Fred Frith
Live In Japan

(Fred Records/ReR)

For a long time an impossibly rare specimen in the Frith discography, and an important one for those who are interested in following the really important steps in the long travelogue of this musician, Live In Japan gets - at last! - the digital treatment.

My "close encounters" with this CD gave me two surprises. First, I was very glad to see that the music on this album still plays great and sounds fresh. It's the kind of album that could be of interest for many types of listeners, way beyond those completists who are always in search of a rare album. Then, I was not really too happy to discover - a mere 28 years after the fact - that those two LPs plus nice booklet that I bought by mail order were supposed to come in a box! Hence, this is the first time I've ever seen the album cover.

At the time of those (eleven) Japanese concerts in 1981, Frith had many important chapters of a long career already behind him, and they're far from being his baby pictures. Henry Cow and Art Bears, of course. Also the album Gravity, the trio Massacre, his duos with Cutler, Coxill, and Kaiser. Plus, three volumes in the Guitar Solos series. For this Japanese tour Frith chose "the guitars on the table approach" (one of the guitars being of the double neck type), adding a violin, a pilot's throat microphone from World War II, and an HH electronic Stereo Mixer amp with HH Digital Effects Unit (does anybody remember HH?). All tracks were improvised.

I was a bit sorry to see that this re-release has no pictures of the kind that appeared in the back of the LPs in their original edition. From Zappa to Fripp, from Bailey to Frith, from Beck to Van Halen, I've always considered "how it's done" to be an important part of one's appreciation of music, and in those cases when attending a concert is not really possible even a poor substitute like a picture can work miracles.

As it's to be expected, the solo Frith who appears in these recordings is quite orchestral and polyphonic, with strong contrasts in both timbre and volume, and a "conversational" approach from the sounds sources that's sometimes quite apparent. Check the way the thin guitar that appears on the right channel at about 4' 30" on Fukuoka II - almost a blues on a koto played slide - is coupled with the "big" timbre appearing in the opposite channel. Or the way many instrumental sources - here they also include the strings of a piano, played pizzicato - mix, starting at about 4' on Maebashi I.

For the most part, to me it all sounds as played "in real time", the only important exception that I seemed to detect being the "change of mood" due to what (to me!) appears as a tape cut at 16' 29" in Osaka I, when the long instrumental and vocal episode gives way to a "second chapter". Maybe the most "easy to get", "rock", piece, the exuberant, percussive, Fukuoka III could in a way be seen as a long "Variations on the classic Bo Diddley Beat", with the closing track, Tokio I (just like in the old LP edition, this track is more than 2' longer than shown in the timing that appears on the CD cover) set as a fine contrasting mood.

The whole gains from what I perceive as an highlighted sense of surprise, of a language being created "in the moment" - a fact which emphasizes our perception of danger and risk.

I read in the liner notes that the original edition was a mere 1.000 copies. And that the original tapes are nowhere to be found. So Thomas Dimuzio transferred the music from a virgin vinyl copy "using Sonic Solutions to remove pops and crackles, and Waves Z-Noise for de-noising". It all sounds very good.

Two minor points.

Sound level is enormous, I'd say about three times the original vinyl. Wisely, dynamics are not too compressed, so listening to the CD is not fatiguing. However, to me the music sounds a bit too "modern", and in a way, "false". It goes without saying that those accustomed to the clean digital silence will greatly appreciate the lack of tape hiss at those moments when signal is low. I turned the treble knob quite a bit to the right, and the sound immediately got more "air", but still, to me, the music sounded "boxy".

The most important consequence is that, while listening to the music, I could not perceive the fact that it had been performed live anymore. I immediately checked the sound of my old LP, and in my opinion in that format the music definitely sounded more "alive". It could be a conscious choice, of course: In fact, there's no final applause anymore, either. (It was the one element that, for a moment, made me feel as being a part of the experience.)

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Nov. 8, 2010