If any band exemplifies the best of "progressive rock" throughout its career, it is King Crimson. The original band was built upon the earlier Giles, Giles & Fripp (whose Deram album, THE CHEERFUL INSANITY OF..., is now available on an American CD with several bonus tracks) with the addition to that band of Ian McDonald, Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield. Each brought something to the band. Sinfield gave it its name, and McDonald wrote or cowrote all of the music. (But the incipent Crimson was already there in the earlier band, as the final tracks of its album clearly indicate.)
The first King Crimson album, IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, set the standards for all of the progressive rock that would follow. And it created the mold from which the next two albums would be stamped. That first King Crimson did not survive its tour of the
And, once again, it broke up during an American tour, all of the othermembers leaving Fripp once again holding the bag while they in turn became "Snape," a blues-band. Following this Fripp assembled a new band around John Wetton (formerly of Family, on bass and vocals), David Cross (violin and mellotron), Jamie Muir (percussion), and Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes, on drums). This band made LARKS' TONGUES IN ASPIC. Muir left, and the remaining quartet made STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK. Cross left and the remaining trio (with guest shots from Cross, McDonald, and Ian's sometime replacement, Mel Collins) made RED. There was talk of McDonald rejoining Crimson to tour with RED when, in late 1974, Robert Fripp disbanded the band.
The band formed once again, this time as a "double trio" (two guitars, two basses, two drummers), in the 90's. It has released a teaser from early rehearsals, VROOOM, and a full album (recapitulating most of the earlier teaser), THRAK. There have also been a live album (recorded in an early Argentinian tour) and an album-length collection of stage-improvisations leading into or out of "Thrak."
Right now (early 1998) the current King Crimson is looking for a fresh musical direction. The strongest elements of both VROOOM and THRAK (the title tracks) are derived from left-over (and unused) sections of "Red." Which is to say, they are throwbacks to the 70's. Those of us who grew up with the original Crimson enjoy these "throwbacks." The material of the 70's Crimson was much more powerful than that of the 80's Crimson. In order to find and develop a new direction, the double-trio Crimson is "fractalizing" into "ProjeKCts." ProjeKCt One made its appearance at the Jazz Club in London in early December, 1997. By then ProjeKCt Two had already performed in
Each "ProjeKCt" grouping is taking a wholely improvisatory approach. Out of these improvisations, it is hoped, new music and a new direction will emerge.
This is not a new idea for Crimson, and that has been becoming more and more apparent as new archive recordings are released.
It started with FRAME BY FRAME, the first boxed-set CD release in 1991. It included a live CD, offering tidbits from as early as 1969. Next came 1992's THE GREAT DECEIVER, documenting with live recordings on four CD's the post-Muir Larks' Tongues band in 1973 and 1974. Then EPITAPH, four CD's, released in 1997, documenting the 1969 period and including the original band's final performance at Fillmore West. Here were embryonic versions of pieces that would later appear on the second and fourth albums. (Not yet released on CD are two live LPs from the 70's, EARTHBOUND -- live cassette recordings of the ISLANDS band -- and
And now NIGHT WATCH, a two-CD set which documents the 82 minute concert given at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on November 23rd, 1973. This not just any live concert; this concert was planned in advance as the live recording session for the next King Crimson album. And from this concert about 27 minutes of material was used on STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK. (That album has, by Fripp's reckoning, only 12 minutes of material actually recorded in the studio. In addition to the Dutch performances, another piece was taken from a performance in
What is significant here is not the use of material already written and rehearsed, like "Lament," "Fracture," and "The Night Watch," but the improvisations, coined on the spot as it were, like "Trio" (to which Bruford contributed total silence), and "Starless and Bible Black." (The latter subbed as the album's title track when the written piece, eventually titled "Starless," could not be finished in time. "Starless" ended up on RED; embryonic versions can be heard in live performances on THE GREAT DECEIVER.) In effect, instead of following the usual route of writing, rehearsing, and recording new material for STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK, Crimson chose to record a concert and use it as the basis for a new album. There are no audience noises on the finished album, and no indications that the more obviously improvised parts weren't also done in a studio.
But when you listen to the live concert recordings -- from any era -- you become aware of just how much the live Crimson always improvised. This was a band which did not in fact play "jazz," but which did use a jazz-approach to improvisation...and often intermingled on the bandstand with British jazz musicians, who occasionally even guested on the albums (especially LIZARD). Improvisation seems to gain impetus from live performance before a live audience. There is a sense that one can't just stop the tape (as one can in the studio) and start again: one has a performance to sustain for the audience. One is held (or holds oneself) to a higher standard of music and performance. One is more "in the moment" and able to rise to the challenge. Witness "Trio."
To listen to THE NIGHT WATCH is to deconstruct STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK. Here are the original tracks as played, overdubs removed (where possible), in their original concert setting. Here is the raw, live 1973 King Crimson, on-stage, creating and recording material for their next album.
We can only hope the next stage of Crimson will be as creatively successful.
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