King Crimson's seminal debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King, isn't the first progressive rock album; that particular distinction has been attributed to myriad other rock LPs, with some of the more convincing candidates including the likes of The Nice's The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack. It is, however, the quintessential and most influential prog album, establishing many of the conventions of the genre and defining and shaping the sound that would come to embody the style. From its hyper professional jamming to its otherworldly feel to its archetypal prog lyrics penned by none other than the prototypical prog lyricist Peter Sinfield to its virtuoso vocals provided by one of the most prominent figures in progressive rock history, Greg Lake, to its complex, multi-part structures to its nearly uniformly epic lengths for the tracks to its innate experimental, deeply ambitious tendencies, In The Court Of The Crimson King boasts myriad facets that would become integral aspects of the progressive rock movement. While Emerson's Rondo was a significant accomplishment that helped usher in the era of prog, it can't compare with 21st Century Schizoid Man in terms of innovation or influence, rendering King Crimson's debut the pivotal first chapter in the annals of progressive rock. Countless rock acts would take their cue from In The Court Of The Crimson King, from Gentle Giant's thinly veiled remake of it to (after Lake's defection from King Crimson) Emerson, Lake And Palmer's analogous sonic explorations.
Fortunately, once one penetrates beyond the album's influential nature they'll find a great album; even bereft of any historical connotations In The Court Of The Crimson King remains a true classic, an LP eminently deserving of its legendary status. The band had fashioned a truly unique sound without sacrificing the quality of the songwriting; the group's pretensions rarely overshadow the hooks, ensuring an engrossing listen for the duration of the album (with one notable exception).
The album opens with what might be King Crimson's most beloved song, 21st Century Schizoid Man. From its magnificent riff to its powerful drive to its brilliant jazzy interludes to Lake's manic encoded vocals to its superb jamming the song is a stunning achievement in the realm of progressive rock, a masterpiece to herald a new chapter in the history of rock.
The band inject the subtlest traces of dissonance into the track, enough to breed an unsettling edge without marring, obstructing or diluting the melody, while Sinfield's typically meaningless lyrics actually fit well in this context. There had never been a song that sounded like this before, and it's a true testament to what the group was capable of achieving even in the embryonic stage of progressive rock.
Next comes the ballad I Talk To The Wind, a pretty, soothing track boasting a great melody and wonderful gentle vocals from Lake. From its lovely flute solos to its unforgettable vocal melody the song is another triumph; it may be one of the lesser tracks on the album but it served its dual function of both providing a respite for the listener after the relentless onslaught of the opener and displaying that King Crimson were capable of more than vicious riffs and apocalyptic soundscapes.
After the pretty but slight I Talk To The Wind is over the band proceeds into the album's second epic, the classic Epitaph. Radiating more majesty than nearly any other song could hope to attain it's a brilliant creation, leaving the listener in awe of its aural splendor. No one but Lake could infuse the kind of power that he unleashes during the devastating refrain into their vocals, transfiguring Sinfield's usual breed of pretentious inanities masquerading as profundities into words of deep meaning and consequence, sending the listener into a state of instant catharsis.
It's here, however, that the album runs into problems. Moonchild, for as long as it remains a song, is another beautiful ballad in the vein of I Talk To The Wind, with a gorgeous vocal melody and a dreamlike atmosphere. I would say that it subsequently segues into a sound collage, but this would be incorrect, as the sound collage feels as if it's been haphazardly grafted onto an otherwise normal song. The track degenerates into a parade of random and meaningless sounds, a tedious, consummately self-indulgent farce that sabotages an otherwise strong number. To further exacerbate an already grating situation Moonchild is the longest track on the album, thus heavily detracting from the album as a whole.
Fortunately the finale puts the album back on track, another brilliant epic that bowls over the listener with its majestic power. Deriving its name from the title, the song boasts an exceptional vocal melody and a visceral power that's almost unrivaled. One would think that this trio of epics would, by now, have left the listener exhausted and depleted, but nevertheless the title track can be fully appreciated even after this emotionally draining juggernaut, a testament to the profound songwriting talent of the group.
With progressive rock groups, the performances are often nearly as important as the songs themselves, and in this department the album does not disappoint. Greg Lake's vocals are incredible, emotive without ever sounding forced and powerful without coming off as melodramatic or theatrical. His imminent departure was a pity, but at least he contributed his considerable talents to another worthwhile prog outfit in the form of the previously mentioned ELP.
Elsewhere Robert Fripp, though he has yet to assume control of the band as he would in later years, displays his instrumental chops as a stellar guitarist, with 21st Century Schizoid Man, in particular, acting as a showcase for his potent riffage and virtuoso jamming.
Ian McDonald is also a major creative force in the band, while his mellotron work plays a huge role in establishing the album's otherworldly feel. The album is difficult to imagine without his extensive usage of the mellotron, and the instrument, even after McDonald's surprisingly early departure, would be a staple of the group for some time to come.
Michael Giles, in addition to the songwriting responsibility shared democratically by his bandmates, is a great drummer, not quite a virtuoso but very skilled nonetheless. Along with Fripp he constitutes the only other remaining erstwhile member of the ill fated project of Giles, Giles and Fripp that preceded the inception of King Crimson (though admittedly it was an enterprise of a vastly different nature).
As alluded to, Sinfield is the court lyricist for the band, as well as a profound influence on future prog songwriters. Though he plays no instrument he remains a significant member of the band, while his brand of bombastic nonsense would spread from prog group to prog group like an unstoppable contagion.
Thus King Crimson, from the very beginning, featured both the right bandmembers and the right songs to propel them to instant stardom , laying the seeds for the progressive rock movement to come. Every element was perfectly in place to launch the prog revolution, and could only have been so with this exact cast and these exact songs, songs that were a natural product of this lineup of individuals. Ergo In The Court Of The Crimson King is the genesis of the prog rock movement in its most well known and most popular form. The Nice may have beaten King Crimson to the punch but whereas they boasted only the raw ingredient of prog, it was the latter who shaped these ingredients into a whole new style that would irrevocably change the history of rock music.
From the very beginning circumstances seemed to conspire against King Crimson's sophomore effort; the majority of the group quit before or in the midst of the recording sessions, leaving the band in utter disarray. In order to salvage the situation Robert Fripp was forced to step up and assume nearly absolute control of the band, desperately trying to hold things together while giving the group time to recover from its nearly fatal losses.
One of the near crippling losses was the departure of Greg Lake, who left to help found the prog super group Emerson, Lake And Palmer. Fortunately Lake, ever the professional, fulfilled his remaining obligations for King Crimson, and thus handles the vocals on every track save Cadence And Cascade on which his (vastly inferior) replacement Gordon Haskell makes his debut.
Additionally Michael Giles opted to leave the band, and while he was never an exceptional drummer his departure remains a severe blow to the band. Like Lake he didn't leave the band in the lurch, continuing to contribute his services on his final hour in the group.
Perhaps the biggest loss, however, was that of McDonald who, by all accounts, had been the primary songwriter for the group (not to mention the mellotron player, an instrument that had been a pivotal element in the band's debut; to compensate for McDonald's absence in this department Fripp assumed responsibility over usage of the mellotron). Unlike his other departing colleagues McDonald made no effort to cushion the blow of his sudden withdrawal, and thus the only mention he receives in the liner notes is co-songwriting credit for Cat Food, a song culled from the In The Court Of The Crimson King sessions.
These departures served to compound an already pressing dilemma for the group, namely how to follow up their seminal debut. Even without the band's losses this would have proven to be a difficult conundrum, and with the losses it poses a seemingly insurmountable problem. In The Court Of The Crimson King had essentially spawned a new style of music, and invariably any subsequent output from the group would be rigorously, mercilessly compared to their debut.
Were the group to simply adhere to the blueprints of their debut, crafting what ostensibly constitutes a sequel, they'd be lambasted for their conservative approach, following a course that would ensure that they'd inevitably fall victim to stagnation, even at such an early stage in their career. On the other hand, if they tried something drastically new they'd risk alienating their fanbase, taking risks that could jeopardize their newfound acclaim and popularity.
Fripp, now the major creative force in the group, opted for the former approach, producing a work uncomfortably reminiscent of their first outing. In The Wake Of Poseidon is a transparent rehash of King Crimson's debut, resembling its predecessor in both structure and sound.
It's unclear if the group would have headed in this direction were it not for the personnel losses the band sustained, and it's quite possible that Fripp, struggling to maintain a band in the midst of a devastating crisis, simply wanted to prove that King Crimson could still craft work in the vein of their debut even without McDonald's brilliant songwriting. If this is the case, then he certainly succeeded at that endeavor, as the album sounds very much like the band's preceding work, an organic successor that never comes across as an imitation or the product of an imposter.
While many may bemoan the album's overarching similarity to In The Court Of The Crimson King, what matter's most in the long run is the quality of the songs. Capturing the proper King Crimson sound is insufficient in and of itself to fashion a strong follow up, while an adherence to the group's established formula doesn't guarantee any qualitative correlations between the original and sequel. It's the caliber of the songwriting that can make or break an album, and in this regard In The Wake Of Poseidon fares quite well.
As alluded to previously, Fripp assumed control over the creative end of the group, penning the music accompanied by Sinfield's usual brand of lyrics. Fortunately, Fripp demonstrates throughout that he's a highly accomplished songwriter, composing excellent melodies while still providing his typically brilliant guirawork as well as his newfound skillful mellotron playing.
This isn't to say that the album is bereft of misfires. Presumably for some form of conceptual unity the album features a recurring song entitled Peace; the track is featured three times, at the beginning, middle and end, and while the renditions aren't identical (the second's purely instrumental, for example) their level of quality remains static. The music is primitive and Sinfield's lyrics are consummately wince worthy, cringe inducing pretentiousness devoid of any intelligence or substance. Often a cappella, they come off as preachy and grating, hardly the moving universal statements they masquerade as. Thankfully they're kept short, but they still detract from the album, which is understandable as they're more the product of Sinfield than Fripp, an equation that's guaranteed to yield negative results.
Aside from these embarrassments, however, the songs are quite strong. Pictures Of A City is the album's 21st Century Schizoid Man, but this doesn't mean that it's an exercise in self-plagiarism. From a melodic standpoint the song is a wholly original entity, merely being positioned as this album's counterpart to the band's first epic. Pictures Of A City is a ferocious riff rocker with irresistible jazzy overtones, an incredible jam that's comparable with 21st Century Schizoid Man's Mirrors and more lyrical absurdities courtesy of Sinfield that manage to work thanks to Lake's impeccable delivery. The song is a bona fide classic, and an early indication that the band could still survive with its quality and musical essence intact even without McDonald's creative guidance.
Next comes Cadence And Cascade, a pretty ballad that recalls I Talk To The Wind from their debut. Haskell isn't the ideal vocalist for the job, a pale shadow of his predecessor, but the song still works well, its beauty uncompromised by its underwhelming vocal delivery.
Predictably enough, the following track is the album's Epitaph equivalent, the title track; while it undeniably owes a lot to its predecessor, this doesn't diminish the sheer majesty of the song, and it possesses more than enough new traits to distinguish itself from the group's past triumphs.
Elsewhere Cat Food, thankfully enough, is a stylistic departure for the group, a track with no analogs in their prior recordings. An offbeat, surreal rocker dating back to the McDonald era of the band it's sharper and edgier than anything else the band had done to this point in their careers, with nonsensical Sinfield lyrics that manage to sound more compelling than his usual fare thanks to the track's innately humorous character. The vocals are punchy and moody, while the music is extremely catchy, proving that the group was capable of offering a broader scope than was initially apparent from their early work.
