The Prog-nosis: Comprehensive Bill Bruford Box Set Spans More Than 50 Years of Music; Our Long Wave Goodbye to King Crimson

In celebration of the upcoming release of famed drummer Bill Bruford’s (Yes, King Crimson) massive box set, Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection, Biff Bam Pop! editor-in-chief Andy Burns and contributor Jeffery X Martin sat down to discuss Bruford’s musical accomplishments. That conversation led into a discussion of the latest album by King Crimson, an officially-sanctioned bootleg double live album called Music is Our Friend (Washington and Albany, 2021).

AB: We’re talking about Bill Bruford today. To me, he’s one of rock’s greatest drummers. He’s a top five for me, absolutely. How about you?

JXM: I don’t know about top five, but that’s probably because I’m not as familiar with Bruford’s grand scope of work. I know the Yes stuff and the King Crimson stuff, but his other work, I’m still learning.

AB: This is what makes his new box set, Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection, a pretty great release – it compiles a pretty thorough sampling of all his work, from the big bands through Earthworks and UK, etc. Though I’d suggest his work with Yes and his multiple tours in King Crimson alone make him a pretty legendary drummer.

JXM: Oh, absolutely. the first two CDs in the Bruford set are practically a greatest hits collection. It’s full of great old stuff from Yes and King Crimson, songs I cut my teeth on. It’s nice to have those songs all together, making a bit of a primer for both bands.

AB: Let’s talk about those for a second. It is great having that music in one place, but I do question kicking the whole thing off with “I’ve Seen All Good People”. As a die-hard Yes head, I’m surprised that song was chosen as a tune Bruford felt representative of his time in the band.

JXM: I’ll defend that choice. The first half, maybe two-thirds of that song, is light and airy to the point of being twee. Bruford is there, but he’s doing tiny, barely audible things in the background. But when the song takes a left turn into the rock genre, Bruford pushes that song forward with a bluesy beat, plenty of fills, percussive calls and responses to Steve Howe’s guitar. It’s both sides of Bruford’s style in one tune.

AB: And then you get “Heart of the Sunrise,” which could be the perfect melding of Chris Squire’s bass playing and Bruford’s work.

JXM: Very true. That song shows the rhythm section of that Yes lineup at its apex. The beginning of “Heart of the Sunrise” is what I imagine the inside of a blender sounds like, that outward chaos centered by a very precise series of moves, every gear moving perfectly.

AB: That’s an excellent description! There’s a lot to digest in this set, because we’ve got those obvious bands, along with Earthworks, which was Bruford’s jazz ensemble, and we’ve also got guest appearances (nothing from Genesis’ Seconds Out, I might add). What do you think of the set overall? Accessible? Enlightening?

JXM: I understand logically that Bruford is a fantastic drummer. There’s plenty of empirical evidence for that. In the last four discs of Making a Song and Dance, Bruford’s work is more textural than bombastic. That’s by design. Bruford writes in the liner notes that there are few songs that feature drum solos in the set. To my ear, other instruments take precedence over Bruford’s drums. That makes it difficult for me to focus on Bruford’s performances because I’m listening to some crazy intricate bass line or a horn that’s been placed more forward in the mix. And maybe that’s the point, especially for someone in the rhythm section of a band. Bruford is there to make the other musicians sound good, laying the foundation — no matter how sparse it may be — for an overall good sound.

That only partially answers your question, though. For a set ostensibly designed to highlight and showcase Bruford’s musicianship, Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection feels surprisingly humble. Bruford has chosen material where he is not the star. He is the space that lets other musicians shine. In that respect, this collection as a whole feels intimate and personal. It isn’t so much Bruford saying “listen to my music” as it is Bruford saying, “listen to this little thing I did within this piece of music.” I dig that. That’s something people who have mastered their craft do. They don’t have to be out in front every single time.

AB: That’s the thing about Bruford, though. He doesn’t perceive himself as a star. He’s a musician first and foremost, always driven in the search for music and what will challenge him as a player. In that sense, you can see why so much of his working life was with someone like Robert Fripp; they’re each slaves to the music, in the best way possible. It’s also probably the reason they’ve had so many issues throughout their musical relationship.

JXM: From what I know, a lot of musicians had issues with Robert Fripp.

