King Crimson: A 21st Century Guide, Part 3
The Return of King Crimson
1981 brought a new development to the musical landscape that was very surprising and confusing to many music fans: Robert Fripp announced the formation of a new version of King Crimson that would go on tour as well as releasing a new album. While the return of King Crimson was unexpected, it didn’t create the kind of controversy and confusion that the actual band did. Fripp, of course, was the only original member of the band, and he brought drummer Bill Bruford, a member of the group’s 1973-74 model, to the table as well.
The other two members were guitarist Adrian Belew, most famously known at the time for his work with Frank Zappa and with Talking Heads on their Remain in Light album and tour as well as David Bowie (Lodger) and Tony Levin, who specialized in playing the Chapman electric stick. Chapman was a much-recorded studio bassist who became a regular member of Peter Gabriel’s band and played on Fripp’s solo album Exposure.
The question in many fans’ minds about this version of King Crimson, which recorded and toured from 1981-1984 was why did Fripp add a second guitarist and why did he resurrect the name King Crimson for this band?
I think that the answer to these questions is at least partly that Fripp felt he had hit on the music he wanted to play with League of Gentlemen but that the limitations of the group and the fact that the members went off in different directions at the end of 1980. He had not said all he wanted to say with this kind of group, but he needed a different lineup of musicians. League of Gentlemen was built around a pile-driving new wave dance rhythm section that didn’t do much besides lay down a perfunctory beat over which organist Barry Andrews and Fripp could play.
Andrews likely had technical limitations but possibly more important was that Fripp had begun to hear the group as a kind of fusion rock gamelan and that he ultimately thought the sound of interlocking electric guitars would sound more to his liking.
1981-1984: The Rock Gamelan
The band’s first album, Discipline, bristles with the energy of new ideas and a band that is technically able to explore both new musical ideas and technologies. Besides Frippertronics, Belew brought a large arsenal of pedals and effects to the table, Levin brought the Chapman stick and Bruford began to experiment with various electronic drums.
The opener, “Elephant Talk” is a more revved-up version of “Under Heavy Manners” from his solo album of the previous year. “Frame By Frame” is a muscular workout with Bruford’s intensity matching that of Belew and Fripp, while “Matte Kudasai” is an indecipherable wisp of a song, achingly beautiful but gone too soon like waking from an opium dream. “Indiscipline” rages with the intensity of jungle rhythms while “Discipline” ends the album on a note of order and perhaps a hint of transcendence. In between is the tone poem of “The Sheltering Sky,” unlike anything in the Crimson catalog before or since.
All good, and the band was pretty incredible live. Apparently, though, the circumstances surrounding the group’s second album, Beat, released the following year (1982) were a bit less congenial. Some material for Beat was already in the air, worked on in the studio at the same time as Discipline, some tested in concert in various forms. But there wasn’t a complete album of material, and the group didn’t have a good idea of where the rest would come from. During rehearsals, a track called “Absent Lovers” was written and performed live although in an unfinished state. Later the track would be dropped, leaving the album with eight tracks. “Absent Lovers” was restored to the 40th Anniversary CD release.
Beat feels like a disorganized idea barely coming together, but in fact, it does come together and results in a remarkably effective album. Maybe that is due to the theme, which relates loosely to the Beat writers and poets and their lives. Fripp had asked Belew to read On the Road prior to working on the album and the lyrics are informed by a restlessness that seems to show how the band’s life on the road resembles and echoes Kerouac’s travelogue.
Belew also contributed, and campaigned for, two songs that are more pop-oriented and lyrically straightforward than anything else this band played: “Heartbeat” and “Two Hands.” Fripp began to feel that the band was drifting from the Crimson ideal:
“At the time Bill and Adrian thought that Beat was better than Discipline. For me, this is an indication of how far the band had already drifted from its original vision. The group broke up at the end of Beat…I had nothing to do with the mixing of Beat, nor did I feel able to promote it. Somehow we absorbed the fact, and then kept going.”https://www.dgmlive.com/in-depth/beat-the-long-view
By the time the group went on tour in the summer/fall of ’82 all of this was forgotten as members concentrated on playing the music live. The group spent most of 1983 trying to write material for their third consecutive album with the same band (a Crimson record), Three of a Perfect Pair. Without a clearcut concept to guide them the record ended up being organized into a Left Side (side one) which consisted of four Belew vocal numbers and one instrumental. The Right Side (two) is much more experimental, much more improvised, and presumably much more what Fripp would have liked the band to be. It concludes with the track “Larks Tongues In Aspic III,” linking the two Crimsons together at the last possible moment.
While they had their ups and downs and were certainly not what anyone could have expected of a King Crimson ‘revival’, the 1981-84 band produced some great music and definitely gelled as a band. Listening to the band’s live recording Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984, one can hear how effective the group’s music was live. The band produced a complete repertoire that didn’t require them to fall back on the repertoire of previous editions of the group, though they did break out a few pieces like “Red” and “Larks Tongues in Aspic II.” Three of a Perfect Pair was released in spring of 1984, and when the band concluded its tour in July of that year, they were done. Once again, King Crimson had ceased to exist.
