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IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (Virgin 7243 8 48099 2 8) [1969]
IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON (Virgin 7243 8 48948 2 5) [1970]
LIZARD (Virgin 7243 8 48947 2 6) [1970]
ISLANDS (Virgin 7243 8 48949 2 4) [1971]
THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT (Virgin 7243 8 49261 2 0) [2000]
PROJEKCT X: HEAVEN AND EARTH (Discipline Global Mobile DGM0005) [2000]


Starting with IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING in 1999, and continuing with the next three albums (as they were originally released) in 2000, Robert Fripp and Simon Heyworth have produced 24-bit remastered "30th Anniversary Editions" of these albums on CD. (These are the third versions of these albums to appear on CD. The first CDs were taken directly from LP-equalized masters. The second round of CDs were "Definitive Editions" remastered under Robert Fripp’s supervision and released in the late eighties.) Subsequent albums from the seventies and eighties are due to follow in this format. And the initial releases are in the "mini-LP" format popularized in Japan. (After the initial "mini-LP" versions are sold out – which is occurring rapidly – these CDs will be re-released in regular jewel boxes.)

It’s nice to have miniature replicas of these original gatefold albums, complete with the hard-to-read silver type over blue inside POSEIDON, and the illuminated letters of LIZARD. They also come with booklets (tucked into the pocket opposite that which holds the CD) which are scrapbooks of King Crimson’s contemporary press coverage. I was curious to see how they’d handle the ISLANDS package, since it had different covers in the U.S. and the U.K. In its "mini-LP" version it comes with the British outer slipsleeve as its cover, and the American cover (swapped up for down and front for back) on the booklet (the booklets for the other albums simply duplicate the "mini-LP" covers). This roughly duplicates the U.K. LP.

Far more important than the packaging of these albums, however, are the contents. The music remains as powerfully compelling as it was thirty years ago, and it has never been presented to better advantage. Working with tapes which were perhaps not originally recorded under the most ideal conditions, Fripp and Heyworth have worked minor miracles of transparency and clarity and they’ve restored lost dynamic range – although, surprisingly, the CDs are actually mastered at a lower volume level than is customary. This is particularly noticeable on "The Devil’s Triangle" on POSEIDON, which starts inaudibly and very slowly fades up into listening range as it continues to build.

These first four albums both defined King Crimson and set the stage for what was to follow. Listening to them again I’m reminded of how broadly musical this Crimson was. Although the original band recorded only the first album before breaking up, the next two albums (both released in 1970!) were made by a superb studio crew. They included important contributions from British avant-jazz pianist Keith Tippet, and, in addition to the saxes and flutes of Mel Collins (who replaced Ian McDonald on those instruments, absorbed the Crimson vocabulary and made it his own on three albums and in the 1971/72 working band), other horns were used: trumpet, trombone, oboe and English horn.

As I’ve observed elsewhere here, this was "programmatic music," solidly in the European tradition of Romantic classical music. This was music which told a story and evoked visual imagery. It ranged from loud and heavy to quiet and pretty and used modal themes to build in intensity – a logical extension of the ground-breaking coda to the Beatles’ "Hey Jude" in 1968. In places the music could approach (controlled) chaos, and tracks like "Cat Food" offered openly experimental instrumental sections. King Crimson could in those days be stunning in its musical power, which went so far beyond rock and roll as to make the descriptive word "rock" virtually irrelevant. These four albums created "progressive rock" and had an enormous influence on other ambitious bands throughout the world.

King Crimson’s influence did not stop with those first four albums, either. The fifth, LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC, marked a dramatic turn away from programmatic music, toward a much more abstract music, as exemplified by pieces like "Fracture." Working with a completely new band, Robert Fripp moved away as much as he could from the anthemic style of the earlier Crimson, but not so far as to totally distance Crimson from its past. There was still a Crimsoid sound and approach. And violinist David Cross and bassist John Wetton demonstrated their thorough grounding in the Crimsoid vocabulary, especially in the recorded improvisations. Many people celebrate the Larks’ Tongues band as the best of all the Crimsons.

But Fripp gave that up in 1974, disbanding King Crimson and leaving music entirely for an extended sabbatical. I think he’d had enough of Crimson and its extended works. When he released his solo album, EXPOSURE, in 1979 the tracks were short and post-punky. The one bow in the direction of Crimson, "Breathless," offered Crimsoid riffs but no Crimsoid power and no real development – only riffs. I met Robert shortly after EXPOSURE was released (and I’d given it a mixed review in a local entertainment paper, the UNICORN TIMES, which he’d seen and did not agree with) and he told me then that he’d moved beyond or away from Crimson. But he thought he knew how to win over Crimson fans with newer music.

