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U.K. - Ultimate Collectors Edition (2016) [email protected] Beolab1700
UK - Ultimate Collectors Edition
Album................: Ultimate Collectors Edition
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Posted by............: Beolab1700 on 25/11/2016
Well, there’s certainly been a wait for this one, but for fans of what may be the last high profile progressive rock group to emerge in the ’70s, U.K.‘s Ultimate Collectors’ Edition proves well worth it. What began as an already sizeable 16-disc box for a group that, during its relatively brief tenure, released just two studio albums and one live recording, has become an 18-disc set with the addition of a recording of the group’s final show in Nijmegen, The Netherlands on December 17, 1979, as well as a disc that features two interviews (from 1978 & 1979 respectively) with keeper-of-the-flame, box set producer and U.K. keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and bassist/vocalist John Wetton — the band’s two constants across the entire box.
Bigger isn’t always better, but in this case both discs are worthy additions; though the interview disc will likely only get a couple spins, it (along with the final performance disc) come at no additional cost, so they are true bonus discs. The 18 discs come, in an unusual and slightly inconvenient fashion, on six thick cardboard plates that hold three discs each (and, despite being unconventional, there’s an inner logic that will be revealed…read on), along with a well-bound, 66-page softcover book the same size as the disc plates, all housed in an attractive black box with the U.K. logo that Jobson has been using since he began touring a reunion version of the band in 2009 with Wetton and, on some occasions, drummer Terry Bozzio, original member of the second incarnation of the group when its original lineup with über-guitarist Allan Holdsworth and equally renowned drummer Bill Bruford dissolved, largely due to artistic differences.
The story of the band can, to some extent, be found in All About Jazz’s reviews of Jobson’s 2009 remasters of U.K.’s complete discography: 1978’s U.K., with the initial quartet with Jobson, Wetton, Holdsworth and Bruford, and 1979’s sophomore studio effort Danger Money and follow-up live album, Night After Night—both featuring the trio incarnation that replaced the departed Holdsworth and Bruford with Bozzio, whom Jobson first met during his year spent touring with the late, great Frank Zappa.
The group was touted, at the time, as a progressive rock supergroup—and, indeed, was the last major progressive band to emerge in the 1970s at a time when many fans of the genre were deserting it in droves for the emergent Punk and New Wave. The term “supergroup” is certainly appropriate: Jobson—a child prodigy who began playing piano at seven and added violin at eight—had, by this time and, despite his relatively young age, played with Curved Air, Roxy Music and Zappa; Bruford, in addition to being a charter member of Yes (one of the earliest rock groups to help define the progressive genre), left that group on the cusp of greater commercial success to join guitarist Robert Fripp’s revamped, improv-heavy King Crimson, which came together in late 1972, releasing the first of four acclaimed albums, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, the following year and, following that group’s dissolution, became Genesis’ touring drummer when Phil Collins stepped up as lead singer, following Peter Gabriel’s departure (though it was a collaboration that didn’t last all too long).
Wetton had already amassed a much larger résumé by the time U.K. was formed. Between his first appearance with Mogul Thrash in 1971 and the formation of U.K., Wetton was, amongst others, a member of perennially underrated proto- prog group Family; was, most significantly, another participant alongside Bruford in the Larks’ Tongues-era Crimson; spent a brief period with Roxy Music, appearing on 1976’s Viva!, which also featured Jobson; continued working on Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry’s solo projects from 1974-78; and spent two years in heavy rock band Uriah Heep.
Holdsworth was even more mercurial when it came to making lengthy commitments to any band. He first emerged in the relatively ignored ‘Igginsbottom in 1969 before making a significant splash on Nucleus trumpeter Ian Carr’s Belladonna (Vertigo, 1972). The already unconventional, impossible to imitate and jazz-predilected guitarist garnered even more critical and popular acclaim on progressive rock group Tempest’s first, self-titled 1973 debut but found his reputation skyrocketing even further the following year when he joined Canterbury group Soft Machine, releasing the game-changing, fusion-heavy Bundles (Harvest) in 1975 before accepting an invite to join Miles Davis alum Tony Williams’ New Lifetime, with whom he recorded two albums including Believe It (Columbia, 1975). He subsequently participated on two albums with the similarly jazz-informed Gong offshoot ultimately known as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, the best being 1976’s Gazeuse!, as well as 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean—the first of three albums with the similarly disposed French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. But it was Bruford’s invitation to join him for the first of two particularly superb studio albums, Feels Good to Me, that ultimately led to the guitarist finding himself asked to join U.K.—a group initially, in fact, intended to be a trio.
