Saturday, January 4, 2014

The King Crimson Finals: Red Vs Discipline

The ability for me to finally write "finals" in that subject heading brings me great joy and a sigh of relief.  As much fun as it was to undertake this project I also realize how immobilizing it was.  For nearly 4 months I have written about nothing but this band.  It has definitely allowed me to indulge in this group and explore it to its fullest extent, finding new live shows and other bits of trivia, but I also fear that you the reader have become burnt out on the single subject meandering that I have subjected you to.  Perhaps if I attempt another "tournament" I will explore a band with a much smaller discography and also write more diligently.

For now, one last time.  Let us indulge.


When I started writing my last piece, comparing Discipline to In The Court Of The Crimson King, I had expected the latter to win.  This was to then lead to a pairing where I could compare the albums song for song, since both albums shared many similarities.  Near the end of the piece I finally realized that Discipline was actually going to be the victor which lead to some concern as to how I was going make this piece make any sense.

There is little left to say about either album based on their songs.  Actually I have said very little about Discipline's songs during this whole time as I have gushed about it more than enough on other occasions.  The same for Red; I can only write so many analogies relating Red to being physically assaulted before even I get offended by the metaphors.  What is there left to say?  That is a good question.

Both albums have been explored at the micro-level, being analyzed fastidiously and nit-picked to an eye rolling degree.  Both albums have passed this exploration with flying colors.  Both feature gorgeous compositions, are well paced, and are mixed well.  There is little to fault, and little to complain about.  You could argue Red is a bit too one toned or that Discipline does not exactly handle its poppy parts as well as other albums.  These are minor foibles and hardly discerning points.  At the micro-level these are pristine examples of song writing and execution.  Each one is a treat to listen to.

So let us pull back a minute then to the macro-level.  This is an area of music reviewing that is often ignored, myself included.   When I listen to an album I often try to address one of the most simple questions, what is the goal of this album?  So rarely is an album released just for the heck of it (I would like to believe so anyway).  An album, like any other piece of art has a purpose, an objective, and a goal.  Sure there are some artists that have stated that art can be created for "no reason" and it has "no purpose", but that in itself is a purpose, the goal of creating nothing.  Heck even a cheap cash grab album or film release has a purpose, to make money.

This is why sometimes even though I may not truly like an album I can appreciate it for simply accomplishing what it set out to do.  The Terror, the last full length LP by The Flaming Lips, will never be my favorite album, but it accomplished its goal so well that I admire it, and because of that I think it was one of the best albums of 2013.  It is a powerful accomplishment to make an album that executes its intention so well, regardless of whether it was meant to offend me, make me feel a certain way, or make me laugh.  This is why The Mars Volta were so accomplished in their albums too.  Rarely did anyone feel indifferent about them, rather people drooled over them or wished every copy would explode into a million pieces.  This is because their albums met their intended goal; a goal that people loved or hated.

Red is pretty distinct in its intention, it is simple in terms of King Crimson, it is an angry album.  Each of the five tracks rampages mercilessly, thrashing around its musical limbs in a brazen fury.  From Bruford's sharp tongued snare hits to Whetton's visceral bass tones the album is in desperate need of anger management.  Even in its softer moments such as the beginning of Fallen Angel and Starless the album feels like its busting at the seems, fists clenched and teeth grinding only needing one small annoyance to push it over the edge.

Such albums often fall short because of how simplistic they feel.  An emotion can be carried through many qualities, and ground-pounding ferocity is not the only way to express aggravation.  Fortunately, Red may be simplistic, but it is not a knuckle dragging neanderthal.  Do not forget, that we are in the self-indulgent world of progressive rock!  Red's initial track shifts time signatures at a waywardly maniacal pace, full of complexities to sophisticate the simulated anger.  King Crimson's type of angry is intelligent; it is the nasty critique of a research article from an especially scornful professor, as opposed to a Baldwinesque rant

Discipline, of course is cut from a different cloth.  With the British progressive invasion over there was a need to create a new kind of music.  While progressive rock was always the rock music of  "nerds", Discipline worked hard to make being nerdy slick and trendy.  Discipline, while still a bit nerdy was more of a Steve Jobbs turtle neck instead of a Bill Gates mop top.  The interlocking grooves create a sophisticated sound that does not wander too far off into self-indulgence.  It is a showcase of what the term "Progressive" can mean in the new decade.  It can mean being influenced by new-wave and pop music.  It no longer means fifteen minute songs, vinyl jackets with lavish artwork, or stories about rescuing the fair-maiden.  It is a direct message to the record labels, fans, and surviving musical acts that abandoned the movement that it is indeed back and in a dangerous new form.   

Trendy no doubt, but perhaps it was too trendy, as other bands observed this style of music and said no thanks, possibly because it was not as hip as I think it is, or maybe because they realized there is no possible way in hell you are pulling off Frame By Frame after a six pack of Old Style.  Red, while still a technical exercise in musicianship, could be fudged despite being completely loaded on cheap Jim Bean and skunk weed.  Red can be appreciated in the background while Discipline is an album that needs to be really absorbed to be appreciated.  It is a full time job rather than a hobby.  Red can be be your weekend fling instead of a long-term commitment.

