Friday, May 20, 2011

Let's talk about King Crimson

A couple years ago, it was revealed that many older King Crimson albums would be remixed and reissued, with Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) creating the remixes as well as 5.1 surround sound mixes, and Robert Fripp overseeing the whole project. I am a huge fan of both Wilson and Crimson, so it is a little odd that I waited until a month ago to finally purchase these (it probably coincides with my recent purchase of a surround sound system).

And boy am I glad I did. Surround sound takes these albums to a whole new level, especially the first four albums, with their rich textures, subtle complexions, and varied (and sometimes crowded) instrumentation. You start to notice the horns, strings, keyboards, and other instruments that sometimes get lost behind the guitars or vocals in the stereo mixes. Wilson managed to place you right in the middle of the room with the band, and the only word to describe it is "transcendent."

This has, of course, managed to rekindle my love for the King Crimson way of doing things (this is a reference to something Fripp once said: to paraphrase, "King Crimson is not so much a band, as it is a way of doing things").

King Crimson has had countless lineups, and relative stability was only achieved once the 80s incarnation began. In fact, every member of the original lineup besides Fripp had departed by the time the second album was recorded. Fripp has been the only constant (though Adrian Belew has been in every lineup since the 80s incarnation).

I first heard King Crimson at their concert in 2001. Yes, I went to their concert without having heard them. This is because my friend was a Led Zeppelin fanatic, and John Paul Jones was the opening act. I had heard nothing but good things about The Crimso, and was not disappointed. I still remember the concert fairly well (it was just the second concert I ever went to). I actually have a recording of it somewhere in my closet. The lineup was Fripp, Belew, Trey Gunn (on Warr guitar), and Pat Mastelotto (drums). I believe they opened with "Dangerous Curves." They played several tracks which would in time become favorites... "Dinosaur." "Frame By Frame." "Into The Frying Pan." "Three of a Perfect Pair." "Thela Hun Ginjeet." "Elephant Talk." It was a great show. I don't recall any pre-Belew material being performed, but I liked it.

King Crimson might be the most unique and eclectic band ever to achieve mainstream success. Audiences were just more open to that sort of the thing in the 70s; I don't think anything they did would fly nowadays.

With all of that said, I would like to use this as a venue in which to rank all of King Crimson's albums. This is always a difficult task when you have a band with several great albums.

Lizard (1970)
Lizard was King Crimson's third album, and their second in 1970.  Only Fripp remained from the recording of Poseidon (though a couple session musicians from those sessions joined as full time band members for Lizard).  In a way, the band that recorded Lizard did not exist prior to this, and it would cease to exist afterwards when everybody but Fripp and Collins subsequently quit.  Lizard has the most jazz influence of any Crimson album, and might also be the most bizarre.  The front side has four normal-length songs, all of which are weird.  My favorite is "Happy Family," a strange, coded song about the dissolution of The Beatles.  The entire back side is a 20+ minute epic divided into four movements (one of which is further divided into three sections), and featuring my favorite english horn solo ever.  Lizard is an album you either hate or can't live without.

Islands (1971)
This is one I would've had a lot lower before hearing the surround sound version.  Islands is King Crimson's most mellow album, and most delicate.  Boz Burrell had taken over lead vocal and bass duties, and again, we have a new lineup that would never record another album.  The highlight here is the second track, Sailor's Tale, which builds persistently throughout the song.  Due to its soft nature, Islands is probably not for everyone, but along with Lizard, it is one of King Crimson's most distinct albums.

Red (1974)
For awhile, Red was my favorite King Crimson album.  It is one of their most focused, and heaviest, of any era.  For this album, King Crimson had been reduced to a trio of just Fripp, John Whetton, and Bill Bruford.  It is the first album to feature almost no acoustic guitar, and only "Providence" is improvised (and it is one of their best improvised tracks).  "One More Red Nightmare" and the instrumental "Red" are two of the loudest tracks they've done.  I will say, however, that of the five albums that have been remixed in 5.1, this is the one that benefits least (although the DVD does come with a cool half hour 70s video of a radio show the band did).

In The Court of the Crimson King (1969)
This is King Crimson's first, and possibly most popular, album.  The four composed tracks, "21st Century Schizoid Man," "Epitaph," "I Talk to the Wind," and the title track, are all excellent.  What brings the album down for me is "Moonchild," most of which is a free-form improvisation that really falls apart before too long. It really is a chore to listen to.

