Kronomyth 1.0: AURORA. There were a lot of people who lamented the loss of King Crimson, and it’s tempting to see the first U.K. album as a kind of Crimson Mark II. Bill Bruford and John Wetton had been half of that band, Eddie Jobson had replaced David Cross for some studio overdubs on the live U.S.A. and while Robert Fripp was irreplaceable, Allan Holdsworth was hardly a case of settling for less. The record does invite comparison to King Crimson, but Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jean-Luc Ponty also serve as reference points. In fact, there are several moments on here where the words “Ponty on steroids” come to mind. (Holdsworth, you may recall, had just come from playing on Ponty’s Enigmatic Ocean.) What’s unique about U.K. is that they’re not jazz-rock fusion in any sense that I understand the label. It’s almost as though the band took the musicianship and unpredictable twists and turns of Zappa (e.g., “Presto Vivace And Reprise”) and Ponty (“Time To Kill”) and drained all of the jazz out of it, leaving pure prog chops in its place. And it’s in that sense where the first U.K. album is groundbreaking, because it allowed future proggers to make highly complex, dynamic and mathematical music without leaning on jazz idioms to do it. There are a lot of prog bands in the 21st century that are making music that sounds like U.K. did thirty years ago. As much of a powerhouse album as this is, I do feel like it falls apart in spots as the band tries to mesh melodies, vocals and high-octane musicianship together. The closing “Nevermore” and “Mental Medication,” for example, probably would have worked better as instrumentals than extended songs. That said, the opening suite, “In The Dead of Night,” is classic prog—something I didn’t expect to encounter anymore in 1978—and “Thirty Years” is pretty amazing too. Until now, Eddie Jobson had been a peripheral (if popular) player in prog circles, but this album established him as a major creative force in the field. Unfortunately, the band began to fall apart soon after, with Bruford and Holdsworth leaving the fold (they would reappear later that year on Bruford’s Feels Good To Me). What remains on this first record is a sweet, wonderful alignment of stars that one can happily exonerate for the future crimes of Asia.
A live performance of mostly Bruford’s second album (One of a Kind) at My Father’s Place in Roslyn, NY (where apparently they get paid by the note). The recording quality is all right, better than a boot but not the well-stitched shoe-in you might expect from a proper label release. (Look at the album cover again. Now temper your expectations accordingly.) The attraction here isn’t the venue (you’d be drunk too if you lived in Roslyn) or the selection (two of a kind) but the performances. The little black dots leap off the page on stage; they were better behaved (and less interesting) in the studio. Not that Bruford and the band take great liberties with the original arrangements, but the live performances are imbued with vitality (imbued, I tells ya). New guitarist John Clark fits in fine, especially since Allan Holdsworth’s atmospheric touches would have been lost live anyway. Some folks will tell you this is required listening, but I’m not always so happy to have my head crammed full with fusion. I can tell you that this has the edge over Livestock, but I’d just as soon avoid the edge altogether these days. In fact, it’s tempting to see Brand X and Bruford as a pissing contest between prog’s percussive whiz kids Phil Collins and Bill Bruford. I don’t actually believe that to be the case, but at least it reconciles them with prog again, and (in my mind) I’m always trying to reel them back from the fringes. Which isn’t to say the experiment didn’t produce some very interesting results; “Fainting in Coils,” “Beelzebub” and “5g” are monsterfull. So if fusion gets your motor revving, The Bruford Tapes (or his first two albums) might be the nuclear batterymate you’ve been looking for. Prog fans, however, would do better to exhaust Yes, King Crimson and U.K. first.
