Sunday, 20 September 2020

Log #208 - Reassessing The Non King Crimson King Crimson

Eddy Bamyasi

It's taken me a long time to reach King Crimson in this blog. After seeing some quirky Robert Fripp and Toyah videos on Youtube I revisited some of the classic albums from the band's prog rock hey day - spinning Larks' Tongues In Aspic and Red last week (this could have possibly been my first revisit in the whole history of this blog - what, 3 years?, 4 years? Can you check Ed.?). [Actually you forget Eddy, the blog is about 4 years old now, but you did play King Crimson eventually in log #130 after they had won the most surprising non appearance award in the 2018 review. You're welcome, Ed.]

Great, great albums, those two, their presence barely diminished by the passing of time. These were two of the seven albums the band released between 1969 and 1974. And that was it, for the band, and most the fans - Fripp pulled the plug (when the band were at their creative and commercial peak) and buggered off to find himself.

But hold your horses...

There was a hiatus for 7 years, and then a comeback in 1981, with a new funky, punky, new wave band - a band so diverse from the original that they should n't really have used the King Crimson name (in fact Fripp did originally rename the group). 

3 albums ensued, known as the Discipline trilogy (or the red, blue and yellow ones), from the same new personnel (the first time King Crimson had ever maintained the same band members over more than one consecutive album). 

Discipline trilogy personnel:

Adrian Belew – electric guitar, guitar synthesizer, lead vocals 
Robert Fripp – electric guitar, guitar synthesizer, devices (Frippertronics)
Tony Levin – Chapman Stick, backing vocals, bass
Bill Bruford – drums

The Discipline Trilogy

I tried to like them when they came out but yearning for Wetton's thick bass, Bruford's sharp rim taps, and Fripp's distorted solos, I was left disappointed. I lost interest and didn't even notice when, following another hiatus, this time even longer, the band released another comeback album, Thrak, in 1995 (in the history of a band like King Crimson this feels thoroughly recent, but it's mindblowing to me that this record is now 25 years old, and I've only just heard it, and... it's amazing!). 2 further albums followed in the early 2000s - equally mind blowing for a fan like me who had written the band off in 1974!

The Thrak Trilogy

ReconstruKction of Light line up (2000):

Robert Fripp – guitar, keyboards
Adrian Belew – guitar, vocals
Trey Gunn – Ashbory bass, Warr guitar
Pat Mastelotto – drums, percussion

So 6 albums spanning nearly 25 years, practically half their overall output of 13 studio albums (when the first 7 had spanned just 5 years) had been dismissed by your careless correspondent (not for the first time - I had done something similar with Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Genesis).

Here Eddy rectifies things by taking a deep dive into the post '74 King Crimson with a clean sweep of the albums released after King Crimson stopped (for many) being King Crimson, sort of!

King CrimsonDiscipline
King Crimson - Beat
King Crimson - Three Of A Perfect Pair
King Crimson - Thrak
King Crimson - The Construkction of Light
King Crimson - The Power To Believe

DISCIPLINE

Discipline was the first of the 3 "comeback" albums which emerged from the "former" prog rockers in the early '80s. Released in 1981 the new album came 7 years after leader Robert Fripp had disbanded the group in 1974. Representing essentially a new band (only Bruford remained with Fripp from 1974) and a new sound the group was originally named Discipline before Fripp decided to reincarnate the King Crimson name.

King Crimson as Discipline

Much criticised at the time this brave record has since become viewed as a modern classic for its unexpected embracing of modern beats and world music.

Attempting to create the sound of a "rock gamelan" Fripp plays complicated loops and scales upon which new guitarist Adrian Belew weaves interlocking leads over Bill Bruford's polyrhythmic toms and new electronic beats. New bassist Tony Levin played a "stick" - a ten string bass guitar thingy played in a tapping fashion, the first time I'd ever come across such an instrument.

The band's songs were shorter in comparison to previous King Crimson albums, and very much shaped by Belew's pop sensibilities and quirky approach to writing lyrics. So you had the marvellously efficient openers Elephant Talk and Frame By Frame  - great pop songs which belied the complexities and dynamic shifts and key changes within, followed by the jazzy ballad Matte Kudasai.

Though the former King Crimson's tendency to launch into long instrumental improvisations was largely reined in the band did break free on some numbers including Indiscipline where Bruford rat-a-tats, Levin pulses, and the guitarists freak out. Belew raps spoken word: "I like it!" 

More spoken word follows on the dancey Thela Hun Ginjeet and an extended instrumental The Sheltering Sky forms the album's centrepiece. On the final title track (another instrumental) the intricate repeating guitars circle around like a minimalist Steve Reich piece.

BEAT

Beat is a pretty decent album. The copy I was playing must be a remix. It sounds much more vibrant and upbeat than the rather lacklustre edition I first bought back in 1982. 