The final non-Peace track, Devil's Triangle, is a bit of a letdown, but it's still quite strong. A multi-part instrumental depicting a massive battle, the track has an epic feel and quite eloquently captures the chaos and confusion of a conflict of its scale. Despite its disparate chapters the track flows quite well, segueing between sections in a logical and organic manner.
Thus the album is another classic from the group, and an amazing achievement for a band that appeared to be falling apart at the seams. One would have predicted that when a group loses its driving creative force and essential musicians it would be condemned to waste away into nothingness, and this would have been the fate of King Crimson had Fripp not stepped up to the challenge and held the band together. While the album is derivative of its predecessor, Fripp ensured that the melodies were distinctive enough to differentiate them from the band's prior work, betraying a true flair for songwriting that wasn't always evident when McDonald monopolized the creative end of the group. It's true that the album doesn't break any new ground, and the recurring Peace motif is quite irksome, but nevertheless In The Wake Of Poseidon is a triumph, boasting superb songwriting, brilliant performances and no colossal blunders on the level of Moonchild. The band would have time to evolve and develop; for now it was enough to simply prove to the world that the group would prevail through any vicissitudes it was forced to weather, retaining everything that made them such a great prog outfit in the first place.
Fripp was determined not to release any more thinly veiled rehashes of the band's seminal debut, and Lizard awarded him the perfect opportunity to try something radically different; while Lake, McDonald and Giles had already quit King Crimson on In The Wake Of Poseidon, they had, for the most part, remained present on that album, fulfilling their professional obligations toward the group prior to their real departures. With an entirely new lineup to work with, and now fully established as the band's undisputed leader, Fripp had full freedom to experiment in any vein that suited him with no one to curtail or question his artistic vision.
Unfortunately, Lizard makes it abundantly clear that Fripp wasn't ready for the task of single-handedly dictating the creative direction of a rock band, and the result is a debacle that must have stunned listeners not only for its vastly different sound from King Crimson's prior output but likewise for its dramatic, devastating qualitative plummet when compared to the brilliance of In The Court Of The Crimson King and In The Wake Of Poseidon.
For starters Lizard embraces a profoundly different branch of the prog rock spectrum than what King Crimson fans had become accustomed to; the album fuses rock with classical music, a maneuver that's commonplace in the world of progressive rock but vastly different from the jazz influenced hard rock and balladry that the band had previously been engaged in.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong with taking the band in this direction, were it not for the fact that this pseudo-classical/rock hybrid is rather poorly implemented to say the very least. The sound of this ambitious fusion is generally clumsy and somewhat desultory, with no true intelligence or creativity guiding this already challenging endeavor.
Many of the album's defects stem from the band's rather loose conception of what should constitute a prog jam. Invariably they sound as if they're tossing off random sounds while hoping in vain that this amateurish instrumental noodling will form some kind of coherent, cohesive and meaningful whole. Many of the tracks are an exercise in entropy, as the structured verses degenerate into the cacophonous aural onslaught of intersecting and overlapping unrelated notes and solos.
This isn't to praise the verses; while admittedly more structured than the sonic meanderings meant to approximate jams, the verses are generally too awkward to be catchy, like the jerky refrain of Indoor Games. Thus one can't even find refuge in the verses, as the listener is subjected to discordant music no matter where he turns, be it the jarringly clumsy verses or the headache inducing chaotic jams.
Another huge liability can be found in the vocals. While on In The Wake Of Poseidon Haskell sounded like an at least somewhat competent replacement for Lake (as he did a decent if bland job with his interpretation of Cadence And Cascade), on Lizard his vocal delivery is nearly unbearable. While much of this can be attributed to one's purely visceral response to Haskell's voice, the fact of the matter is that even when factoring this subjectivity into the equation he's hardly an accomplished singer from a technical perspective, which is simply exacerbated by this personal reaction. His voice is anathema to me, which is compounded not only by comparisons with Lake but by the fact that his bandmates attempt to compensate for his weaknesses with misguided gestures like employing a noxious brand of vocal encoding on Haskell during Happy Family, which transfigures an already awful, hoarse voice into an aural ordeal that's nearly impossible to endure.
Haskell is grating to the point that Yes' Jon Anderson, hardly one of my favorite prog vocalists, sounds like a virtuoso during his brief guest spot during the Lizard suite. He certainly provides a nice, very welcome respite from Haskell's vocals, a testament to the horror of the latter's voice.
While the poorness of the jamming and vocals have now been established, there have been few allusions to the caliber of the songwriting. Sadly, Fripp's skills as a composer are somewhat lacking at this stage in his career, and the product of this deficiency is a series of bland, repetitious and uninteresting numbers. Many of the tracks even function as little more than forums for the band's jams with predictably dreadful results.
Not all of the songs are awful; the album starts out on a misleading note with the very solid Cirkus, which boasts a clever riff (that would subsequently be modified and reused on Thrak's Dinosaur) and one of the LP's few strong vocal melodies. The jamming is contained, as the band restrain themselves from their usual self-indulgent excesses, and thus it's a track that I can say is thoroughly enjoyable without the reservations I'd have for nearly every other song on the album.
Unfortunately Cirkus is the lone full song that merits praise, as Indoor Games, Happy Family and Lady Of The Dancing Water are all rather pedestrian numbers, afflicted with the tedious jams, poor songwriting and obnoxious vocals that dominate the bulk of the album.
This leaves the centerpiece of the album, the sidelong title, multi-part title track. The first portion is actually rather entertaining, a basic but charming pop song that's at odds with every other part of the album. Unfortunately, the remainder of the song is marred by the record's usual flaws; there are decent bits scattered throughout, but not enough to justify the bloated length of the track. It does little to warrant its runtime, simply providing more of the usual atonal solos that fill the record; were it not explicitly stated in the liner notes one likely wouldn't be able to deduce that its disparate sections make up a single song, as by and large its merely sounds like more tracks in the vein of the first four, with little to differentiate them from one another.
Ultimately Lizard is a severe misstep for the group. Fripp is far from infallible, and on Lizard all of his worst traits are fully exposed, from his failings as a songwriter to his weaknesses as a band leader. It was admirable of him to try to take the group in a new, unexplored direction, but in the end his pretensions were for naught, as Lizard fails as both a pseudo-classical experiment and as a rock album, rendering the record a misfire on every level. Cirkus is solid, as are parts of the Lizard suite, but overall the album deserves little adulation, a bombastic behemoth with precious little substance beneath all of its lofty pretensions.
Apparently Fripp learned very little from the debacle that was Lizard, as he repeats nearly every mistake made on his previous outing. The haphazard, cacophonous jams return in full force, while he has yet to sufficiently develop as a songwriter to take the helm of a rock group as their sole composer with any measure of success.
This isn't to say that Fripp didn't endeavor to correct any of Lizard's defects; to compensate for the uniformity of his previous album he attempts to branch out a bit more from a stylistic perspective, hence numbers like the biting, pseudo-hard rock of Ladies Of The Road and the emotional melodrama of Letters. Sadly these measures were to no avail, as even the tracks that don't conform to the record's norm are similarly bogged down with the aural effluvia that afflicts most of Islands, negating their effectiveness at infusing a note of diversity into the work.
Another attempt at improving upon the disastrous Lizard met with at least a modicum of success, namely the banishment of Haskell and installation of a new vocalist. This replacement is affectionately referred to as Boz in the liner notes, though I wouldn't really desire that degree of familiarity with the man as, while an improvement over Haskell, he's hardly that impressive as a singer, and I don't bemoan how short-lived his time in the band was.
Otherwise the bulk of the album consists of the brand of abrasive, defiantly avant garde instrumentation that had sabotaged the band's last project, as headache inducing jams and dissonant passages abound. The opening two tracks are especially egregious instances of this nearly perpetual tendency toward discord, as they offer little save tempests of overlapping sonic ugliness and directionless soloing.
The band had always flirted with dissonance, but by this point they'd fully embraced it, injecting discordant notes into nearly every empty space on the album. Dissonance consumes nearly the whole LP, never betraying any more profound purpose or guiding intelligence. While Fripp and company certainly make their material complex, thus adhering to one of the unspoken codes of the genre, they almost never provide anything approaching a memorable melody or catchy hook, devoting all their effort toward self-indulgent sonic pretentiousness.
As was the case with Lizard, however, Islands does have moments that recall the days when King Crimson had been a great prog outfit. Prelude: Song Of The Gulls offers a rare moment of beauty on the album, as Fripp's forays into the realm of classical music are met with a good deal of success on this occasion. Rather than contaminate the track with the usual obnoxious discord Fripp opts to simply play and compose the piece as a true work of classical music rather than a forum for postmodernist subversion or avant garde modernization.
Elsewhere the title track, while somewhat bland and nondescript, is still rather pretty, and it was a sagacious decision to end the album on a pleasant note as opposed to a showcase for twisted instrumentals or eldritch onslaughts of sonic chaos. The song doesn't amount to much independent of its structural context, but any respite from the nearly ubiquitous sonic ugliness is most welcome indeed.
Ultimately the album is another misfire, as Fripp was obviously experiencing a great deal of difficulty in terms of acting as the primary creative force in the band. In The Court Of The Crimson King and even In The Wake Of Poseidon were largely products of the group's original lineup, and without the likes of McDonald to help guide Fripp through the creative process the guitarist was ill equipped to handle the responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders.
Additionally, even though the band's sound had drastically changed it appeared that Fripp had yet to find his own voice for the group. His struggles with pseudo-classical music hadn't been a fruitful as he had hoped, and the style never seemed to complement Fripp's innate strengths, rather suppressing some of his greatest assets. Fripp's brand of guitarwork was far more compatible with hard rock material than classical workouts, while as a songwriter his specialty lay in concocting original riffs rather than conjuring classically informed melodies.
The band was obviously in dire need of a new direction, and it was clear that Fripp alone could not effect this metamorphosis. As gifted as he was Fripp needed help at this stage of his career, as well as a better forum for displaying his considerable talents. The pseudo-classical era of the band had proven to be disastrous, and it was time to make a clean break from it before the group's image was irrevocably tarnished.
On Larks' Tongues In Aspic Fripp cements his status as the Mark E. Smith of progressive rock when it comes to his revolving door policy for group members; much like the Fall's notorious frontman most of Fripp's collaborators would invariably resign after one or two albums, thus rendering he and Smith the lone constants in their ever changing rock ensembles.
Thus the lineup of King Crimson on Larks' Tongues In Aspic bears no resemblance to their previous incarnations save for Fripp's inevitable presence. Even Peter Sinfield, who had penned the group's lyrics from the start, has defected to Emerson, Lake And Palmer, replaced with Richard W. Palmer-James, whose work is inoffensive and thankfully not quite as bloated and bombastic as his predecessor's contributions had been.
On the drumming front erstwhile Yes member Bill Bruford has lent his considerable talents to the band; a true virtuoso, his technical mastery is balanced by the less orthodox percussion of Jamie Muir, a rather eccentric figure whose on stage antics became legendary amongst King Crimson fans. The interplay between Bruford and Muir remains brilliant throughout, as their vastly different styles manage to mesh perfectly, ever complementing one another and never attempting to overshadow each other.
Elsewhere violinist David Cross plays a prominent role on the album, and while one would initially suspect that a string section would mar the proceedings Cross emerges as a great asset throughout the LP, never sounding the least bit incongruous or inappropriate.
The most dramatic addition is that of John Wetton, the new bassist/vocalist (why the singers on early King Crimson albums invariably ended up playing bass is beyond me, but it seems like some kind of unwritten rule that they felt compelled to adhere to). While not the best vocalist in the world he's easily the best the band has had since Lake's departure, and it's refreshing for a King Crimson singer to actually add to songs rather than detract from them.