1995-2000: Double Trio & Double Duo
In 1995 Fripp brought Crimson back to life in the form of a six-piece ‘double trio’, and this band recorded the album THRAK.
The THRAK band consisted of Fripp, Belew, Levin, and Bruford (the 80s group) combined with two new musicians, drummer Pat Mastelatto and Trey Gunn, who plays Chapman stick and Warr guitar, a modified Chapmanesque touch instrument.
The music on this album is much more aggressive and metallic, a bit like the mid-70s bands that brought us Red. Though the group still had its quieter moments, their music was less balanced and more enervating. The interlocking guitar concept of the ’81-’84 group is much less pronounced, and the group continues to work with improvised pieces that have been a defining element of the band since the mid-’70s. To that is added a hard, industrial edge that at times borders on noise rock.
This group toured from 1995 through ’96 before reconvening to work on new material. During rehearsals it became apparent that there was a lot of friction in the band. Bruford had been brought on with the understanding that Fripp would wield creative control of the band, and now he chafed under that agreement. In 1997 he played his last show with the band before deciding to leave King Crimson permanently. Unable to find a way forward, Fripp allowed the breaking of the group into smaller groups of various formations of the TRHAK band. Dubbed ProjeKts, these groups played live shows in 1998 and 1999 that relied more heavily than ever on freely improvised segments.
Construktion of Light & Power to Believe
In 2000 the group reconvened without Bruford or Levin, who was extremely busy with session work. Stripped back to a quartet (or a ‘double duo’), the band recorded the album The ConstruKtion of Light in Belew’s Nashville studio. This album continued the aggressive, metal stance but also brought the gamelan sound of the ’80s band back albeit at a more relaxed pace. There is some good music here, no question, but overall the most recent versions of the band were starting to seem a bit samey. One of the best tracks on ConstruKtion is the bonus track “Heaven and Earth” from the album of the same name by ProjeKt X, a version of the band that was led by Gunn and Mastelatto with Fripp and Belew providing support.
In 2003 the band released The Power to Believe, its thirteenth studio album, and as of 2019, its last. “Level Five” marks the last segment of the “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic” cycle begun in 1973. While the band gives both progressive and younger industrial/metal bands a lesson in creativity, there is also a sense that they’ve arrived at a kind of final destination without a major way to move forward.
The Touring Band: 2008-2019
In 2008 Fripp, Belew, Levin, and Mastelotto joined with new second drummer Gavin Harrison to complete a 40th Anniversary Tour. There was no new material on the tour. The band drew from the 1981 band forward, not playing any songs by the ’60s-70s incarnations.
At this point, Crimson had become a touring-only project, but there is a sign that Fripp was considering something. In 2011 he released an album by the group Jakszyk Fripp Collins titled A Scarcity of Miracles. Jakki Jakszyk had been asked by Fripp to help remix the THRAK album and had been part of the Crimson orbit for some time, and Mel Collins was an alumnus from the ’70s group. Fripp claimed that the group was Crimson based, but that it constituted an aborted ProjeKt 7 rather than a new phase of the band proper. Jackszyk took over vocals and guitar, taking Adrian Belew’s place. It was a welcome change at this point, and probably important considering that the band was about to become more of a repertory group.
In 2012 Fripp announced his retirement from the music industry, only to announce a new version of Crimson in 2013. This band, known as the ‘seven-headed beast’ was comprised of Fripp, Levin, Harrison, Mastelloto, Jacszyk, Collins and former Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin. This group didn’t plan to record new material. Instead, they went on the road in 2014 playing music from across Crimson’s entire history. For the first time since 1974, the group played selections from the albums In the Court of the Crimson King through Larks Tongues In Aspic.
In 2019 the group announced plans to tour in the summer to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary. The band is comprised of the same musicians as the 2014-15 tour, with the addition of former member Jeremy Stacey. They began in Germany, and broke out a variety of pieces not played live in a while: “Cat Food” (1970), “The Sheltering Sky” (’81, not played live since 1996), as well as “Cadence and Cascade,” “Neurotica,” and “Lizard.”
It would appear that King Crimson is now a touring band playing from a 50-year repertoire, and while that may not seem right for a band that has always prided itself on forward motion, one can hardly blame Fripp and Company for doing so. The group still uses improvisation in its sets and the musical legacy they draw from is sufficiently diverse as to make new material seem superfluous at best. The numerous live sets they have released (all available now for streaming on Spotify, as are the studio albums) and the box sets they release via website and DGM, Fripp’s own label, ensure that the band’s legacy will remain one of challenging music for listeners who can get beyond the idea of a band as a static group of individuals making minor adjustments to their sound. Besides, nothing is ever certain in the Crimson landscape.