Half of the songs on Gradually Going Tornado feature bassist Jeff Berlin on vocals. If you were burned by Brand X’s Product, take heart: this album aims higher, suggesting a Hyde/Jekyll split of UK or King Crimson on the vocal tracks, Weather Report on the instrumentals. Again, Bill Bruford’s contributions are primarily those of a composer, architecting rhythmically complex arrangements for the rest of the band to play while he assumes the role of musical straight man on the drums. Guitarist John Clark, who replaced Holdsworth for The Bruford Tapes, is still in place but garners few solos (though he does factor into “Land’s End” and “Q.E.D.”), placing most of the music on the shoulders of Berlin and Dave Stewart. Of course, they’re up to the task, whether it’s painting by Bruford’s numbers on the languid “Palewell Park” or matching each other note for note on the Jaco Pastorius-sounding “Joe Frazier.” The only weak link is Berlin’s voice; he’s a better bass guitarist than John Wetton, Greg Lake or Boz Burrell, but they could sing rings around him. (To his credit, at least Berlin doesn’t mask his voice into the murky mess than John Goodsall did for Brand X.) Two songs most likely to tickle the toes of prog fans are “Gothic 17” (which was included on Bruford’s best-of Master Strokes) and “The Sliding Floor” (which wasn’t). The former is a contentious slice of Crimson that recalls the work of Steve Hackett as well (primarily “Racing In A”), the latter likewise pointing to the music that would appear on Discipline. Not having heard Feels Good To Me, I can’t speak for all of Bruford’s albums to this point, but it does feel as though he’s settled on a distinctive sound of his own with Gradually Going Tornado. That angst-ridden rock and watercolor jazz can coexist on the same album shouldn’t be surprising (Weather Report did it all the time), but Bruford no longer feels derivative of other artists. Here, he’s borrowing from himself (UK, King Crimson), and the result casts his other musical contributions into a better light. Granted, Yes represents an entirely different chapter than the music explored here, but fans of UK and the ‘80s incarnation of King Crimson should gradually get around to buying (and enjoying) Gradually Going Tornado.
The second and last album from Moraz and Bruford, seeing as how the pair had plumbed their musical possibilities after two albums of improvisational jazz. Flags is probably the better of the two efforts. I say “probably” because my slightly more favorable disposition to Flags could simply be the result of well-tempered expectations. Music For Piano And Drums was somewhat unexpected: a dry and academic approach to the music that Moraz and Bruford were making on their own. Coming from the perspective of this Music, I’m more likely to salute Flags as a successful fusion of their individual styles in a ready-made jazz mold. Moraz still sounds like a poor man’s Chick Corea: Latin themes, lots of notes, a surfeit of synthetic sounds some of the time. Bruford gets in better beats this time, so that the pair remain on equal footing. Highlights include “Karu,” in which Moraz does a very good Vangelis impersonation, and the closing “Everything You’ve Heard Is True.” When listening to Flags (and the earlier Music), I’m apt to think my time would be better spent in the company of Wakeman, or especially sailing the solo catalog of Bruford. One of a Kind and Gradually Going Tornado are far more fun; even the moody Earthworks stuff has more to capture the imagination. Flags is best left to well-heeled wonderers who don’t mind spending $20 (and forty minutes) to answer the musical question: What are Bruford and Moraz up to now? Otherwise, you’d really need to buy into the idea that Moraz and Bruford are capable of frequent, spontaneous jazz genius to pledge any kind of allegiance to this album.
Ironically, this is the least turbulent of Steve’s solo records to date. The first two (Beginnings, TSHA) were exuberant. The ten songs featured on Turbulence follow a more measured approach. These are songs without words, which may sound interesting on the surface, but what I really mean is they’re like songs that have had the vocals removed, leaving only the backing tracks. The first two solo albums featured some vocals and so many ideas that vocals would have been superfluous in most cases, but something’s missing on Turbulence. On “The Inner Battle” and “Sensitive Chaos,” which would appear in fuller arrangements on Union, you have the before to a better after. Howe has always been a master recycler since the days of “Starship Trooper,” although he does try to keep things fresh on Turbulence. There are pieces that sound like George Harrison (“Fine Line”), new age studies (“Corkscrew”) and songs with bits of Yes magic sprinkled throughout (“Running The Human Race”). In attendance are the usual arsenal of guitars. What’s absent is Steve Howe’s sense of humor. The first two solo albums were silly in quite a few spots, but there’s nothing funny about Turbulence. Despite the full-time participation of Bill Bruford and Billy Currie, this feels like more of a DIY record than its predecessors. Steve Howe remains a seriously talented guitarist, but that was much more evident when he wasn’t trying to be so serious. [Note: Opinion seems to be divided on this record, and I was initially divided myself, but after re-listening to Howe’s first two records, Turbulence seemed duller to me.]