Robert Fripp once said that King Crimson was a live band first and a studio band second. Considering the recent activities of the band it comes to no surprise. Crimson's live presence is monstrous, filled with improvisation and creative redesigning of previous genius. How would you translate 21st Century Schizoid Man into a lineup with twice as many drummers, bassists, and guitarists, and no horns? Somehow he figured it out. It is something I love about Crimson, its intent on reinventing itself with new songs, while also approaching old material with a new perspective.
There are few pairings in this first round that have such distinct albums as these two. Beat and Starless and Bible Black are both the second album of a three album run by their respective line-ups. The differences end there, however. Starless was the last album this line-up toured to support, never touring (Sadly) for Red. Beat's tour, to me, was the best tour of the 80s King Crimson, a mixture of many styles and sounds, composed yet chaotic. Starless was arguably the least structured, relying on improvisations and live recordings while Beat was probably the most focused of it's block.
We gotta break this down further
Starless has an amazing start, rocketing out of the gate with a vicious hunger to amaze and confuse the Crimson fan even further with wild time signatures and complex rhythms. "Health food faggot" (a cigarette for those concerned) John Whetton shouts as Great Deceiver comes to one of its many abrupt halts. Despite its in your face demeanor it carries plenty of pop modalities, such as the massively catchy refrain of "Cigarettes, ice-cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary". Lament the follow up, lulls you into a false sense of calm and security before it too blasts off into cosmic rock outer-space. Live it is even more profound as John's bass was so crunchy and raw you were surprised anyone came out of the show with hearing.
Compare this to Beat's opener, Neil, Jack and Me. Adrian's lyrics, far less metaphorical, convey the messages that he learned through Robert Fripp's assigned reading (and no I am not joking.) The guitar tone is hard to describe, soothing yet unsettling all at once, almost alien-like. The interlocking poly-rhythms still reign supreme in this line-up, but pop sensibilities run more dominant in this opener. The song is carried by Tony and Bill's pounding rhythm section, unforgiving and fierce. Despite Robert's desires, he could never seem to escape the murderously powerful rhythm sections he concocted. Although I feel by the time Thrak came about he just gave up.
"I need to feel your heartbeat" Adrian coos in the next song Heartbeat which is as close to a schlocky love song the band would ever get (I don't think my girlfriend would be too wooed by Easy Money...for I don't know what reason). It is not that the song is bad per say, but it is such a flagrant error on Crimson's behalf (despite featuring THE best fake playing I have ever seen on TV). There is little in this track that sounds like Crimson despite a few brief moments of Frippertronic style playing peppered between verses. It is a cheesy 80s love song if you ever heard one. In one context is not that bad considering the 80s were littered with this shit. The problem is that this is King Crimson, go ahead and play 21st Century Schizoid Man and then play this song. It is dull, boring, and even in this 80s line-up sticks out like a sore thumb. It was a dangerous sign of things to come from its follow-up Three Of a Perfect Pair. Here we see Adrian Belew begin to exert more control over the sound (the song also appears on his solo album so you tell me who is paranoid) One piece of consolation? It came out before Yes's dreadful Owner of a Lonely Heart. Take THAT Chris Squire!
If Starless and Bible Black and Beat maintained these trends throughout the album this would have been a no brainer, but that is not the case. Starless, at this point, begins to wonder off into a totally different direction of unshaped musicality. This also is the point where the album begins to lose focus and drive off a cliff in a fit of lost direction. Starless was primarily recorded live, with very little studio recording involved. On one hand you can comment how remarkable it is that their performances were so precise that it would be usable as studio material. The level of precision needed for that is indeed baffling and was only done by the fewest of mad musical scientists.
This would not be a big deal if the current trend continued, but the structured songs begin to become scarce in favor of random snippets of live improvisation. Are these improvisations bad? No, but that is not a question worth asking in context of this band. A better question to ask is does this material add anything to the album? Personally I have a hard time believing so. It seems it was added as padding to an album that would have otherwise been running a bit short, which is made stranger considering some of the brilliant material they had been playing live or soon would be that did not make it on the album such as Dr Diamond and the much more coherent instrumental Asbury Park. If We'll Let You Know, Trio, and Starless and Bible Black were released along with other improvs in a similar way as THRaKaTTaK was I would not even think twice about them.
Beat, on the other hand, begins to take off in a major way after the dull and painful Heartbeat. Sartori in Tangier, is a thumping instrumental matched with squawking Fripp guitar work. It is space age, like a lost song to the soundtrack of Blade Runner. Then Waiting Man, is sheer brilliance, it's clever build up of rhythms and pulsations and when it hits its apex explodes into a fury of poly-rhythms and sonic clashes. The only gripe to its name being why they did not expand on it like they did in the live iterations, doing an even more meditative and evolved exploration of each layer. At a mere 35 minutes, it is not like the band was risking making a double LP.
It is not like Starless completely falls flat, The Night Watch and Mincer although not the best songs this line-up has produced are also immensely fulfilling, and it would be an absolute sin to not mention Fracture. Not FraKcture or any other jackass spelling of it, but the original. If you want to know why I hold Robert Fripp in such high regard as a guitar player this is why. In 1974, most guitar players, were wielding their guitars like a second set of genitalia, flaying around as they made ferocious guitar solos that ripped through your speakers and exploded your eardrums (in the best way of course). Fripp was and still is different. His methodical and laser focused approach created guitar work that was less hammer blow than it was brain surgery with chopsticks. Fracture's guitar work alone is a nightmare to any guitar novice, the frenzied notes combined with very specific intonations and emphasis. You wonder to yourself, if maybe David Cross is playing some of the notes, and no, it is all the work of just that one mad man.
Beat is in a completely different galaxy, with the frenzied and chaotic Neurotica leading into the soft and soothing Two Hands. It is far less schlocky than Heartbeat, sounding like Belew may have stolen a few ideas from his stint in Talking Heads. Howler leads into the future jam Requiem. Requiem is sadly forgotten all too often, an instrumental powerhouse that mixes Crimson madness and expertise from the 70s with the futuristic tones that were being explored in the 80s. The album ends on a much higher note than it starts.
Perhaps that is why I have such a hard time determining a winner here. One album starts a bit rough and then rises to excellence, while the other starts off with absolute gusto, but then fails to ever hit that high level again. Neither is the strongest point in their respective line-up, but both do unique things that are not covered in any of the other albums and also provide many great influences for future bands to explore. Starless and Bible Black showcases how improvisations can be mixed with structured music to create a unique blend of controlled chaos. Beat shows that the 80s did not need to be as simple as they ended up, encouraging complexity and composition with electronic drums and synthetic wails.
I believe this round will be going to Beat. Starless is equally enjoyable, but on a fundamental level I have to object to the use of live improv as padding. If it had been constructed in the studio I feel it would have been a non-issue, but I have a hard time warming up to cherry-picking live improvisations to sell as a studio LP. Some of my favorite bands created some of their most exciting work during live jams and improvisations, but never do I recall them being sold as a studio release. While Beat does have its moments of questionable quality, it overall rises to a high standard of excellence that we come to expect from the court. Its glaring faults being the warning signs of the train-wreck that was to come.