Most importantly Wetton is also a rather gifted songwriter, and the preceding albums had established that Fripp was in dire need of help in that department. Most of the tracks on Larks' Tongues In Aspic are credited to multiple band members, and this kind of creative collaborative environment is precisely what Fripp needed to hone his songwriting skills and have partners to help regulate his less inspired ideas. Fripp remains a critical part of the songwriting team but now, with the aid of talented collaborators he has room to grow at his own pace rather than have the burden of the band's creative direction placed solely on his shoulders.
As for the album, in many respects it functions as a kind of template for all of the band's subsequent output. Fripp had finally discovered a formula that was suited to his own strengths as well as his vision for the group, and the result is a structure that King Crimson would at least loosely adhere to for the remainder of their existence.
Larks' Tongues In Aspic centers around hyper complex, intricately structured jams that show off the band's considerable chops while remaining creative, innovative, well written and surprisingly accessible for the listener. Gone are the wretched jams inflicted upon us on Lizard and Islands; this is a new lineup, and one that fully understands what constitutes good instrumentation with the musicianship to perfectly implement their elaborate musical visions.
Furthermore, to reinforce the importance of the jams three out of the six tracks on the album are purely instrumental, and even the more conventional songs focus far more on the soloing and jamming than the vocals or the lyrics. This emphasis on the music rendered Palmer-James' presence a mere afterthought, as it was clear that, for the first time, Fripp knew precisely what he wanted to achieve with his band.
The album opens with Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part One, a behemoth of an instrumental that clocks in at over 13 minutes. Its initial sections are somewhat reminiscent of Careful With That Axe Eugene, as it begins with a gradual escalation of tension set to a minimalistic backing until it reaches its explosive climax, except the ferocity of the crescendos here make Pink Floyd's experimental classic seem almost timid in comparison.
From there the song segues into a series of jams, perpetually conveying a sense of menace throughout both the hard and soft sections. Cross in particular distinguishes himself on the minimalistic sections, as his violin playing is a crucial part of the unsettling sonic panorama created by the song. Fripp dominates the harder sections with roaring riffs and vicious soloing, and the contrast between the two sections merely enhances both the potency of the ultimate aural pyrotechnics as well as the subtle sense of danger infused into the softer passages.
The song is a true classic that immediately demonstrates the differences between this lineup of King Crimson and their previous incarnation. Nothing on either Lizard or Islands can even approach the brilliance of the track; whereas on past occasions the band sounded desultory and muddled, on Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part One the group have an unrivaled sense of focus as well as great chemistry, working in tandem to create this terrifying soundscape.
Next comes Book Of Saturday, a pretty ballad that offers the listener a respite after the exhausting first part of the title track. The track is often dismissed as it lacks the epic atmosphere that informs the bulk of the album, but this is a pity; while missing the profound impact that the other numbers carry the song remains tight and well written, with a solid vocal melody and a well developed gloomy atmosphere.
Book Of Saturday is followed by Exiles, a song with a much greater scope and sense of ambition than the previous song. Boasting great vocal melodies, a multi-part structure and plentiful instrumental hooks, the group manage to transfigure what's essentially a pop song into a complex, artistic epic. Wetton acquits himself admirably on the track, turning in a performance that certainly isn't up to Lake's standards but is quite impressive nonetheless.
This leaves only one actual song left, the moody, sinister Easy Money. Evoking an infectious tenebrous atmosphere, the number is quite catchy, marrying a plethora of hooks to its unnerving cynicism. From Wetton's dark yet playful vocal gymnastics at the beginning to its subsequent tightly constructed jam to its ominous verses the song succeeds on many levels, a grim sonic spectacle worthy of placement amongst such an illustrious lineup of songs.
From there all that remain are instrumentals. Like Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part One, The Talking Drum revolves around a slow buildup of tension and menace as the band's soloing weave into a cohesive pattern designed to be as unsettling and unnerving as possible. Despite this fact that track is quite entertaining, as are all the numbers on the album; even when attempting to elicit fear and disquietude from the listener the tracks remain, at heart, accessible and enjoyable, as the band eschew the dissonance of past projects in favor of melodies that remain well structured and hold together even at the most chaotic moments.
Talking Drum fluidly segues into the album's magnum opus, the classic instrumental Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part Two. Fripp receives sole songwriting credit here, reinforcing my assertion that his strengths translate far better into progressive hard rock than the pseudo-classical areas he'd been dabbling in on the previous two albums. The track has an absolutely stellar riff, and the ensuing jam is all one could hope for from a group that now specializes in complex, heavy prog instrumentals. Everything on the track gels perfectly, from the ambient sound of the larks' cries to Fripp's frantic, phenomenal soloing to the number's epic feel. The track is ample proof that Fripp had selected the right direction for the band, a testament to his skills as both a guitarist and a composer.
Thus Fripp not only chose the ideal course for the band but likewise selected precisely the right group of musicians to help him realize his newfound vision. This new lineup offered Fripp the perfect environment in which to develop and mature as a rock artist, and when this growth was combined with the considerable talents of his bandmates the product was one of the group's finest moments as well as a terrific comeback after being stuck in a rut for the previous two albums. Gone was the directionless, meandering group that had produced Lizard and Islands, replaced by a band with a renewed focus and sense of purpose, along with the chops to back it up.
While one may very well envision King Crimson's typical fare as polished, calculated and meticulously crafted, amongst the fans who frequented the band's usual venues the group was renowned for another reason entirely. Fripp and company regularly interspersed lengthy improvisational numbers with their more well known prog anthems, engaging in prolonged adlibbed sessions that saw the group throw caution to the wind as they demonstrated that their skills weren't confined to performing carefully designed songs but extended to a whole other level of creativity as well.
Unfortunately, as impressive as this brand of experimentation may be in a live environment, it doesn't necessarily translate to disc very well; nevertheless the band opted to include a number of live-in-the-studio improvisations on Starless And Bible Black, attempting to bridge the gap between their live and studio experiences. This may work in theory, but by and large avant garde exercises of this nature aren't terribly conducive to repeated listens, failing to fascinate their audience as they would in a live setting.
King Crimson's improvisational numbers, despite their apparent spontaneity, tend to follow a certain formula; the individual members muddle around aimlessly until they stumble upon a decent groove, which they proceed to draw the rest of the group into, adhering to it until it becomes egregiously over abused, subsequently spiraling off in different directions once again and desperately searching for another idea to latch onto and repeat the process.
This gives the jams a somewhat jerky start/stop feel, as in between the sporadic moments of inspiration there's very little that's worth listening to. Invariably the listener will simply zone out during these desultory periods, snapping to attention solely for the more engaging, structured portions of the instrumentals.
This isn't always the case; Trio is actually rather pretty, a far cry from the chaotic dissonance that constitutes most of the improvisations. The true highlight amongst these jams, however, is the closer Fracture; while it's a tad overlong and doesn't always hold together, it remains a rather impressive piece of work, rocking very convincingly while sounding more structured than their typical improvised fare.
The remaining improvised tracks, We'll Let You Know, The Mincer and the title track, are rather dispensable. They certainly have their moments, but they're too few and far between, devoting most of their runtimes to sonic meandering that never goes anywhere.
The conventional tracks are erratic, but for the most part quite strong. The opener, The Great Deceiver, is a furious rocker with unrivaled intensity and drive, while The Night Watch sounds more like The Moody Blues than King Crimson, but as I'm a fan of both groups that doesn't really present a problem.
Lament, on the other hand, is a rather pedestrian number, failing to be compelling during both its soft and hard sections. It lacks an engaging melody or well defined hooks, which in this case is a great liability given that, with the preponderance of tracks being improvisations, listeners will inevitably look to the regular studio songs for their more standard musical needs.
Thus Starless And Bible Black is a highly flawed but ultimately worthwhile experience. The improvisations, predictably enough, are rather hit or miss, and only two out of the three conventional songs merit much praise, but the good material is sufficiently strong to give the album a decent rating. The Great Deceiver is a classic, The Night Watch is quite good and joins Exiles and the subsequent Fallen Angel as highly entertaining numbers in a similar, more Wetton influenced vein, and Fracture is proof that the group was indeed capable of the difficult feat of delivering strong improvisational material.
Despite the praise I'm lavished on Fracture, however, the album also demonstrates that, given the vast superiority of their previous LP, the band are far better at their customary pre-written style than these adlibbed performances. Fortunately the band seemed to realize this, however, as their subsequent albums are generally far more song oriented; at the opposite end of the spectrum, though, the album also predicts the even greater self-indulgence of the eventual ProjecKts, as King Crimson would never lose their love of pretentious improvisational enterprises, merely growing wise enough to compartmentalize them, thus usually abstaining from these excesses on their regular studio releases.
Around halfway through the recording of Red David Cross succumbed to the inevitable fate of all King Crimson members (barring Fripp, of course), permanently leaving the group. This left the core band (there was still an array of session musicians who took part in the recording) a trio, with Fripp, Wetton and Bruford being all that remained. Cross can still be heard on several tracks, as his departure from the band was rather abrupt and transpired in the midst of the Red sessions, but for the most part the group depicted on the album is a trio, and the final product is the fruits of their labors alone.
Progressive rock trios were hardly unheard of (with Emerson, Lake And Palmer being one of the more prominent examples of them), and the band's diminutive lineup is never a liability; in fact the album's an enormous improvement over its predecessor, a highly impressive return to form that propels Red to the heights of In The Court Of The Crimson King and Larks' Tongues In Aspic.
The first step toward this amelioration is rather basic, simply addressing the fundamental weaknesses exhibited on Starless And Bible Black. The primary defects of that particular album were rather glaring and transparent, and thus not terribly difficult to remedy, namely the proliferation of self-indulgent, masturbatory improvisations, an assortment of adlibs prone to dissonance and aimlessness. Fully rectifying that problem would have been effortless, but unfortunately it wasn't a concession the band was quite willing to make, and thus they abstain from fully righting the situation.
Ergo rather than eliminate all improvisational pieces they compromise by reducing the number down to one; this seems reasonable enough at first until one discovers the fact that there are only five songs on Red, and the improvisational jam, entitled Providence, is the second longest track on the album, constituting over eight minutes of desultory instrumental noodling and chaotic cacophony. This is an aural ordeal the listener should never have been subjected to according to the rules of good taste, and it's perplexing that the band felt compelled to include it on the final product where, as the lone composition of that nature, its myriad flaws are even more evident than on the group's prior outing.
Fortunately the remainder of the album easily compensates for the presence of that solitary aberration. The LP is one of the finest instances of prog metal that one will ever encounter, comprised of stellar heavy jamming with the complexity of a progressive rock composition. The songs, save Providence, are uniformly brilliant, seamlessly marrying metallic overtones with stereotypical prog elements often held together by more conventional song structures that served to ground the tracks, offering them a solid foundation that would prevent them from degenerating into sonic entropy.
The opening title track is little more than a riff-fest, but this is hardly a problem; the riffs are all superb, and the track weaves them all together with the utmost fluidity, never sounding clunky, awkward or contrived. Fripp receives sole credit for the number, predictably enough as, like Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part Two, the number is exclusively composed of his exceptional facility for generating amazing riffs, but the other members deserve credit as well for ensuring that the track proceeds forward without a hitch, making it sound like a real song as opposed to a mere exhibition for riffage or a parade of metallic chord sequences. The track is a true classic, and while on their subsequent endeavors King Crimson would produce a plethora of similarly structured tunes Red remains an enduring classic, standing the test of time and never being overshadowed by the likes of Thrak or Level 5.
Red is followed by Fallen Angel, another huge highlight in the vein of Exiles and The Night Watch. The track functions, as the other two had, as a showcase for Wetton, who not only deserves the most credit for the song on a creative level but also turns in one of his best vocal performances, adeptly conveying the innate pathos of the tune. The song is an intriguing juxtaposition of a more sedate, conventional and even pretty number and a more typical King Crimson flirtation with dissonance and off kilter jamming. The two sides of the song actually mesh quite well, delivering a very satisfying listening experience without ever becoming an overt or problematic clash of styles. The track is more transparently emotional than the band tends to be, and is ultimately rather haunting in a manner that isn't achieved through gothic riffage or a discordant sonic onslaught but instead simply through its more straightforward verses and atmosphere.
