King Crimson 2017: loooking backward yet moving forward
[continued from last post]
After seeing a performance of such talent and intensity the thought occurred that much of what made this concert exemplary was down to its ability to sift through the entire history of King Crimson and not just do it justice, but to actually redefine it, enhance it and take it to new heights that only these eight musicians could collectively achieve. This was eight brains and sixteen hands on the stage and none of them were slacking off.
It leaped past my three years of anticipation that began once I knew that Mel Collins was back in the band after 40+ years out of the loop. Mel was a big factor in why I like “Lizard” so much, but he was also on the “In The Wake Of Poseidon,” “Islands,” and even the “Red” albums. That evening, he was all over that material. He was revisiting songs he helped to define as well as [this was even better] adding sax and flute elements to songs which never had them to begin with. And every note he blew was tremendous. He either added melodic counterpoint to make the sound larger that you remembered it, or he took the lead in powerful solos that solidly had their feet planted in jazz territory. He simply made the music more thrilling for me in every way.
The three drummers had no difficulty in capturing the rhythmic brilliance of Michael Giles to start with. Fripp has long since opined that Giles was the finest drummer he has ever played with. Careful listening reveals a playful complexity to his work with a penchant for fills that came strikingly out of left field. The drummer frontline that the band has now is in a position to assimilate any style of drumming that the band ever had. The accomplished and complex attack of Giles, to the middle period where Bruford and Muir blazed new percussive trails into jazz improv territory, to the tech metal of the post-90s era of the band.
The drumline consisted of three brains playing rhythms which fused together as one for the purposes of each composition. They could play in unison for greater accumulated power, or split the percussive thread into smaller sub-threads, each of them adding detail and nuance that would be impossible for a single drummer to provide. For the most part, the way the drummers presented the catalog material ensured that one could never hear some of those old songs in quite the same way afterward. The band were performing on all new levels of accomplishment. The house sound was such that tiny details like Pat Mastelotto squeezing a dog toy at one point were as clear as a bell. Elsewhere, Mastelotto would pick up sheets of metal and add complexity and percussive texture to an already rich rhythm track; giving the music the scope that Jamie Muir had brought to “Lark’s Tongues In Aspic” yet extending it considerably due to the fact that there was a further extra drummer that even that lineup did not have.
That everyone played this well, was a given. It’s King Crimson, after all. One can only imagine heir marathon rehearsals, but where the story really got interesting was in the how and why of its amazingly well-considerd set lists. As someone who cut his King Crimson teeth on the 90s/00s lineups of the band, it was a given that outside of “Lark’s Tongues In Aspic Pt. II” or “Red,” one was simply not going to ever hear material that predated the epoch defining “Discipline” album. According to a Robert Fripp diary posting from some years back, Adrian Belew was going to enter into a Nine Inch Nails tour and was otherwise engaged in several deep commitments. He said to Fripp, “if you ever thought about forming a King Crimson Lineup without me, now would be a good time.”
So this is what happened. Fripp got the vision of three drummers and built the lineup around that with the knowledge that Adrian Belew was spending the year or so in a heavy Nine Inch Nails commitment, except that Belew ended up not taking that tour, by which time the new King Crimson was already in the planning stages. Fripp’s vision of the lineup to be was by necessity one where Belew would not be a part and he set out to make a Crimson very different to the post-1980 versions of the band That the hows and whys of why this King Crimson lineup would be the only one since the early 70s to perform material from its complete history, is largely reliant on Fripp’s dissatisfaction with what happened with King Crimson when its “double trio” lineup fractalized into oblivion in the ’96-’99 period.
In the liner notes to the band’s new “Live In Chicago” album, Fripp admits that he considers four eras of the band to be of critical interest. 1969, 1974, 1981, and the current era. He felt that at his age, he did not want to leave King Crimson on the terms that it had worked out for him ca. 2000-2008. He felt that whole of the band for that era was less than the sum of its parts and this seems to have nagged at him. As Fripp himself put it:
“Overall, my sense of KC 1999-2003 [two albums and several tours, two of which I caught], and 2007-2008 [only a small US 40th anniversary tour which I missed] was of dis-satisfaction. Something was not quite realized. This was not how I wished to let go of Crimson. So, in 2013, in a flash before my mind’s eye, a picture of the Seven Headed Beast and its onstage configuration presented itself [July 22nd, 2013].” – Robert Fripp
“My two primary aims in the re-formation on KC in 2013 were Redemption and Completion. Acts of Redemption took place during 2014, 2015, and 2016; at which point completion was realized. A completion is a new beginning and the eight piece KC of 2017 constitutes a new beginning in the process of King Crimson.” – Robert Fripp
This KC lineups throughout history seem to have been optimized for a particular brand of Crimson, which could vary wildly in its trails and qualities, from the orchestral Prog of the first two albums, to the Prog-jazz of album three, to the improv/metal explorations of the Wetton/Bruford Crim, and the interlocking Gamelan approach of the “Discipline” era. Some of these footprints of the band were so wildly divergent that it would have been impossible for some particular lineup to play the music of another; hence the abandonment of Crimson’s ’69-’74 canon [for the most part] post-1981. Maybe it’s a valedictory thought on Fripp’s part, but maybe there’s a reason why the last three years have given us a King Crimson large enough to play anything from its history for the first time ever, and to play it definitively well.
The set lists have seen material taken from almost every album and given new life by this Eight Headed Beast. In fact the only two “problems” that I had with this concert were that one of the two albums not touched for this concert program was “Starless + Bible Black,” one of my favorite Crimson albums. [“Thrak” was the other album snubbed by the setlist]. What I would have given to have heard this band tear into “Great Deceiver!” I am imagining Mel Collins on sax right now and I am levitating. I know for a fact that the band could have started that number “on the one” with no problems; part of its allure for me is its legendary cold opening where the listener was abruptly dropped into the center of a swirling jazz-metal vortex; already at full power. It’s an opening that one soon does not forget and while the album sounded like a judicious use of editing, this band had the chops to replicate that live. Then there’s “Fracture.” This band could just blow minds on that one.
The other slight downer was that their cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” had been played at most of the Summer 2017 dates but not so on the Fall ones I was seeing. My wife and I missed out on Robert Fripp playing one of his most iconic guitar lines for our waiting ears, but then again, so did most of the audiences on this leg of their tour. I almost feel churlish at registering any gripes because the power of this concert was such that it’s The One. It sits in the pole position of my favorite concert of all time, and I’ve seen some doozies that it effortlessly raced past. I have simply never heard music given such care and attention to feel and nuance as I had here. The three drummers made certain that the rhythmic complexity of it could span from accomplished to insanely accomplished as it needed to encompass that. The venue was superb. The sound was fully dynamic yet stopped well short of brutality. And there was Mel Collins on stage giving his all to every number to my continued astonishment and rapture. Several of Fripp’s solos will stick with me to the end. As much as I love his guitar playing, I can’t say that about the previous three King Crimson concerts I’ve seen; as thrilling as they were at the time.
This band is now re-writing history. If you’ve an inclination to hear some seriously complex music that still manages to stimulate your brain stem as well as your cortex, then do not forego the chance if this band comes within striking distance. Fripp has indicated that this incarnation could last up to seven years and we’re halfway through the program now. There will undoubtedly be some tweaks along the way, but for the Crimson fan of any era, these concerts will be definitive statements of passion, adventure, and expertise that will re-wire your entire sense of this band and what they are capable of.
– 30 –