I am slowly learning to accept the new King Crimson. As I have said in the past, this latest incarnation of the legendary band has not grabbed me the way previous lineups have. After three-plus years, this new beast may finally be getting through.
I’ll be the first to admit my “Belew Bias” may have been getting in the way. I was introduced to this band in the 80s. At the time, Adrian Belew was the lead vocalist. That band quite literally changed my musical world forever. Over time, Adrian has become my musical hero. If there was one place I knew I could always find him, it would be in front of King Crimson. So when band founder Robert Fripp announced a new lineup in 2013 that didn’t include Adrian, I was rather put off.
I was also less than thrilled when Fripp announced this new band would be focused more on the material from the band’s early days, between 1969-74. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of great music to enjoy from this era. But King Crimson has always been (to me, anyway) a band focused on moving forward. I knew “original” fans had been clamoring for the early material for ages. Now it would seem they would finally be getting their way.
And I had questions about the band’s new configuration, which now features three drummers. Now, I LOVE drums. And I respect each of the drummers in this band. I just found myself wondering if all three of them (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, and Jeremy Stacey, who replaced Bill Rieflin) were necessary within the confines of one band. I mean, I love Max Roach, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey. But all three of them in one band would be serious overload! I’ve loved plenty of drum duos, including Mastelotto and Bill Bruford in King Crimson. But three? I don’t know, man.
The rest of the lineup features Mel Collins on sax and flute, Rieflin back in the fold but on keyboards, Tony Levin on bass, and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and lead vocals. While my Belew Bias runs strong, even I had to admit the 69-74 material was not necessarily meant for Adrian to sing. It was only when I learned the band would be incorporating material from the eighties forward that I began to get annoyed. Apparently, this annoyed Adrian, too. But he and Robert have since hashed out their differences, which also may have helped me obtain a bit more objectivity toward the new lineup.
It’s not that I hadn’t tried. I bought Live at the Orpheum, Live in Toronto, and Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind). In each case, I found myself feeling the same way: these are supreme musicians playing the daylights out of old material, even if it has been newly arranged to make it sound fresh. This band is great from a playing standpoint. But the music felt like a glorious step sideways.
But I’ve been a King Crimson enthusiast (as Robert prefers) for a very long time. I couldn’t just give up on my favorite band. So when Live in Chicago, recorded less than five months ago, was offered as an “official bootleg,” I decided to go for it once more. After all, had I wanted to attend a Crimson show, it would’ve been this one, since the band hasn’t come to St. Louis since 2003. At the minimum, I could hear what I missed. As it turned out, I missed some good stuff. I also missed some not-so-good stuff.
On the whole, this is a fantastic band. Absolutely top-notch! There can be absolutely no doubting the musical abilities of anyone in the group. These guys can flat-out play! My problems lie not within the musicians, or even 95 percent of the music. My issue seems to be in the arrangements.
I believe Robert has found a way to address his older material in such a way that he enjoys playing it again. And good for him! The music is still highly intricate, but somehow … lighter. A lot of the “heavy” has been taken out of the compositions, and the band sounds more … age appropriate. What I’m hearing now is not the “metal” band I loved from the turn of the century, but rather the King Crimson Symphony Orchestra. This rings true particularly due to the absence of a true frontman, which I’m sure was intentional. It may not sound like it, but I say this with all respect. This band is perfect for fans in their sixties and seventies, I suppose. And that certainly seems to be the audience eating this music up the most.
I’m more than fine with Mel Collins being back in the fold. The solos he plays on songs like “Starless” are absolute classics. I just wish he played less flute. To me, that instrument sucks the “heavy” out of many of the songs, like “Red.” Perhaps a soprano saxophone instead? I don’t know. I just know I noticed it.
Jakszyk is more than capable of singing the 69-74 material. I applaud him for his efforts. But I can really feel Belew’s absence on 80s songs like “Neurotica,” where Ade’s spoken word vocal makes the piece. And under NO circumstances should the vocal part from “Indiscipline” be sung, which Jakszyk does to my chagrin. Never. Never! NEVER! I actually cringed when I heard that! That song is also missing Belew’s guitar howl, which helps make the song the classic it is.
Now that Adrian has been declared a “ninth member, inactive” of King Crimson, I know what I would love to see. I would like to see a Crimson featuring both vocalists, with Jakszyk handling the pre-80s material, and Adrian handling the rest. Plus, we could get that wild guitar back in the fold. But something tells me Robert (and more than a few fans) would never go for this. Oh, well.
I would also like to see this new group record a proper album of new material. But the dearth of record sales industry-wide and the success of the tour make that seem like a virtual impossibility. If I knew I’d make a lot more money on the road than cooped up in a studio for months, I’d be playing and releasing live albums, too!
I’ve said all that to say this: King Crimson, Mark VIII (actually 8.3) is a marvelous outfit of highly talented musicians. They are well worth your time, particularly if you are more fond of the “original” songs from the earliest days of the band. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by what you hear. For “new-schoolers” like me, who are waiting for the next big leap forward, well … we may just have to accept that The Power To Believe was our last gasp. I don’t see Robert Fripp turning away from his current direction any time soon.
I wouldn’t, either.
This piece was published originally on November 27, 2017 on Cedric’s blog, CirdecSongs.