The almighty Crimso didn't quite invent progressive rock (that was The Nice), didn't make it famous (that was ELP and Yes), nor give it it's bad reputation (Genesis, and to some extent Yes). And yet they may be the genre's single most important band. What they did was define the genre and show the masses how progressive rock in the right hands should be done. Their 1969 masterpiece, In The Court of the Crimson King was undoubtedly the album that kickstarted the whole movement and got people excited about this new kind of music. Sure, the advent of psychedelia and other such experimentation was rampant during the late 60's, but King Crimson was one of the few bands who successfully combined a few styles in a way that truly worked (in this case, it´s either jazz or classical with rock music). That's not to say Crimson was infallible - during their first run, their lineup changed on literally every album, with the band's only consistent member, Robert Fripp, going through four sets of rhythm sections in less than 5 years. Now Fripp may be a real virtuoso guitarist, and he's generally responsible for the band's direction, but he's no bandleader, preferring to sit quietly in the shadows rather than take the spotlight. He's a writer of (sometimes) tight and powerful instrumental jams, not a writer of songs, so needless to say the quality of the band's albums didn't really depend much on Fripp but rather the quality of the men at his side. With such an erratic lineup the band was never able to put together a string of quality albums the way that Genesis, Yes, or even ELP did, so if you're just now getting into the band, you really have to pick and choose your spots.
I've got to say a few words about Robert Fripp - he's generally known as being a real asshole and something of a prog rock primadonna, refusing to sign anything, stopping shows when someone takes a picture, running away from fans, etc., etc....he´s one of the few people in music that truly doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. Maybe he's not a great guy to hang out with (from what I can tell, he's a nice but introverted guy who's wrapped up pretty tightly in his own world), but it's important to know that Fripp is not exactly someone to pander to the crowd. This has certainly transferred over to the music - Fripp releases whatever he wants without any fear of bad reviews, meaning that albums may consist of a few stunning pieces and one ridiculous, improvised piece of nothing. Or, if you'd prefer, entire albums full of nothing but atonal guitar feedback noise. Those who just start buying up Crimson albums are bound to be disappointed at some point...for every true classic album they've put out, there´s one full of unlistenable garbage, and due to the constant lineup changes, they're unlikely to sound anything alike. This is another trait of the Crim - they could probably be divided into seven different bands, some which sound so drastically different you'd wonder why they didn´t just change the band´s name.
The band's original lineup was born out of the ashes of the fairly obscure Giles, Giles, and Fripp (which I have reviewed in the appendix below). Peter Giles left the band, but Michael stayed on drums, and Fripp of course plays the guitar. The main force of the band for the first incarnation was the multi-talented Ian McDonald, who plays the mellotron (a huge organ-like instrument that would basically play a tape set to a pitch, usually used to simulate an orchestra), a huge part of the early Crimson's sound, as well woodwinds and other various instruments, and it is he who wrote most of the songs that made the early group so famous. The bass player and singer was Greg Lake, before his stint in ELP of course, whose voice was the band's main attraction. The rarely mentioned sixth member was Pete Sinfield, who wrote the lyrics, mostly serving as Crimson's muse. After that...well, most of the band members left, then most of the replacements ended up leaving or getting sacked. I'll definitely go into more detail below but the two notable lineups to come out of this was the John Wetton era of 1973, and the Discipline band that comprised of Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford (who was also a part of the 1973 band).
One other main facet of this group was their live performances, mainly for their tendency to improvise. I think Fripp always saw King Crimson as more of a live band than a studio one, which may explain why he's released about five billion live albums over the last decade or so. I've covered most of the "official" live albums (those released the same year they were recorded), and some of the more popular "archive" releases. The King Crimson's Collector's Club is a series of like fifty-some mail-order only releases, and though I've heard some of these, I probably won't review any of them, since I already have reviewed a live album from pretty much every incarnation of the group below, and quite honestly they never really changed that much from night to night, improvs or not. The group tends to play mostly the songs that belong to that particular incarnation, and with the exception of two 70's instrumentals, they almost never go back to their original material. There does however exist a live band of King Crimson vets called the "21st Century Schizoid Band" who are more than willing to turn back the clock.
In The Court of the Crimson King (1969)
On his write-up of King Crimson, John McFerrin speculated that no album was more important to its genre than this album was to progressive rock. That’s probably true – bands cropped up that would spend their entire careers trying to emulate the sound of just one of these songs – but this has a rush of incredible inspiration that most of those bands never got. Crimson’s main advantage was that, unlike other progressive bands like The Nice or Yes, they had more of a jazz base than a blues one, and you get the sense that this could have been an incredibly talented fusion band if they wanted to. Instead, there’s the pompous but convincing vision of Ian McDonald and Pete Sinfield. McDonald brings many of the exotic instruments to the mix – flutes and other woodwinds, sure, but more importantly the mellotron, which is this albums' defining instrument. It doesn’t sound like an actual orchestra, but it really shouldn’t, anyway – let’s not forget what a “live orchestra” did for Days of Future Past. Instead we get haunting, pitch-shifted and cosmic sounds, and it does wonders for the album. And, for at least this album, Sinfield’s contributions lyric-wise actually help things a lot – here (and here only), his visions are evocative and sweeping, and Greg Lake’s vocal performance is good enough to sell it. It all comes to a head on “Epitaph” – the crescendo is so powerful, Lake’s vocals so expressive, and the lyric sentiment so desolate, that even at first listen, you knew none of these guys would ever be able to top it. And then you’ve got the title cut, composed more like a symphony than a rock song, with an incredible vocal multi-track that’s absolutely chilling. Both these cuts are the ‘meat’ of the album, but there’s more – “21st Century Schizoid Man” was even a bigger classic – distorted, acid-drenched hard rock that stutters into an exhilarating jazz-fusion session. It’s at this point you can really appreciate the chaotic rhythm section of Lake and Giles (who has got to be one of the best prog drummers out there) and the fluid soloing from Fripp (who doesn't do a whole lot otherwise). It leads into “I Talk to the Wind” – a light and pretty flute ballad that’s maybe the most melodic thing on here. It doesn’t dazzle like the other tracks, but its calming respite fits in beautifully, and for all its ridiculous sentiment (“I’ve been here and/I’ve been there and/I’ve been in-between!”) I appreciate its tunefulness.