Clearly, the cross-pollination of musicians during progressive rock’s heyday created a number of important collaborations that had and would continue to bear fruit, but it was the breakup of King Crimson in 1974 that ultimately led to U.K.’s formation three years later. With Jobson brought in by Fripp to add overdubs to the Larks’ Tongues group’s live swan song, 1975’s USA—ostensibly because of technical and performance issues by violinist/keyboardist David Cross (though a later reissue of USA, with Jobson excised and Cross reinserted, laid waste to that claim)—and the keyboardist/violinist crossing paths with Wetton in Roxy Music, the seeds were sown for a new power trio featuring Jobson, Wetton and Bruford.
Bruford’s suggestion to flesh the group out to a quartet with the addition of Holdsworth was, in retrospect, far more significant than Wetton and Jobson suggested in the 1979 radio interview included on the first of Ultimate Collectors’ Edition’s two bonus discs. In hindsight, it’s now clear just how important he was to the group…a feeling Jobson clearly shares in his liners to Ultimate Collectors’ Edition. Beyond the extended version Night After Night that is now a complete (and superb) performance from U.K.’s second incarnation, and the unexpected, late-in-the- game addition of the trio’s final performance in Nijmegen, The Netherlands from December 17, 1979 that was also included as a bonus disc at the eleventh hour (more like 11:59), Ultimate Collectors’ Edition includes a full three concert performances by the initial quartet.
It might be suggested that the reason for this is that, while the initial quartet spent much of its time opening for other groups—and often far less worthy ones, like when it opened for Canada’s April Wine in Ottawa on June 30, 1978—it appears to have been recorded more often for various radio broadcasts, from which all three live shows in this box were culled (and significantly cleaned up and sonically improved). But, while Jobson’s virtuosity, in particular, (and not to ignore Wetton and Bozo’s instrumental acumen) was irrefutable, the trio version of U.K. began a gradual move away from its more progressive, improvisational beginnings towards the more watered-down music that would largely supplant true progressive rock with more radio-friendly AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) progressive music of ’80s groups like Asia and GTR. It would ultimately cause the band to pack it in because, while the Jobson still wanted to continue traveling more progressive paths, Wetton’s interest in a more radio-friendly, commercially successful kind of progressive music caused an unresolvable artistic rift between the two.
While Jobson and Wetton assert, in that 1979 interview, that Holdsworth’s departure—being a guitarist completely disinterested in playing the same thing twice—was of little consequence, those were the words of a group (not unreasonably) looking to justify its new reduced lineup. In Jobson’s liners to Ultimate Collectors’ Edition, however, it becomes clear that, in hindsight, Holdsworth’s value was, indeed, considerably more significant to the group. It’s a thought bolstered even further, considering that, when Jobson revived the band in 2009 for a series of periodic reunion tours that continued through to 2015’s “Final World Tour,” it was, with rare exception, a four-piece lineup that included, barring a 2009 Polish tour, the younger, equally remarkable but, sadly, less widely appreciated Alex Machacek. One of the only known guitarists truly capable of—if not copying the inimitable Holdsworth precisely—filling the chair with both the necessary verisimilitude and distinctive improvisational personality, his own string of albums on the Abstract Logix label, from 2006’s [Sic] through to 2015’s (Living the Dream), have been nothing short of consistently excellent.
And so, the three live performances of the original quartet included here are the real meat of Ultimate Collectors’ Edition, though the inclusion of 2011’s previously Japan-only Reunion, featuring Jobson, Wetton, Machacek and Minnemann, only adds to the box’s value and, more importantly, comprehensive nature.
