“Across five themed discs we present the band’s progression throughout the tour using material and preferences that resonated with us.” – Markus Reuter.
The odds were stacked against this release coming into being. Originally intended solely as a live album, Markus Reuter states on the Bandcamp blurb that his and Tony Levin’s recorded parts were missing.
Whether this means that the missing parts were added later is unclear, but the get-out-of-jail card is that this isn’t really presented as a live album, rather it paints a journey of their progression across the Americas. With Stick Men, improvisation is the name of the game. From one venue to the next the improvisational talents of all band members are showcased. Markus just went one step further to salvage this extensive release. I think we can allow the band a little creative license.
In their own words, Disc 1 “highlights the spirit of those performances”.
In the main, although some live titles in the Panamerica collection are repeated, there’s repetition in the themes rather than the detail as these survive the journeys between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.
In Shades of Starless we are also treated to a live Stick Men staple. We hear strong echoes of the band who drew such inspiration from four beautifully crafted words lifted from Dylan Thomas’s radio play. Stick Men and David Cross may take the musical themes from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black, but they make them their own.
Disc 2 is a stereo mix straight off the mixing desk. If disc 2 had a face then it would be staring at you across a dimly lit room with did-you-spill-my-pint menace, daring you to ask what it is about. That the disc has four tracks described as ‘suites’ belies what I suspect is that these are born of full improvisations based around some loosely worked out themes and modes. Played in Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Chile, random samples, forlorn violin and shimmering effects play herald to mechanical rhythms overlaid with spartan bass sounds. The violin occasionally pops its head above the parapet but then leaves centre stage for a while as otherworldly chords swell and subside. Echoes of Frippertronics-style, effects-driven tapping instruments mingle into the swell as the violin fades to nothing.
Pat Mastelotto plays out patterns on the toms that are music in themselves and wouldn’t be out of place on a Martin O’Donnell soundtrack. In these moments the band puts its collective head down and grooves. These sequences often give ground to somewhat disturbing, relentless passages. Stick Men seem to have accidentally stumbled upon intelligent dance music, though in truth, nothing they do smells of accident.
Discs 3 and 4 really could just as easily have been released as a stand-alone double album. Recorded in San Jose and unedited, disc 3 represents a full concert. It opens with such atmosphere and presence that I find myself wanting to be capable of producing such noise myself.
Of course, there are the inevitable King Crimson covers, but Crimson’s music deserves to be played and re-interpreted (which in its ultimate form leads to the aforementioned Shades of Starless on disc 1). David Cross and Stick Men are eminently qualified for this task. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic‘s The Talking Drum, has a funky/jazzy/groovy feel, David Cross seemingly improvises a whole set of new notes, bleeding, as was done by KC live, into the song, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II. There’s a rendition of Sartori in Tangier, one of my favourite instrumental tracks from my favourite King Crimson line-up. This track is presented, warts and all, with a slightly shambolic opening and some frenetic soloing – and is none the less enjoyable for it – as if to show how dangerous playing live is.
And then they come back with Swimming in T, a new track (to me) which also features on disc 1. They stop playing to the Crimson crowd and show what Stick Men can do as artists in their own right.
They close with OPEN, which is nice. I’m not normally a big fan of avant-garde music. OPEN has drum and bass grooves working in perfect synchronicity, grooves that can compete with the best of them. There’s nothing like the sound of something akin to a backwards church bell to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. OPEN is what I imagine Bebe and Louis Barron could have written for their score for the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, had the technologies used by Stick Men and David Cross been available.
The Bandcamp description of Disc 5 says:
“Disc 5 has been compiled using the isolated improvised parts of Markus and David from the Mar del Plata, Monterrey, Rosario and Guatemala City concerts, edited into a 70-minute continuous sonic journey”.
There’s rather a lot of avant-garde. Despite my aforementioned prejudice, I was caught up in the varied, sweeping, ambient, mood-evoking music. I thought of a situation in which this disc would be best appreciated and concluded that the entire boxed set is replete with nightmarish soundscapes from the Avant Garden, some of which will have been performed to entranced audiences who, I dare say, would have their eyes closed, allowing the music to wash over them like heavy, frightening rain. So – in the dark with the lights off it is!
Cards on the table with this; you probably need to be a Stick Men fan to justify the €70.00 asked for this boxed set. It isn’t as if these are five full albums from the back catalogue, rather, this is a limited-edition documentary cataloguing, as the name suggests, a tour across the Americas. This is a boxed set aimed at collectors.
If you have rigid ideas about what constitutes a live album consider also their two recordings, again featuring David Cross: Midori – Live in Tokyo 2015. The first and second shows are available separately as digital downloads from Bandcamp. They are rather splendid.
Stick Men featuring David Cross – PANAMERICA is, nevertheless, just under 320 minutes of well-crafted music performed by experts and if you’re a fan then it is a must-have.
What this boxed set fired up in me, more than any other reaction, was a desire to see Stick Men live – especially with David Cross.
Disc 1: PANAMERICA: Improvs (Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil)
01. Swimming in T (La Paz) (11:22)
02. OPEN (Buenos Aires) (14:08)
03. Shades of Starless (São Paulo) 08:35
04. Swimming Improv 1 (São Paulo) (4:29)
05. OPEN (São Paulo) (13:17)
06. Swimming Improv 2 (São Paulo) (4:20)
07. La Paz – Opening Improv (La Paz) (17:10)
Time – 73:21
Disc 2: PANAMERICA: Suites (Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Chile)
01. La Plata Suite (16:21)
02. Lima Suite (11:35)
03. Montevideo Suite (16:54)
04. Santiago Suite (12:08)
Time – 56:58
Disc 3: PANAMERICA: Full Show, Part 1 (Costa Rica)
01. Opening Improv (5:03)
02. Hide the Trees (7:08)
03. Cusp (6:24)
04. The Talking Drum (4:03)
05. Larks‘ Tongues in Aspic, Part II (7:06)
06. Crack in the Sky (5:45)
07. David‘s Improv (4:50)
08. Schattenhaft (6:45)
09. Sartori in Tangier (6:44)
10. Swimming in T (9:18)
Time – 56:21
Disc 4: PANAMERICA: Full Show, Part 2 (Costa Rica)
01. Plutonium (5:48)
02. Red (8:22)
03. Mantra (5:57)
04. Prog Noir (7:27)
05. Shades of Starless (9:58)
06. Level 5 (10:20)
07. OPEN (13:01)
Time – 60:53
Disc 5: : Soundscapes (Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala)
01. Floating I (7:04)
02. Talking while Diving (8:18)
03. Hades I (6:06)
04. Floating II (4:26)
05. Skydive (6:22)
06. Under Water (4:08)
07. Hades II (5:18)
08. Floating III (5:25)
09. Infusion (5:07)
10. Whispering Transition (2:16)
11. Hades III (4:20)
12. Floating IV (4:22)
13. Interstitial Finality (3:00)
14. Diving T Coda (4:48)
Time – 71:00
Total Time – 318:33
Tony Levin – Chapman Stick, Voice
Markus Reuter – Touch Guitar, Soundscapes, Keyboard
Pat Mastelotto – Acoustic and Electronic Drums, Percussion
David Cross – Electric Violin, Keyboard
Record Label: Independent
Mixed: Benni Schäfer (Unsung Productions), Alexandr Vatagin, Robert Frazza, and Markus Reuter
Mastered: Lee Fletcher
Produced: Markus Reuter for Stick Men
Country of Origin: U.S.A./Germany/U.K.
Date of Release: 1st November 2019