Generally the poppiest and most accessible of the three Discipline albums the songs are slick and efficient as demonstrated most by single Heartbeat (but even this one has some gorgeous "backwards" guitar if you listen closely) and the soft ballad Two Hands (I can leave that one really). There is even some funk and reggae (in a The Police type fashion).

The sequencing is similar to Discipline - a couple of pop tunes, then an instrumental Sartori In Tangier which is like an edited The Sheltering Sky. Some lovely distant guitar lead on this one. A funky Waiting Man showcases world beats from Bruford and some more awesome guitar distortion.

Neurotica is another New York centric spoken word number following the lead from Discipline. There's a lot in this track including a beautiful central section.

The closing track Requiem is a classic Fripp solo recalling the Fripp and Eno ambient projects (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star. A most surprising piece a little out of context with what comes before. Nice jazz drumming on here too.

THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR

The final album of the three - Three Of A Perfect Pair - starts off with a near side of intricate yet efficient new wave pop underpinned by Frippertronic guitar shapes. However, as with each of these three albums, there are moments of  progressive instrumental brilliance. On this album the prog rock influences are most prominent on side 2 as Fripp points the way to what would become the next phase of King Crimson, a decade on, with a series of modern prog instrumentals from the industrial bass slap of Industry via a drum laden experimental Warning through to a homage to the great Larks' Tongues In Aspic (via a "part III").

The finest track of all is Nuages though which really takes the biscuit - one of the band's greatest tracks - a track that would be recognised as a masterpiece if it had appeared on one of the more celebrated early albums (not that it would have done as it sounds so modern with it's gurgling rhythms). 

Such moments become a bit lost amongst the new wave pop of this underrated series but account for at least half of this fine album which, although it definitely tends towards the bipolar and is often overshadowed by the more groundbreaking Discipline, I think is possibly (?) the best of the trio.

A lot of the problem at the time was the "King Crimson" expectation. Hearing these albums fresh, and delinking from the KC expectation, of legacy fans circa 1980, they are all very good pop albums and much more rock than I had appreciated. Fripp (with Belew's influence) had taken the band away from prog but had invented an original new wave sound more in keeping with bands like Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, David Bowie, and even Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, whereas many of his contemporaries got lost in '80s production values producing watered down prog, bombastic metal, or cheesy keyboard pop (Genesis). 

THRAK

Thrak, wow, this is in the "Why haven't I heard this before category?". It sounds superb. It's a mix between the old prog rock music and the more "modern" dance style from the Discipline trilogy. It jumps straight into my shortlist for most surprising discovery (or rediscovery) of the year.

Opener Vroom is like the Red instrumental that opens that album. Great riffing with some intricate Frippertronic breaks. The track merges seamlessly into Coda 475 - KC write some great codas.

The album contains some excellent single material beginning with Dinosaur. The band sound like a heavy Beatles. The Beatles influence (circa Abbey Road) continues into the jazzy Walking On Air with Belew sounding very much like John Lennon. The Fripp guitar on this recalls the gentler Crimson tunes from their prog period. Super deep bass on this one too. A beautiful tune.

B'Boom is a clackety drum solo with world music toms. The drumming continues into the title track which is a metal monster instrumental with a distorted bass that sounds just like the John Wetton bass on Red (and Starless And Bible Black).

Another respite tune with the gentle guitar arpeggio-led Inner Garden I. Belew showing off his vocal chops here. The funky People is more single material - it's the most commercial track on the album with a chorus and backing vocals like a modern David Bowie or Talking Heads number. I could leave it really, it's not the best King Crimson and probably a complete Belew track without much Fripp input. The production is great though.

Radio 1 is a little Takemitsu like avant garde piece which precedes another ballad One Time which even has some Bruford rim taps. Bliss. Belew nails the song again. Lovely stuff. Radio 2 comes in and then there is a reprise of Inner Garden (II) which knits this whole section together like a little suite.

Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream is another funky rocker. Heavy like prime period Pixies. 

The album ends on a Vroom reprise (sounding even more like its Red predecessor) making Thrak feel like a concept album, or a full circle at least. 

By the way the formerly brilliant Bruford I hear has now retired officially (this being his last King Crimson album) and was having a yard sale of his kit. Hear a nice interview on this here >>

THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT

Loving the opening blues number. It's been called "tongue in cheek": 

Well I woke up this morning

... but I think it's great fun. It so does not sound like King Crimson - for a start I'm not aware of any other blues tune they've done, and the singing is in a Tom Waits style with Adrian Belew's deep down growl. I assume that's his guitar screaming over the top too - Fripp tending to concentrate on the riffs and frippertronics. Before these 3 most recent albums I'd never fully appreciated Belew's skills as a rock guitarist. The twin Fripp/Belew attack is a revelation.

