By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Epitaph's 64-page booklet includes reminiscences from Crimson's members and, probably most objectively, the band's roadie. Gorgeous graphics, too.
By 1972, King Crimson had undergone a complete change of personnel, with only Fripp remaining from the original lineup. Former Yes drummer Bill Bruford came onboard; he was joined by ex-Family bassist John Wetton and a young violinist named David Cross. Three albums dominated by dissonant, crunching mayhem ensued: Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and the exhilaratingly savage Red. Still habitual improvisers, open-ended and -minded, this Crimson was responsible for some of the most hair-raisingly snaggletoothed metal stomp-thud there ever was.
That lineup is featured on The Night Watch, a two-disc document of one complete show at the Amsterdam Concertbegouw in 1973, a Crimson milestone. This is the same show whose recordings (with the audience mixed out) were used the next year for over half of the classic aforementioned Starless and Bible Black. When I read this remarkable piece of Crim trivia, recently revealed by Fripp, I felt violated in the same embarrassing way I did when I learned that Miles Davis' mid-'70s live work was improvised. Here I thought I was listening to incredibly complex compositions by master composers, and they were just makin' it up! I didn't feel quite so stupid when I realized that the King Crimson of 1973 and '74 were magically telepathic in their live improvs, their songs seemingly materializing out of thin air.
If S&BB stands as King Crimson's finest achievement (and Crimson fanatics will no doubt want to debate me on that), The Night Watch is mandatory listening. It was a rather subdued concert (musicians don't play the same way when they know they're being recorded), and at times it's like music from the tomb: bleak, atonal, evil guitar - this edition of Crimson could be downright creepy. Yet the band was just as often simple and elegant, as on the emotion-drenched major-key improv "Trio." The most plainly beautiful of Crimson's songs, it affirms the often forgotten merits of violinist David Cross. On this cut, Bruford (tellingly credited as a co-composer) understands the Ringo Theory: What a musician does not play is every bit as important as what he does play. Fripp's twisted, complex compositional style is at its finest on the suitelike, nearly symphonic "Fracture," a mathematically precise, polyrhythmic rollercoaster of a guitar exercise, with Bruford radiant on bells. The performance ends with "21st Century Schizoid Man," which, sorry to say, only confirms the right to ownership of the 1969 band. (To the typically drug-addled party-animal audiences of 1973, it was as obligatory as "Free Bird" was for Skynyrd.)
The Fripp-Bruford-Wetton Crimson was an ensemble capable of simultaneously brawny and genuinely avant-garde music, to which anyone fortunate enough to have heard them work out live will attest. Yet nothing could prepare one for the 1996 Crimson's THRaKaTTaK. Possibly the most non-commercial release ever by a "brand name" band, it features the current double-trio King Crimson (two drummers, two guitarists, two bass players). The entire disc consists of live instrumental improvisations sliced from the middle of the song "THRAK," then edited together into new shapes and given rather Dada "song" titles. Incredibly complex time signatures come and go, overlap, link and disconnect, creating endless combinations of insane polyrhythmic enjoyment in a difficult Rubik's Cube of sound. A cursory listener might dismiss it all as mere atonal noodling, but in fact the musicians really are listening to each other, and much of the disc is actually quite placid. Listening to it again and again, it becomes a strange, swelling, organic piece, a sort of living, breathing beast. Ahead of its time and miles beyond anything comparable, THRaKaTTaK's futuristic sheen makes its relatives, such as Miles Davis' '70s electric improvs Agharta and Pangaea, sound like Boxcar Willie.
But then, this new Crimson music can't be separated from modern technological advances; the otherworldly soundscapes the band creates often appear to be emanating from instruments that have yet to be invented. They bulldoze their instruments into new forms with an array of electronic wonder devices, chiefly the Roland GR30 Guitar Synth, "Touch" guitars and an electric drill that guitarist Adrian Belew uses on his strings. Disorienting, stupefyingly realistic-sounding "piano duets" are betrayed as guitars only by the occasional sliding of notes or by Fripp's recognizably sawtooth riffs. Recording the improvs directly from the mixing console gives the final product a very compressed sound, with no room ambience or crowd noise, adding to the appropriately inhuman feel.
Hilarious reactions to THRaKaTTaK from bamboozled, usually young fans on the Crimson Internet newsletter "Elephant Talk" include one classic reviewer protesting its lack of "coherence." He concludes, "Still, we get a poster of the band with the CD, so it's not all that bad."
Finally, there's the video King Crimson Live in Japan, on which the double trio provides definitive, high-energy live versions of songs from Larks' Tongues through the 1995 Thrak. Sporting an impeccable sound mix, it's an excellent primer - and reveals who played what, and how.
All this Crimson music to digest (I anticipate that THRaKaTTaK will take years), and I can't help but slobber for more. Bring it on, Bobby, baby. We love ya.