Red also is the culmination of all things King Crimson, up until that point.  Everything up until that point had been boiled down, synthesized, and reduced into this broody monster.  A nasty unpleasant iteration for certain, but what is presented to us is King Crimson in a nutshell, and could easily be the primer for what the band is.  Red the song, since its inception has survived every line-up to this date, and for good reason too.   The song became a strange flanger-crazy computer virus in the 80's, an out of control lumbering giant in the 90's, a grumbling miser in the early 00's, and a drum-focused mad person in 2008.  It is a crying shame the rest of the material never made it passed the 70's, with Starless actually being the only song from the album to be played live by that line-up.  We can only ponder what a two drummer line-up could have down to One More Red Nightmare, or what kind of chaos would ensure from Levin and Gunn partnering up on StarlessRed, despite being one noted is also surprisingly flexible and can be interpreted in so many ways.

When you create something so tightly wound up as Discipline an obvious issue arises in that there is about only one way to perform the music, just the way it is.  I am not saying all songs require some ability to be creatively reinvented, but little changes from one Thela Hun Ginjeet to the next.  Despite how desperately clever Discipline is, it is frustratingly rigid.  There are not too many cover bands lining up to cover Elephant Talk, as strange as that might seem.  Then again, I am also not looking for a dubstep version of Bob Dylan's Tangled Up In Blue, so I guess establishing ground-rules for your music is not all bad.

Discipline then is the intention of creating something smart and technical.  Red translates from line-up to line-up in such a way because it is a simple act of emoting.  Discipline does not accommodate, you accommodate to its demands.  You can not simply cut out chunks of the song and expect something sounding remotely decent.  It is a constant, uncompromising in its presence, and feared among more straight forward acts.  A dizzying array of notes are thrown at you and you are desperate to keep up.  It is reduction of those fifteen minute epics into four minutes.

Both Red and Discipline (whose album cover is more red than Red) are both astonishingly successful in developing well conceived albums, with great songs.  Perhaps a draw is in order?  As many readers have stated, this is like comparing two different bands.  Yet, despite my intent to intellectualize the whole process, to review like a Frippian, I feel a gut sensation that begs to take over.  I have no qualms using my big words and butchered analogies to make the proper judgment here, but perhaps there is a time when that becomes less important.  After all, music is often the opposite of intellectual, but rather emotional.

When I do take that step back I always begin to gravitate towards Red.  There is something about that raw intensity that gets to me, the teeth bearing savagery that pulls me in.  The crunchy bass tones of the coda to Starless let you know that shit is about to go down in a major and big way.  The album is pure emotion.  It is anger, but it is not the thought of anger.  The album seethes the frustrations of all the members involved.  Fripp for being burnt out on touring and the big record label system he had fallen prey to and Bruford and Whetton who were likely annoyed with Fripp killing off what was such a good thing.  Bruford left Yes at the their peak to try out this new King Crimson thing, and wound up in a dead band barely two years later.  The album is tearing at the seems, much like the band was, it is literally falling apart as you listen. There is almost a sense that the record is going to melt at the end, letting the last few notes gurgle as they pass the needle.

I adore Discipline, but I rarely feel anything from it.  It is a very cold album despite how wildly intense it is.  It is the thinking person's album, but sometimes I really do like a beer and too much espresso hurts my stomach.  The two albums oppose each other so much on this level.  One is for the heart, and the other for the brain. Perhaps this is what makes them so difficult to compare.

Red is effectively the only album in all of King Crimson that comes from the heart, or at least has that effect.  They all make you awe in appreciation of their technical feats and well crafted intentions.  King Crimson relies on the idea of making complex music which makes it a hard band to feel emotion for.  I constantly think about King Crimson, but I rarely elicit a feeling about them.  Red is the opposite, it is the one time where I genuinely feel anything for the music.  Perhaps that is why Red the song is malleable, because it was written in a different way, it is not about having a specific tone from Levin's Chapman Stick or a certain effect pedal being turned on.  You just play Red, and sure it might sound like garbage, but it is genuine and honest, like a big slobbery dog.

This is also the one time where the losing album did not fail.  Discipline is a glorious journey through a new age of intelligent music.  It is the pique of King Crimson's style of horn-rimmed glasses music.  The problem, however, is that it shares that similar quality with eleven other albums that bare the Crimson name.  Red is the odd one.  It is a welcome oddity.

Red does not win today just because it is emotional, as there are endless "emotional" albums that sound like complete trash.  Fripp succeeded in his early career meltdown in music form.  This was him at his lowest, the point where his ego was gone as he has stated.  This is a humble guitarist, a rare glimpse into a defeated person.  Perhaps this is a side he should consider showing again one day.

Winner and the King Of The Crimson Court: