very little about how this project came together. Tony Levin always seems to have a new project on the go, and was even touring last fall with two line-ups of power trios playing some very Crimsonian material.
David Torn generally always has something cool to do, and hasn’t lost any heat from the days when he was doing the Bruford Levin Upper Extremities project or Polytown with Terry Bozzio and the late Mick Karn (of Japan fame).
So the question, I suppose, is who do you get to drum for these guys if you can’t get Terry Bozzio or Pat Mastelotto, and Bill Bruford is determinedly retired from drumming and off doing a book signing tour. Well, I suppose you could try borrowing one of toda’s crop of young guns of progressive drumming like Gavin Harrison, Thomas Pridgen or Chris Pennie, but you know, there IS one other possibility, which had perhaps been long overlooked for these crunchy prog side projects: Alan White of Yes.
I don’t know. Maybe nobody ever thought to ask Alan if he was willing to play with other bassists besides the legendary Chris Squire. Maybe nobody thought he’d like to take a turn on Bill Bruford’s OTHER high profile drum throne, thrashing away to darker chord progressions and more manic rhythmic figures.
In any case, Tony and David apparently saw the light this year and got it together with Alan, who must have cloned himself to get free from all of his other business, including the new Yes album that came out in the summer and a tour afterwards. Maybe he had a couple of days off and decided to do something wacky.
The fact is, this project, which was a year in the making, came in below the radar, with the three of them promoting the project on social networks and websites, but without any big record company promotion backing it. Maybe that’s why it worked. Anyway, I look forward to hearing more about how this trio came together, but we don’t really need to know that much to appreciate what they created.
First up, the opening track, No Warning Lights, which serves as a sort of overture for the album, with a rather grand thesis statement of what you can expect, all packed into a tight little two minute groove that hammers home the idea that none of these guys, all floating around their sixties, play like they’re just about ready to retire; quite the opposite. Younger bands like Tool and Korn could doubtless learn a few things about longevity and endurance here.
The second track, Ultra Mullet, probably sets the pace for the rest of the album, with a really nice groove that wouldn’t have been out of place if Joe Satriani had decided to record a track with Tony and Bill back in the 80s, which might almost be why they gave it the cute name. It’s got some gamelan touches, but it wails and howls into the wind when it’s not bouncing over the high register bassline. The drumming is metronomic but intense here, which keeps it from sounding like the ubiquitous drum machine of instrumental guitar tracks form that era. The number goes through a few twists and turns, and has some really crunchy moments interspersed with some nice atmospheric moments. Again, you would think this was being performed by guys half their age, which I hope doesn’t sound like some lame backhanded compliment.
Third track, White Noise, is like an outtake from Discipline, Beat or Three of a Perfect Pair. It’s got a thrashy gamelan figure that probably really shouldn’t surprise us if we’ve been listening to Alan’s meatier moments from 70s Yes. The only thing missing here is some crazy bit of beat poetry from Ade.
Fourth number, The Hood Fell, opens perhaps a little more like Thrak-era KC, complete with mellotron sounds in the background. It goes through some interesting changes while maintaining the same persistent groove, which obviously gives David a chance to build some stellar guitar layers, like a horde of angry killer bees trying to tell you exactly why they are about to sting you to death.
Fifth track, Monkey Mind, has some deeper, stranger, quieter moments, like a section from a Thrak track leading up to some monster drum section that never comes. And then, when Alan lays into it with the groove, David takes the high road and gives us this strange twang guitar/thrash guitar combo over Tony’s stick playing, and it starts to sound like something from a Projeckt session, but a little fresher than some of that stuff came off for me.
Sixth track, Cheese It The Corpse, is a monster groove right out of the gate, very jazzy, very heavy, beautiful in its ugliness. With the mix of sounds they inject in places, it actually feels a little like my idea of a New York City night, sirens and traffic and screaming neighbours, and then the brief walk through the hotel lobby before the sounds continue. It’s a fantastic groove, and Alan sounds more like Bruford here than he’s sounded in thirty-five years. It closes on a sort of traffic jam recapitulation of damned near everything they’ve done with the track to this point, but in an almost abstract fashion. And then it fades off into the sunset with some peculiar bit of mellotron business with fretless and flamenco playing to either side.