Two additional discs of pre-vocal/guide keyboards/first solos/pre-overdubs/pre-mix instrumental versions of the group’s two studio albums—in the case of U.K., the entire set of music; for Danger Money, only the title track and “Carrying No Cross,” along with the single b-side, “When Will You Realize”—are of value to anyone interested in the recording process. In addition to differences in performance, there are revelations that, while still making it to the final mix, are more buried. One example is Jobson’s reverse-attack piano accompaniment to Holdsworth’s iconic solo on U.K. ‘s “In the Dead of Night.” Such devices are, if not necessarily more commonplace today, certainly far easier to achieve in a time of actual reverse-attack stomp boxes and, for engineers, editing software like ProTools; back when U.K. was recorded, the only way to achieve the effect was, quite literally, to flip the tape upside down, place it on the opposite reel of the multi-track recorder, record that onto another multi-track tape and splice it in…literally (we’re talking X- Acto knives and Scotch tape).
U.K.’s emergence in 1978—and, more, its subsequent success in North America—was, indeed, something of a surprise at a time when the salad days of progressive rock selling albums in the millions was largely over. Still, that Punk and New Wave did not actually sign progressive rock’s death warrant (because, in truth, it never really died, though it did become far more niche) is a topic for another article, another discussion. Suffice to say, while it might have seemed an unusual move— brave, even—to form a group of the nature that released the first, and still best U.K. album, the band did manage to garner both critical and popular acclaim, albeit not to the same extent it might have, had it formed just a few years earlier.
Still, U.K. remains highly regarded by fans. With Wetton and Bozzio moving on, and neither Bruford nor Holdsworth interested in revisiting the music, U.K. broke up for good, leaving Jobson as the band’s torch-bearer…in particular, upon his return to public performing after a 27-year hiatus, where he worked largely behind the scenes on film scores and the occasional electronic music album. His first move was to create the clearly U.K.-inspired but utterly contemporary UKZ—where he first began working with Machacek and drummer Marco Minnemann (both of whom would participate on most U.K. reunion tours), but which sadly only released the promising EP, Radiation (Globe Music, 2009), before seeming to fade away in the shadow of the keyboardist’s decision to reunite with Wetton and build new incarnations of the original U.K., performing almost entirely material from U.K.’s relatively diminutive repertoire.
Since Jobson rebooted U.K. in the new millennium, there have been occasional rumors of further studio recordings but they’ve never come to pass. Instead, there have been a handful of live releases, including 2013’s multi-format Reunion: Live in Tokyo and the 2015 Japan-only audio/video sets Curtain Call and Four Decades: Special Concert—the latter a one-time Jobson career retrospective show that included a healthy dose of U.K., but also featured music from Curved Air, Roxy Music and Zappa, as well as material from his own Zinc—The Green Album (1983) and three of Radiation’s four songs.
And so, the 21st Century U.K. became primarily a touring act with a bit of a revolving door, as it hit the road in brief spurts from April 2011 through April 2015, when the keyboardist/violinist recruited Wetton, Machacek and Dream Theater drummer Mike Mangini for U.K.’s “Final World Tour.” With U.K. now apparently behind him, Ultimate Collectors’ Edition is truly the final, most complete and best-produced word about the band that could have been more, but was almost doomed to fail from the very start, due to significantly different opinions as to what it should—and, perhaps, even more importantly, should not—be.
Not unlike—but different to—the challenges that King Crimson faced in compiling its recent live audio/video Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold of Monkey Mind) (2016), putting together a box like Ultimate Collectors’ Edition is no small or simple task. Beyond the technical matters of remastering the three U.K. albums—and, in addition to the original 42-minute Night After Night, including an expanded version that, with a full show, now runs a full 97 minutes and, consequently, required mixing from the original multi-tracks into both stereo and surround sound—there was the matter of ownership of the radio broadcasts.
That is not as easy a task as it might seem: only one of the three live recordings from the original U.K. lineup comes from a radio station reel-to-reel 2-track tape—thankfully, the longest performance, from Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia in August 1978, which also includes rarely heard versions of “Forever Until Sunday” and “The Sahara of Snow,” both heard by then-U.K. fans almost a full year before their release on Bruford’s second solo album, 1979’s excellent One of a Kind. The other two shows come from CDs containing recordings of the radio broadcasts, cleaned up as best as possible—and, indeed, with Jobson doing a terrific job with both sets.
