One way to break through the roadblock of the 1997 Nashville sessions was for King Crimson to “fractalize” and send different sub-committees out for reconnaissance. Ergo, The ProjeKcts. There’s an organizational beauty to the idea: you’ve got the larger “mothership” Crimson, from which specialized subgroups may emerge. Alas, it turned out that the Double Trio had no future, but that wasn’t official during most of the ProjeKction period.
What do all four of the projects (I’m already tired of typing the extra K) have in common? Robert Fripp and Trey Gunn.
The first project into action: Fripp, Gunn, and Belew, improvising in the latter’s home studio. It’s not a string trio, though. Adrian leaves the guitar to the other two and instead plays a new set of Roland V-drums. One of the capabilities of the V-drums is that the kick drum can trigger bass notes (and cycle through a sequence of them). Therefore, on several pieces, Belew takes the role of bassist/drummer and the other two are free to wheedle away on solos and chordscapes.
The two discs present different scenarios. Disc 1’s three “Space Grooves” describe themselves - groovy, spacy, drum-driven jams. Disc 2’s “Vector Patrol” is a suite of smaller pieces that could be an imaginary sci-fi soundtrack. Make that a sci-fi comedy. The whole endeavor has some transporting moments - with Fripp in the room, how could it not - but it’s mostly a “boys with toys” jam session, albeit more advanced than most basements have known. The V-drums, circa 1997, have a high Neat-o Factor, and like most gear that makes one say “Neat-o” on first listen, it’s not long until it sounds dated. In the techno-investigation of Space Groove, a lot of the music seems the result of “what does this patch sound like?” and “what does this button do?” With the new electronic drums and the synthesized guitars, all recorded direct, a very clinical sound results. We’re listening to circuitry as much as music.
This handsome boxset contains four discs, one for each of Crimson’s numerical fractals as they report live from the trenches. Since 99 percent of the music is freely improvised, I won’t try to describe everything, but maybe we can note the vibe of each subgroup.
ProjeKct One (Live at the Jazz Cafe): Fripp, Gunn, Levin, Bruford. Selections from four nights in London. Some have compared P1’s improvs to those of the Starless quartet, but that’s not totally accurate. Yes, the Fripp-Bruford synergy sometimes rears its head, and a creative rhythm team determines much of the music’s course, but P1 exists in its own space. If there’s any imbalance, it’s that Trey Gunn’s Warr guitar is external to some of the action, yet he does deliver a few outstanding solos. One might also notice that Fripp’s digital sound library and Bruford’s acoustic drums tug in different directions. The most resonant improv - and in my opinion, the pinnacle of the whole boxset - is “3 i 2”. (Third night, first set, second piece. Right?) Bruford starts a syncopated, Max Roach-styled pattern, soon joined by haunting Frippscapes. Levin taps a rhythmic riff on Stick. As momentum builds, Gunn unleashes a terrific solo (almost like a vocal wailing) against Fripp’s clouds, and the players are united in a profound atmosphere. A couple of the other P1 tracks are really cool, as well.
Projekct Two (Live Groove): Fripp, Gunn, Belew. The NAMM demo booth hits the road. There are a couple of premeditated motifs (first aired in KC’s Nashville sessions) used as intros and outros to clattering improvs, and as a whole this is a tougher album than the studio set. At best, the trio rides the Space Groove train (“Sus-tayn-Z”, “Live Groove”) or pauses to let Fripp conjure beautiful synth-string scenery, as at the end of “Deception of the Thrush”. Yet the enslavement to synthetic sounds can get the best of the players. The fake distortion, sampled tones (Piano! Vibes! Fretless bass! Voices going “Do do do”!), random harmonizers, and multiple delays often blur whatever musical messages might be behind them. At times, it’s laughable - check the V-drum and synth-piano intro to “Contrary Construction”. Sort of a nadir in Crimsonic history, isn’t it? I don’t mean to harp on the instrumental gear, but when it infects the music so blatantly, it bears mentioning. Also, the Noodle Factor is fairly high with P2. Belew whacks every pad in sight, and the quality of Fripp’s notes lags behind the quantity. Gunn stands out more than he did in the Double Trio, but P2 hardly reveals his smarts as much as his solo albums. Whatever the actual live experience was like, the record largely portrays P2 as an indulgent novelty group.
