I had a brief moment where I felt I was hitting my wall with this whole affair. Writing about one band for so long would lead to you getting burnt out it seems. I hit my second stride this weekend as I enjoyed a King Crimson show from 1971, their genuinely dysfunctional years. Despite the band being a complete mess it was shocking to hear how many great ideas were had that would never surface again. The use of effects on the drum kit was a big one, as the drum solo in Groon turned from a classic 70's thrashing to a phaser induced seizure. Another highlight would have to be their mocking blues-oriented rendition of In The Court Of The Crimson King, a tongue in cheek jab at the shouting demands of the rowdy Detroit audience. Robert Fripp has done something incredible with his DGM catalog that more bands should mimic. Although I find his prices for his shows a bit steep ($10 for a digital live album), his desire to share with his fans as many live recordings as possible is a genuine testament to his love for his them. Some may say otherwise, considering his affinity for playing in the shadows and demanding no photography be taken to the point of walking off stage if he sees any. A strange man indeed, one that would warrant his own article, but perhaps I have enough on my plate as is.
If not totally obvious by this point my favorite eras of King Crimson were 72-74 and the 80s. It does not mean that every album from that time is perfect (less said about Three Of A Perfect Pair the better), but what thematically was happening was purely brilliant. The former represented the perfection (or damn near close to it) of what had been the traditional progressive formula of the time. The long, sometimes meandering, melodies were finely tuned to deliver a message that was as cohesive as it could be. Somehow the band had made a genre that emphasized musical lollygagging into something of poise and composure. Fracture, despite it being nearly eight minutes long does not wear out its welcome, a surgical strike, rather than a carpet bombing.
In addition, the band began to explore improvisations in a deliberate attempt promote creative spontaneity as opposed to over-thought yammering. It may not seem so, but King Crimson improvising was antithetical to the traditional prog rock formula. Their version was different than the tepid jamming that served only as a canvas for each artist to solo on. Instead they focused on a cohesive all or nothing approach. Something that either worked brilliantly, or was an absolute disaster. The point was the process though in those moments , the gelling of 5 (or 4....or 3...) minds into creating something genuine in that moment. That represents the beauty of that era. Somehow they condensed the excessive nature of the genre into something that resembled a written speech rather than a stoned rambling.
Red does all those things. It's sounds are massive on impact, but rarely massive in length. The message is specific and to the point despite how complicated it is. From the initial explosion of the self-titled song to the closing crash of closer Starless, the album presents one goal and that is to melt your brain into a warm sticky goo.
The opening track only has a few peers when you debate which Crimson instrumental is the best. Bruford and Whetton are thunderous in their approach, aggressive, but not over the top. The song knows its boundaries and provides massive amounts of space for Fripp to go absolutely nuts with the music. With a guitar that is tuned to kill he sets off like an absolute mad man, bringing the music to a speed that makes you feel like a crash is imminent. It is foaming at the mouth, ready to bite your auditory head off.
This is all in contrast to the 80s King Crimson. I love this line-up for so many reasons. Progressive music had all but died as an active genre by 1980 with few survivors of the great punk invasion. The few that did survive began to radically transform in order to save themselves and keep their seats full during concerts. 12 minute epics about the wars of ogres and elves had fallen out of favor for more songs about love, cocaine, and just having a good 'ol time. While Crimson definitely changed drastically in the 80s, what they did not do was fall in line with the status quo. Instead they invented a new form of progressive rock, one for the 80s. Yes, those epics were gone, but interlocking polyrhythms, futuristic drum kits, weird instruments and insane guitar sounds replaced those instead. Upon first listen its easy to discount this new line-up as some new wave cop-out, but by the time you get to Thela Hun Gunjeet on their first outing Discipline it is impossible to make that statement.
Beat, the second album of this grouping, is an interesting balance of pop tracks and 21st century jamming. It is a bit erratic in its presentation, likely reflective of the inner politics that were happening within the band. Fortunately for Beat the band hadn't reached the point of disdain to where there was no collaboration such as on Three Of A Perfect Pair.
It is strange that an album that starts with such a cohesive song such as Neal, and Jack, and Me also ends on such a cacophony of sounds like Requiem. Beat is erratic, something you would not notice on the first go since it tends to trick you into thinking that everything is normal in Crimson-world, but it is not, it has gone terribly wrong. On the plus side we get to benefit from this. Neal, and Jack, and Me is a trickster of sorts, on the surface you seem to get a pretty standard pop song peppered with haunting tones at the end, but there is more to it. Fripp (or is Belew?) is going wild during the refrain creating absolutely crazy guitar tones that sound like your computer after you've been looking at porn without anti-virus software. I love Levin's stick playing here, the instrument is amazing in its ability to create bassy swells instead of punches, and it works well on Neal.