Ah, and then there’s “Moonchild” – an insubstantial yet otherworldly ballad that cuts into a 10 minute collage of studio instrumentation. It often prompts people to cut their rating for the album to “perfect, minus one point” since they can’t justify using the best possible rating for an album that contains 10 minutes of wasted space. On my first few listens I found it the same way – “this album rules, but that ruins everything”. But in the context of the album, it actually works quite well. It’s a calm-down track placed after an epic that will absolutely raise your heart rate, a piece on a classic album that cannot be memorized. The studio improvisations are calming yet slightly unsettling. The instrumentation is generally pleasant – Fripp’s guitar is set to a soothing tone, Giles sticks to his cymbals, and there are many atmospheric chimes and bells around. It's not very exciting, but it's not too hard to enjoy, and it is a little obnoxious to see people treat it as though it's just ten minutes of silence. Even if you dislike it, it has to be said that nobody had ever tried this type of experimentation on record before, as “ambient” music wouldn’t come about for another 6-7 years. It's true that several groups would try similar experimentation soon after, but it was often tuneless in addition to being formless. Forgive me if this all sounds laughably pretentious – this is just a terrific album, one that stands apart from all its imitators, and one of the few truly indispensible relics of the prog rock era. Let the record show at one point, this was a good idea.
One note though: don't be put off by the named 'sections' of the album tracks - they were mostly a farce, since at the time the record companies were actually paying the artists by the track. So it doesn't actually mean anything that, say, the "Schizoid" jam is actually called "Mirrors", and outside of this album those sections were never really spoken of again.
2009 Update: This album has been remastered many times in the past, but from what I can discern, the 2009 remaster is easily the best sounding yet. The sound is much crisper than it’s ever been, and there are actually a few bonus tracks - they don't exactly reveal any "lost classics" but there is a guitar/flute "duet" version of "I Talk to the Wind" that's absolutely gorgeous. The one difference in the actual album is that they've shortened "Moonchild" by several minutes, which I don't really have a problem with. Apparently this remaster is available in everything up to 5 (!) disc versions that apparently include every recording of these songs ever made. I can't imagine what the 50th anniversary master will bring...
Epitaph (rec. 1969, rel. 1997)
Unless you really want to dig into the King Crimson Collector´s Club releases, this is the only taste you can get of the ´69 Crim, and believe me, it's more than enough. There are two versions - the 2-disc version is the most common, but there's also a 4-disc version out there. Don't bother - there´s nothing new on the 3rd and 4th discs, and the sound quality is surprisingly worse, and besides that, there's enough repetition here as it is. Disc 1 is a smattering from three different venues (with varying sound quality), while Disc 2 is fairly close to an entire show. What does a King Crimson show circa 1969 sound like, you ask? Truly, a monumental event if you were actually there - the "big three" are all performed here, and are done surprisingly well, even capturing some of the debut´s magic - Lake sounds better than ever, and Giles just goes nuts (making the Fillmore East rendition of "21st Century Schizoid Man" a huge highlight). But neither of the other songs from In The Court were performed; instead we get a few tunes that would show up on the next album ("A Man, A City", sort of a "Schizoid Man" rip, and their menacing rendition of Holst's "Mars"...is there any other kind?), as well as those that missed the first album ("Get Thy Bearings" and "Drop In", both underwritten filler, the former dating back to the Giles, Giles, and Fripp days). There's also a few completely improvised tracks that are toss-offs, not the last time this happens, believe me. So what are we left with? A wildly inconsistent Disc 1, but Disc 2 cuts out most of the fat and doesn't repeat songs, so if you could just get that, it´s worth seeking out. Either way it gets points for some amazing performances, and it´s cool to see the '69 group stretch out into the later incarnations (the theme from "Mantra" would appear as part of a song from Lark's Tongues in Aspic four years later...I love that kind of stuff). But it loses points for dubious sound quality (which is really the album's big hindrance), a number of toss-off tracks, and a lot of repetition. So don't take the rating to mean that this group was just okay...these shows were truly something else, and it's a shame they weren't better documented.
In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)
Only one album in and there are major personnel problems - McDonald and Giles decided they couldn't stand the pressure of fame and jetted, while Lake wanted more, promptly hitting it big with ELP. That leaves Fripp, and, uhhh...the lyricist. Future Crimson member Mel Collins plays the sax here, Peter Giles fills in for bass, and Fripp himself takes over the mellotron. Things weren´t actually so grim - McDonald had another album's worth of material more or less written already, Michael Giles agreed to stay for the time being, and with Lake agreeing to lend his voice to the album (with the exception of "Cadence and Cascade", which is sung by his replacement, Gordon Haskell, but it's so inaudible that you probably won't notice), there was a good chance to recapture some of the feeling of the debut. The problem is that there´s just too much of the debut here - "Pictures of a City" is a jazzier, less impressive "Schizoid Man", and the title track is a direct rip of "Epitaph", except a lot more pompous and artificial. There's even a ballad in the middle with a flute solo ("Cadence"). It's not uncommon to see a sophomore album living in the shadow of an impressive debut, but even the hardcore fans admit this was too much. Things ARE different on side two - "Cat Food", a left-over from McDonald, is a nice piece of madcap pop music and the album's best track, featuring the oddball talents of Keith Tippett on piano. It literally sounds like a cat walking across a piano, which I guess was the idea. The rest is dedicated to the band´s rendition of Gustav Holst's "Mars", called "The Devil's Triangle" here. It´s a very chaotic and creepy piece of music, even going as far as to sample the previous record. It's a tough listen, at times focusing on the sounds of a mellotron being tortured (the instrument´s sound was unsettling enough!), but it's also a particularly affecting one and one of the few genuinely scary pieces of music I can think of (from bands that I like, that is). So there's enough good material here to fill an album, and anyone who's a big fan of the debut will like this, but it merely hints at that album's greatness rather than capturing it. In fact, it would be interesting to expose someone to this album first, then go back and see how much they like the debut. Because while that album showed the group firing on all cylinders, there's a bit of misfire here; the lyrics are mostly overwrought garbage and cheap rhymes (a pretty common theme through most of Sinfield´s work), and the "Peace" segments are so insubstantial that you'd think they were only there so they would get paid more for the album. Still, given the circumstances, this is something of a triumph, and unlike some of the albums to come, it is listenable all the way through. Recent CD versions contain the instrumental "Groon", the B-side to the Cat Food single - it's a nicely performed piece of jazz that`s both complex and concise, and it should have made the album.
