by Tom Johnson
King Crimson has been a chameleon throughout its four decades of existence, not just shifting to reflect the times but also acting as a sort of quality-assurance agent, issued forth new offerings at just the right times when it seems that music might just slide into morass. What King Crimson had lacked, until this release, was a comprehensive collection that showcased just what the band has accomplished in its nearly four decades.
While most good music listeners will recognize the first cuts on this two-disc set (that is, of course, the legendary “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph,” the latter of which basically spelled out the path from which a good number of prog-rock bands would never stray), much of the rest of the set may be new to the unseasoned listener — and that’s who I am excited for. Previous compilations have missed the mark in many ways, leaving out essential cuts and periods entirely, but this one covers nearly everything in some way, drawing attention where it’s most deserved.
Disc 1 careens quickly through a five-year period, showcasing an incredible amount of growth and change — from the pastoral to the fearsome in such a short period of time is almost unimaginable, but the changes within the band are well documented in the accompanying booklet and go a long way to helping make obvious why the music changes so. As the group’s personnel changed (with only guitarist Robert Fripp, pictured above, remaining a constant), so did its musical dynamic, shifting more and more toward a jazz-rock dynamic as the ’70s wore on. With the entrance of Bill Bruford on drums (“Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I (Abridged)”), this band had taken on a completely new personality that almost must be experienced live to truly understand, and it’s almost a shame that this set instead chooses to focus only on studio work — as the liner notes point out, “it needed improvisation to stay alive.” But by 1974, King Crimson is no more.
In 1981, where disc 2 picks up, King Crimson returns, revitalized in a completely new way that throws many fans for a loop. Expecting the gritty doom of previous incarnations, they get something all together different. Fripp, of course, remained, joined by returning drummer Bill Bruford, but also in tow are new guitarist Adrian Belew, hot off working with David Bowie and, more importantly, Talking Heads, and bassist/Stick player Tony Levin. The band is working very much in a more pop-oriented space, ignoring everything that King Crimson had stood for in the past — and, in fact, the band had begun life under the name Discipline, with no intention of becoming King Crimson, until Fripp felt that the presence of the band was exerting itself in the music.
And just what was this music? Intricately woven interlocking pieces, “rock gamelan,” as it has been described, reflecting a world-music aesthetic that had never been glimpsed in Crimson before. While Belew’s lyrics may often have had a playful and humorous tinge, it’s the polyrhythms that abound, and not just that, it’s that there’s is a reliance upon technology that would become a foundation of the band’s existence in the future. With advances in sound equipment, the band, like many other musicians, explored many avenues previously unavailable to them. New wave music, so big at the time, does tend to flavor this period of King Crimson’s music, but this has become a constant with King Crimson: the band uses the current technology and styles to advance itself.
And, within just a few years, that lineup of King Crimson had completed its mission and the musicians moved on, only to be called back to active service in the mid-90s when it seemed that music hit another point where it seemed obvious that the music was there for the making. The ’80s lineup reconvened again but with two added members: extra drummer Pat Mastelotto (from Mr. Mister, believe it or not) and a frequent Fripp collaborator, touch guitarist Trey Gunn. What purpose could this six-piece lineup serve — two drummers, two Stick-type instruments, two guitars?
The answer comes quickly in “VROOOM,” the opening track from 1995′s THRAK. Pan your speakers left and you’ll hear one half of the band, pan right and you’ll hear the other half, both playing slight variations of the same song. It sounds like it should be a mess but it’s not, and that’s because this outfit is incredibly adept at working like this, even as new as they are. While this idea wasn’t translated throughout the entire album, as it was originally rumored, live they often worked this way, breaking off into smaller units during improvisational segments of the show.
This lumbering 12-limbed beast was not long for this world, however, as after the lengthy world tour, the band began fragmenting into smaller groups, called ProjeKcts by Fripp, to explore new sounds and ideas. It became obvious that the six-piece band just was not going to work any longer, even if there was still music for it to conquer, and eventually Bill Bruford left the band to return to his jazz roots and Tony Levin opted to continue on with his very successful studio work. What was most unfortunate about The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, 1969-2003, was that it skips over this productive and fascinating period of the ProjeKcts.
The new four-piece band, Fripp/Belew/Gunn/Mastelotto, debuted with The ConstruKction Of Light in 2000. Strangely, this set opts to showcase nothing from this album. While it is an uneven album that seems uncomfortable with itself and sounds a bit like a band confused at who it wants to be (is this a new King Crimson or a King Crimson looking back for inspiration?), it still contains key moments that should have been included here. Instead, the set focuses on the far stronger The Power To Believe (2003) and preceding Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With EP from 2002.
The Power To Believe shows the band looking forward once again, and outward to other cultures again. While it contains the usual blend of heavy guitar workouts that listeners have come to expect, there’s an element of the spiritual that permeates the proceedings with an air of dignity that is unexpected. Belew still plays his word-play games, and to some the music may sometimes seem stoic, but underneath there lies hidden emotion and meaning – it’s been there all along, in all of their music, waiting for listeners to uncover it. But here, it seems to be revealed just a little more than ever before. Between the distortion and displays of powerful chords, there’s ethereal beauty and charm (“Eyes Wide Open”), but even sinister at times (“Level Five”). The Power To Believe might just be King Crimson’s finest moment, and it’s fitting that such a large amount of this set is dedicated to this one disc.
The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, 1969-2003 provides a fantastic glimpse of a band at work, both for the new listener as well as the dedicated fan, for whom this will showcase the evolution of the band. While it overlooks some important turning points, as any collection will, for the new fan, these are mere speedbumps — and leave hope for exciting things to look forward to discovering once this set proves insufficient.