Seventh track, Convergence, and it’s time to switch gears to something far more atmospheric, and suddenly we’re listening to David Torn doing his lovely rendition of Frippertronics. It’s a wall of echoing, fading guitar harmonic textures with some slightly twangy, buzzy guitar up front. And then, part way through the track, he starts strumming a little tune and the sun comes out for just a moment. It ends in a gorgeous suicide of sound, guitars keening and struggling to out-pretty one another. A strange piece, but not unloveable.
Eighth track, Pillowfull of Dark Dreams, is another quick-out-of-the-gate opener with a slightly slower, metronomic groove. It doesn’t sound like much of anything you can easily recognize, but it has some of that Projeckt groove, only with more ideas packed in. A little acoustic guitar here and there adds a strange, almost Trent Reznor quirkiness to the piece, except where the acoustic delivers something more akin to Steve Howe in classical mode. There’s some back chat part way through the piece that adds an almost disturbing layer of surreality to the piece.
Ninth track, The Egg Man Cometh, is a strange fusion piece with some jazzy drumming and some funky bass married to a funk guitar riff that is almost buried in guitar textures, and then it’s over before it’s overstayed its welcome.
Track Ten, Sleeping Horse, sounds like something that could have originated on one of the later Nine Inch Nails albums, like Ghosts, with walls of soft textures and a very experimental bit of bluesy guitar from the Adrian Belew catalogue. Not much for Alan to do here, but Tony lays down a rather subdued upright bass part that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Police album. There is a feel of world instruments arm wrestling with an almost orchestral combination of Mellotron pads, like Peter Gabriel’s The Passion album duking it out with a string section from The Alan Parsons Project’s Edgar Alan Poe album (Tales of Mystery and Imagination).
Track Eleven, Prom Night of the Centipedes, starts with a rather nice groove that sounds like it could almost have been a proper song with some lyrics. The middle section is much crunchier, but after some solid thrashing, it makes room for a bit of synth pad work that again leads into some thrashing, more atmospherics, and then some echoed drums that sound like they’re being played in the bathroom next door. Some 60s television documentary banter ends the song in a strange, late night alone place.
Track Twelve, Crunch Time, is a stilted jazz funk groove with walls of guitar squalling and slashing away to one side. It’s actually really pretty funky, and gives Tony a chance to thrash away a bit on the stick while a persistent funk groove holds it together in the background. I can’t think of too many things to say about this one, except that it might be one of my favourite tracks from the album. It’s certainly one of the most direct, and evokes some of the same feel of the opening track.
Track Thirteen, Brain Tattoo, opens unapologetically with some almost dadaist funk fusion and one of the most wailing guitar parts we’ve heard form David on this album, definitely essaying his version of an Adrian Belew KC guitar part here. Then it shifts around to a funky little figure that does 4/4-7/8 split that then leads into a straight 4/4 riff that might have come from the Discipline sessions, except for the really fuzzy bassline that sounds like something more up John Wetton’s Red-era street. A fun track.
And the final track, Lights Out, opens atmospherically, an almost lawnmower hum with little parts growing together, and then Alan White sliding in seemlessly with a rather Stewart Copelandesque rhythm. It breaks away to a paused section that briefly crashes about before shifting to a section with acoustic guitar and heavily processed drums that sound almost electronic. The piece shifts around through some fairly Crimsonian territory for a minute, and then shifts to a slashy guitar/stick section that ends suddenly.
And that’s it. Exhale.
The album leaves you feeling as if you may have missed the real ending, but it certainly isn’t boring. I quite enjoyed it, and I’m on my third or fourth listening. You could get me to sit through quite a lot with an opening as strong as the one they’ve got, though I’m not entirely sure about the sequence of the rest of the album.
I usually like to recommend albums I’ve reviewed to just about anybody, and the truth is, I get to do that because I write so few, and usually only for albums I really like. There are albums I could review that I would steer people away from, but this isn’t one of them. What I would do, however, is actively warn people that, if they don’t like slashing rhythmic figures, walls of texture and dissonant note melodies, this may not be for you. However, if you’re a fan of any of the work of the King Crimson family, you’re bound to find something in here that pleases you.
For my part, I just hope they do it again some day. It’s a pretty wild ride, but it would almost seem like a failure if they didn’t try it again. At any rate, Tony, David, Alan, thank you for some of the best Crim we’ve not had in some time.