Lizard is an odd duck in the Crimsonography. With most of the remnants of the original band gone, Fripp had to come up with an entirely new band, rather infamously recruiting his childhood friend Gordon Haskell to croak all over the album. Haskell's voice is not exactly polished - he can sing, but his voice is often off-key and abrasive in nearly every spot. But the music here matches that pretty well - in order to compensate the loss of McDonald, Fripp gives Tippett and Collins increased roles, and lets Sinfield go nuts with the carnival imagery and effects pedals. The result is something so messy and ugly on its surface that it's hard to really grasp what Fripp's role in all of this is. He sticks mostly to the background, playing some acoustic guitar and clanging along with the rhythm section, freeing up the rest of the band to do what they please. Perhaps the best example of all this is on "Happy Family", a bluesy tune that quickly turns into an aural pile-on. The stand-out element is Haskell's computerized and disfigured vocals, which are legitimately terrifying, even moreso than the ones on "Schizoid Man". But there's so much else going on that it takes multiple listens to digest it all, given that you haven't turned the record off at this point. The rest of side one is just as engaging - the opening "Cirkus" is another in a line of nightmarish opening epics, and their last with a good dose of mellotron. "Indoor Games" is a little easier on the ears, as it's almost written like a single, with a strummed chorus and a catchy vocal part, though there's too much instrumental noodling to have it ever be considered as one. But these songs are memorable (even the short ballad "Lady of the Dancing Water") and wisely play off their own chaotic atmosphere.
The flip side is the 23-minute title track, and it too is a mess. The beginning is one of the album's highlights, featuring Jon Anderson singing a rather bizarre pop song ("Prince Rupert Awakes") that eventually turns into a jam section (what else?) with military drums and a bunch of sax playing. At one point there are two saxes scribbling over each other, only to be taken over by Tippett randomly slapping the piano. Haskell shows up to sing a bit, and then we launch right into another lengthy jam that ends with everyone playing over each other, including Fripp with a couple of blazing solos that are easy to miss. It's a looser, even less structured version of the "Schizoid Man" jam that ventures into pure dissonance at points. In a way, I do feel weird about awarding this such a high score, given that it's so easy to get turned off this record up front that it's hard to recommend to anybody. In fact, there are a few spots where it's not clear if the band really knew what they were doing. It's not surprising to hear that Haskell didn't really like the album, even as it was being recorded. But when you get past the surface - the terrible vocals, the off-putting synths, and the constant wild sax parts, there really is a lot to enjoy here. In fact, I'm not even sure if I'd want to hear Lake on this album, as the freakish surface is half the appeal. If you do get this album, make sure to get the 40th anniversary remastered version, which was remixed nearly from scratch by Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) and is one of the best remastering jobs I've ever heard, bringing out details that were obscured by the muddy original mixes.
In case you're wondering, Haskell actually released a moderately successful folk album some 30 years later and currently has the record for "most requested song" on BBC Radio 2. Who knew? Turns out he's had a solo career all along. Now I have a morbid curiosity to hear it - one RYM reviewer says "I actually threw this album into the garbage when I first listened to it."
Fripp replaces the rhythm section again, with another new bassist/vocalist in Boz Burrell (who would later join Bad Company), and a new drummer named Ian Wallace. Boz is technically an upgrade over Haskell, even though he isn’t much of a singer either and literally did not know how to play bass coming into this album. This time, Fripp concentrates less on progressive anything and more on soft jazz fusion, but with an orchestra. The songwriting's lackluster, with most of the tunes being basically formless. Not that they don't have good moments - "Formentera Lady" is memorable and does reach a nice groove once the song takes shape, and "Sailor's Tale" shows Fripp playing some hard guitar chords and shows the band rocking out for a while, which otherwise they do not (a rarity for a King Crimson album!). Fripp spent most of his time conducting a full orchestra on some of the tunes, which is why the guitar is mostly either missing or in the background. The overall sound of the album (as defined by the two 10+ minute tracks, "Formentera Lady" and "Islands") is pleasant, but when they deviate from it, they often get lost. "The Letters" sounds like a Lizard outtake - it's short and obnoxious, as the tune switches from a boring and nearly inaudible ballad to a loud, jarring, off-key jazz section, and never seems to have any idea where it's going next. At least Boz gets to scream on it, which is really the only memorable part he gets, unless he's doing that falsetto during the first song. And the single, "Ladies of the Road", features Sinfield's most sexist and groan-inducing lyrics yet (until Love Beach, anyway), and sounds like garbage blues that was recorded in someone's attic.
Still, both "Song of the Gulls" and the title track are worth sticking around for, as they do portray the vastness suggested by the cover (and earlier KC albums), and are actually quite pretty. "Gulls" is actually fully orchestrated, and while it does sound like something that one would compose on their first attempt at writing an orchestral piece, give Fripp some credit for knowing his limits and not trying to do too much with it, unlike a certain keyboard player who used to be in The Nice. As for the final, epic-length title track, the only things I can really say about are that it's very pretty, and that it ultimately goes nowhere, building up and just fading out. There's a lot of Keith Tippett on it, which is a good thing - you often find yourself wishing that Boz would just shut up so you can hear him play. In fact, it's hard not to get the impression that the album would be improved had they just not tried to write songs at all, as Fripp and Collins sound like they could be the basis of a good acid jazz combo, and Boz is pretty much useless. Ultimately, Islands has its good ideas and its good moments, but Fripp seems to be over his head and semi-disinterested in the results.
This was released simply to fulfill a contract, and I cannot imagine the band caring less. It's a live album, but the source material seems to be bootlegs, and not even good quality ones at that. Yep, this is the famous "most terrible-sounding live album ever", with layers upon layers of static and nothing but flat tones - I mean seriously, who approved this mix? It sounds like (and probably was) a thrice-bootlegged casette. And that's not even the worst of it - the band all hated each other by this point, both on and off the stage, resulting in them playing against each other throughout the majority of these recordings. Fripp had publicly declared Crimson as dead, so it’s not surprising if he genuinely did not care how this album turned out. Only one song escapes somewhat unscathed, and that's "Schizoid Man" - the rest of the tunes ("Sailor's Tale", "Groon", and two new ones) devolve into a jazz-improv mess in no time and stay forever (hell, "Groon" lasts 15 minutes, enough time to fit in a long, processed drum solo and a good amount of hilarious Boz scat singing). Fripp apparently tried to get this deleted from the Crimson catalogue but the album's reputation caused enough demand to get it re-released on CD, massively disappointing another generation of Crimheads who didn't do their research. I guess some of you might find some "so bad it's good" value here.