Next comes another incredible track, the profoundly unsettling yet immensely catchy One More Red Nightmare. The song deals with airplane phobias, depicting a disaster through its infectious vocal melody, excellent jamming and high caliber riff. Wetton's paranoid vocals match the song perfectly, and when combined with its topnotch instrumentation the track becomes a tenebrous anthem of the highest order, a fusion of heavy metal, pop and the usual virtuoso performances inherent to most progressive rock groups.
The aforementioned Providence rather unceremoniously disrupts the streak of high quality songs on the album, a dissonant experiment that has no place on an LP that consists of such polished, accomplished works. Like most of the band's improvisational numbers the track has its moments, but these are few and far between and certainly, in and of themselves, do not merit inclusion on the album. One of two instrumentals on the album, with the other being the title track, the tracks are practically antitheses, with Red being a masterfully structured, immaculately produced and deeply focused number while Providence is a meandering, clumsy, purposeless mass of haphazard notes professing to be music and discordant instrumental interplay so bereft of chemistry that one would never suspect that these musicians have been playing together for years.
Fortunately the album is immediately saved from the doldrums by the incredible finale, the epic behemoth Starless. The track is the longest one on the album and has every right to be, as it's too dynamic to ever group monotonous or tedious. The track is a remnant of the Starless And Bible Black sessions, which is consummately mystifying as it's better than anything that album had to offer. A work of somber, elegant beauty, Starless is a deeply rich and evocative composition, a viscerally moving affair that keeps on developing throughout to dispel any potential for repetition or stagnation. The song features a segment that revolves around gradually increasing tension until the inevitable explosive crescendo, and in this regard the track even beats the classic Talking Drum for sheer intensity and craftsmanship. The song is the perfect closer for a highly impressive outing, ensuring that the listener's final impression of the album is a positive one.
Thus Red is a terrific comeback after the lackluster Starless And Bible Black. This variation of the King Crimson lineup proved itself to be capable of quite striking work, and likely would have continued to produce positive results. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to Robert Fripp, shortly after the release of Red he disbanded (theoretically irrevocably) the group to focus on his dramatically less successful solo career. It's rumored that Fripp asserted that the group had become dinosaurs, an accusation that would certainly have been leveraged against them had they persevered into the punk era. Perhaps Fripp foresaw this change in the music climate and wanted to escape with his dignity intact, but regardless it's truly a pity that this incarnation of the band never had the chance to develop further. Fortunately they went out on a very high note, something the band and fans alike should certainly derive some measure of solace from.
Apparently frustrated by the dearth of success that his solo career had enjoyed, Fripp decided to resurrect King Crimson after a seven year hiatus, a sabbatical that had initially been intended to be permanent. But it was clear, given the vicissitudes the industry had undergone, that the band could never be the same in either purpose or sound, and thus it was necessary or the group to experience a metamorphosis of sorts, one that would fully reinvent King Crimson and enable them to adapt to the vastly different musical climate they now found themselves in.
In order to effect this transformation it was not only necessary to recruit new members but likewise to modify the artistic approaches of the returning King Crimson veterans. Thus Bruford had assimilated a plethora of modern techniques, with these contemporary influences manifesting themselves in the form of an affinity for world music that would redefine his style as a drummer.
Even Fripp was forced to drastically adjust the nature of his guitarwork, a difficult task that was made feasible thanks to the myriad disparate artists he'd been collaborating with during the intervening years, a veritable who's who list of rock icons ranging from The Talking Heads to Peter Gabriel to David Bowie. The resultant shift in Fripp's playing style emphasizes his newfound love for new wave dynamics, which is understandable as that emerging genre was highly trendy at the time and he was desperate to ensure that the new King Crimson was perceived as a hip and with it rock outfit as opposed to a cadre of anachronistic dinosaurs hailing from the passé progressive rock movement.
The additions to the band's lineup, however, have the most dramatic effect on the group's sound. Bass virtuoso Tony Levin has joined the group, instantly asserting himself as a great asset. Levin is easily the most gifted bassist in King Crimson history; perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that he's one of the few bassists involved with the band who wasn't also the chief vocalist, thus freeing the group to recruit a bass player solely on the basis of his instrumental prowess.
The biggest change in the group's direction, however, was brought about by the initiation of the immensely talented guitarist and vocalist Adrian Belew into the band's ranks, a highly promising new wave prospect who had likely caught Fripp's attention through his brilliant guitarwork on the Talking Heads' magnum opus Remain In Light. He'd also traveled in similar circles as the renowned King Crimson leader, collaborating with the likes of David Bowie on more than a few occasions.
The interplay between the two guitarists is pivotal throughout the album, and the fluidity of these instrumental interactions are staggering. Fripp and Belew instantly establish an astonishing chemistry with one another, proving that a better choice for a new member could not have been made.
The product of this new incarnation of the band is, predictably enough, a hybrid of new wave, world music and progressive rock, a fusion that manages to sound perfectly organic and natural, thanks in large part to the tremendous talent of all parties involved. While the new wave elements that have been incorporated into the mix can be perceived as trend hopping, they obviously were anything but forced, as they fit in perfectly with the band's core sound.
In addition to his dual role as guitarist and vocalist, Belew assumes control of the band's lyrics, and he brings a charming brand of eccentricity and absurdity to this task. He's never pretentious or bloated ala Sinfield or more thematically ambitious as Palmer-James had been, providing entertaining if ultimately meaningless bits of endearingly preposterous verse that will invariably bring a smile to one's face. This is precisely what the album demands, as the focus is no longer on bombastic epics or heavy, gothic prog, but rather on a neurotic blend of lighthearted experimentation and affable new wave conventions.
The tracks are uniformly excellent, and while passages certainly recall other endeavors the band members had been engaged in (in particular during instances like Elephant Talk, wherein Belew's guitarwork is conspicuously reminiscent of his approach on tracks like the Talking Heads' Born Under Punches) the album never sounds derivative or generic, as the new lineup always brings something new and interesting to the table.
The opener is the previously mentioned Elephant Talk, a surreal but highly entertaining note to begin the album on. The track consists of Belew reciting synonyms for the word 'talk' from a thesaurus (making it all the way from A to E before the track's abrupt abortion) superimposed over an offbeat and quirky sonic backdrop that may sound a bit loose or primitive but in reality is deceptively complex and focused, with each note being placed perfectly for the ideal effect. It's difficult to think of it as a 'song' in the conventional sense, but it's certainly an immensely enjoyable experience that brilliantly ushers in the new era of King Crimson.
The follow up to that slight but lovable opener is much darker in nature, the moody Frame By Frame with its ominous vibe and unsettling lyrics. Much of the track consists of jamming, and the band acquit themselves quite admirably in this department, as one would anticipate from a rock outfit of their caliber. The song isn't a classic but it's still quite strong, simply lacking an impressive enough melody, distinctive gimmick or ability to establish an emotional rapport with the listener to propel it to the next level.
Next comes the beautiful Matte Kudasai; it's the most 'normal' track on the album, but that's neither praise nor criticism, merely a statement of fact. The song is quite beautiful, a touching ode to Belew's wife that proves that the band was capable of excelling even when they abstain from their usual sonic trickery and experimental fetishes.
Belew's wife also plays a prominent role on the subsequent track, the heaviest cut on the album. Entitled Indiscipline, the song consists of a Belew monologue culled from an innocuous letter his wife had written to him interrupted by flashes of metallic jamming. While not a spectacular achievement in and of itself it's efficacy is compounded by the lack of heaviness on the rest of the album, which renders the hard rock of Indiscipline a much needed injection of metallic overtones in the face of a relatively timid (in terms of its hard/soft ratio) musical experience.
Indiscipline is followed by another classic, the energetic jam Thela Hun Ginjeet (an anagram for Heat In The Jungle). Interspersing rapid yet hyper precise instrumentation with a spoken account of how Belew was nearly arrested for bizarre behavior while searching for inspiration for his material, the track simply cultivates an air of excitement which is woefully missing from most of the album, elevating the number to new heights.
After the adrenaline rush that was Thela Hun Ginjeet the album segues into the soothing, dreamlike The Sheltering Sky, a beautiful, sedate instrumental that radiates calmness and serenity. While this makes the track ideal for therapeutic background music or meditation it's still equally enjoyable as a straightforward listening experience in the context of the album, with its restrained nature never translating into boredom or monotony.
This leaves the title track as the album's closer, a hypnotic instrumental highlighted by the incredible interplay between Fripp and Belew's guitars. At first the track can appear simple or basic, but this couldn't be further from the truth; while the apparent ease with which the two guitarists pull off the number may create this illusion, closer examination reveals the mind boggling complexity of the sequences the two virtuosos are playing, with their notes weaving in and out of one another's to brilliant effect.
Thus Discipline is a highly auspicious debut for this version of the group, an album that's radically different from any of the band's prior works but still manages to preserve what truly matters about King Crimson, namely daring experimentation, impressive musicianship and complex yet accessible melodies. While it may alienate fans who're embittered by this new direction and the band's decision to mostly eschew the trappings of progressive rock, for anyone with an open mind the new King Crimson has much to offer, proving that however much the band changes they'll always remain toward the zenith of the rock pantheon.
To the band's credit, Beat isn't a formulaic rehash of its predecessor; rather than strictly adhere to the blueprints of the group's last outing, they treat it as a foundation for further maturation and development. The most overt manifestation of this newfound maturation arrives in the form of the tracks' structures; whereas on Discipline many of the numbers were more akin to loose chains of ideas than full fledged songs, on Beat King Crimson endeavor to flesh out their sonic wizardry into more coherent, conventional musical visions.
To the detriment of Beat, however, the group's lenient attitude on Discipline in terms of what constitutes a song was hardly a defect; on the contrary, it was one of the album's greatest assets, as it infused a measure of excitement, unpredictability and spontaneity into the proceedings that's sorely lacking on their latest offering. The level of excitement on Beat is somewhat diluted by the group's attempts to force their material to conform to more traditional structures, with this practice likewise dispelling some of the charm and originality inherent to the idiosyncratic character of the more chaotic Discipline.
Thus there're no instances of creative absurdity of the magnitude of the endearingly eccentric Elephant Talk, while many tracks now sport actual refrains and conventional verse structures. This in and of itself isn't a vice, and I'd hardly leverage accusations of selling out; in fact, the more traditional structure often works quite well, particularly on numbers like the near hit Heartbeat. However, the decision to make more 'normal' (relatively speaking, of course; the album never even comes close to approaching musical 'normalcy') music seems to limit the creativity of the group, somehow impeding their imaginative faculties, resulting in a decidedly more conservative outing. The music is still innately bizarre and unorthodox, but by the extremely unique standards of the group the songs are rather restrained, far less adventurous than their usual fare.
Worst of all is the incessant recycling of ideas from Discipline. King Crimson devotes much of the album to 'normalizing' past works, hence numbers like the opener Neal And Jack And Me which shamelessly reuses the Fripp/Belew guitar interplay from Discipline's title track. The song is still entertaining, as the addition of vocals suits the track quite well, but for a group as consistently creative as King Crimson such a transparent act of self-plagiarism is quite disconcerting. It's 'updates' of past triumphs that lend Beat its unique dual nature; while as an album it differentiates itself from the band's prior work by virtue of its more conventional character, on a song by song basis myriad old ideas resurface throughout, merely passing through this new, more musically traditional filter.
