Led by guitarist Robert Fripp, King Crimson was a seminal band of our time. Formed originally in 1969, the band had, from the outset, pivotal influence on both heavy metal and art-rock. (Its large footprint also stretched into the world of prog rock.) The ever-principled Fripp refused to let Crimson become a dinosaur and broke up the band in 1974, retreating from the tour-album-tour grind to do solo and session work as a self-styled “mobile compact unit.” One of his endeavors, the dance-rock oriented League of Gentlemen, spurred Fripp to reincarnate King Crimson at the start of the 1980s. Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, Chapman Stick/bassist Tony Levin and drummer Bill Bruford (the only pre-split vet other than Fripp), the latter-day Crimson is a cutting-edge patchwork of modern influences: dance music, art-rock, mysticism, minimalism.
Discipline introduces the new cast of characters and displays their attempt at cerebral dance rock; Fripp is at least as interested in touching the mind as the heart. Not really songs, these pieces are unfolding musical sculptures, played with precision and rare imagination, a mostly successful synthesis of ambition, simplicity and Kraftwerkian clarity.
Beat achieves Fripp’s long-sought union of mind, soul and body, centering around the anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. An ode to the beat generation, the album elucidates Crimson’s past and purpose, melding Frippertronic tape techniques in equal partnership with Belew’s manic physicality. Picking up foreign rhythms and electronic overdubs, the players push their instruments into a new form, akin to fusion and art- rock, but miles beyond either, and beyond description as well.
Three of a Perfect Pair is a most disjunct album from a band that prided itself on carefully matched contradictions. The Left Side sports four of Adrian Belew’s poorer songs and a self-derivative instrumental; the flip is nearly all-instrumental, nearly free-form, nearly brilliant. As a bonus, the LP ends with “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III,” the last in a distinguished series of rhythmically skewed tours de force. Apparently the Frippressive “discipline” that forged the critically acclaimed pop/art synthesis of the first two latter-day Crimson albums is not a permanent condition.
A decade after disbanding the group for the second time, Fripp unretired it as a double trio with three returning sidemen (Belew, Levin and Bruford) plus drummer Pat Mastelotto (ex-Mr. Mister) and Stick player Trey Gunn, the last two of whom had been in the band Fripp and David Sylvian took on tour in ’93.
A gutsy half-hour document of the new Crimson’s first fortnight of rehearsals, Vrooom is an impressively accomplished work in progress: the descending instrumental theme for which the EP is titled is fully formed, gripping in its complex rhythmic drive and hair-raising in its dynamic twin-guitar details. (A distractingly delayed snare that surfaces a few minutes in was later rethought, but the piece’s content proceeded undisturbed in any noticeable ways.) Likewise, the Belew-verbalized “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” and the tropical “One Time” are most of the way there and don’t sound very different from the Thrak tracks. Some adjustments were subsequently made to “Thrak,” another wordless extravaganza, and the dramatically mounting (but never quite ending) instrumental wryly titled “When I Say Stop, Continue” is just a rough sketch for the album’s “B’Boom.” Any other band with Crimson’s aspirations would die to make an album this amazing; for Fripp, it’s just a warm-up.
In its ultimate form, Thrak is an absolute monster, a cerebral sextet adventure stunning in its precisely controlled rock power. The numbers Belew sings (the Beatlesque “Dinosaur,” “Walking on Air,” “People,” the two previewed on Vrooom and two others) move things along and provide accessible oases, but the album is really about the group’s stupendous instrumental workouts. Fripp’s role (at least as it appeared on the group’s subsequent tour) is extremely low-key, leaving the melodic heavy lifting to MIDI-man Belew and the two Stick players. Still, it’s the flawless egghead complexity of the entire company — dipping toes into chromatic jazz but clinging to the eccentric rock core that has always centered King Crimson, making it all sound improvised (which it most assuredly is not) — that gives Thrak its fervent, ferocious majesty. Among modern musicians, Fripp has a unique concept of how to pique listeners’ intelligence; the dichotomy of bludgeoning, tonally and rhythmically challenging volume exercises and fussy exactitude, of ideas lovingly framed and then brutally detonated, made the new old King Crimson one of the liveliest and most provocative outfits of the ’90s.
For some back-catalogue history, Frame by Frame is a lavish and thorough boxed retrospective (dwarfing 1987’s skimpy Compact King Crimson): three chronologically grouped discs of studio material and a fourth of live tracks. The Abbreviated and The Concise are, respectively, a pointless sampler-plus-medley and a futile fourteen-cut précis of the box. The Great Deceiver is a second four-disc set, this one of tracks recorded live by the early-’70s band. The First Three merely boxes the band’s initial longplayers: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), In the Wake of Poseidon (1970) and Lizard (1970).
Gunn, who has also made solo albums, was evidently a favorite pupil at Fripp’s guitar school in West Virginia; he appears on Show of Hands, the second of Fripp’s student-played albums. Unlike the mid-’80s Live!, the intricate massed acoustic-guitar compositions — all of which strive to emulate the maestro’s nitpicky inventions anyway — are primarily the disciples’ own. Gunn also shares the rhythm section chores in Sunday All Over the World, a quartet with Fripp and his wife, English rock singer Toyah Willcox. Kneeling at the Shrine, a belated follow-up to The Lady or the Tiger, is a typically careful but ultimately unhappy ménage of Fripp’s rarefied guitar excursions, a stylishly spacious Japan-like bottom and Willcox’s alternately soulful and Kate Bush-y vocals. Not jazz, not pop and not fine art, it’s a load of good intentions and exquisite performance in search of a focal point.