Both albums have a swing at warming hearts with thoughtful ballads. Although the title Fallen Angel sounds like a cliche Evan Essence tune in 2013, in 1974 it didn't carry such an embarrassing prose to itself. A haunting ballad, and the only song below the five minute mark, but as with every other song here it does its job brilliantly. A splash of cornet and oboe add a bit more flare and prevent the song from sounding like a depressing nu-metal heart-ache. It breathes some air into what is predominantly a confining album that leaves little wiggle room. Heartbeat I've said enough about. It is a strong contender for the worst Crimson song in the catalog, and if Model Man wasn't on the following album its out of place nature would be even more apparent.
Sartori in Tangier and One More Red Nightmare showcase the rhythm sections of these line-ups in vicious detail, and really expand on the ethos of each line-up. Nightmare is one of the most savage songs King Crimson has ever composed, with a seething bass line that collides right into Bruford's explosive drum work. It is a shame that the song never made it onto the live stage (Aside from some bullshit renditions by U.K.). The song really deserves some ability to stretch its legs after sounding like it might just break yours. This is all compounded by Whetton's howling of "One more red nightmare" which adds extra weight to the already scary presentation. This is all in contrast, of course, to Sartori which has Levin and Bruford creating a tight pulsing beat which allow Belew and Fripp to make funny noises to. It is a bit more calculated and cold sounding than their more traditionally spry multi-rhythm pieces, but it does a great job of paving the way for future bands to imitate this building of interlocking sounds mixed with wild frequencies.
Providence is merely an excerpt from an improv during the tail end of their last U.S. tour. The careful reader will note my incessant bitching about Starless and Bible Black's shoehorning of random live excerpts into its track list. Here I am less offended as it is one rather cohesive piece, similar to Asbury Park, although with its own unique qualities. For its duration, David Cross briefly rejoins the band adding a sorely missed layer to the aggressive sound. Overall it seems to fit better than the disjointed inclusion of improvisations before. It is a core component of this line-up and Providence is a fantastic representation, lush and well thought instead of a disjointed collection of notes that resembles a song...kinda sorta.
This is all in contrast to Waiting Man which is a beautiful, but calculated composition. It strikes me as odd how it then follows up with the fury of Neurotica which resembles one of Charlie Sheen's cracked out ramblings only with some backing music. This is that jerkiness I talked about. Waiting Man does have some some adventurousness about it, mostly with Fripp's futuristic guitar sounds he was enjoying at the time, but it is composed and refined. Perhaps Neurotica is as well, but I can't tell because it comes at me with the same amount poise as Lindsay Lohan on day three of a coke binge. Then the album grinds to a halt with Two Hands. It is completely all over the place, reflecting the inner war within the band. This isn't to say Red is exactly the model for soothing welcoming music, but its brutal presentation is consistent throughout, instead of coddling you one moment and choking you the next.
Both albums end on epics, Starless is a perfect album closer if there ever was one, and captures so much of this Crimson line-up. Its slow captivating nature lulls you into a sense of sorrow and security. You are saddened as it represents the end to arguably the best line-up the band has had over the years only to be traumatized by the parting gift it leaves you of nearly 8 minutes of unbridled power through instrumentation. As Whetton's voice fades away the song immediately begins to shift into a sense of unease as Fripp's guitar tones become more and more off-putting; accented by Bruford's slow build of tom thraks (see what I did there?) and cymbal crashes. This is all before the album song just rockets off into a far distant part of the galaxy at mouth foaming speed. It is a shame that David Cross had left the band prior to recording since his parts are missed in the studio, but the song works nearly just as well without, with Fripp doing double duty. The addition of Mel Collins and Ian McDonald on horn adds a unique layer missing from the live version, which helps the studio version take a life of its own. The song is a show closer, and a career ender. On paper it sounds cliched and corny, but in your ears, where it really matters, it is sublime. This mode of Crimson was careful to not over intellectualize itself. Complicated songs still run rampant, but present themselves in a different way, lacking the snooty book-worm approach the genre had taken in years past.
Beat's Requiem is a different kind of epic though, there is no slow build or climax, but rather a multi-headed barrage of futuristic (by 1980s standards) instruments jamming like there is no tomorrow. It is a weird idea since the 80s were never considered a time for "jamming" and neither was 80s King Crimson. Its place at the end reminds the listener that yes you are still listening to the King Crimson and yes they are still completely coocoobananas. Bruford's contained ride cymbal keeps a tempo (used loosely) that allows for the other three to go unhinged, before he does so himself. It is a fitting end to the erratic theme of Beat, which is really the only thing consistent about it.
I have no objection to an inconsistent track listing. To me, a musical masochist of sorts, I enjoy the back and forth of Beat and how it forces me to really focus on the music, failure to do so resulting in audio whiplash. This is me though, and for the rest of the world a little bit of consistency is nice, hence Math Rock is not and will never be a headlining form of music. Red nails the theme of consistency brilliantly, working in plenty of variety, but staying within a specific motif that reflects the self combusting nature of the band at the time. Beat represents something similar, the battle for dominance over direction of the band, pop, or experimental new-wave. By the third album in the line-up the two ideas would be so against each other they would sit on opposite sides of the record, assuring the death of the revolutionary form. At least with Red you get the sense the whole band is going down with the ship, only the ship is on fire, surrounded by sharks, and being attacked by Kamikaze pilots.