Ladies of the Road (rec. 1971-1972, rel. 2002)
Okay, if you really want to hear the '72 band live, I guess this is the way to do it - this is a live from the vaults recording that finally put the awful Earthbound to rest (while these recordings are hardly soundboard-quality, they beat the pants off the Earthbound ones, furthering the mystery how that album was allowed to be released). It's more or less a complete show (taken from many different venues), showing Crimson at their jazziest yet. Collins gets a lot of face time and takes the most solos, honking away at every possible opportunity, and Boz occasionally freaks out (his vocal limitations certainly crop up when he attempts to do Lake's parts, but he at least sounds like a madman during most of them), while Fripp sadly sticks mostly to rhythm. The tracklisting contains the first four tracks off Islands (everything but the orchestral stuff), and one track each from the other three albums (unless you count the blues rendition of "In the Court of the Crimson King" which disappointingly cuts off a minute in – dunno if the tape was just that way, or if this was a cruel trick by Fripp…it easily could be either), plus "Groon", and for some reason, "Get Thy Bearings". Believe it or not, they actually handle the old material well, with "Cirkus" played slower and coming into its own - plus, "Schizoid Man" shows the band may have actually had more talent than they're usually given credit for. If you liked that, you're in luck - there's a bonus disc with an hour of "Schizoid Man" improvs edited together, which purport to be some sort of jazz-fusion odyssey. It works for a little while, at least, but the sound quality gets worse and the edits harsher as it goes on. Maybe good for one listen, until you realize that just as Mel Collins goes nuts with some really impressive saxing to put a climax to the whole thing on the final track, the audio cuts out for a minute. Huh?? It doesn't get more frustrating than that. A musical blue-ball moment if there ever was one (especially since it takes nearly an hour to get there!) But I'm grading this by the first disc - it documents this weird era of the band better than the studio album (or Earthbound) did, showing that maybe they did have something going after all.
Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973)
The Crimson King makes a miraculous recovery, throwing away the old band entirely and recruiting a new batch of talent, including John Wetton (later of Asia) on bass and vocals, David Cross on violin, crazy percussionist Jamie Muir, and the jazzy ex-Yes member Bill Bruford on drums. How did this happen? Fripp says he told Bruford he was ready for King Crimson, apparently not realizing that the last three Yes albums were The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge, while the last three Crimson albums were Lizard, Islands, and Earthbound. Huh? Turns out Billy jumped ship at just the right time - this new version of King Crimson is good enough to vindicate the band's shaky history. It's something truly progressive - the melodies are as complex, multilayered, and epic as many classical pieces, but it's clearly rock.
This means Fripp is actually playing his guitar, and the loud and crunchy tones he uses are much more powerful than anything he's recorded in the past. Cross provides most of the softer parts interspersed between Wetton's fuzzed-out bass and Muir's wild percussion, and Bruford seems to be able to play any style at all, with his drum kit augmenting the song in more ways than simply providing rhythm - he's not as fast as, say, Carl Palmer was, but he puts a lot more feeling into it, making him perhaps the best prog drummer ever (counting his work in Yes too, of course). There's definitely a theme here - the album seems mostly based on the contrast of quiet and loud, with the quiet parts being either pretty or full of tension, and the loud parts being ear-shattering and powerful. The first part of the title track emphasizes this the greatest, but it's a theme that shows up in many of the tracks - whether it's a suspenseful, slowly intensifying jam session ("Easy Money"), or simply a increasingly loudening groove ("The Talking Drum"), which screeches to a halt (literally!) and segues into one of the crunchiest, most badass riff tracks ever (the second part of the title track). The rest is dedicated to balladry, of course, a King Crimson staple (and a chance to get some vocal parts on the album) - while the short "Book of Saturdays" is mostly a breather to lighten the tension from the first track, it does its job well, featuring an interesting backwards guitar solo. "Exiles", however, is a heartbreaking masterpiece and Crimson's best ballad, with Wetton's crooning vocal displaying more emotion than just about anything they've recorded save for "Epitaph". Possibly the most overlooked Crimson album, as most of the praise this incarnation of the band gets is saved for Red, but I can't imagine anyone who liked that album not being able to get into this. Don't skip this one.
Starless and Bible Black (1974)
One of the main facets of this era of King Crimson was their ability to improvise, but unfortunately the band fell in love with themselves and decided to record most of this album live and just overdub it later. So half of this is just improv, which can work when it's kept concise and has some sort of an aim, like to be funky ("We'll Let You Know") or pretty ("Trio"), which is quite impressive for something made up on the spot. Unfortunately, the rest of the improv doesn't do much else except be formless and absolutely boring (the title track), and to make matters worse the instant one of them starts to actually kick off, the tape literally stops ("The Mincer"). I guess they didn't just re-record it because they wanted to be abstract. I’m not saying this band wasn’t good at improvisation, but they made the decision in advance to use a particular show for the album, and they weren’t exactly on during that show. To make things worse, they didn't even have Muir on board, as he left for the monastery right after Lark's Tongues in Aspic. The written pieces salvage the album a little, but not by much - "The Great Deceiver" has an exhilarating electric violin section and interesting drumming as Bruford plays against the rhythm, but the other vocal pieces are either too sappy and overdramatic ("The Night Watch") or just too generic ("Lament") to compete with the ones on the last album. The final track is Fripp's instrumental "Fracture", which is amazing in a technical sense - I doubt even the Howes or Hacketts of the world could play this - but it runs over 11 minutes when half that could easily do. So this album certainly has good moments, and they do still have amazing talent, but I can't overlook that there is not one track that works from beginning to end - even “The Great Deceiver” is lackluster outside the jam parts. Frustrating.