The League of Gentlemen – a revival of the name of his first group in the early sixties – seemed at first to be the path Fripp would take after his solo Frippertronics tour: a quirky new-waveish dance band, built in part around precessive interlocking patterns perhaps inspired by Balinese gamelan music.

That band didn’t last long, but Fripp put together a new band, Discipline, to further explore this precessive guitar approach, enlisting Adrian Belew on second guitar. (This band is captured on DISCIPLINE – LIVE AT MOLES CLUB 1981, recorded on April 30, 1981 and released by the King Crimson Collectors’ Club as Club 11.) Soon Discipline became the new King Crimson, releasing three albums in 1981-1984.

Was it really the new Crimson? Well, they played a few older pieces – "Red," "Fracture," and particularly "Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man" – in concert. But the new material (with the sole exception of "Larks’ Tongues Pt. III") bore no resemblance to that of previous Crimsons. Much of it was gamelan-based or -inspired, and the songs were written (all the lyrics and much of the music) by Belew. The quartet, which also included drummer Bill Bruford (from the Larks’ Tongues band) and bassist/Chapman Stick/Warr Guitar-player Tony Levin, was now half American. Belew sang the lyrics in an American accent. While this may have appealed to Fripp, who was looking for fresh directions and a fresh sound, it was less appealing to many of Crimson’s fans, myself included.

Call it prejudice on my part, but I don’t think Americans have much to add to the lexicon of progressive rock. Lacking a European musical education, most Americans are better at boogying down than at ambitious music – as most of the lame bands trying to produce American progressive rock have proved over and over. There’s something missing from the psyche of the American rocker, I guess. The United States offers the largest and one of the most enthusiastic audiences for progressive rock, but hasn’t fielded a band worthy of international respect in this musical arena in decades.

(Recently I saw a band which calls itself Blue Floyd and which does southern refried versions of Pink Floyd’s classic material. It was very disappointing. Despite the promise implicit in the concept, Blue Floyd reduced every piece they played to three-chord jams.)

But Fripp rejects "progressive rock" as a genre and as a label for King Crimson. In Crimson he hears "the beast," and tries to evoke it and bring it out into play. The nineties Crimson, the "double trio" which produced VROOOM and THRAK, was two-thirds American. While Fripp pointed that edition of Crimson away from the interlocking guitars of the eighties, and revived unused themes from "Red" for "Vrooom" and "Thrak" themselves, most of the rest of the material was again written by Belew.

Belew has written music for years for both his solo works and his former band, The Bears, much of which I like – and not least for its Beatleish aspects. But for Crimson, while some of the Beatles influences remain, Belew seems to be writing somewhat differently than he does on his own. His lyrics in particular, seem to alternate between first person narration and lists of words apparently assembled from a thesaurus and offered in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Neither offer the mystery or the wordplay of Sinfield’s lyrics for the original Crimson, and on repeated listening I find them growing tiresomely mannered. They are too American: too literal and often too banal.

In the spring of 2000 King Crimson released two new albums. The "official" Crimson album is THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT, on Virgin. In addition there’s the Projekct X album, HEAVEN AND EARTH, on DGM, with one track (the title track) from it included as a bonus track on CONSTRUKCTION.

Projekct X is the latest in the Projekct series (1 through 4). Originally these were "fractals" of the double-trio, smaller trios and quartets formed by the six musicians, with Fripp the common member of all. (The earlier Projekct recordings are available as a boxed set – DGM 9913 – or as a single-CD sampler, THE DECEPTION OF THE THRUSH on DGM 9915. In addition, Projekct Two released a two-CD set, SPACE GROOVE – DGM 9801 – and Projekct Four’s THE ROAR OF P4 was the seventh Collectors’ Club release.) But PX is the same band, a quartet, which made CONSTRUKCTION. The album, HEAVEN AND EARTH, is put together from rehearsals and jams which preceded and surrounded the recording of CONSTRUKCTION, extensively remixed by drummer Pat Mastelotto.

The whole idea of the Projekcts was to "R&D" the next Crimson, via improvisations. And while those Projekcts produced some interesting improvisations and recordings, I don’t hear much – if any – of their influence on THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT. The album is the work of a quartet again – Bruford and Levin having been granted leaves of absence, Trey Gunn taking over bass duties.