ProjeKct Three (Masque): Fripp, Gunn, Mastelotto. The last project into action. Lots of whirling jungle/house electronica from Mastelotto (whose all-electric drum outfit is more palatable than Belew’s) and abstractions from the strings confound any expectation of P3 being a standard guitar-bass-drums trio. The disc is a severely edited and remixed sampling of different gigs, presented as a multi-part suite entitled “Masque”. Despite not being an honest live document (or maybe because of it), it’s a great listen because it emphasizes certain strengths. These would include Fripp’s soundscape textures (the final track is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever played) and Gunn’s stratospheric leads, minus the sickening Whammy effect that he occasionally uses. Several moments transport the listener to alien worlds. There’s also some boorish stuff, like a stomping chromatic riffer and a garbled “circulation” exchange, both of which again raid discarded Double Trio ideas and lay seeds for future Crimson pieces. The mechanical nature of Mastelotto’s “symphony of percussion” is a little over the top, but hey, it’s an experiment. Anyway, P3 doesn’t worry much about flurries of notes, as P2 does. It’s more about musical architecture, or at least that’s how this mashed up CD presents it.
ProjeKct Four (West Coast Live): Fripp, Gunn, Levin, Mastelotto. Highlights from a short 1998 tour. Chronologically, P4 worked between P2 and P3; it combines the soloing of the former and the layered sculpting of the latter into a full-frontal rock-tronic assault. I’m not sure Mastelotto’s rigid patterns draw the best out of Tony Levin, who nevertheless lays down a huge low end. Meanwhile, Fripp takes off on cathartic flights of fancy, and Gunn’s solos alternate between good and annoying. There’s another run through “Deception of the Thrush”, a set piece with a heavenly Fripp-Gunn payoff. “ProjeKction” thumps along like remedial Crimson, and the gimmickry of “Hindu Fizz” (Fake tabla! Neat-o!) exists on the P2 level. A lot of the best moments come within the extended “Ghost Suite” - listen to Fripp’s solo in part 2. Just in terms of group sound, P4 is the most outwardly compelling of the ProjeKcts. (And there’s a separate Collectors Club title for fans of this schizoid fractal.)
Ultimately, this chest of contemporary rock improv hits and misses, and that includes the outpouring of Fripp solos. He is still an amazing musician, but very little of his New Standard Chromaticism has the economy or emotion he once transmitted regularly. I’d trade every one of his ProjeKct solos for “Requiem”, or a live “Sheltering Sky”, or the astonishing “Distributed Being” solo he laid down for Brian Eno. As for the ProjeKcts’ research and development value, Crimson lurks somewhere within all these spacy fabrics. Some commentators from the fanbase pounced on the acoustic drums of ProjeKct One and deemed it a relic of the past, while the electronic drumming of the other projects automatically represented the future. That’s a little superficial, I think. “Wow, I like your blinking-light necktie. You must be from the future.”
Another sampling of Fripp, Bruford, Levin, and Gunn’s London gig. Various improvs are tailored into three mini-suites that contain more transitional episodes than on the boxset’s CD. The quartet sounds more integrated, as the mysteries of the guitars and the agility of the rhythm section conjoin for fantastic voyages. Gunn’s solos are superb, Fripp plays sonic painter, Levin tries a number of different bass strategies, and Bruford’s mix of rock-jazz creativity is in top form. (Note the tricky beat from “Fracture” that appears at the end of the first suite.) The music ventures into too many esoteric zones to describe, but I can firmly say it is my favorite ProjeKct album overall, and actually one of the best free-improv albums I’ve ever heard.
Sometime after the ProjeKcts, a new Crimson lineup emerged: Fripp, Belew, Gunn, and Mastelotto, aka the Double Duo. (No reviews here.) This seems to have been the result of circumstance rather than Machiavellian maneuvering on Fripp’s part, although one might harbor suspicions. Levin had committed to an outside tour, which happened to be when Fripp decided to move Crimson forward as a new quartet. But when Levin’s tour fell through, and he made his availability known, he was not reinstated in the Crimson court. (At least not until Trey Gunn left a few years later.)
Bruford’s departure has been explained (or not) in different ways. Sid Smith’s Crimson biography gossips about certain undisclosed comments Bruford made before a band dinner in 1997, supposedly the final straw for Fripp. Or at least that’s how the whole thing is painted in the book. But that makes no sense - ProjeKct One was yet to happen, and on through 1998, Fripp was actively trying to interest Bruford in being part of KC. Meanwhile, Bruford did not want to rehash the same material, nor did he want, contrary to Fripp’s urging, to switch to a fully electronic kit. (One can read this stuff in Fripp’s journal entries, either online or in various CD booklets. As for Fripp’s decision that acoustic drums were essentially obsolete, I haven’t the energy to argue the point. But I sigh heavily.) In fact, you can get cynical and say that Fripp wasn’t offering Bruford any real choices at all, knowing that he (Bill) would decline each of them. My opinion is that if the two of them had really wanted to continue playing together, they wouldn’t have let anything get in the way. Perhaps time and tension had finally taken their toll, and neither cared to fight the battles anymore. Bruford got a new Earthworks jazz group rolling, not to mention the interesting Upper Extremities side project with Tony Levin. And Fripp was free to Crimsonize without anyone tossing ProMarks into his cheerios.