The Night Watch (rec. 1973, rel. 1998)
Live albums can get a big strike against them if they're just the same exact tunes as the studio versions, note for note, played at the same tempo, just with more mistakes and worse sound quality, as those are usually instantly redundant. Well The Night Watch gets an even bigger strike because these actually ARE the studio versions. If the Starless and Bible Black album just wasn't enough, Fripp graciously (?) released the entire concert so you can hear it without the overdubs. The performances here are fine, but as said in the liner notes, the band was having an 'off-night' (and yet it got released anyway), and besides that there is already a '73-era KC live album with much better performances (USA) - strike two. And, not only that, but the set only runs a couple minutes over 80, meaning you're paying for a 2-disc set that barely runs longer than one. Strike three - this is a terrible deal for King Crimson fans that already own Starless, and for those that don't, not only are you missing that album's best song ("The Great Deceiver"), but you're also getting tracks that were performed better on a different live album. If you don't have Starless or USA though, it's not bad - the performances aren't as fiery as they could be, but they are precise, as Fripp barely misses a note on "Fracture", which is an admirable feat by itself. Overall I'd say this incarnation of King Crimson was just too talented to ever turn in a "bad" performance, but the improvs are generally maddening and uninspired ("Trio" excepted), and they didn't have too much of that 'live presence' that separates a good live album out from the pack. If they hadn't decided beforehand to use this performance as part of their next studio album, it never would have been released as a live one. All I can think of is that it was released to be a "companion piece" to Starless and Bible Black, but I kind of wish the packaging had been more clear about that. Collectors will to hear want this, as all this aside, it was still a historic show...but everyone else is wasting their money.
David Cross left the band once he realized how small his instrument sounded next to the others, and although he is missed, the upside is that now it's just Fripp, Bruford, and Wetton, which is about as tight a trio as you could imagine. Easily Crimson's second most popular album, Red was nearly as influential as In the Court, with the difference being the influence of Red still seems to live on in today's modern prog bands such as Tool and the Mars Volta. This is heavy stuff - the opening track is about as powerful and sinister as it gets, with crushing, carefully-arranged riffs and a well-placed symphonic break. The rest of the album is no less evil sounding - even when the band tries to do funk it's distorted and unsettling ("One More Red Nightmare"), and the ballad "Fallen Angel" is their noisiest and most depressing yet. The album's centerpiece is of course "Starless", which is simply one of the best Crimson tracks of ANY incarnation - it starts as a slow, heartbreaking ballad and goes into a legendary, ultra-tense build up, featuring a great bass line and Fripp's one-note guitar plucking. When the tension breaks, the band goes into a thrilling, jazz-rock, almost "Schizoid"-like jam session, with Ian McDonald returning on sax (he's on "Fallen Angel", too). It's truly music for the apocalypse, should it see fit to rock this much, and a perfect end to this era of the band. This album is downright essential prog and is perhaps one of the most evil-sounding albums ever, even if it's more psychological than physical (as it's never overly loud or abrasive). The only downside is that they saw fit to include another meandering improv ("Providence", which DOES rock a little, but it takes too long to get to that point) - and as a result the album has a noticeable weak spot. Apparently even Crimson themselves didn't think they could top it - even though Ian McDonald offered to rejoin the band, Fripp broke up Crimson right after this album's release. Interestingly enough this is the only Crimson album to feature a photo of the band on the cover - Fripp looking stern, Bruford looking solemn and kind of dorky, and Wetton giving off a somewhat sinister-looking smile, with the entire group half-covered in shadow. It's definitely one of my favorite covers on a prog rock album and it fits the music well. If you're not taken by the first thirty seconds of "Red", maybe this group isn't for you.
Crimson's second live album, recorded in 1974. Unfortunately, this is before Red, but the selection of tracks from their other two albums is definitely adequate, and the bonus tracks on the remastered version DO include an early "Starless". The live stuff from this band is great, especially when their improv is good, and luckily the one improv here is actually pretty damn great ("Asbury Park"), which is a menacing, fast-paced jam track. Otherwise the songs play mostly like slightly faster versions of the studio recordings, except the jam sections are different and there aren't as many effects (mostly due to the departure of Muir). An altogether solid performance and a run-through of "Schizoid Man" makes this a fitting farewell to the band (this incarnation, anyway - this album was fully intended to be Crimson's last). If you want to hear this era of the band live, this is the way to do it.
The Great Deceiver (rec. 1973-1974, rel. 1992)
A 4-disc collection of live material from the 70's band. Definitely exciting stuff for those who were really crazy about this incarnation of the band, but I don't know if I can sit through 5 hours of this stuff, as there's an awful lot of improv and repetition, with each disc getting its own version of "Easy Money". Looks to be some interesting stuff - there's a Red B-side ("Doctor Diamond") and a rare performance of "Cat Food" in there. I'll take it on a disc at a time and give a report later.
Crimson officially split before the release of Red. Fripp released a bunch of solo albums, including Exposure which I have reviewed below, and became a much in demand session man, working with high-profile artists such as David Bowie. Bruford and Wetton went on to form the short-lived prog/fusion group U.K., and later Wetton would become a founding member of Asia (yikes).
After a 7 year layoff, Fripp decided to form Discipline, a very clean New Wave group, bringing back Bruford and recruiting two talented musicians with impressive pedigrees in Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals) and Tony Levin (bass). For some reason (money?), he eventually decided to call this band King Crimson anyway, even issuing apology letters in the record jacket to explain why King Crimson had come back even though he clearly said they wouldn't. Of course, Discipline is a totally new type of King Crimson record, but like their other successes it’s fascinating and unparalleled. On the surface, this is controlled funk-rock, but with the presence of a second guitar virtuoso, Fripp was able to write interlocking dual guitar lines that play out like a 400-level course in precision. The result is hypnotizing, as all sorts of neat techniques come into play, such as wrapping one guitar line of quick notes over the lead riffs, playing the same guitar part twice slightly out of time with each other, and using one guitar part as a basis for which to solo over. The title pretty much says it all – the group is never unhinged like on previous works, and only once decides to jam out (“Indiscipline”), and even that's controlled and structured. If you’re getting the impression that this isn’t really going to appeal to Crimson fans, take solace in the fact that this is no 90125 or Invisible Touch - this is complex stuff, and fans of prog should still appreciate this - “Frame by Frame” features riffs at three different speeds, sometimes played at the same time! While sometimes it all feels like an academic exercise, the songwriting is top-notch – “Elephant Talk” (with a bass technique later copped by Primus) and “Thela Hun Ginjeet” are funky and memorable, and there’s a heartbreaking and charming ballad (“Matte Kudasai”). It’s not without its quirks – Belew pulls a lot of neat tricks like using his guitar to make animal noises, and fills the lyrics with clever (and obnoxious) wordplay. Of course, the music is the primary focus, as evidenced by their decision to end the record on nearly 14 minutes of instrumentals, with Bruford given a chance to lay out some meditative tribal rhythms (“The Sheltering Sky”). The band brings everything together in the title track, which really does groove despite being in 5/8 time. You could probably criticize this for being too much of a thinking man’s album without much feel or energy, but what they aim for they do well. It's accessible, and too complex to be written off - this was the balance all the prog bands were looking for in the post-punk era.
