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David Fricke on 2017’s Best Prog Reissues

Can’s complete singles, a massive King Crimson box and more

David Fricke on the Best Year's New Prog Reissues

David Fricke runs down the year's best prog reissues, including a Can singles collection and a massive King Crimson box set.

Giving prog for Christmas? It is not an outrageous idea. In the reissues sweepstakes, where obscured-stories-richly-told beat size and celebrity every time, progressive rock is a booming industry. What follows are seven of the best archival releases in the field, of varying depth and focus, from a banner year.

Various, 'The Brain Box'

‘The Brain Box: Cerebral Sounds of Brain Records 1972–1979’

The opening act on the first disc of this eight-CD set is the last one you would expect to represent the experimental boom in Seventies German rock: Scorpions. That is partly because the central titans of so-called krautrock – Faust, Kraftwerk and Can – recorded for other labels. But Brain 1001, the first album issued by the movement’s Hamburg-based counterpart to Elektra Records, was Lonesome Crow, a quality hard-rock freakout by Scorpions’ original psychedelicized lineup with teenage-guitar tyro Michael Schenker. Founded by two refugees, Günter Körber and Bruno Wender, from the important but erratic Ohr imprint, Brain Records lacked the equivalent of a Love or Doors to crystallize its label aesthetic and A&R vision. But many of Germany’s best from that time passed through the catalog anthologized here – cosmic travelers Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh and Klaus Schulze; power-trio freaks Guru Guru; early-Genesis admirers Jane and Grobschnitt – while those just outside history’s spotlight (Thirsty Moon, Yatha Sidhra, Curly Curve) warrant the astute, selective treatment here. Due to licensing issues, Brain’s great pulse-rock band Neu! is absent. Harmonia, a superunion of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother with the electro-space duo Cluster, are not.

Can, Singles

Can, ‘The Singles’

There is an actual hit single here – “Spoon,” a three-minute spell of tribal-drum hypnosis, circular-guitar turbulence and mantric singing that went Top 10 in Germany in early 1972 after it appeared as the theme to a popular TV crime series. But Can naturally made inner-movie scores – moving-sound pictures in pneumatic surge, repetitive hooks and chant-like vocals – that were effectively compacted on their many 45s, nearly two dozen A and B sides starting in 1969 and compiled on this CD. Two of the best: the blue-jazz ballad “She Brings the Rain” with original singer Malcolm Mooney; and the stuttering creep and shouting confrontation of “Vitamin C” with his Japanese successor Damo Suzuki. Can typically composed and recorded in long-form improvisations, editing the results for their albums. This is an even tighter suspense and magnetism.

King Crimson, 'A Sailor's Tale'

King Crimson, ‘Sailors’ Tales’; ‘Official Bootleg: Live in Chicago, June 28th, 2017’

Sailors’ Tales is an epic account, in 27 discs (CD, DVD and Blu-ray), of the uproar in personnel and direction after the implosion of the original King Crimson at the end of 1969, leaving guitarist Robert Fripp as the only founding member in late 1972. The studio albums in between – 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard; 1971’s Islands – are distinguished by their respective voices (Greg Lake, the Lizard cameo by Jon Anderson of Yes; future Bad Company bassist Boz Burrell); the brief embrace of brass and free-jazz piano on Lizard; and the chamber-jazz impressionism and shadows of Islands. The box details that crisis in course over the original LPs (also available as expanded stand-alone CDs) and the touring force of the Islands band in multiple soundboard tapes. Live in Chicago is the most recent update in Fripp’s lifetime saga with Crimson: an entire show by the latest incarnation, now up to eight members with roots and road time in every era. The set list covers each chapter of the canon; the execution is fierce and fresh.

