OK, I’ll grant you this much: an evening in the company of two blokes (one grey, the other as bald as a Crenshaw melon) from a world-famous prog band and their tech-happy German mate doesn’t outwardly portend to be the most Reprobatory of events. If anything, it sounds more like a potential recipe for extreme trainspotter anorakdom- something that would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, as I enter the Robin upon this blustery March evening, I’m immediately confronted by row upon row of seated, serious-looking punters studying support act The Fierce & The Dead the way one would an impenetrable foreign menu. Rock n roll? Decadence? Forget it. This, mate, is serious music.
However, there’s prog, and then there’s prog- and considering that tonight’s ‘star turns’ hail not only from the darkest and most ‘difficult’ of all the genre’s major names (that’s King Crimson to the uninitiated) but the Eighties/Nineties New York-based warehouse post-punk lineup of said combo, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the Stick Men (aka Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter) won’t be singing songs about knights and goblins. And they aren’t. Nor, for that matter, do they at any point go ‘widdly widdly’- although don’t let that fool you into thinking for a minute that there’s any simplicity to be found within their dense palette.
Rather, what we’re offered is 100 minutes worth of some of the heaviest, most discordant sounds this side (ie the more ‘musicianly’ one) of Tool, Shellac, Swans or Pelican- offset by layers of quirky, minimalist yet florid, twin-guitar melodies more reminiscent of Television, Talking Heads and Wire than any so-called ‘glitzy cape’ outfit, and suffused with (of course) generous dosages of the Crims themselves. Though the trio have been operational in their own right for well over a decade now, the ever-ominous harbinger of impending doom that is Red still manages to rear its thrumming, whirring bonce second song in – and from that point onwards, the trio’s own fascinating compositions such as Plutonium, Schattenhaft and Crack In The Sky are regularly interpolated with further delves into the Frippian catalogue, the highlight arriving mid-set in the form of the tragically under-acknowledged Sartori In Tangier.
The title of the new album is Prog Noir, and it’s an apt description: while flawless musicianship, rhythms so tight Elvis could wear them as trousers, and an ever-present appetite for the avant-garde are all recurrent factors, each piece seems simultaneously swathed in an inky, icy, monochrome more usually found in industrial music, doom or black metal. The difference being that these three unassuming, casually-dressed virtuosi roughly aged somewhere between 50 and 70 are actually heavier than most of the artists associated with such extreme genres: indeed, they’re definitely the loudest band I’ve witnessed at the Robin thus far (at one point making the ceiling throb so much it actually frightens the bar staff) Yet still, they make no concessions whatsoever to rock star posturing, their juxtaposition of extreme sonic opposites (jarring sheet-metal noise meeting genteel angularity, speed meeting sloth, high frequency going head to head with low) purveyed more in the manner, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, of “a quiet unregarded man in glasses building an atomic bomb in his garden shed” Which is, of course, the most disturbing element of all.
Variously utilising the Chapman Stick (from which the band derives its name) in the role of both bass and lead guitar, Levin and Reuter handle each end of the scale with consummate skill: yet again, there’s none of the indulgence one would normally associate with such instrumentation, just wave upon wave of mildly jazz-inflected (only think the glacial, Nurse With Wound-approved tone poems of Terje Rypdal or the shrieking fire of Peter Brotzmann rather than anything remotely ‘smooth’) textured malice. The very textures, in fact, that shoegaze pioneers such as Kevin Shields (should they ever deign to bless us with another record) should be looking to for inspiration, sawing and drilling their subtle way through the Black Country night. Larks Tongues In Aspic Part 2 – still possessor of possibly the heaviest riff ever written – is incendiary, as is Level Five: even a random Mike Oldfield cover sounds like it was conjured up from the bottomless pits of Beelzebub, and I’m now starting to wonder if I’ll make it out of here with both eardrums intact. Yet at the same time, it all seems strangely relaxing, almost like being smothered in swarfiga-flavoured treacle (not that I have any personal experience of this, I hasten to add)
Though there are vocals from time to time, they’re deliberately understated: yet, as with the Crims’ other more infamous sideprojeKCt (the Toyah Wilcox-fronted Humans) the most glaringly obvious difference between the offspring and the parent is not in the music itself, but in the way its makers interact with the audience. Namely, that they do, simply because they’re allowed to: all three taking it in turns to humorously introduce and explain the pieces in a manner clearly not permitted by His Robness, and in doing so, adding an element of warmth and humility to that which might otherwise come across as intimidating or austere. Not that such bonhomie detracts one iota from what, essentially, remains outsider art in extremis: the only real difference is that here in the Midlands, we stage such events in proper rock venues rather than arty-farty warehouses specialising in ‘artisan bread’ and overpriced beer. At least for now we do, anyway.
Whether or not such sounds can be regarded as ‘deviant’, of course, is very much dependent on the individual’s interpretation of the ‘norm’: that said, I did spot the organiser of a certain fetish club (sorry, no names) in the audience, so draw your own conclusions. As I vacate the premises, the harsh majesty of the ‘improvised’ encore still gnawing at my aural canals, it occurs to me there may have been more to the ‘Satanic’ monicker of King Crimson than we thought after all: though the Stick Men, either individually or collectively, are not practitioners of any occult disciplines, and I would personally stop short of ever describing anything so beautiful as ‘evil’, both they and The Fierce & The Dead could still easily summon the inhabitants of any netherworld with their surgical cacophonies.