A completely underwhelming follow-up. How underwhelming? Well, let me just say that every song on Discipline is better than every song on this album, and leave it at that. Yes, Discipline was kind of lethargic, but this is ridiculous - only "Neurotica" produces any kind of excitement or moves at a pace that can't be described as "agonizing". The first half is listenable if you liked the last album - "Neal and Jack and Me" starts where "Discipline" left off (literally), and "Sartori in Tangier" injects a good dose of funk, but even the well-written tunes like "Heartbeat" and "Waiting Man" are so undermixed and unexciting that they pass by without making an impression. The killer is that the last three tracks are awful - "The Howler" and "Two Hands" seem unfinished, and "Requiem" is nothing but an obnoxious aural pileup, and seemingly Fripp's only real contribution to the album. I thought the point of the new band was not to indulge in things like this? Besdies that last track, nothing in here is particularly offensive; in fact, it's generally pleasant, and you'll probably even enjoy "Sartori" and "Neurotica" a bit. But as a whole, the album is so bland and watered down that there's not a single genuine point of interest on it, which you couldn't say about any KC album to this point. So let's try to find some - this is the first Crimson album to fully retain the lineup from the last album, and also the first without a title track. Remember that for Trivial Persuit: King Crimson Edition...
Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)
It's sad - Fripp and Belew's styles were so well intertwined on Discipline, but they fell apart shortly after, and only three years later they were so incompatible that Belew and Fripp essentially decide to write seperate sides for the album. So side one is filled with pop songs and side two with dodgy experimentation, and it should come as no surprise that Belew's side is much better. The good news is that Belew still can spin out some fantastic music - "Three of a Perfect Pair" is a great pop song that makes use of the band's dual guitars, "Sleepless" shows off Levin's mastery at funk bass, "Model Man" is heartfelt and powerful, and "Man With an Open Heart" is catchy and upbeat. They're all worth hearing, and are their most radio-friendly songs yet (indeed, "Sleepless" became the band's one and only single). They're also pretty much all dead ringers for the Talking Heads, especially as Belew does his best David Byrne imitation here. It's unfortunate that things take a sharp dive on the second side, with another "Mars" retread, too calculated to be exciting or even really evil sounding ("Industry"), and a couple tracks of insubstantial new age or industrial ambiance ("Nuages", "No Warning"). Fripp's one shining moment comes in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Three" - not that it's got anything on parts one or two, but it features fancy fingerwork and some terrific instrumental skill...for a few minutes, before inexplicably switching to a steady industrial beat halfway through and doing nothing until the fadeout. Well, there's one interesting track on there, the short and demented "Dig Me", where Belew plays the part of a junked car. That one at least kind of works, but the sad thing is that it's also Belew's track, leaving Fripp with a big 0-fer on this release. So to extrapolate, side one deserves four stars, while side two only gets two, so the rating is a perfect three, and the album isn't really worth paying for since all the worthwhile material ("Model Man" excepted) appears in better form on the live Absent Lovers album. Of course, then you wouldn't get the six bonus tracks, including three more mixes of "Sleepless" and two bonus excerpts of industrial noise. The one cool thing is that the other one is an oddball track called "The King Crimson Barbershop", in which Tony Levin sings as the members of King Crimson in a barbershop quartet, and manages to get a couple of much-deserved slams on Fripp ("No photos please!" "We don't do encores!")
Absent Lovers (rec. 1984, rel. 1998)
A live recording of thils lineup's last concert in Montreal, this makes a good argument for this being the most talented incarnation of the band (instrumentally, at least). Pretty much all the shortcomings of the 80's band are absolved here - the sound is full and exciting, and the track selection is ace, so you won't have to sit through unfinished or lethargic cuts like "The Howler" or "Requiem". And if you ever wondered if they could produce their complex dual-guitar tricks live, be assured they can not only do it, but do it faster and better than in the studio! Really has to be heard to believed - pretty much every one of the studio tracks get demolished here, with tunes that didn't quite reach their potential becoming standouts ("Man With an Open Heart", "Waiting Man"), and the good tracks getting spruced up and rocked out ("Sleepless", "Thela Hun Ginjeet"). Even the experimental stuff like "Industry" is put to rest - why couldn't they have made it sound like this on the records? With this, Crimson finally fulfills the promise of their talented lineup - all the guitar tricks are replicated here ("Elephant Talk", "Discipline"), Levin's bass plays fast and smooth, and Bruford actually makes the now badly-dated electronic drums sound good ("Indiscipline"). Just to prove that Fripp hasn't forgotten the badass he used to be, they do the good mid-70's instrumentals ("Lark's Tongues in Aspic Part Two", "Red"). Just hearing these guys play makes it worthwhile - but the fact that this is captured and produced so well (it sounds like a strong and crisp soundboard recording) nearly makes the studio albums obsolete. Just as an example - I was obsessed with this album for a while after I bought it, and when I finally put Discipline on the turntable again, I thought the belt was warped and playing the record at a slowed speed. This album spoils you.
King Crimson broke up again after this, and each went about their own seperate ways - Belew started a solo career and became a Bear, Fripp started a guitar school, Levin became a much in demand session man, and Bruford would briefly rejoin Yes. But Crimson came calling for all four of them again...