Allan Holdsworth, 'The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!': 'The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection'; 'Eidolon: The Allan Holdsworth Collection'

Allan Holdsworth, ‘The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!: The Allan Holdsworth Album Collection’; ‘Eidolon: The Allan Holdsworth Collection’

Holdsworth, the English fusion-guitar hero who died this past April at 70, right as these reissues appeared, was too self-effacing to make the claim plastered on the first of the two: a box of 12 full-length solo albums on as many CDs from 1983’s Road Games to Then!, a 2003 live retrospective. Yet even those two decades are just a snapshot of a career that took off in the mid-Seventies crossfire of jazz and progressive rock as Holdsworth played with Soft Machine, the Tony Williams Lifetime, and the band U.K. with former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford. There and on his own records, Holdsworth soloed like a saxophonist with strings, driving through complex chords and unusual scales with a fluid, almost vocal melodicism, becoming a name to drop – with awe – by guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Rush’s Alex Lifeson and Dean DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots. The box reflects Holdsworth’s bumpy ride through record-label politics and the production ideals of the time; the playing is never less than charged and certain. It is admittedly a lot for new students; Eidolon, a two-CD contraction of that material, is the wiser first step. Both are now memorials.

Bill Bruford, ‘Seems like a Lifetime Ago 1977–1980’

In 1977, at 28, Bill Bruford had a lifetime of experience and reputation under his belt – with Yes and King Crimson; a touring season in Genesis – when the drummer launched two new bands: U.K. and another under his surname with a starting lineup that also included Holdsworth. Bruford managed to get fired from U.K. after one album (with Holdsworth) but made four LPs with his own unit, one live, until he got a 1981 call to return to Crimson. That discography is gathered in this six-CD box with previously unissued concert material, rehearsals from an unfinished studio album and deep annotation. Bruford’s collaborators on 1978’s Feels Good to Me reflected his broad definition of fusion: the jazz singer and electronic composer Annette Peacock; Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler; organist Dave Stewart from the truly-prog bands Egg and Hatfield and the North. Later records were made by a tightening quartet with a lively book of originals and a compelling tension onstage. In 2016, Bruford – who kept zigzagging through Crimson, jumped back to Yes for a minute and founded the great jazz group Earthworks before retiring from live work in 2009 – received a Ph.D in music from the University of Surrey. Here is some vintage homework. 

Art Zoyd, 'Live and Unreleased Works'

Art Zoyd, ‘Live and Unreleased Works’

Formed in Valenciennes, France, in 1969, Art Zoyd were wide of the mainstream from the start, then went further out – dropping rock instrumentation (guitars, drumming) and songwriting conventions; fusing chamber music, electronic advance and a leftist-political edge as a member of the prog alliance Rock in Opposition; finding composing and conceptual vigor in soundtracks, ballets and film scores. Art Zoyd’s official discography is big enough for a vault-like box of its own. Live and Unreleased is an invigorating immersion in their parallel history of live, TV and radio recordings across 12 CDs and two DVDs. The earliest performances, from the late Seventies, are a fury of experiment and avant-rock drive descended from the British inspiration of King Crimson and Henry Cow. More recent work, including a full 2015 concert retrospective on one DVD, documents Art Zoyd’s unbroken pursuit of a new modernism beholden to no genre, still a rock in opposition. 

Unicorn, Blue Pine Trees

Unicorn, ‘Blue Pine Trees’; ‘Too Many Crooks’; ‘One More Tomorrow’

In 1973, a young English band with one album and diminishing prospects took a job playing at a wedding. Among the guests: Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. He jammed on a Neil Young song with the group, Unicorn, and took a shine to its blend of progressive-country songwriting, jangling-Byrds guitars and three-part vocal harmonies. Gilmour brokered a deal for the band with the Floyd’s management; produced Unicorn’s 1974 album, Blue Pine Trees; and remained supportive even after the last of these three seductive albums, reissued in expanded form. The new version of 1977’s One More Tomorrow has a demo from two years later, taped at Gilmour’s home studio. Unicorn had as much California in their sound as English countryside. Think of the choral Crosby, Stills and Nash and the ballad Poco via the Floyd’s bucolic strains on Side One of 1971’s Meddle, the real-ale whimsey in the Canterbury band Caravan and Nick Lowe’s pub-rock songcraft for Brinsley Schwarz. Unicorn never made it that high and far but not for lack of friends or the lasting goods.

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