Stick Men’s first-ever concert album finds King Crimson bassist Tony Levin and Co. in their element. No matter the praise heaped upon their latest, and arguably best, studio effort, this is band — like Crimson — best heard live.
There’s a sense of unbound freedom, of musical camaraderie, of brilliant timing and gutsy chance taking that can only be truly highlighted, and best enjoyed, when this talented trio begins deconstructing and then reconstructing their work before real people, in real time. What you find is a tougher band, with a grittier sound — and yet they aren’t ham-handed or brusque.
Power Play, available for purchase independently on January 17, 2014, is hard hitting but also perfectly calibrated. That’s perhaps best heard on muscular new readings of flinty prog numbers like “On/Off,” taken from Stick Men’s terrific current release Deep. With Markus Reuter exploring the outer edges of his imagination on Touch guitar, Levin can drill down ever deeper into the bone-splintering depth of the Chapman — working in mathematic tandem with Crimson bandmate Pat Mastelotto’s active, yet always precise cadences. “Horatio” stair steps out of the genuine wonder of songs like “Nude Ascending Staircase” and “Whale Watch,” exploring a menacing landscape.
Then there are the open-ended improvisational joys of “Van Dyke,” which begins with Reuter’s boundary-bending electronics before Levin and Mastelotto join in with a furious funk-inspired groove that might have seemed out of place in any other context. Not here. The nimble, ever-adept Stick Men combine these two seemingly incongruent elements with a success not seen since the glory days of Brian Eno.
Elsewhere, they offer energized updates of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” (originally found on 2010’s Soup, which featured Michael Bernier in place of Reuter), “Breathless” from King Crimson leader Robert Fripp’s 1979 solo album Exposure, the title track from 2012’s Open, as well as select other stand-out cuts from Deep — including “Crack in the Sky,” “Cusp” and “Hide the Trees.”