After a 10-year layoff, King Crimson returned for some reason, retaining all the 80's members, as well as stick player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto to form a "double trio". Not a good idea on paper or in execution, but what the hell. This 6-track EP was released as sort of a preview of things to come from the band on their upcoming THRAK album. The band itself tries to reconcile the pop-based sound of the 80's with the heavy riffing of the 70's, but predictably don't quite nail either. Most of these tracks are repeated on the studio album, so you'll probably just want to grab that instead. The two that don't are the forgettable improv session "When I Say Stop, Continue", and Belew's short and manic "Cage".
The first full-length from the double trio, and it's surprisingly decent. There are a few tracks that attempt to recapture the band's 70s heyday ("VROOOM", and "VROOOM VROOOM", which sadly even goes as far as to reuse the same middle section as "Red"), and a good amount of harsh noisemaking ("B'Boom", "THRAK"), but when it's all said and done, this is still Belew's band. In fact, this is really not that far off from his solo albums, which may actually be a good thing. The pop songs do mostly work - "Dinosaur" may be a bit overlong, but it's a great demonstration of makes a rock song work, and the ballads "One Time" and "Walking On Air" are two of their prettiest yet. On the other hand, "People" is second-rate New Wave (although Levin's funky bass playing does make the song a lot better), and "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream" is memorable but obnoxious (particularly the atonal 'jam' section). The big non-surprise here is that they take advantage of the CD era, expanding what would be a tight 40-minute album into about an hour, with pointless experiments (“Radio”), unfinished songs (“Inner Garden”), and reprises that sound good but are unnecessary (“VROOOM VROOOM”). But it really is listenable all the way through, with a couple of career highlights ("Dinosaur" and "Walking on Air" are both big keepers) to show that unlike some of their contemporaries, Crimson's heart was still beating.
B'Boom Official Bootleg: Live in Argentina (rec. 1994, rel. 1995)
Recorded before the release of THRAK, and seemingly before the band really knew what they were going to do with six members. If you've listened to the excellent Absent Lovers release recently, you'll probably be disappointed - even on the 80's numbers, the band doesn't have it together the way they used to, and the two new members seem completely superfluous. Plus, they have, for some reason, decided to play "THRAK" and "B'Boom" twice, not really switching it up either time. It doesn't stop the fact that this is still one of the most talented bands around, and the tracklisting covers a good smattering of the band's material (three selections from the Wetton-era band, and five from the 80's), with no real low points (besides the repeating tracks). Like it or not, it's hard to recommend when the live album VROOOM VROOOM features the same band and material performed better.
Another live album, this time a collection of improvs the band played in the middle of "THRAK", linked together to form one lengthy improv. Not that I don't think this incarnation of Crimson can't come up with some good improvised material, but this certainly isn't it - it seems like most of the band is more concerned with making weird noises and using unusual tools (Belew's 'piano guitar', which just plays random notes) than making actual music. Both Bruford and Mastelotto seem to want to stay completely out of the picture, and the band as a whole seems either too scared or too out of ideas to contribute anything. Fripp has said this is what all King Crimson albums would sound like if they knew the audience wouldn't kill them afterwards (quipped one Crimson fan, "I'd be surprised if the instruments didn't kill them first!"), basically admitting that he knows the fans really don't like this stuff. Doesn't quite explain why he released this album though, now does it? I guess he wasn't satisfied with Earthbound being the worst live album of all time?
VROOOM VROOOM (rec. 1995-1996, rel. 2001)
Another Crimson live one featuring the double trio, this is basically better than B'Boom in every way. What a difference two years makes - the first disc is a '96 performance in Mexico City, and the band seems more ready to rock out than ever, with Bruford and Mastelotto in top form. It's not quite as great as the Absent Lovers live album, but its damn close, which is a pretty admirable feat by itself. Features a number of surprising track choices - "Talking Drum" is resurrected, "Neurotica" gets a nice and noisy rendition that shreds the studio version, and believe it or not, "21st Century Schizoid Man" is given a run-through (although Belew's voice doesn't fit the song at all, the jamming is superb). Even the "B'Boom/THRAK" stuff sounds good here, as the tracks selected run through a lot of the band's riff-heavy and evil-sounding material ("Red", VROOOM VROOOM", "Lark's Tongues in Aspic Part Two"). The downside is that disc two is taken from a live performance in New York a year earlier, and doesn't have quite the same energy. It focuses a lot more on the pop side of the band, and like the B'Boom set, it's disappointing to hear how the band had kind of fallen apart since the last decade - even "Thela Hun Ginjeet" is slowed down to include the tape and replicate the studio version. Still, it's far from being bad, just merely decent. For some reason it also contains a solo Belew rendition of a rare Beatles song, "Free As A Bird". Altogether a very nice purchase - although disc one will surely get the most play, this is a great document of the double trio that shows what such a setup is capable of.
The ConstruKction of Light (2000)
In the years leading up to this album, Fripp decided to fractalize the double trio into four or five different "ProjeKcts", groups of three or four band members who would play improv-only shows. The ensuing confusion and focus away from Crimson itself is probably what drove long-time members Levin and Bruford to quit, leaving the actual Crimson as a four-piece themselves. You'd think not having to write any material for five years and performing tons of improvised shows would leave the band rejuvenated and ready to tackle a new studio album, but it seems to have the opposite effect. Now, they're pillaging the vaults for material, resulting in a reworking of "Fracture" (easily the best track here), and a run through of all three existing parts of "Lark's Tongues in Aspic" in order to do "Part IV" - except instead of featuring a tense atmosphere and crunchy riffing, we get an ultra-slow and muddy industrial rendition that sounds like Mastellotto replaced his kit with a couple of trash cans. Perhaps this is what inspired St. Anger? Sadly, the rest of the album sounds the same - the same slow and heavy approach that bands like Tool (who Crimson would later open for) were using, but without much decent material to back it up. Instead, Crimson compensates by using a lot of bad ideas - such as doing the blues in a goofy time signature ("ProzaKc Blues", with Belew's voice modified to supposedly sound gruff, but it just sounds like a vocoder) and playing stupid word association games ("The World's My Oyster Soup Kitchen GET JIGGY WITH IT WHOOOOO!") over dissonant riffs. Some of this is worse a listen or two - "Into the Frying Pan" is a decent slice of nu-metal pop, and the title track features some interesting guitar work, even though that technique was done much more convincingly by the very same band nearly 20 years ago. Crimson may have called themselves dinosaurs, but this is the first time they actually sounded like it.