This isn't to say the album is bad by any means; on the contrary, Beat is quite an accomplished piece of work. It simply isn't up to par with albums like Discipline which betray far more creativity and individuality, eschewing structure in favor of greater artistic freedom.
Furthermore, Beat's apt to appeal to a casual listener far more than King Crimson's previous outing, as its adherence to more conventional song structures renders it a far more accessible, immediately gratifying product. In that regard it could function as a less intimidating introduction to the band's sound, a good deal less likely to drive the listener away than Discipline with its tempestuous, aggressively bizarre character.
The songwriting is quite solid, if less compelling than that featured on Discipline. While it introduces the unhealthy precedent of unscrupulous recycling, the aforementioned opener, Neal And Jack And Me, is still a good note to begin the album on. While unoriginal, the guitar interplay is still enthralling and hypnotic, and Belew's vocals add a new layer to an already strong track.
The following number, Heartbeat, is about as close as the avant garde act ever came to a hit single, and it well deserves its near hit status. The song is, according to the band's off kilter musical vision, a pop number, and quite a good one at that, complete with insanely catchy vocal melodies and lyrics that actually could be from a standard hit pop song, bereft of any of the group's usual strangeness.
Even more firmly entrenched into the realm of pop, however, is Two Hands, with sappy, sentimental and thoroughly out of character lyrics courtesy of Adrian Belew's wife, Margaret. While it's perturbing to encounter lyrics such as these in the band's canon, the song is still enjoyable, albeit a good deal less so than Heartbeat, which boasts a more creative, memorable and catchy melody than the somewhat more pedestrian Two Hands.
Elsewhere Sartori In Tangier is a stellar instrumental, Waiting Man is an enchanting fusion of prog and world beat, Neurotica is a burst of controlled chaos over which Belew orates a monologue reflecting upon urban life, The Howler is a rather forgettable affair and the closer, Requiem, is easily the nadir of the album, an unfortunate throwback to the days when dissonance was considered a virtue and cacophony something to aspire to.
Thus the bulk of the album, if lesser King Crimson, is still quite strong, with only the final two numbers, The Howler and Requiem, letting the overall experience down. While lacking in the originality department and marred by its supposed 'maturation,' Beat is still a solid outing, with sufficiently strong songwriting to make it quite an enjoyable listen. While admittedly the album is devoid of any true classics, the general quality level is still quite high, and while it could be perceived as a disappointment after the excellent Discipline it's still an eminently worthy offering from a version of the group that was proving itself to be richly deserving of the King Crimson name.
While they shared a unified, singular artistic vision at the commencement of their partnership, by the time of Three Of A Perfect Pair a rather large schism had developed between the creative sensibilities of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Fripp favored the band's signature hyper complex instrumental jams (likewise demonstrating an alarming fetish for sonic dissonance along the lines of old rock atrocities like Providence), while Belew's preference lay in utilizing his constantly evolving pop acumen (decidedly unorthodox, quirky and idiosyncratic pop, but pop nonetheless), delivering numbers that blended the ambitious nature of progressive rock with the accessibility and axiomatic entertainment of hook filled, immediately gratifying pop.
These two warring sensibilities can make for a somewhat muddled listen, as it's difficult to reconcile the likes of the lightweight, infectious pop of Man With An Open Heart with the abrasive industrial rock of No Warning. The group attempts to remedy the confusion brought about by this conflicted nature by compartmentalizing the LP's musical identity; aside from a few track sequencing anomalies, the album is neatly bifurcated into two halves, one dominated by Belew and the other by Fripp, with the hope being that by quarantining the two sides of the band the contrast between King Crimson's chief creative forces would be less jarring and intrusive. Thus side one depicts the eccentric pop stylings of new wave icon Adrian Belew (save for the presence of Fripp's Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)), while the latter half is devoid of Belew's poppy influences with the exception of Dig Me.
This highly calculated structuring of the album proved to be a rather sound, sagacious strategy, diluting the shock of the record's fundamental bipolar character. It also ensured that both Belew and Fripp received the chance to shine without interfering in one another's musical visions.
Overall I find Belew's half of the album to be the more impressive of the two, as he's truly mastered the art of pop craftsmanship, penning highly catchy and unique melodies that still don't betray the band's image to a detrimental extent. The title track opens the album on a great note; while it engages in the plagiaristic excesses of Neal And Jack And Me, once again looking to the instrumental Discipline for its musical influence, the song easily eclipses its similar predecessors by offering a brilliant vocal melody and potent atmospherics that compensate for any petty theft perpetrated by the track.
The subsequent number, Model Man, is easily Belew's weakest composition on the album. Coming off as clumsy and awkward the track has little to offer, with a bland, forgettable melody and clunky transitions between the verses and the chorus.
The follow up, however, erases negative impressions left by Model Man. Sleepless is a tenebrous rocker driven by a phenomenal bassline courtesy of Tony Levin, boasting a menacing vibe and great vocals from Belew. The group creates the perfect balance between the track's darkness and catchiness, resulting in a classic anthem of nocturnal horror that never falls short in the hook department.
Next comes the delightful pop of Man With An Open Heart, a song that, while slight, is so charming, catchy and memorable that its lightweight nature is ultimately irrelevant. Perhaps the most transparent pop song on the album, the track may neglect the band's customary complex, ambitious character but it simply excels in the entertainment department, more than earning its place on Three Of A Perfect Pair.
Belew's final contribution to the album arrives in the form of Dig Me, a bizarre number that alternates between Belew delivering a monologue over discordant beats and a sweeping pop chorus that manages to make the tale of a scrapped car seem emotional and moving. Between its short length and atypical subject matter the song will often get lost in the flow of the album, but this is a pity, as the track is a hidden gem that certainly merits one's attention.
Fripp's portion of the album, unfortunately, can be quite erratic, as he succumbs to some of his worst excesses with regards to dissonance and inadvisable experimentation. Industry is, as the name implies, an industrial rock epic; while inoffensive, it fails to be particularly engaging, merely cycling through typical industrial sound effects like a desultory sound collage. Its length exacerbates its defects, exposing the song's fundamental lack of musical substance or artistic direction.
No Warning is even worse, as its dissonant nature compounds the flaws already present in Industry. The track simply offers a tedious experience, with nothing unique or compelling to attract the attention of the listener.
Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds) is much better, a soothing, hypnotic soundscape; it may not be sufficiently dynamic to enthrall the listener for its entire duration, but it makes for wonderful, Eno-like background music, highly conducive to meditation thanks to its pseudo-ambient nature.
At the opposite extreme from this sedate, relaxing number is the closer, the powerful, ferocious rocker Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part III. The track is a stellar jam boasting great riffs and exceptional guitarwork. The track deserves its status as a part of the Larks' Tongues In Aspic suite, which is very high praise indeed given the quality of its predecessors.
The bonus tracks that are featured on the 30th anniversary edition are mostly extraneous, disposable alternate cuts with little that's new to bring to the table, with one exception: The King Crimson Barber Shop will likely inspire you to question either your own sanity or that of Fripp himself, a surreal artifact that's probably best left forgotten lest it drive one into utter psychosis.
Overall Three Of A Perfect Pair is a very good, if flawed listen. The presence of the likes of the title track, Sleepless, Man With An Open Heart and Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part III ensure an enjoyable auditory experience, but the album is still marred by lesser compositions like No Warning, Model Man and Industry. The good certainly overcomes the bad, but the clash between Belew and Fripp takes its toll on the album, preventing the two from working together as a unit as they had on records like Discipline. When they're creatively divided, as they are on this outing, both men are susceptible to self-indulgence, with neither man helping to balance the other's excesses. Fripp and Belew had had a wonderful chemistry, and their respective styles were highly compatible with one another; Belew would rein in Fripp's discordant tendencies and inject more humanity and humor into their work, while Fripp would provide great riffs and melodies to keep Belew's eccentricity grounded. As they drifted apart this system of checks and balances was overturned; both men were sufficiently talented that their output remained very strong, but the album can't compare to the likes of Discipline when they still fluidly complemented one another's opuses.
One inviolable rule in the realm of music is that it's mandatory for a progressive rock outfit, no matter how accomplished in the studio, to be a great live band; the group's instrumental chops are irrelevant if they don't translate into a comparable technical prowess in a live environment. Prog rock artists are, naturally, expected to be instrumental virtuosos, and the only way to prove the depth of one's innate talent in this capacity is to demonstrate that one can pull off the hyper complex music that they practice in the studio in a live setting as well, with no aid from overdubs or multiple takes.
Absent Lovers is all the evidence that one requires to prove the unrivaled musicianship of the eighties King Crimson lineup. This double live album is one of a countless number of archival King Crimson releases that have been over saturating the market ever since Fripp discovered that fan exploitation of this nature would be highly profitable. The album is a series of performances culled from the final concert of King Crimson's 1984 tour, left unreleased until fourteen years later.
One is apt to be, justifiably enough, skeptical of a long neglected archive release such as this. Fripp's plethora of archive releases are predominantly over priced fan bait paraphernalia, consummately superfluous albums with little to offer one who's already familiar with the band's oeuvre. They tend to take forms like Great Deceiver, a highly expensive multi-disc behemoth that's primarily composed of gratuitous alternate takes of already familiar songs with little to add to the originals. Thankfully this is not the case with Absent Lovers, a brilliant live album wherein nearly every cut surpasses the already strong originals.
The title itself is rather perplexing, as it's a quotation derived from Neal And Jack And Me, a number that's conspicuously absent from the album's set list. That oddity aside, Absent Lovers is a nearly perfect live album; a mere two tracks are devoted to pre-Belew King Crimson output, which could be perceived as a liability, but both the caliber of the performances and quality of the track listing render that complaint irrelevant.
It's hardly unexpected that the band would thrive in a live environment; Fripp and Belew are two of the greatest guitarists of their times, Bruford may very well be the best drummer in the history of progressive rock and Levin, in his role as bassist, is an undisputable virtuoso.
Nevertheless, even with inflated expectations the quality of the performances is truly stunning. The band handles all of their profoundly complex material flawlessly, conveying the impression that their brilliant playing is effortless for them. The group never falter, with every note in precisely the right place and the type of chemistry that can only be achieved when rock artists are completely compatible and comfortable with one another.
These factors only account for how these performances can equal their studio counterparts, when the fact of the matter is that they nearly uniformly surpass them. The key to this amelioration lies in the level of energy infused into these performances, as each song is nearly reborn with a newfound drive, ferocity and urgency, elements that were somewhat lacking in the (admittedly still excellent) originals.
The band adhere to the original blueprints of the songs just enough to ensure that the tracks are grounded with a solid foundation; from there they unleash the full force of the musical pyrotechnics that they'd apparently been suppressing on the studio cuts. Despite this rock and roll aggression the group never grows sloppy or lose sight of the melodies; everything is perfectly structured, and this rigidity never dilutes the force of this energetic onslaught.
The only track that could be construed as filler is the opener Entry Of The Crims, which is essentially a chance for the band to tune up masquerading as a rock song. Nevertheless it manages to be more compelling than many of the band's more ambitious, fleshed out avant garde experiments, with a hypnotic atmosphere and some restrained yet intriguing jamming.
Every other track on the album is a full fledged classic. The tracks that benefit the most from the injection of more energy are rockers like Thela Hun Ginjeet; the song is a rush of pure adrenaline that completely eclipses the original, and one will never miss the monologue covering Belew's run-in with the law.
Nearly every track is a beneficiary of this added energy; predictably enough rockers like Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part III are transfigured into furious juggernauts, but even the poppier numbers like Man With An Open Heart are augmented by the sheer drive of the album.
Especially worth noting is the live rendition of Sleepless; the studio cut was already a classic, and this version, with its increased level of energy, simply obliterates the original. The studio incarnation of the song was haunting, but the Absent Lovers performance will simply overpower the listener with its drive and menace.
