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Tony Levin

100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME (ACCORDING TO ME), NUMBER 100

If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.

Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…

(100) KING CRIMSON: DISCIPLINE

(WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS/EG RECORDS; 1981)

Discipline cover

I likes me some King Crimson! No… really, I do! I like RED (mostly because I have long been enamored of the bass playing and vocal talents of one John Wetton) and, honestly, who doesn’t like IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING? My favorites, though, have always been the triptych of early ’80s albums after Robert Fripp reconvened the project following a six year break: BEAT, THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR and the one that started this new phase, DISCIPLINE. Why, then, if I am such a fan of the band, is this the only Crimson album to make the cut and why at the bottom of the list? Well, first, it really is my favorite King Crimson album and, second… with a collection nearing 10,000 full-length albums, being considered one of my top 100 favorites of all time ain’t too shabby!

King Crimson (Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp) (publicity photo)
King Crimson (Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp) (publicity photo)

This was a distinctly new Crimson, with Fripp’s songwriting and guitar gymnastics (ingeniously dubbed “Frippertronics”) falling more in line with his concurrent project, the League of Gentlemen. Toss in Adrian Belew’s equally quirky guitar meanderings (alongside his abstract lyrics and unique vocal style) and the masterful stick (and bass) playing of the incredible Tony Levin and that means that the only constant and true link to the original Crimsons is the powerful, jazzy drumming of Bill Bruford.

King Crimson onstage, circa 1982 (Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford) (uncredited photo)
King Crimson onstage, circa 1982 (Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford) (uncredited photo)

The album is short, but so incredibly dense musically that you don’t realize the brevity. It starts, as these things generally do, with side one, track one: “Elephant Talk” is Fripp’s mission statement for this new Crimson, laying out everything in one blast of avant-garde progressivism. Tony Levin uses the stick like a lead instrument, butting up against Adrian Belew’s whammy bar tomfoolery and Bob’s manic Frippertronics. Belew’s lyrics and crazed vocal delivery is basically an A-B-C (and D-E, too) of terms for human communication, sounding particularly verbose on the word “bicker,” which is repeated with extra venom a few times. Through everything going on over the top, Bill Bruford sounds almost like a beginner with his minimalist time-keeping approach. “Frame By Frame” has an almost orchestral feel, even with Levin and Bruford double-timing the stick and drums. Levin adds his backing voice to a nice Belew vocal as Fripp continues to get “loopy” amid an air force of skittering, dive-bombing guitar effects. A laconic soundscape, Matte Kudasai,” features Fripp egging on Adrian’s melancholic delivery of his own tortured lyrics. Side one ends with “Indiscipline,” a song about “it” and how “it” can consume and destroy you. Belew speaks matter-of-factly between “21st Century Schizoid Man” blasts of blistering metallic riffing. The tune may best be known as the “I repeat myself when under stress” song, a phrase repeated several times as Belew is driven to distraction over “it.”

King Crimson (Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp) (photo credit: PHILIPPE HAMON)
King Crimson (Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp) (photo credit: PHILIPPE HAMON)

Aside from “Elephant Talk,” the track that opens side two, “Thela Hun Ginjeet” may be the most well-known number on DISCIPLINE, maybe more for the title than anything else, though the song is certainly of the highest quality. Belew’s tale of fear and loathing on the streets of New York plays out in a “tape-recorded” narrative, an instance of art imitating life (or vice-versa). The adrenaline-fueled pacing features tribal percussion, stinging guitars, Levin playing a real, live bass guitar and another inventive Frippertronics loop running throughout. The momentum and the paranoiac vibe of the tune is just right for the subject matter. In a rather quirky move (is there another kind where Fripp’s King Crimson is concerned?), the album’s final two tracks are instrumentals. It may have been more prudent to flip one of these two numbers with one from the first side. So, anyway, “The Sheltering Sky” opens with Bruford’s African hand drums and Belew’s understated rhythm guitar before Fripp and Levin launch their tonal assault. A soundscape that lasts well over eight minutes, “The Sheltering Sky” is at once pastoral and moving, calming and exciting; a true dichotomy… just like this new Crimson. As the name implies, there is a degree of “Discipline” in the title track, with more looped guitar and a rhythmic simplicity that connotes the disciplined musician. As further textures are introduced (especially more adventurous drumming and another guitar), the whole thing threatens to come undone before Fripp regains control.

King Crimson on the 1996 HORDEFEST main stage (Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)
King Crimson on the 1996 HORDEFEST main stage (Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Even though this may not be the archetypical King Crimson record, if you’re Crimson-curious, it may just be the best place to start, as it tends to be the most “conventional.” After DISCIPLINE, you’ll want to check out some of the band’s more diverse offerings, such as RED (featuring the trio of Fripp, Bruford and John Wetton, with David Cross – who left during the recording – on violin) or IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (the band’s debut album, with Greg Lake on bass and vocals and featuring the most well-known Crimson song of all time, “21st Century Schizoid Man”).

The most recent version of DISCIPLINE was released in 2011, part of the band’s “40th Anniversary Series.” The CD features a new mix of the original record plus some bonus tracks. In addition, there’s a DVD with seven (yes, seven!) different mixes of the album (two of which feature the bonus material). It also features three videos recorded live for the OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST television show, including the one above.

DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS: IN EXTREMIS

(SELF-RELEASED; 2013)

Days Between Stations In Extrimis

IN EXTREMIS (a Latin phrase that means “at the point of death”) features some of the final recorded work of legendary Yes and Flash guitarist, Peter Banks. Given Banks’ resume, it isn’t in the least bit surprising to note that the music of the California-based duo of keyboardist Oscar Fuentes Bills and guitarist Sepand Samzadeh (performing under the odd moniker Days Between Stations, after the novel by Steve Erikson) is what could be classified as “neo-progressive.” There are eight tracks on the self-released IN EXTREMIS, with fully half of them clocking in at more than 10 minutes each. The title track, presented as a suite with six separate movements, is over 21 and a half minutes long. “In Extremis” features Peter Banks on lead and rhythm guitar, as well as “guitar textures.” He also features on the 12 minute “Eggshsell Man.”

Add to the mix uber-bass and stick man Tony Levin, drummer/vocalist Billy Sherwood, keyboard guru Rick Wakeman and XTC bassist/vocalist Colin Moulding and you’ve just turned an impressive progressive concept album into a formidable piece of progressive hero-worship. So, let’s look at this work track by track to learn why this is most certainly an album that you will want to add to your collection.

Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)
Days Between Stations: Oscar Fuentes Bills and Sepand Samzadeh (uncredited photo)

No Cause For Alarm (Overture),” led by Oscar Fuentes Bills’ militaristic piano and the very marshal-sounding drums of Billy Sherwood, leads into “In Utero,” which is more of a soundscape. It features some very ethereal keyboard and guitar washes by Bills and Sepand Samzadeh, as well as a cool, tinkling guitar effect and a nice Samzadeh solo. Chris Tedesco provides a long trumpet solo, adding to the Crimson-esque atmosphere of the piece.

Visionary” builds on the emotional feel of “In Utero” with more nice guitar work from Sepand. This is the first of the vocal tracks, with Sherwood’s voice reminding me of Trevor Horn’s work on DRAMA, his only album with Yes; they’re kinda hard to understand, but the power of this vocal stands more in the melody and feel. Sherwood’s drumming is rather subdued but features some very nice fills. Bills once again offers some great piano to the instrumental section. He is joined by Matt Bradford on dobro and, together, they offer one of the more emotionally charged pieces of the entire album. “Blackfoot” is a tasty piece of jazz-tinged progressive rock, especially the slower middle section. A nightmarish piano line repeats to start the song, then an equally nightmare-inducing guitar solo is added. There is a definite Mothers of Invention vibe to this song, with guitar parts that are very much Zappa influenced and drums that remind me of Chester Thompson or Ralph Humphrey and their work with the Mothers. “Blackfoot” ends with some quite nice Floydian guitar freak-outs, definitely reminiscent of the swirling, calamitous sounds of a cinematic death scene.

Colin Moulding appears on “The Man Who Died Two Times,” a song whose title sounds quite a bit like something that he would do within the confines of his band, XTC. The tune seems to be a song about revived hope – a very poppy, happy sounding song. Moulding’s voice adds just the right touch, as “The Man Who Died Two Times” is very much in the vein of mid-period XTC or early Genesis with Peter Gabriel.

Peter Banks (uncredited photo)
Peter Banks (photo credit: GLEN DICROCCO)

The Angel City String Quartet performs the short, quiet piece, “Waltz In E Minor,” which is dedicated to Peter Banks. A very fitting requiem for a major influence on the art form known as “progressive rock music.” “Eggshell Man” is a very folky sounding tune. The vocal melodies and phrasing remind one of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding’s XTC bandmate, though they are provided by Billy Sherwood. They add just the right emotional air to the tune, as a man once drawn from the brink of death has been walking on metaphoric eggshells and realizes that he is once again at death’s door. As the song progresses, Ali Nouri solos on the tar (a Central Asian stringed instrument), Rick Wakeman offers a mini-moog solo and Peter Banks adds great atmospheric guitar “textures,” all of which give the song a very Middle Eastern sound. “Eggshell Man,” along with “The Man Who Died Two Times,” are my favorites on an album of great tracks.

Finally, “In Extremis,” is Days Between Stations’ magnum opus, the centerpiece to a highly enjoyable album. The first movement is called “Mass” and, as should be expected, is an atmospheric mass for the dead. “On the Ground,” the second movement, is very much “funeral music,” with lyrics evoking either a life wasted or a life well-lived and much missed by those who loved the deceased. This section features great guitar and keyboard work and interaction by the core duo of Samzadeh and Bills, alongside Banks. The third movement, called “A Requiem,” is exactly that, with very dark lyrics set against an almost claustrophobic musical backing. Along with the instrumental fourth and fifth movements (called “Writing On Water” and “Overland”), “A Requiem” borders on schizophrenia, perhaps hinting at the soul’s departure from the mortal coil as a battle rages between Heaven and Hell to determine its eternal resting place. “It Never Ends,” the final movement, revisits lyrical themes from the entire album, offering, at times, a gloomy overview of life, but also a pastoral, restful triumph that ultimately comes with the end of life. Overall, “In Extremis” is a song cycle that leads you through just about every emotion that you would feel knowing that your birth certificate does, indeed, come with an expiration date.

IN EXTREMIS is an album that has a little something for everybody. Whether your musical tastes tend to run to progressive or classic rock; classical music; Gothic lyrics and motifs; or just darn good music, this is the record for you!