The extended title track is a typically intricate mostly instrumental number led by a Frippertronic figure. Next follows a superb rock track Into The Frying Pan - great singing from Belew and incendiary electric guitar (Belew's shredding, Fripp's trademark distortions). There are moments where the upward guitar breaks recall the unique Starless guitar solo.

Frakctured is a new duel guitar work based on the original Fracture (a notoriously difficult piece) from the 1974 Starless And Bible Black album. It's mesmerising in the detail of the interlocking guitars.

The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum is another heavy rocker with an exceptional Fripp treated solo which sounds like frenetic jazz piano.

A treat for the old fans follows with "Part IV" of Larks' Tongues In Aspic. In keeping with this heavy album this is a powerful rendition which walks the line between the original and the new. It storms to a peak with some rare mellotron like keyboards in the Coda and Belew's distorted vocals:

Tragedies of Kennedy's, refugees, AIDS disease
Photos of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and Kosovo
Tim McVeigh, Saddam Hussein, the bombing of the World Trade
Hostages in Bosnia, atrocities, South Africa,
Abortion and Kevorkian, Vietnam, napalm,
Lady Di, and Lennon died a violent crime, Columbine,
I have a dream that one day Rodney King, O.J.,
Symbols of our life's and times, One giant leap for mankind

The "relatively" calming final "bonus" track is credited to ProjeKct X (a spin off of King Crimson at the time). With some pleasant string moments this track really begins to cook around half way with a driving groove over which Fripp improvises.

Oddly this album received relatively negative reviews on its release. Some even calling it King Crimson's worse album. I find that assessment bizarre. To be fair none of the 13 are bad and as very few are similar it's a rather arbitrary task to rank them (something Eddy must try some time) so perhaps it could be? I doubt it though - all these 3 latter day albums are more my thing than the Discipline trilogy. 

One of the main criticisms concerns the drumming. Apparently drummer Pat Mastelotto (post Bruford) uses a lot of electronic drums and programming. I can't say I really noticed. He later re-recorded the drum tracks for the entire album using regular acoustic drums - this new version was released in 2019 as The Reconstrukction of Light to much improved reviews. I haven't heard this remix.

KC circa 2000

THE POWER TO BELIEVE

After a brief vocoderised introduction King Crimson's latest 
(and possibly final?) album launches with a trademark power instrumental a la Red or Larks' Tongues again (entitled Level 5 could this be Larks' Tongues Part V?). Here the drums thrash and crash, the duel guitars trace intricate lines at breakneck speed. The pace is so full on the seven minute track feels like a track of twice the length. A brilliant track.

The best tracks indeed are the instrumentals (Belew's vocals, normally so reliable, seem to be a bit off on this record) - Electrik is a prog masterpiece highlighting drummer Mastelotto's masterly fusion of electronic and acoustic drums, and Dangerous Curve builds powerfully from silence like the classic Talking Drum from Larks' Tongues.

Ballad Eyes Wide Open would make a great Bond song - the only soft song on this ever so loud and aggressive record. The rock songs on the album are the most heavy metal Crimson have ever been. However I don't think they are quite as good as the heavier tunes on Thrak and The Construkction Of Light - Belew's voice is over distorted and the lyrics, particularly on Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With are a bit cringeworthy (albeit ironic):

And when I have some words
This is the way I'll sing
Through a distortion box
To make them menacing
Yeah, then I'm gonna have to write a chorus
We're gonna need to have a chorus

The whole record is held together by the title theme which appears in different formats four times (the most impressive being the electronic synthesized part II) giving this almost concept album a nice sense of whole. Overall another intense and complex modern album - not quite as good or eye-opening as the other two in this trilogy but still, so much better than anyone had the right to expect from these veterans of prog. 

IN CONCLUSION

I'm mightily impressed with these 6 albums. The first three from the Discipline era are so much better than I remembered - melodic intricate pop displaying the quartet's amazing musicianship, and much heavier than I appreciated too. I don't know why I never got into these albums at the time and can only put it down to the shock of the difference in comparison to the band's classic prog period.  

Advance ten more years and the Thrak era trilogy is even better. I had no idea the band were still making such vital music this late in their career. These albums are a fusion of the prog days and the Discipline days - they actually add both elements together (not so much a fusion as a multiplication!) and weld on a new heavy industrial metal edge too, to create some of the most complex music I've ever heard. 

With only 13 studio albums in total over their whole career Fripp and Co. have maintained a consistency of quality over quality whilst forging new directions at each rebirth. These "latter day" half dozen of albums deserve more credit than they get and I'm pleased to have (re)/discovered them.


KC today with three drummers

Further viewing...from a couple of guys who really know their music...






About The Author

Eddy Bamyasi

Eddy is a music writer from Brighton, England, named after a Can record. Each Sunday he logs and reviews the albums that happen to be in his vintage Pioneer 6-CD magazine changer, amongst other things.

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