Absent Lovers is simply an incredible experience, and the zenith of King Crimson as a whole (which is a very strong statement given the quality of the group's discography). The eighties trilogy accounted for some of the highlights of the band's career, but it pales in comparison to the live versions found here. Absent Lovers doesn't render the trilogy extraneous by any means, but it does unveil the latent potential of many of the cuts found on those releases. Songs like Waiting Man seemed like lesser moments, but on Absent Lovers they're transformed into timeless classics. This is truly the mark of a great live band, and proof that both the studio and live sides of King Crimson are wholly indispensable for fans of the band's work.
The growing disparity between Fripp and Belew's musical philosophies invariably led to the band's purportedly irrevocable dissolution in 1984. Of course the band had endured myriad 'permanent' breakups over the years, and thus it was hardly shocking when the group reunited eleven years later, ready to resume precisely where they'd left off a generation ago.
Given the group's penchant for shedding members every few albums it was surprising that the band of the eighties remained fully intact; thus the only changes to the lineup manifested themselves in the form of additions rather than subtractions to King Crimson's roster. Ergo the band retained Fripp, Belew, Bruford and Levin, while welcoming newcomers Trey Gunn (stick) and Pat Mastelotto (percussions), thus creating the 'double trio' incarnation of King Crimson.
One might assume that a group that had swelled to such a size would become awkward and unwieldy but, thanks to the caliber of the musicians involved, the instrumental interplay is flawless, giving the band a rich, full sound without band members ever stepping on each other's toes.
As anyone familiar with the course of the band's development would have surmised, King Crimson didn't reunite to return to simply return to the style they'd employed during the eighties trilogy. However, if one anticipated that the group would unveil a new style radically removed from their past exploits then that assumption would prove equally inaccurate. Historically the band had always remained cutting edge, predicting musical trends while fluidly shifting between musical paradigms so as to perpetually be at the forefront of the genre's evolution.
Unfortunately, King Crimson's days as musical pioneers have long since passed, and there are only a modicum of prescient moment found on the album; furthermore not only does the band eschew their role as trailblazers but they likewise don't really incorporate any new, previously untouched elements from the genre's past, present or future, into their sound.
Many have lambasted the group for their conservative approach and lack of tangible progression, but I don't really feel that King Crimson are eternally obligated to reinvent themselves with each passing generation. Their days of innovation have come and gone, and I feel that at this point they're entitled to rest on their laurels to at least some extent.
The sound conjured on THRAK is a bit of a hybrid of past glories, a fusion of the prog metal they practiced during the Wetton lineup and the more recent new wave approach they'd embraced during the eighties. This may sound like a clash of incompatible styles, but in truth the sound suits the group quite well, never coming across as bipolar or inorganic.
Of course the style assumed on THRAK is irrelevant if it's not backed up by strong songwriting and, for the most part, the band acquit themselves quite admirably in this department. While there are some transparent 'Belew moments' and unmistakable 'Fripp creations' the two major creative forces in the group feel far more unified on THRAK than they had on Three Of A Perfect Pair. The singularity of this musical vision ameliorates the album's focus, giving it more purpose and direction.
As far as Belew's territory goes, he contributes two gorgeous ballads; Walking On Air is simply beautiful, and while One Time doesn't quite meet these high standards it's still a worthy addition to the band's canon.
Even better, however, are his rockers. Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream is an irresistible, moody riff rocker with a gritty feel and excellent vocal delivery. The pinnacle of the album, though, arrives in the form of Dinosaur, a brilliant exercise in pop metal. This prehistoric anthem boasts terrific vocal melodies, plentiful instrumental hooks, menacing riffage and entertaining lyrics, and it truly demonstrates how far Belew had come as a songwriter over the years.
When one listens to a great song like Walking On Air or Dinosaur they've obtained a new classic to commit to their memory, a number that they'll be able to replay endlessly in their heads whenever the urge hits them. Far more ephemeral, however, are the joys of numbers like VROOOM and VROOOM VROOOM, metallic instrumentals that are quite enjoyable while they're playing but nearly impossible to remember once they're over. These jams are well structured, mostly adhering to the formula pioneered on Red, yet whereas Red contained unforgettable riffs and memorable solos these instrumentals are simply parades of progressive jamming with little to distinguish themselves from one another. Thus while I'll always have Red in my mental jukebox such cannot be said for numbers like VROOOM; I'll always enjoy them while they're on, but I'll likely never retain anything meaningful from them.
Despite their dearth of memorability it's difficult to complain too much about entertaining instrumentals. What do merit these rebukes, however, are the instrumentals on THRAK that don't even achieve any level of enjoyability. Thus the title track is an abrasive ordeal with an emphasis on dissonance; it never descends to the aurally eldritch levels of Providence or Requiem, but it's still a major debacle, one that I'm loathe to subject myself to again anytime in the near future.
Elsewhere, while ultimately inoffensive B'Boom easily qualifies as another misfire. It primarily consists of a drum duet between Bruford and Mastelotto, which, despite the new dynamic of adding a second percussionist, is still about as tedious as any conventional drum solo.
There are some other strong numbers that may not constitute highlights but still merit mention. People, while oft maligned, is another solid rocker, while Inner Garden I and II, though short and insubstantial, are both more pretty offerings in Belew's usual soft vein.
To counterbalance the prettiness of Inner Garden I and II Fripp made sure to include diametrically opposed counterparts for it, namely Radio I and II. While thankfully short, these numbers are utter filler, adding nothing to the album save a few more passages of sonic ugliness.
There are also codas to VROOOM and VROOOM VROOOM but, given that the tracks segue directly into them, I simply consider them to be parts of the songs proper.
Ultimately THRAK is quite an enjoyable, if flawed, affair. While they didn't break any new ground, the double trio crafted some high quality progressive rock worthy of the King Crimson name. The album is erratic, with its fair share of filler, but the quality of the performances and skill of the songwriters ensures a largely entertaining experience. The archetypal King Crimson heaviness blends well with Belew's new wave sensibility, thus at long last finding a common ground between Fripp and Belew. The album offers its share of classics, and while marred by inconsistency the good certainly outweighs the bad, leaving a solid product that can be recommended to any fan of the group.
Yet another archival release orchestrated by Fripp to educe even more wealth from his devoted followers, VROOOM VROOOM is to THRAK what Absent Lovers was to the eighties trilogy, a forum in which to perfect his recent studio fare in a live environment. Absent Lovers, however, had three full studio outings to draw upon for material, whereas VROOOM VROOOM has but a single album to translate into live territory; furthermore, the eighties trilogy was a great deal more compelling than THRAK had been, and when these factors are combined it's obvious why VROOOM VROOOM never approaches the lofty heights attained on Absent Lovers.
This isn't to disparage VROOOM VROOOM too heavily, however, as the live double LP is still quite a compelling listen. The double trio is in top form, proving why King Crimson ranks amongst the best live rock outfits in the history of the industry. Likewise, while not ideal, the track selection, primarily culled from THRAK and the eighties trilogy, manages to showcase many of the band's best facets, alternating between heavy progressive instrumentals, gorgeous ballads and infectious rockers, with only a modicum of overt repetition (both THRAK and B'Boom appear twice on the album, once per disc).
As was the case with Absent Lovers, the live treatment imbues a greater level of energy into the band's most recent output, greatly ameliorating already strong numbers like the title track and People. There's little that could salvage THRAK or B'Boom, however, as the former's dissonance and latter's tedium remain insurmountable barriers for any real enjoyment.
In terms of other tracks from THRAK, Dinosaur has become somewhat heavier, to good effect, as has Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream. The rockers from THRAK aren't the only tracks from that album that have been adroitly converted into impressive live fare, as One Time and Walking On Air both come off quite well. Ballads tend to lose something when translated into a live environment, but both numbers manage to retain their charm and beauty, in no small part due to Belew's superb vocal delivery.
Unfortunately many of the tracks derived from the eighties trilogy feel somewhat perfunctory, especially when compared to their vastly superior counterparts on Absent Lovers. Neurotica is welcome, as it was omitted from the Absent Lovers setlist, but the other redundancies are uniformly inferior to their prior live executions. The band often attempt to attract the listener with novelties, such as Belew rushing through the verses on Indiscipline and the restoration of his quirky pre-taped monologue on Thela Hun Ginjeet, but most of these gambits prove to be in vain; I fail to perceive how Belew's rapid delivery on the former augments its quality in any meanigful respect, while as amusing as Belew's anecdote in the latter is it doesn't compensate for the fact that the song feels defanged when compared to its Absent Lovers rendition, lacking the furious drive and intensity that had been engendered into it on past occasions. Versions of Frame By Frame, Three Of A Perfect Pair and Elephant Talk prove perfectly adequate but, like the other eighties numbers, they lack the elements that made them so attractive on Absent Lovers.
The band also digs deeper into its catalogue on a few occasions. Red is largely indistinguishable from past live reworkings of it, but The Talking Drum benefits from the added depth infused into it by the track having the entire double trio at its disposal, while Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part II is given a heavier edge, with the added crunch compounding the potency of an already relentless sonic onslaught.
A big surprise arrives in the form of a rendition of 21st Century Schizoid Man, a number that Belew tended to avoid as his brand of vocal delivery isn't very conducive to that song's particular demands for its singer. Predictably enough Belew's vocals lack the power of Lake's performance, but the song is still quite entertaining, implemented masterfully by the double trio.
Another surprise, one even greater than the inclusion of the original lineup's classic epic, is the presence of a cover of John Lennon's Free As A Bird. Rather than transfigure it into some progressive jam it's handled remarkably faithfully by Belew, who performs the track both instrumentally and vocally by himself, religiously adhering to the tone and melody of the original as he emulates Lennon's style down to his vocal inflections.
A fair amount of time is also devoted to improvisations, a phenomenon that would become even more prevalent on subsequent releases. While these tracks are never offensive they're largely forgettable, with one notable exception. Prism, a drummers' duel between Bruford and Mastelotto, is one of the few percussion-only tracks that I find enjoyable, and thus a testament to the level of creativity and instrumental precision possessed by those individuals.
Overall VROOOM VROOOM is another great live outing from the band; while it's certainly flawed, particularly in terms of the execution of their eighties output, the album remains highly impressive, breathing new life into THRAK's material just as Absent Lovers had revitalized the numbers from Discipline, Beat and Three Of A Perfect Pair. While THRAK (the song) and B'Boom remain irredeemable, the other tracks culled from the album were certainly enhanced, and the resurrection of the likes of 21st Century Schizoid Man is the type of bonus that tends to inspire King Crimson diehards to reflexively empty their wallets.
As reiterated throughout the review the album isn't on par with Absent Lovers, but given the caliber of that archival release that's hardly a major criticism. King Crimson were simply a phenomenal live band, and thus if one ever wants to hear a studio track reach its full potential then they'd be well advised to seek out a corresponding live album.
In many respects The ProjeKcts were the natural culmination of all of King Crimson's avant garde, experimental tendencies, an inevitability that was apparent since the early stages of the band's career.
King Crimson had proven themselves to be a spectacular live band, but the freedom afforded to them by a live environment extended far past the capacity to imbue their preexisting songs with additional energy; rather, the concert setting functioned as a forum in which they could escape the constraints of conventional music making, achieving total artistic freedom.
The group were hardly content with simply utilizing this greater freedom to reinvent and perfect their past work; instead, the only way to fully realize this freedom manifested itself in the form of improvisation, and while the band had dabbled in this pursuit in the past it wasn't until The ProjeKcts that King Crimson's passion for this art fully emerged.