But the issue of ownership is a challenging one. After all, when it comes to radio broadcasts—heck, even albums— who truly owns this music? Who should own it may seem obvious, but the reality is far different. Should it be the band that wrote and performed it? The person who recorded the radio broadcast and ultimately transferred it to CD? The radio station that negotiated a contract to record and broadcast it—but, after that initial broadcast, where does ownership lie: with the station or the group? The record company, with its exclusive recording contract with the band? Those, along with many other considerations, make clear and unequivocal ownership a challenge to establish…and makes piecing together large box sets like Ultimate Collectors’ Edition even more problematic.
While it’s true that artists like Robert Fripp have spent vast sums of money to reacquire the rights to all of their music—and, in the case of Fripp and, in particular, King Crimson, an ownership shared, of course, with any and all band members involved in writing, recording and performing various recordings over the years—it’s just not a matter of money. It’s a matter of extreme perseverance at a time when, even with what might seem the simplest conundrum—that of label ownership— has been complicated by what has become a regular transferal of rights as one company is absorbed by another, which is absorbed by yet another, and another…and on and on it goes.
And so, while it may seem a simple matter to acquire the music, the more simple truth is: it isn’t. And, of course, this is complicated further still by the challenge of locating the original multi-track tapes and, if they are located, determining whether or not the music on these decades-old tapes can be recovered, in order to digitize it and create the new masters and high resolution stereo and surround mixes that are included in boxes like Ultimate Collectors’ Edition.
But the good news is that Ultimate Collectors’ Edition contains, if anything, an embarrassment of riches. Both the new CD masters and the Blu Ray masters of U.K., Danger Money and Night After Night (Extended) sound fabulous, and are a step up from Jobson’s 2009 remasters.
The first studio album is especially impressive: Bruford’s cymbals are as crisp and delicate as can be in the opening of “Nevermore”; Jobson’s electric violin soars with surprisingly warmth during his set-defining solo on the album- closing “Mental Medication”—sadly, like the equally impressive “Nevermore,” never performed live by the original group and played rarely by U.K. reunion lineups in the 21st Century.
But this is a quibble for which neither the group nor Jobson, as torch-bearer, can be held responsible; after all, if they didn’t play the songs live, there’s little more to be said other than it’s really unfortunate, as both tracks are as exceptional as every track on U.K.. And if U.K. sounds the absolute best of the bunch in high res, that’s an opinion perhaps colored by a personal predilection for that first album.
And, while “Nevermore” and “Mental Medication” are not part of any of the three live shows included from the original lineup, recorded between July and September 1978, these shows do reveal precisely why that first lineup was so special. With Holdsworth’s increasingly jazz-centered aversion to repeating himself—even when it’s a solo like that on “In the Dead of Night,” which remains one of his most memorable ever—and Bruford moving along the same path, with Jobson increasingly interested in progressive leanings that dated right back to his earliest days with Curved Air and Wetton looking to make music with broader appeal at a time when progressive rock’s popularly had already begun to substantially wane, the fact is that the first U.K. lineup, as magical as it was, was really doomed to fail from the start. Something about, as the line from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner states: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
But the three live shows allow that light to burn brighter and longer on Ultimate Collectors’ Edition. Beyond the staggering solos from Jobson and Holdsworth—but in particular the guitarist, whose silken but still biting, whammy bar-inflected tone was perhaps the best it would ever be—it’s Holdsworth’s accompaniment that may be the most impressive or, at least, revealing aspect of these live dates, where he refused, for the most part, to repeat anything but the most key signature lines when he was not soloing. And while he refused to be completely constrained by band members looking for him to stick closer to script, the “encouragement” to focus more on being both melodic and memorable resulted in some of his best playing in a non-instrumental-only group. As Jobson recently said in a brief email chat, “Apart from him being the greatest guitarist in the world, I think his playing benefited from the harmonic and rhythmic structures provided by UK; it allowed him to be just as innovative, but within tighter bounds.”