Thrak (1994)
Thrak was the first album in KC's third major incarnation.  This was the era of the "double trio", with Belew and Fripp on guitar, Trey Gunn and Tony Levin on bass, and Mastelotto and Bill Bruford on drums.  This lineup would prove too much to handle, but they did create one heck of an album, before "fraKctalizing" into several improvisational subgroups, and then being pared down a bit.  Thrak has what I consider to be King Crimson's best "normal" songs ("Dinosaur," "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream," "One Time," "People," and "Walking On Air"). Some of these are catchy, and some of them have awesome bass grooves.

Starless and Bible Black (1974)
Starless and Bible Black was the second to last album of the 70s incarnation, and most of it was recorded live.  It has some great songs in "The Great Deceiver," "Lament," and "The Night Watch," and one of Fripp's most impressive guitar parts (the one he said was his most difficult to play) in "Fractured."

Discipline (1981)
Discipline was the first album after a six year hiatus, and the first with Adrian Belew as lead singer.  This new King Crimson fully incorporated the 80s new wave style.  In general, I'm not a huge fan of 80s King Crimson, but it's hard not to appreciate an album with "Elephant Talk," "Frame By Frame," and "Thela Hun Ginjeet."  Definitely my favorite 80s King Crimson.

In The Wake of Poseidon (1970)
This was King Crimson's second album, and at this time, the band still consisted of most of the original members.  It is stylistically similar to its predecessor; as such, it doesn't really stand out amongst the rest of the King Crimson albums.  The music is quality, though.

The Power To Believe (2003)
The Power To Believe is, as of right now, King Crimson's most recent album.  A few of the songs were found on the Level 5 Tour CD ("Dangerous Curves" and "Level Five") and Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With EP ("Happy..." and "Eyes Wide Open").  That just leaves "The Facts of Life" and some instrumental tracks as the only real new material here.  The album is solid, and flows well.

The ConstruKction of Light (2000)
TCoL is an album that should be better.  All of the songs are good, and the instrumentals ("FraKctured" and "Larks' Tongues in Aspic IV") are excellent.  However, the sounds seems a little muddy, and the album comes across a little flat.  The version of the title track found on Level Five is superior to the one here.

Beat (1982)
Beat was inspired by the beat poetry movement.  I haven't gotten deep enough into the lyrics to really appreciate that fact, but needless to say, this is another 80s album, and like Discipline, it has that 80s feel.  Still, there are some good songs.  "Neal and Jack and Me" is good, "Heartbeat" is one of their more popular songs from the era, and "Neurotica" is nice and frenzied.  "Requiem" is a nice, long jam that works pretty well for me.  It's a solid album, but the 80s was, for me, the worst era.

Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)
The last of the 80s albums, TPP is probably my least favorite of the era.  The title track is top notch, "Man With An Open Heart" is one of my favorite 80s KC songs, and "Industry" is an interesting, and quite original, instrumental.  Out of the 80s albums, this is, however, the one I get least excited about.

Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)
This is where I get controversial.  Most people like Larks' Tongues in Aspic, it was one of King Crimson's most successful albums, and many people consider it their favorite.  I actually find this one difficult to digest.  The thirteen-and-a-half minute opening track, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Pt. I," seems to completely lack direction.  It has the feel of a loosely improvised studio jam (though it may have been composed).  I like a good jam, but this one just doesn't do much for me.  The second track, "Book of Saturdays," is a nice little tune, but not special.  The fourth track, "Easy Money," is good, but is more loud than textured.  The last two tracks, both instrumental, are both pretty good.  "Exiles," the third track, is really the only track here that I consider spectacular; this one would have to be included among King Crimson's best.  When I'm actually listening to Larks' Tongues, I almost always enjoy it, but I rarely get the urge to listen to it instead of one of the other 70s albums.

Really, all of these albums are good, and about half of them are spectacular.  King Crimson is one of the most creative and interesting rock bands ever to achieve mainstream success, and that is best exemplified by their body of work in the 1970s.  The 80s, 90s, and 00s still gave us quality King Crimson, but it wasn't the same band, and it wasn't as special.  Whether you are totally unfamiliar with their brand of progressive rock, or you are an ardent fan, these albums will always provide you with new discoveries.

1 comment:

  1. Seriously, such an intense post. I feel like I actually have to listen to some King Crimson now... I'm pretty sure I have at least on of their songs somewhere...