The ProjeKcts is a box-set composed of four concerts, each performed by a different permutation of the band's usual lineup. The first disc, entitled Live At The Jazz Café, features Levin, Gunn, Bruford and Fripp (and indeed Fripp is the only member to appear on each disc); the second, Live Groove, is culled from a concert by Belew, Fripp and Gunn; disc three, Masque, depicts Fripp, Gunn and Mastelotto in concert; the final disc, West Coast Live, consists of music by Fripp, Gunn, Levin and Mastelotto.
One's natural assumption pertaining to The ProjeKcts would be that they're simply an exhibition for self-indulgent, masturbatory fare, inexcusably inaccessible and bereft of any artistic merit. Fortunately, by and large this isn't the case, and indeed much of the box-set is coherent, genuinely enjoyable music, with an emphasis on the term 'music;' these performances generally aren't pretentious sound collages or unfocused, desultory jams, but in fact real music, often boasting hooks, melodies and tight, precise instrumentation.
Admittedly this isn't always the case; sometimes, when not grounded by a riff or a bassline the music will lose structure and degenerate into sloppiness or, worse, cacophony. The worst culprit in this regard is Masque, which places an unhealthy emphasis on dissonance with a dearth of creative ideas to keep the music compelling. This isn't true for the entirety of the disc, but nonetheless Maque is definitely the weak link in the box-set, something that can likely be attributed to the fact that it features the weakest lineup of the group (with Gunn and Mastelotto replacing the far superior Levin and Bruford; this isn't to say that Gunn and Mastelotto are bad, they merely fail to attain virtuoso status like their counterparts in the double trio).
The remaining discs, amazingly, are quite entertaining, and can sustain one's interest for the duration of their runtimes even without lyrics or studio trickery. There are few groups capable of producing worthwhile improvisations, and King Crimson's success in this venture is a testament to the caliber of the musicians and the chemistry they share with one another.
There are certainly flaws endemic to an enterprise such as this. By virtue of its nature the box-set is inherently erratic (this goes beyond Masque, as even the impressive remaining discs have weak moments); it's difficult to criticize the group for this fact, as by definition improvisation will yield inconsistent results; a band can't find inspiration at every turn, and thus there are certainly moments of tedium and headache inducing discord to be found.
Worse, however, is another product of the box-set's nature; as enjoyable as The ProjeKcts are to listen to, they're not even remotely memorable, and it's nearly impossible to retain much of the music once the album's over. This makes for a rather evanescent pleasure, one that will promptly desert the listener never to return until one's next listen.
Nevertheless The ProjeKcts are a very impressive package, a rare case when even a band's loftiest ambitions are fully realized. While the tracks may not become irrevocably bound to one's inner music library they, for the most part, constitute a highly, surprisingly entertaining experience, a near impossibility when one enters the realm of improvisation.
However, while The ProjeKcts certainly overcome their innate handicaps quite well they still, no matter how awe inspiring the band's instrumental prowess is or how flabbergasting their capacity to think on their feet is, never deliver any moments of entertainment comparable with the likes of Dinosaur or Heartbeat. This sentiment may seem like the view of a philistine with the temerity to laud songs that are poppy and accessible when compared to the hyper professional, complex intricacies of the tracks derived from the ProjeKcts, but nonetheless the statement holds true for me; as much as I enjoy and am impressed by these improvisations they never engage me the way that a tight, well written and catchy rock song does, making it difficult to rate the box-set as highly as King Crimson's more traditional output.
All the same, The ProjeKcts certainly merit the attention of any King Crimson fan, and if one overcomes their initial prejudices when it comes to improvisational work they'll find a highly compelling listening experience that's not only impressive on a technical level but quite axiomatically enjoyable in its own right. The tracks will never be as memorable or entertaining as a first rate King Crimson 'song,' but the box-set certainly vastly exceeds one's expectations and can be safely approached by anyone with a fondness, even a passing one, for the group.
After a four year hiatus and in the wake of the departures of Levin and Bruford King Crimson reemerged with their much anticipated millennial offering. In the intervening years the band had devoted themselves to their ambitious series of improvisational efforts known as The ProjeKcts, but The ConstruKction Of Light was the group's first album proper since they'd endeavored to fuse the new wave sensibility of the eighties with the metallic crunch of their seventies output on THRAK.
The primary accusation leveraged against The ConstruKction Of Light is that it's a criminally derivative product, presenting myriad rehashes and retreads of past works without a sufficient stock of creative ideas to compensate for this artistic stagnation. There's much validity to this assertion, as for the first time in the storied history of King Crimson the group seem to be growing nostalgic, a phenomenon that was antithetical to the band's ethos back in the days when Fripp would settle for nothing less than a minor musical revolution with each passing album.
The derivative nature of the album is transparent throughout and, given that one of the tracks is even called Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part IV, it certainly doesn't seem that the band is attempting to conceal that fact. There are a plethora of rather pronounced instances of self-plagiarism transpiring throughout the album; the previously mentioned Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part IV is essentially a hybrid of parts two and three of that particular suite with some Red influences incorporated into the mix, the title track is greatly indebted to the brand of guitar interplay pioneered on the instrumental Discipline and FraKctured, predictably enough, owes a lot to Fracture.
This isn't to say that the album is wholly bereft of new ideas. ProzaKc Blues is, as implied by the title, the band's unique interpretation of the blues genre, complete with a stellar riff and vocal encoding that makes Belew sound like a gruff, veteran blues singer. While hardly an artistic breakthrough the song is a relatively distinctive entry in the band's catalogue, and from a qualitative standpoint it's immensely entertaining, opening the album on a disarmingly charming note.
While little else on the album deviates from King Crimson archetypes most of these recurring ideas are implemented quite well so as to dilute their derivative character. As alluded to before the title track features guitar interplay that's highly reminiscent of the style employed on Discipline (and subsequently Neal And Jack And Me and Three Of A Perfect Pair as well), but the number manages to differentiate itself from its predecessors through its idiosyncratic lyrics and vocal delivery as well as the modifications made to this style of guitar interplay. Rather than simply interweaving Fripp and Belew's guitarwork the two often alternate notes, a stunning, sonically fascinating achievement that's employed regularly throughout the album.
FraKctured is the only track that's genuinely superior to its past influences, as it lacks the grating dissonance infused into Fracture and is thus a far more listenable experience. It's hardly an exceptional track, adding little to either the album or the band's legacy, but at least it doesn't detract from the LP the way its predecessor had.
Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part IV is entertaining, but this can be attributed to the quality of the rest of the series as opposed to any new characteristics introduced in this installment. The riffage is powerful, the playing tight and the energy infectious, but all of these elements are simply regurgitations of Parts One and Two.
The coda, however, is far more original and compelling. Entitled I Have A Dream, it consists of a gradual escalation of tension until the catharsis inducing emotional climax. The track is certainly in the vein of Yes' Wurm and King Crimson's own Starless, but it's still executed quite well here, with enough of its own personality to distinguish it from its illustrious influences (not to mention the novelty of Belew listing important events and personages over the course of the otherwise purely instrumental track).
While none of the other tracks are transparent carbon copies of the band's prior work they certainly don't break any new ground for the band. Nevertheless, some of them are quite strong if, admittedly, hardly top tier King Crimson anthems. Into The Frying Pan is a solid rocker, while The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum is an entertaining flirtation with heavy metal. Neither song is a classic, but they're still worthy additions to King Crimson's canon.
The closer, Heaven And Earth, is derived from The ProjeKcts, but sadly it's a rather pedestrian, unremarkable improvisation, hardly up to par with some of the better material on The ProjeKcts box-set. I Have A Dream is a far better note to end the album on, leaving the listener on an emotional high as opposed to the indifference that Heaven And Earth would elicit from most audiences.
Overall The ConstruKction Of Light is a decent outing, but nonetheless it's the weakest King Crimson studio release in decades. An album can be forgiven for choosing the conservative approach and not exploring any new musical territory, but first it has to attain a certain level of quality before it can be fully exonerated for its derivative nature. Nothing on the album is bad per se, but on the whole it's largely unexceptional, thus making its lack of originality a very real liability. Between its unremarkable songwriting and dearth of creativity the album truly suffers; as always the band's musicianship is unimpeachable, even without Levin and Bruford, and the new variation of Fripp and Belew's interplay is highly impressive, but these factors are insufficient to raise the album above what's simply a 'pretty good' rating, and frankly The ProjeKcts offer a far more unique and engrossing experience (which isn't to say it's necessarily better, as at least songs like ProzaKc Blues are memorable). One would expect more after such a lengthy sabbatical, and this level of disappointment can color one's impression of the album as a whole, transfiguring a decent listen into an ultimately underwhelming experience.
During this period of King Crimson's life cycle it's become abundantly clear that if one is dissatisfied with one of the band's studio offerings they need only wait a modicum of time and they'll be graced with a live album that rectifies most of the flaws encountered in the original material.
Just as Absent Lovers perfected the band's eighties trilogy and VROOOM VROOOM redeemed the somewhat weaker THRAK, Heavy ConstruKction offers significant improvements over every track derived from The ConstruKction Of Light, finally unleashing the songs' latent, untapped potential.
Yet there's far more to Heavy ConstruKction than a rebirth of The ConstruKction Of Light; there are some unexpected developments throughout the album, and it's these surprises that imbue the album with much of its unique personality.
When it comes to Heavy ConstruKction, a three disc behemoth, the primary point of controversy amongst fans relates to the third disc. Disc three is wholly devoted to improvisations save a couple of interludes depicting Fripp confiscating cameras from the unfortunate members of the audience who had the audacity and impudence to attempt to take photos of the band (the reasoning behind the inclusion of these episodes mystifies me, as it casts the group in a negative light and not in a good natured, self-deprecating manner, rather depicting Fripp exhibiting an ingrained totalitarian streak).
As far as the improvisations go, by and large they're inferior to the better material contained on the ProjeKcts box-set, but they're still a welcome addition to the album, as they enable Heavy ConstruKction to display more sides of the band, portraying both the more orthodox, song oriented aspect of the group along with the more experimental, avant garde facets of King Crimson.
Furthermore, this makes for an ideal starting point for those who want to investigate the band's improvisational side. It would be natural for a King Crimson fan to be wary of The ProjeKcts, with its nearly prohibitively hefty price tag and the promise of challenging, inaccessible fare; thus, rather than prematurely committing oneself to assimilating this difficult material one can acquire Heavy ConstruKction, complete with two discs of more conventional output to cushion the blow if the litmus test that is disc three comes out negative.
Peculiarly, while the bulk of the improvisations are confined to disc three several remain on discs one or two as well. This was a good idea as they, predictably enough, are amongst the more accessible of their type, and by featuring them amidst the 'normal' songs it's ensured that they won't get lost in the shuffle on disc three.
In particular Munchen is an entertaining instrumental onslaught and certainly merits its placement on disc one, though the erstwhile improvisation, The Deception Of The Thrush, is a questionable choice for inclusion on the 'song' portion of the album, as it's inferior to both the renditions found on The ProjeKcts as well as the variation on disc three itself.
The improvisations are hardly the only surprises to be found on the album, however. While disc one is predictable enough (save for the improvisations), disc two offers myriad treats for diehard King Crimson fans.
For instance, despite being a fan favorite, Cage had previously only been available on the rare and expensive (and almost wholly redundant after the release of THRAK) EP VROOOM. This renders the version found here a very welcome addition to the album for fans of the group, saving one the need to expend cash and energy tracking down an out of print EP with a track listing that almost completely overlaps with products one already owns.
Elsewhere Belew receives a solo spotlight as he performs a wholly acoustic rendition of Three Of A Perfect Pair, the only pre-90's King Crimson song to be found on the album's set-list. The song works quite well as an acoustic piece, with Belew in top form both as vocalist and guitarist.