Despite largely spent on the road as an opening act, this was a band firing on all cylinders, every night. Yes, Jobson’s solo keyboard introduction to “Alaska” is the same, night after night; but when the band kicks in 100 seconds later, irrespective whether the sound quality is excellent, as it is with the Penn’s Landing show, or just very good, as it is with the shorter Boston and Cleveland sets, this is relentlessly exhilarating stuff. Jobson is a force of nature in his ability to combine a bevy of keyboard textures with his electric violin. Wetton’s bass, while not as massive as it was in Crimson, is still pretty darn big, and his voice is in terrific form. Holdsworth, as before, is wonderfully unpredictable, whether he’s soloing with reckless abandon on Penn Landing’s take of “Forever Until Sunday” or building completely unexpected support during the verses of “Time to Kill” from the same show. Bruford’s signature snare is a constant driver, from Jobson’s particularly searing solo, again on Penn’s Landing’s “Time to Kill,” to his support during the vocal verses of “The Only Thing She Needs,” from the Cleveland show, while his unique roto tom-based fills are absolutely commanding on everything from his solo drum intro on Cleveland’s “Presto Vivace” to his work on the Penn’s Landing’s version of “The Sahara of Snow.”
While the sonic quality does vary with the live shows from the first U.K. lineup, with Penn’s Landing topping the bunch, Cleveland sitting at the bottom and Boston in the middle, none of them is anywhere remotely near low-fi. A number of songs that were already in the U.K. live sets with Bruford and Holdsworth wouldn’t make it to studio recordings until after they were gone—specifically the high-octane “The Only Thing She Needs,” the more episodic “Carrying No Cross” (where Jobson’s synth soloing is especially impressive, but all the more so for Holdsworth’s modal chordal support) and “Caesar’s Palace Blues,” made even more remarkable when hearing an audience clapping along to an irregularly metered, high-energy song that would become the group’s regular encore. Hearing three live versions of each of them confirms something that the group would understandably refute in an interview the following year, but which ultimately demonstrates a fundamental truth: as good as the U.K. trio would be, it would never reach the same heights of the first incarnation, if for no other reason than the wild card— the “X” factor—Holdsworth represented, each and every time he picked up his axe.
That said, Danger Money has plenty of moments, albeit mostly thanks to Jobson’s adopting an even more prominent role as the only chordal instrument and, for the most part, the only soloist; in fact, it might be suggested that Danger Money is a showcase for the keyboardist/soloist. And so, while not as striking as its debut, U.K.’s sophomore effort retained, at least to some degree, the group’s progressive leanings, even as it deserted the jazz and fusion elements that both Bruford and, in particular, Holdsworth brought to the table. An undeniably virtuosic performer on, at the time (and still today), one of the largest drum kits on the planet, Terry Bozzio was, nevertheless, more of a rock drummer…albeit one who could navigate the metric challenges of the album’s title track or the constant shifts of “Carrying No Cross” with ease.
While the studio versions of songs that the first incarnation first played were well-adapted to both the trio format and a drummer with a substantially different approach, it’s the other material on Danger Money that signalled the widening gap between where Jobson and Wetton wanted U.K. to go…and not necessarily always in a good way. While the title track is still unequivocally prog and the mid-tempo’d, 7/4 song “Rendezvous 6:02” seems like a fair compromise between the two writers’ (all songs on Danger Money are credited to Jobson and Wetton) widening stylistic differences, “Nothing to Lose” foreshadows lesser (but, in all fairness, far more commercially successful) music to come from AOR (Album- Oriented Rock) bands like Asia.
The Danger Money Extras CD is very short—containing just two tunes where the drums were being recorded over Jobson’s keyboards (at best a revelation for Bozzio), as well as a single b-side, “When Will You Realize,” that is a rather disturbing harbinger of the direction Wetton wanted to pursue—of historical interest, perhaps; but beyond that…?
Of course, it must be considered that, with “Rendezvous 6:02” and “Nothing to Lose” becoming moderate hits in a number of countries, and how this re-minted trio version of U.K. had graduated to topping the marquee—drawing larger audiences to larger venues than the original quartet—suggests that, for the time in which it lived, it may not have possessed the more challenging and extraordinary collective personality of its first lineup, but from a commercial perspective, this second incarnation of U.K. was significantly more successful, while bringing increased attention to every member of the group.
