Jakszyk, Fripp& Collins – A Scarcity of Miracles (2011) – an album review

So, what does Uncle Bob do while all of his former King Crimson band members are all off making Crimson music without him? Creates a projekct with a line-up that hasn’t been tried before, and a form of Crim music that hasn’t really been heard before.

tl;dr Version: Like Uncle Bob says, it’s not really King Crimson, but it has some discernible Crimson DNA in it.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: King Crimson’s music is one of those things that you either love or hate, but it’s also a bit of an acquired taste. You can hear some of it and think they’re a pretty uneven band, but with time and exposure, even their most aggressively noisome versions and albums can open up to you, if you have an adventurous spirit and a willingness to learn as you listen.

That said, what King Crimson has rarely had is a really good entry point album; one that any generation of listener can hear and adopt as the album that best sums up the Crimson formula without having to jump huge hurdles to comprehend. The grand summation of the formula is The Power To Believe, from 2003. However, even that album presents serious challenges to the uninitiated. This album, on the other hand, is practically made to order for all neophyte Crim fans.

Boring Version: While there hasn’t been a new proper King Crimson studio album since 2003, and the last Projekct album was Projekct 6’s East Coast Live, there has been a fair bit of Crimsonian music being made in recent months. For one thing, Tony Levin has been making distinclty Crim-like noises in other projects, including his Stickmen project and the extremely Crimsonian Levin/Torn/White project, which I reviewed late last year. And Adrian’s last few Adrian Belew Trios (also heard on the last five albums he’s put out) have all been playing some very crunchy music that wouldn’t sound out of place in a King Crimson show.

However, Robert Fripp, founder and principle navigator of the good ship King Crimson, flagship of all this dissonant, diatonic, progressive music, is never idle, even when he doesn’t feel a new Crim project in the offing. And true to form, he’s got a new album, this time with classic Crim alum Mel Collins on horns, and newcomer vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, who married into the family, so to speak. Rounded out by current Crim rhythm section Tony Levin (who clearly has been a very busy guy) and Gavin Harrison, this does have more than just a little Crimson genetics to it, and it shows. Which is probably why Fripp has taken to dubbing this Projekct 7. I couldn’t agree with him more.

Now, without any more preamble, let’s give it a listen:

A Scarcity of Miracles opens like a sunrise in fast forward. The addition of sax on what otherwise sounds strongly like a David Sylvian/Robert Fripp collaboration gives it a peculiar Spyro Gyra feel that signals this as being something quite different, right off the top. Then the main verse riff commences and your in the middle of an honest-to-goodness song. It’s an extended intro, but when the vocals debut, your hearing something new. Jakko has a warm alto voice that does puts me in mind of a little known Canadian band I once listened to, called The Kite. Jakko’s lyrics are evocative without being too obscure or minimalist, like so many of Belew’s KC lyrics; they harken back to the more romantic Peter Sinfield of the first couple KC albums, with none of the surrealism or the scathing sarcasm. Mel’s sax playing, particularly throughout the bridge sections, hits an emotional resonance that makes the little hairs rise on the back of my neck, and then reflexively strokes them back in place.

The Price We Pay starts slow, but when the chorus kicks in, it’s with a hook so big it looks like an anchor. Absolutely fantastic. The sax and vocal interplay, as well as the sax/guitar interplay, are so sweet and yet so familiar, it’s like the pop ballad Fripp has been trying to write for going on three decades finally arrived. Don’t misunderstand me; this is not a love song, and it’s not a cheesy little pop hit. It’s AOR rock with a melodic bent that has rarely been heard in King Crimson music. It’s kind of what I always wondered why Adrian didn’t write more of for KC, given his strong pop leanings. Just a beautiful track. The Go TO track for playing to anyone you hope to turn on to this album, unless they’re already diehard KC fans. That one comes later…

Secrets is a slow meditation, somewhere in the soft palate of Porcupine Tree’s pre-heavy past, spotlighting Mel’s playing and some very nice lyrics. Very warm and romantic. When an acoustic finally joins in half way through, the vocals become muted, and then the rhythm section kicks in, along with crunchy sax and slightly distorted guitar playing in unison. It’s a wonderful jam groove vibe, but the flawless tenor and soprano sax parts and vocal harmonies make it clear that there is nothing sloppy about this piece. If you’re going to do a slow song on a KC/Projekct album, this is how I want it to sound.

