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Robert Fripp - At the End of Time: Churchscapes - Live in England & Estonia, 2006

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Artist: Robert Fripp

Album: At the End of Time: Churchscapes - Live in England & Estonia, 2006

Label: DGM

Review date: Oct. 5, 2007

The tape delay system that Brian Eno concocted in the 1970s found its perfect adherent in King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Fripp’s rigorously open-minded and thoughtful approach allowed for spacious musical structures that unfolded in real-time as sounds accrued and departed, only to make way for new sounds, accruals, and departures. His prodigious technique as a guitarist came in handy when he cranked up the distortion box and laid arching, rhapsodic solos over the looped and slowly changing constructions. While others had used tape delay as a compositional tool – Pauline Oliveros as early as the mid -1960s, and Terry Riley with his pulsing “Time Lag Accumulator” are among the better-known – Fripp and Eno arrived at an expression that was perhaps not as dynamic or psychotropic as previous efforts had been, but instead more contemplative.

Fripp stayed with the technique, developing it into solo guitar adventures that he named ‘Frippertronics’ through the ’70s and ’80s. He has come to call them soundscapes in the decades since, having moved beyond analog tape, Les Paul guitar, and fuzz box to apply digital delays and the expanded tonal colors of guitar synth to the process.

Fripp has often used soundscapes to reflect outward his innermost artistic and personal questions and answers. Melodic freedom, fearful symmetries, frightening dissonances, and sublime chorale-like harmonic constructions have served Fripp’s musical meditations on subjects as large as suffering, transcendence and death. And while the soundscape recordings released have touched upon such spiritual concerns, the accompanying liner notes have often detailed Fripps’s more earthbound difficulties in finding a place for his music in the world, a context for performance free from preconceptions about what sort of music is expected from an aging prog-rock guru.

With Churchscapes, Fripp has found that place. The album is assembled from live recordings made during a tour of churches in England and Estonia. Fripp himself states that these are works of devotional intent. Appropriately enough for the spaces they were performed in, they are built from quiet bell tones, deep pipe-organ-like swells and floating string washes. While the motifs Fripp creates as architectural elements here are elegantly simple, they often carry welcome melodic and harmonic tensions. (Reference points might include Olivier Messiaen’s church organ works, Arvo Part’s hushed tintinnabuli compositions, and Sir Edward Elgar‘s pastoral romanticism.) Themes arrive and depart, return again, unfolding with a floating timelessness and a billowing sense of openness.

When Fripp’s solo guitar voice does arrive to sing within these shifting structures, it’s in a burnished-yet-cracked synth tone that glosses the guitarist’s old trademark sound while adding a banded and blended spectrum of timbral color. (I’ll admit that it took some time for me get to like this new texture; now I find it a compelling and crucial part of the record’s overall essence.)

Fripp’s soundscape work is often catalogued as belonging to the ambient music world. But from 1973’s No Pussyfooting (Fripp’s first collaboration with Eno) on, these works have thrived in good part on the tensions generated between the guitarist’s expressive, wide-intervaled, exultant or keening solos and the meditative, often orchestral textures that launch them.

With Churchscapes, the architecture and energy of consecrated spaces has, it seems, asserted itself fully as part of the music. Listening to – and finding a place for oneself within – these works, one might apprehend the presence of a world-weary pilgrim who has arrived and graciously assented, a sense of resignation held in abeyance by an awareness of deeper mysteries.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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