So who are Stick Men? They are the latest incarnation of one of Tony Levin’s personal band projects. Tony Levin should need no introduction. The original line-up of Stick Men appeared in 2007 and included Pat Mastelotto (who had hits with Mr Mister in the ’80s and sessioned with The Rembrandts on their Friends theme song. Pat also worked with some bloke called Steven Wilson on one of his solo albums) and Michael Bernier, he of Bernier-DeCarlo (check out my review of their album HERE), also on Stick. Michael has gone on to do several solo albums which I would urge you to investigate as they really are rather good.
In 2010 Michael left and Markus Reuter joined the band. Markus has become quite a presence in my musical world having worked within the KC ProjeKcts and with Tim Bowness. For those of you interested in the development of musical instruments, Markus co-designed and uses a new Touch-Style guitar, also used by Matt Tate of Pavlov3 and by Stefan Huth from Isaac Vacuum.
Stick Men are joined by King Crimson alumnus David Cross. He shouldn’t need an introduction, as all you Crims will know, he fiddled with King Crimson on two of my favourite KC albums, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black.
So is this just another one of the ProjeKcts? Well, I don’t think so. But I expect that if you like the ProjeKcts then you’ll certainly enjoy this.
Actually, Stick Men could easily be confused with the ProjeKcts – after all, there are many personnel and songs that they share. Plus Tony Levin was in ProjeKct One and Four, Pat Mastoletto was in ProjeKct Three and Four, and then there was the un-numbered Crimson ProjeKt which included Tony Levin, Pat Mastoletto and Markus Reuter. I may have got that wrong. If so, then please do not hesitate to send corrections on a postcard to the TPA’s usual address. Every incarnation of King Crimson and most of the ProjeKcts have Robert Fripp involved, but Mr. Fripp isn’t a pre-requisite of a band bearing the ProjeKct name. The original Stick Men, with Michael Bernier, had less in common with Crimson and even though the earliest ProjeKct pre-dates Stick Men by some 10 years I can see, I think, why they don’t use the name ProjeKct #. It gets quite hard to follow.
Anyway, Stick Men has quite a pedigree.
As you may have inferred, this album features King Crimson covers but it also has a number of improvised pieces. The album was recorded at two shows from successive days, the CD covering both concerts, as does the download. The Stick Men site has the album split into two parts that can be bought separately, but it is digital only and not available as a CD, so you can buy one set to see if you like it. Then buy the other at another time.
The improvisations from the first set were presumably unrepeatable on the second day. They also added a Stick Men’s standard – their abridged version of Stravinski’s Firebird Suite. Some of the songs from both days are, perhaps, “re-imagined” versions of Crimson songs, rather than straight covers. The improvs are concerned with atmosphere and subtlety, as is much of the album. Even the audience is so low in the mix between tracks that you might wonder if they were there at all!
From the beginning, Opening Soundscape – Gaudy might come across as if the band is presenting a bit of a challenge to the listener. Indeed, If you’re looking for hooks and riffs from this album then you could be fooled by this opening track into thinking that all of what follows will be a journey through an abstract, avant-garde montage of sounds and rhythms, played more for the players’ potential propensity for self-indulgence than for the listener’s benefit. Fans of Crimson know all about this and it may be part of the appeal. It is for me. Who cares who they are playing for and what genre it is, if it is good music?!
If you’re playing songs by another band you bring comparison on yourself. That’s why I was banging on about KC and ProjeKcts. It is with the improvisations, not the covers, where the band seems most representative of Stick Men as an entity in their own right. Moth starts after the album/concert has already been in full flow for about 25 minutes. With a bass-line that could have been lifted from a Peter Gabriel track and a backdrop of sounds that might have been Frippertronics, it evolves into a stark, vaguely foreboding soundscape, reminiscent of an opening scene of a quality Science Fiction movie. It blends seamlessly and shamelessly into the King Crimson track Industry, a piece that first appeared on Three Of A Perfect Pair.
It is quite something to listen to songs penned by a later KC generation with David Cross performing on them. When I heard the Belew/Bruford/Fripp/Levin incarnation for the first time it seemed somewhat divorced from previous versions of the band. So this is a bit like listening to Steve Howe play Owner Of A Lonely Heart – only a lot less AOR. By the time they perform The Talking Drum during the first set the ensemble has started to build upon the Stick Men signature foundation sound that they have created during the previous tracks. By Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part 2 we are hearing a band who sound like they are doing their own take on the KC sound.
So obvious comparisons aside, what do Stick Men bring to these Crimson themes that King Crimson don’t? Well, as I said, David Cross plays the theme from Starless during Shades of Starless, over the layers created by the rest of the band it is orchestral, it is sublime and beautiful. You might think that the original performance of Starless on Red is all of these things, and it is. The original is a product of its time, with elements and echoes of earlier Crimsons with a sound that can be clearly traced all the way back to In The Wake Of Poseidon, with its Mellotron, subtle alto-saxophone, muted drums and guitar. This isn’t the same song, but it illustrates the point that Stick Men have a sound which may have its roots in the Crimson paddock but it has since evolved.
There is nothing new about variations on a theme. As with their version of Industry, what Stick Men have done is re-build on the theme and blend new approaches with elements from the Discipline era, bringing it into the 21st Century. I’d like to have heard their take on the entire song, including the jazzy third movement where the song resolves back into the main theme. That the theme is so strong, that it survives the passage of 42 years and is re-incarnated into Shades Of Starless, is testimony to just how good a piece of music this is and shows the strength of the Crimson Methodology.
I like it.
01. Opening Soundscape – Gaudy (10:36)
02. Improv – Blacklight (7:14)
03. Hide The Trees (8:54)
04. Improv – Moth (9:07)
05. Industry (12:35)
06. Cusp (4:48)
07. Shades of Starless (8:07)
08. The Talking Drum (4:52)
09. Larks’ Toungues In Aspic, Part 2 (6:30)
Total Time – 72:43
10. Opening Soundscape – Cyan (5:20)
11. Improv – Midori (7:07)
12. Breathless (4:16)
13. Improv – Moon (4:42)
14. Sartori In Tangier (6:51)
15. Crack In The Sky (5:37)
16. Shades Of Starless (7:18)
17. Firebird Suite (10:49)
18. The Talking Drum (5:52)
19. Lark’s Tongues In Aspic (6:48)
Total Time – 65:40
David Cross – Violin & Keyboard
Markus Reuter – Touch Guitars® AU8, Soundscaping & Keyboard
Tony Levin – Stick & Voice
Pat Mastelotto – Acoustic & Electronic Drums & Percussion
Record Label: Moonjune Records
Date of Release: 15th March 2016
Front Of House & Recording Engineer: Robert Frazza
Mixed by: Benni Schäfer & Markus Reuter
Mastered by: Fabio Trentini
Produced by: Markus Reuter