This House opens with some Frippertronic flourishes and Jakko wailing background vocals over the wall, an introduction that last nearly two minutes before the rest of the band joins in and the vocals begin. Another slow ballad, to begin with, an unusual occurrence on a band album with this pedigree, but again, a pretty song that doesn’t quite fall into the trap of being cloying and out of place, the way many of KC’s slow ballads of the past have been. The ‘I Talk To The Wind’s and the ‘Matte Kudesai’s of previous albums are evoked and yet banished from this album, and here we see a song that merely takes its time in transforming into the band number I would wish it to be. Not my favourite track from this album, but it’s gorgeous, so I’m not faulting it. It’s perhaps just a little too early in the day for me to be getting lulled back to sleep by a song today. Mel’s sax playing is particularly warm and lovely here, and Gavin’s drumming is elegant and perfectly understated but interesting, right up to the end.

The Other Man is probably the closest to a proper King Crimson track, opening with a series of exotic stringed instruments heavily effected, fading in and out with the tide along with Mel’s sax and Bob’s guitar, until the piano and vocals usher in those familiar dissonances that make the hairs on your arms prick up. Then Tony starts playing a broken bass pattern and the tension builds as he and Bob lightly quote gamelan patterns from Discipline. Then the drums crash in, and the song transforms into something that sounds like THRAK-era KC with Neil Morse on vocals. Very cool and yet still quite listenable, the conflicts resolving and the melodic sensibilities inherent to this group permeating the piece, kind of like Three of a Perfect Pair, but with more distortion. This is the convincer for anyone who was holding out for classic Crim. Gorgeous track, and one of my favourites at the moment.

The Light of Day is another slow number, but this time in a more classic improvisational KC vibe, touching on Islands and Deception of the Thrush, until a splash of piano ushers in the vocals, sax and bass, sounding for all the world like a warped tuba. The vocals are disjointed and rhythmic, strident and heavily effected, a dissonant harmony building and guiding, wending through the piece which refuses to change tempo, refusing to alleviate the tension building between your shoulders. Like a coming storm, it just seems to pile up and build pressure, waxing and waning in its ambient glory. We’ve heard a fair bit of this kind of pastel painting in other Projekcts, but there are some really nice things going on in it, and we rarely have lyrics for such pieces. That said, after such a hook-laden album, it’s a difficult piece to settle on, and yet Bob has been doing this to us for decades, giving us the bulk of an album of middling to heavy music, only to leave us on a long, sustained Ommmmmm…

And then, as suddenly and quietly as it started, it ends, having come full circle to the beginning.

This isn’t the album I was waiting for, but it turns out to be the album that I’m enjoying the most of my recent discoveries, simply because it confounds all expectations. It’s also quite handily the most accessible album in the KC/Projekcts ouvre. Feel free to play this album for your family and friends who don’t understand why you love 21st Century Schizoid Man, Fracture or Dangerous Curves so much. Like Bob and I said at the top, it’s not really King Crimson, but it’s got some of that Crimsonian vibe, in a new flavour. I recommend this album to any prog fan who has someone who needs converting, or who just wants to mellow out after a hard day. It’s prog-lite, but very, very tasty prog lite. Of the albums I’ve discovered so far this year (as opposed to the albums I lined up for review before NYE but still haven’t finished reviewing), this has been my favourite.

My only true criticism of this album is, it needs a follow-up, which there is no guarantee of. I’d love to hear what these guys could do with a full 60-80 minute album, rather than this lovely but slightly anemic 43 minutes. I’m spoiled by modern albums. I need another dose. Please… hit me again.

©2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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