The biggest surprise, however, is the inclusion of David Bowie's Heroes as the disc two closer. Its presence shouldn't come as a huge shock as Fripp played guitar on the original studio cut and Belew had long been a Bowie disciple, but it's still a rather strange experience to encounter the track on a King Crimson album. The song is very well performed, as expected, and certainly does justice to the original.
The representatives of the 90's epoch of the band are handled with the utmost care and precision, featuring usual suspects like Dinosaur (which has attained metallic levels of heaviness with its new guitar tone), VROOOM (which admittedly doesn't deviate much from the live version found on VROOOM VROOOM), FraKctured (which, while it still hasn't been transfigured into a classic as the band was somehow able to do with the previously mediocre Industry on Absent Lovers, is still decent enough and wholly inoffensive), Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream (which rocks harder now, to good effect) and One Time, with its innate beauty fully preserved with a gentle arrangement and touching vocals from Belew.
Ultimately, though, the most important task the album was charged with was ameliorating the rather slight material from The ConstruKction Of Light, a mission adroitly tackled by the band.
Into The Frying Pan was a wise choice for the opener, a decent rocker that serves to prepare the audience for the adrenaline rush to come. The ConstruKction Of Light also comes off better in a live environment, and its coda is as striking as ever. One might worry that ProzaKc Blues wouldn't translate well in a live setting, but this trepidation is promptly dispelled; the track benefits from the added energy, while Belew is able to brilliantly pull off the vocals even without vocal encoding (though at time it's difficult to tell if he's mimicking an old blues singer or Tom Waits). The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum is now even heavier and all the more powerful for it, while the added energy gives it an incredible drive. Meanwhile Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part Four is precisely the type of track that was likely written for the stage as opposed to the studio, ideally suited to King Crimson's strengths as a live band.
Thus Heavy ConstruKction is a highly accomplished live album, effectively capturing different sides of the band across its three disc runtime. The improvisations may not be for everyone, but any fan of The ProjeKcts will find much to laud here even if it isn't up to par with that box-set's finest. As expected the 'decent' The ConstruKction Of Light is salvaged into a much more impressive product, while the album also offers moments that can be cherished by hardcore King Crimson fans like the cover of Heroes and the resurrection of Cage.
Thus, despite its exorbitant price the album is a must own for fans of the band, while casual listeners will develop a feel for whether or not either side of the group is apt to appeal to them, be it the conventional numbers or the daring improvisations. The group is certainly well represented here, as they wield their live magic once again to deliver yet another winner.
Like its predecessor, the decidedly underwhelming The ConstruKction Of Light, The Power To Believe takes a conservative approach from a creative perspective, breaking little new ground for a group once obsessed with being cutting edge. However, whereas The ConstruKction Of Light was informed by a certain pervasive sense of nostalgia for the band's past glories, imbuing it with a somewhat derivative character, The Power To Believe simply depicts King Crimson doing what they do best, complete with ferocious instrumental onslaughts and hyper complex jams, in the tradition of old triumphs without trying to duplicate them. Rather than attempting to emulate or outdo their past works they simply create new music in a similar vein, undeniably reminiscent of their classic era but never transparently longing for a bygone age or self-consciously referencing their older material.
The result is King Crimson's best album in decades, easily surpassing the likes of The ConstruKction Of Light and THRAK. Even when the music is in the group's unmistakable classic mold it sounds fresh and inspired, as if the band had become reenergized in the three year interval between The Power To Believe and its disappointing predecessor.
One factor that this revitalization can be attributed to is what essentially amounts to a marriage between The ProjeKcts and the album proper. Whereas on prior outings the band had very deliberately compartmentalized their various styles, confining their improvisations to obscure box-sets and bonus discs that will invariably be ignored in favor of their more accessible counterparts, on The Power To Believe the group assimilate their ProjeKcts mode into the mix, performing spectacular jams unmistakably influenced by their more experimental enterprises. Tracks like Level Five and Dangerous Curves owe a lot to The ProjeKcts on which the group honed their skills so as to be able to create music of this nature. While not actually improvised, these numbers are still the transparent products of the ProjeKcts ethos, tracks born of the daring experimentation and virtuoso instrumentation that characterized those sessions.
While this greatly ameliorates some aspects of the album, there are some unfortunate side effects as well. While Belew's stunning guitarwork is ubiquitous throughout the album, Belew the pop guru and Belew the balladeer are sorely underrepresented throughout the CD. Eyes Wide Open is a solid ballad, but it's vastly inferior to the likes of One Time and Walking On Air, while Facts Of Life, despite being a strong track, owes little of its quality to Belew's pop acumen, as his vocal melodies are rather pedestrian and his vocals are rarely compelling.
Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With, however, is a highly entertaining scathing parody of the vapidity of contemporary heavy metal, and Belew's quirky structuring of the refrain is the erstwhile Talking Heads session guitarist at his most idiosyncratic and charmingly eccentric, but overall this side of Belew is routinely neglected throughout the album. There are certainly occasions when a dose of Belew's classic humor or endearing neurosis would be helpful to lighten the overall mood created by a parade of hyper professional but emotionally inert jams, but sadly he largely abstains from such jovial exercises, sometimes making the album a technically immaculate but soulless experience.
While that may sound like an absolute condemnation of the album, this couldn't be further from the case; much of prog often feels bereft of emotion, an unavoidable side effect of some of the genre's innate characteristics. The music can still be immensely entertaining even if it can only be appreciated on certain levels, and The Power To Believe doesn't differ in that respect, offering a profoundly enjoyable listening experience.
While Belew deviates from his customary role, focusing more on serious instrumentation than pop diversions, Fripp's contributions are far more predictable, as he assumes precisely the same position in the group as he always has since the very inception of King Crimson. He primarily occupies himself with composing intricate jams and memorable riffs, along with regularly unleashing his usual brand of brilliant guitarwork.
While Fripp may play it safe, adhering to his strengths without any excursions into unfamiliar territory, this matters little as the veteran guitarist is in top form throughout. Hence there are tracks like the superb Level Five; while fundamentally the instrumental is yet another descendent of the Red structure, the track is so immaculately constructed that one must stand in awe of the sheer craftsmanship that went into developing the number. The track's array of riffs are clever and memorable, the execution is flawless, the intensity renders any subsequent live renditions superfluous and there are a sufficient number of imaginative touches that the instrumental fully differentiates itself from past creations in a similar mold.
Another brilliant instrumental arrives in the form of Dangerous Curves; just as Level Five is a spiritual successor to Red, Dangerous Curves' origins can be traced to Talking Drum. Like its illustrious predecessor, Dangerous Curves is devoted to a gradual elevation of tension, but to call it a rehash would be to do a grave disservice to the track. It features its own unique and impressive melody and structure, resembling Talk Drum only on the most superficial levels. Dangerous Curves is undeniably its own track, and an excellent one at that.
Elektric is another riff propelled jam in Fripp's usual vein; it's quite good but inferior to Level Five and Dangerous Curves, a bit less distinctive than that pair yet remaining quite enjoyable in its own right.
The album isn't limited to the aforementioned Fripp and Belew numbers, however, as a few oddities remain. For reasons that elude me the band resurrected the concept of a recurring mantra-like anthem; for In The Wake Of Poseidon it was the triumvirate of songs entitled Peace, while on The Power To Believe it's the quartet of title tracks. The idea is implemented far better here as Peace was simply pretentious and grating, par for the course given that the lyrics were penned by the notoriously bombastic Peter Sinfield. The four tracks on The Power To Believe are decent enough, ranging from an a cappella rendition to exotic soundscapes. The lyrics aren't particularly strong, but creative arrangements compensate for any other deficiencies in the tracks.
Thus The Power To Believe is a triumphant return to form, and the band's best outing since Three Of A Perfect Pair. While the overarching tone may not be varied enough and the album tends to remain deadly serious, sometimes to a detrimental extent, the CD is redeemed by its impressive songwriting and phenomenal musicianship. Gunn and Mastelotto have refined their skills to the point that they rival Levin and Bruford, while the guitar interplay between Fripp and Belew has never been stronger. The album may break little new ground, as at heart the band are doing nothing new; the quality arises from the fact that, while what they're doing may not be new, they're still doing it very, very well, hence the minor masterpiece that is The Power To Believe.
A Scarcity Of Miracles holds the dubious distinction of not only not being a real King Crimson album, much like all of the ProjeKcts, but also of not even being a real ProjeKct.
Until now, the ProjeKcts had been forums in which King Crimson members were free to improvise and jam to their hearts' content. It's no secret that the band have always prided themselves on their technically immaculate instrumental chops, and when liberated from the confines of conventional song-structure they could truly demonstrate the full extent of their abilities.
A Scarcity Of Miracles is nothing like that. Every song on the album is prewritten and rehearsed. Those expecting the extemporaneous jams of past ProjeKcts will be sorely disappointed.
Essentially, Fripp has taken the ProjeKcts moniker and used it as an all-purpose name for any album that can be associated with his seminal prog-rock band. Since A Scarcity Of Miracles reunites Fripp with King Crimson alumni Mel Collins and Tony Levin, it would have been foolish not to capitalize on the group's name value. Thus Fripp slapped on the 'ProjeKct' label, no matter how inapt it may seem from a musical perspective.
To make the King Crimson association even more farfetched, Tony Levin is woefully underutilized on the album. Even Fripp himself takes a backseat this time around, choosing to focus on ambient soundscapes rather than his typical guitar heroics.
This leaves the door open for Collins and guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk to dominate the arrangements. While Collins hadn't been heard from since the dreadful Lizard and Islands, his return is actually quite welcome. Some have lambasted him for over-saturating the album with his saxophone playing, but personally I feel that this jazzy element helps differentiate A Scarcity Of Miracles from its recent predecessors.
Jakszyk's presence has also polarized many a King Crimson fan. Admittedly I find emphasizing his guitarwork at the expense of Fripp's a rather questionable decision, but for the most part I find both his playing and singing perfectly tasteful.
There's no question that the album is a huge departure from King Crimson's recent output. Gone are the hard rock jams and heavy riffage. Gone is the charming eccentricity and wit of Adrian Belew. What one's left with is a moody jazz-rock hybrid that favors atmosphere over melody, and hypnotic grooves over memorable music.
Some have tried to defend this softer direction by comparing it to early King Crimson. I've even heard analogies made between the album and the Crimson classic Epitaph. In my opinion, however, this is an egregiously wrongheaded comparison.
Epitaph isn't simply a soft, pretty track. The song is a sweeping epic, a stirring, rousing prog anthem. Where Epitaph is a tight track filled with force and purpose, nearly every track on A Scarcity Of Miracles is loose, unfocused and even desultory, failing to capture any of the power or majesty that characterized the early masterwork.
What makes the parallel particularly misguided is the simple fact that Fripp and company aren't even trying to make a track like Epitaph. A Scarcity Of Miracles is primarily a mood album, and in this regard it's perfectly adequate. As far as background music is concerned one could do far worse than the album. Doubtlessly that's not what one looks for in a King Crimson album, but that's why it's so important to keep in mind that A Scarcity Of Miracles is not a King Crimson album.
It's not that the album is devoid of hooks, and tracks like The Price We Pay and The Other Man certainly have their moments. The standout is the title track, which may not be a classic but is still a worthy addition to Fripp's canon.
It's at this point, however, that another problem emerges. A Scarcity Of Miracles is painfully monotonous, with virtually no changes in tone or style across its forty minute length. When coupled with its mood-over-melody approach this becomes a huge liability, reinforcing the notion that the album is good for little more than background music.
No matter how appealing A Scarcity Of Miracles' moody jazz-rock style is, it will inevitably grow old, making for an album with little in the way of longevity. Despite Collins' involvement, the album is never offensive a la Lizard or Islands. On the contrary, it remains tasteful throughout. There's just precious little excitement to be found, and that's a flaw that A Scarcity Of Miracles simply cannot overcome.