When this album was released it stirred up a storm on the King Crimson e-list, Elephant Talk, with listeners writing in to express their disappointment or pleasure in the album. Opinions varied remarkably, and bloodletting was only narrowly avoided between some correspondents. My own reaction falls between the extremes, but it’s fair to say that I find the album and the band’s musical direction basically disappointing.

To begin with, there is no new musical direction. So much for "R&D." In general, the album’s music is highly mannered and narrowly focussed. Technically, this is admirably difficult to perform and very demanding music, but it is guitar music, full of pointillistic notes (at one point Fripp uses his guitar synthesizer to transform his solo into a piano solo, but it doesn’t sound pianistic) and it occupies a narrow emotional spectrum.

Two pieces, "FraKctured" and "Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. IV," make direct references to the seventies Crimson with their titles, but offer a more abstract and less emotionally expressive music. The pieces which offered the original inspiration (and titles) have been reduced to elaborately performed riffs, heavy on technique but light on feeling. (Not that they are "light" musically – the reverse. They are full of metalloid ponderousness.) The title piece offers both an instrumental section and a song section – in which Belew amazingly enough dips into Yes’s "Close To The Edge" period for his vocal refrain (in which he again piles word upon word).

The rest of the pieces are Belew’s songs. "ProzaKc Blues" uses a voice-treatment to lower and roughen Belew’s voice, while his lyrics blame depression on reading the posts in Elephant Talk (which he has elsewhere referred to as "turds"). While not a real blues (Fripp is well known for never playing real blues), the piece is probably the strongest new composition on the album. Belew’s "Into the Frying Pan" and "The World’s My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum" are lyrically weak (lots of words, signifying not very much), and typical musically of his contributions to the nineties Crimson like (the clumsily titled) "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream." "Larks’ Tongues IV" segues directly into "Coda: I Have a Dream," another Belew contribution. This, like the "Marine Coda" to "Vrooom," is a musically powerful circular piece which harks back once again to the coda to the Beatles’ seminal "Hey Jude." Unfortunately, the lyrics – which attempt to sum up the 20th century – are bald and banal, and can’t touch Billy Joel’s "Fire" lyrics of a decade ago.

Belew had wanted to precede "Lark’s Tongues IV" (which follows directly on the heavy ending of "Oyster Soup") with an acoustic version of "I Have a Dream," which would have offered a "breather" and set up the heavier coda. That makes sense to me, but it didn’t to Virgin, and Fripp reportedly backed Virgin’s decision to exclude the acoustic prelude. Perhaps the lyrics stood out too nakedly in the acoustic version. (This is the first instance I can think of in which any record label exercised direct control over the content of a King Crimson album, something I doubt Fripp would countenance if he hadn’t agreed with the outcome. Sometimes in a "democratic" or "leaderless" band – which Fripp claims Crimson is – an outside force is required to make and enforce such decisions….)

The album concludes – after a long pause before the final track – with "Heaven and Earth" by Projekct X, a bonus track. One friend of mine claims it’s the only interesting track on the album. However, it’s somewhat atypical (lighter, more ethereal) of HEAVEN AND EARTH itself. That album is more in line with those of the earlier Projekcts, but Mastelotto has mixed it bits of studio conversations to create something of a montage. And early incipient versions of some of the material on CONSTRUKCTION can also be found there.

So the current version of King Crimson labored mightily (as described last November in several on-line diaries, including Fripp’s) but brought forth something less than had been hoped for. My overall sense is that for the first time King Crimson really is just a rock band – and one hardly at all advanced over its metallic contemporaries on the rock scene. And it’s become an American band, Fripp the only remaining Brit. (The recording was done in Belew’s Nashville home studio.) For all the talk of forward movement, THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT just marks time and offers no real advances beyond the technical (no acoustic drums were used; at Fripp’s request Mastelotto used V-drums exclusively – another point of controversy among some fans). The King seems to be getting old and tired.

And I’m getting really tired of the cute misspellings substituting "KC" for "C." It has worn very thin. The old Crimson didn’t need to resort to such devices and I wish the new one didn’t need to either.

NOTE: In the fall of 1999 I wrote a five-part series on the history of King Crimson and its releases (including the information that, contrary to published reports, Robert Fripp had nothing to do with the pre-Giles, Giles & Fripp band called Brain, which released a single on Parlophone in 1967) for the Collecting Channel. This piece can now be found in the Bios, Histories & Discographies section of this site. There are considerably more historical and discographical details in those pieces than I have gotten into here, although portions overlap my earlier contributions here.

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