But if Danger Money is an album that tries to balance its songwriters’ increasing artistic differences, the original nine-track Night After Night demonstrates just how that widening gap was expanding beyond being workable with the new material—the largely four-on-the-floor title track (albeit with irregularly metered passing sections), with its almost embarrassing disco-fied bass line in the chorus leading up to Jobson’s still-terrific organ solo; and the faux-pop of “As Long As You Want Me Here.”
Two reasons why the extended version of Night After Night is a far more enjoyable listen. Buried in the 97-minute show that includes six tunes from U.K. (adapted, of course, with Jobson assuming a far greater role) plus the three tunes from Danger Money that still had their genesis with the first group (but with new arrangements), along with bass, violin and drum solo segments, these two tunes stand out far less and are, consequently, easier to handle. While Bruford’s and, especially, Holdsworth’s absences are still felt, the extended Night After Night not only documents a full performance by U.K.s’ second and final lineup; it demonstrates a confident group where everyone is at the top of their game, in particular Wetton as a singer and Jobson as….well…everything.
From there it’s a fast-forward to Reunion, which is culled from a 2011 show by the Jobson/Wetton/Machacek/Minnemann lineup…and, in many ways, a return to the very things that made the first U.K. lineup so eminently appealing…and boundary-pushing. Minnemann is far closer to Bruford’s approach than he is Bozzio’s, and Machacek is able to emulate Holdsworth’s contributions while still injecting plenty of his own personality. He also, with performances of material from Danger Money—in particular its most progressive-leaning title track—lends these songs more weight…between his playing and Minnemann’s, an idea, at least, of how these songs might have sounded had they been played by the original lineup. It’s also a treat to hear the band perform the previously ignored “Nevermore,” with Machacek’s solo intro and an exhilarating series of trade-offs between the guitarist and Jobson (on synth), midway through the eight-minute song’s instrumental section.
Two unexpected (or, given Jobson and Wetton’s histories, are they?) additions to this 21st Century U.K.’s setlist come from the King Crimson repertoire, specifically “One More Red Nightmare” (never performed by Crimson until it reunited in 2014 with its three-drummer frontline) and its epic “Starless,” both from the Larks’ Tongues group’s classic 1974 semi-studio swan song (given the basic tracks for “Providence” came from a live performance, subsequently edited in post-production) Red. Of the two, “One More Red Nightmare” is the most altered, with Jobson’s keys and violin playing a prominent role, while “Starless” is more faithful, albeit with Jobson as the primary (and thrilling) soloist on violin.
It’s an impressive set that weighs heavily, no surprise, on the first U.K. album (all but “Mental Medication” are included) but includes enough from Danger Money to satisfy its fans. The arrangements of “Carrying No Cross,” “Caesar’s Palace Blues” and “The Only Thing She Needs” are closer to Danger Money but, with the addition of the more Bruford-informed Minnemann and Machacek—who takes a fiery solo near the end of “The Only Thing She Needs”—this reunited U.K. still references the original lineup’s take on these tunes as well.
Finally, the found recording of the original U.K. trio’s final performance—again a nicely cleaned-up bootleg that is, perhaps, an even better representation of where this trio was and might have gone, had it followed Jobson’s interests rather than Wetton’s. Yes, there are performances of “As Long As You Want Me Here” and “Night After Night,” but this 71-minute performance is notable for its inclusion of “Nostalgia,” a song that would later find a home on The Green Album, along with Jobson’s usual (impressive) solo violin spot, and a bass solo from Wetton that begins with the bassist alone, fuzz- toned and aggressive, leading into a free-for-all duet with Bozzio that segues into a structured ending that could be the foundation for song, albeit with Wetton as the lead melodic instrument.
TTaken as a whole, U.K., Ultimate Collectors’ Edition is a box set that may not include every recorded note the band ever played—originally and in its reunited new millennium incarnations—but it’s as comprehensive a history of the band as is necessary to paint a full picture of the band that Rolling Stone dubbed, back in the day, as “the great white hope of progressive music.” With three live shows from the original lineup that, with the exception of one that has circulated as a faux-legit commercial released for years (but has always been a bootleg, no matter how you slice it), Ultimate Collectors’ Edition, along with the addition of Reunion, places appropriately more emphasis on the first lineup as a live act because, with Bruford and Holdsworth’s improv leanings, they are substantially different performances…even with two shows containing the same set lists.