AB: Bruford is a musician who doesn’t truck with the business and the ridiculousness of it all. You’ve got to admire him for that. And you can hear it within the diversity of the music on his box set.

JXM: There are a lot of styles represented here. Besides the obvious King Crimson and Yes favorites, I really enjoyed “My Heart Declares a Holiday” by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks. Bruford also completely drives the Steve Howe song “The Inner Battle,” which feels more like Howe’s work with Asia than an old Yes song. The jazz-oriented stuff, though, just isn’t in my wheelhouse. That’s not a slam on Bruford. It’s a recognition of gaps in my musical appreciation.

AB: I’d say the same, and you’re right, it’s not a slam. On that note, let’s pivot to the recent King Crimson (KC) release Music Is Our Friend (Washington and Albany, 2021), which doesn’t include Bruford but does feature three other remarkable drummers – Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey, and Gavin Harrison. This was your first listen to this amazing version of KC, correct?

JXM: There’s a delightful freneticism to this Crimson lineup. Robert Fripp, who has a well-deserved reputation as a control freak band leader, seemed to have let his band off its leash. There’s a wildness here, even in staid classics like “The Court of the Crimson King.” It’s more percussion-forward than other live performances I’ve heard, which makes sense, seeing as how there were three freakin’ drummers on this tour.

AB: Right! For newcomers, KC has always been about line-up changes, and this particular iteration has pretty much been a consideration since 2015. The only person missing from this line-up that toured in 2021 is Bill Rieflin, who sadly passed away in 2020. Along with the aforementioned drummers, you’ve called Mel Collins on woodwinds, Tony Levin on bass, Jakko Jaksyzk on guitar and vocals, and Mr. Fripp on guitar. I can honestly say, hand on heart, this is likely my favourite iteration of the band, simply they can and did play everything. They found a way to make some of the band’s inaccessible music, such as tracks from The ConstruKction of Light and The Power To Believe really work in the live setting.

JXM: True story and a self-indulgent aside: My friend George Middlebrooks took me to see King Crimson live during the ConstrucKction of Light tour and I thought it was great. I had a good time, but I still didn’t quite get it. I didn’t love King Crimson then. I do now. To be fair, they didn’t do many of the fan favorites. Nothing from Red, no “21st Century Schizoid Man,” nothing like that. Had the set on Music is Our Friend (Washington and Albany, 2021) been the one I had seen back in 2001, I would have been instantly converted into a ravenous KC fan. But I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.

Then again, King Crimson has always been an “if you know, you know” sort of band. The setlist on Music is Our Friend (Washington and Albany, 2021) is certainly geared toward fan service. I can’t say Crimson is playing the hits here, because the band hasn’t actually had a “hit” since 1969. But if you know, then you’re going to want to hear this lineup take on venerable songs like “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “Starless.”

AB: I’ve been a pretty big fan since 1991, and I saw the band three times around The Construkction of Light and The Power to Believe and I enjoyed them for what they were, but the shows don’t remotely come close to this iteration of the band. The things about this iteration, which as far as most of us know, have concluded their lifespan, is that there was nothing nostalgic about them. Yes, they were playing from the back catalogue, but they were playing material that hadn’t been played in nearly 50 years in some cases, and done so in new ways that never feel pandering.

JXM: It’s nice to hear fully fleshed-out versions of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Parts I and II,” and King Crimson attack those songs with gorgeous ferocity. I’ll make an odd comparison here (imagine that), but there are times during this show when King Crimson has the same breathtakingly oppressive musical power as the most recent incarnation of Swans. It can be a little surprising, especially if you’re a longtime fan and you know the songs, to hear King Crimson reinterpret their music with such an attitude.

AB: I think it’s fair to say we both can heartily recommend Music Is Our Friend (Washington and Albany, 2021) to old fans and newcomers to KC alike?

JXM: Definitely for old fans. I don’t think there’s an easy entrance point into King Crimson for newcomers, but I reckon this is as good a set as any with which to introduce yourself or others to the band. Overall, this is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard. It is fierce, majestic, and in some spots, angry prog rock. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Bill Bruford’s six-disc set Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection will be available from BMG Rights Management (UK) from April 29, 2022. King Crimson’s official live bootleg two-disc set Music is Our Friend (Washington and Albany, 2021) was released in November 2021 and is available from DMG wherever fine music is sold.

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