Heavy ConstruKction (2000)
A triple-live set from the '00 Crimson, and for something based off one of the band's lousiest studio albums yet, this is actually quite good. Okay, all the ConstruKction tunes do show up, but they sound better without the distortion pedal being constantly set to maximum (including Belew's vocals, which are much better here), and it's impressive that Fripp's guitar technique has actually improved since the 70's ("FraKctured"). Even if that material mostly is lame, there's quite a few gems for the Crimson Collector - a slowed down version of the non-album "Cage", a solo acoustic "Three of a Perfect Pair" and a cover of Bowie's "Heroes" (which featured Fripp on guitar in the first place). The real meat of the set (and, in fact, the entire third disc) is made up of improvised material, and it goes down surprisingly well - most of the new 'pieces' are much more menacing and satisfying than the songs from the last album. It's rife with experimentation and chaos, but the band doesn't seem to ever lose focus when they're jamming ("Improv: Munchen"), and have the capability to pull out some really whacked out stuff ("Tomorrow Never Knew Thela", "ccccSeizurecc"). It's nothing really genius or even particularly great, but for a three hour live album it's surprisingly entertaining and interesting, and coming from this incarnation of the band, that's saying a hell of a lot. The only real low point is the part where Fripp tries to confiscate a camera in the middle of a jam ("Lights Please") - I guess you could argue whether or not this is acceptable to do during a show, but it's absolutely tacky and pretentious to put on a live album - maybe Fripp was trying to scare off any future King Crimson concert-goers?
Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With EP (2003)
Another 'preview' EP, with two songs from the upcoming album - the title track, a parody of nu-metal that features some theoretically clever lyrics ("And when I have some words/This is the way I'll sing/Through a distortion box/To make them menacing!" I puked), and Belew's "Eyes Wide Open", a fairly good ballad that was exactly what ConstruKction was missing. There are other previews contained - "Shoganai" is part of a bigger track from the next album, and the short tracks of Belew speaking through a vocoder foreshadows the beginning of it. There's also a real blues rock song that doesn't appear anywhere else and sounds like a cover, even though it's not ("Potato Pie") and a live run through of "Lark's Tonuges IV". The most interesting thing to me, however, was the hidden track, a collage of live snippets, strange things from the studio, bits of conversation, and what not, that at one point actually suggests that this new Crimson played "In the Court of the Crimson King" at some point. So it's an interesting listen, but like VROOOM is now basically worthless.
The Power to Believe (2003)
I don't want to say this is a "return to form", but King Crimson do finally sound like the Crimson of old again - heavy, menacing, and occasionally brutal. Unlike THRAK, the focus the best material is in the instrumentals. Fripp's comfortable with playing dark, riff-heavy compositions again, even if they recall previous work - "Level Five" is essentially a more modern sounding version of "Red", with a stellar chord progression and interesting percussion work, as Mastelotto experiments with glitchy drum sounds pulled right from the repertoire of Aphex Twin. Okay, so maybe that's not "state of the art" in 2003, but it's nice to see ye olde Crimson try to update their sound a little. On the same note, "Dangerous Curves" is a repetitive but slowly intensifying instrumental based on a simple riff - same idea as "The Talking Drum", but again it's a great one, especially when played loud. And "ElektriK" is quite a catchy jam, another complex piece for two guitars to stand with the likes of "Discipline", but unlike their other attempt this decade, it's well-written and memorable. Okay, then what's new? There's a good amount of experimentation and even some modern-sounding electronic stuff over on "The Power to Believe II", which intersperses a dark and brooding baseline with Eastern-sounding percussion. The other parts of the title track don't fare too well however, and the last two tracks seem to build up to something that just never arrives. So how are the vocal tracks? "Eyes Wide Open" is still a nice ballad and a welcome addition to a pretty heavy album, but the distorted "Facts of Life" sounds like a ConstruKction reject, and "Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With" wears thin after a few listens. The idea of Crimson doing a comedy song that makes fun of other groups is weird enough as it is, especially when it sounds like it arrived about five years too late. In fact, this whole album sounds like the kind of thing that would have been quite cutting-edge in 1998 or so. Still, for all its missteps, this is actually a pretty good album - I saw them in 2008 and was impressed by how well "Level Five" fit in with their classic instrumentals, and it got one of the best receptions of the night.
Several albums have been released over the years that don’t bear the “King Crimson” name but are definitely closely related (such as the ProjeKcts). I have collected some of these albums and will compile them here:
Giles, Giles, and Fripp - The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles, and Fripp (1968)
You may know that Giles, Giles, and Fripp were the group from which King Crimson was born, but you may not know that they were actually a pretty nifty trio in their day. This was their one official album, and despite the fact that it sold about 500 copies and both of its singles were flops, it's well worth seeking out, and you don't even have to be a prog fan to enjoy it. The sound here is more pastoral pop, with a strong folk side and a bit of jazz thrown in. The surprising thing (well, surprising for a band that includes Fripp) is that this is as unpretentious as it gets, and is actually kind of a comedy record ("The Saga of Rodney Toady", narrated by Fripp himself, shows a pretty keen sense of humor; the lines aren't really that funny, but the delivery is priceless). The humor here is the droll Monty Python type, with a lot of lyrics that are both clever and nonsensical ("here comes the peanut bride goosing the aisle..."). There are some more serious works like Fripp's instrumental "Suite No. 1", which is a pleasant, multi-part piece written more like a classical composition, featuring a number of impressive guitar lines - it sounds like he's got his technique for "Fracture" down already. But the main focus is the dozen-or-so pop tunes written by the Giles brothers, which are catchy, lightweight, and very well done ("How Do They Know?", "Digging My Lawn", "Newlyweds"). Giles has a knack for melody, tossing together a variety of styles such as big band ("Elephant Song"), boogie ("Newlyweds"), and music hall ("Sun is Shining"). There is a lot of humor on this album, but some of the straight faced material is almost stunning (Sinfield's "Under the Sky", which is included as a bonus track, is one of the best tunes here), and there's a level of sincerity that puts them above other groups (similar in spirit to the Mothers of Invention, even if stylistically they couldn't be more different). The main reason this all works is because the band itself was pretty talented - Peter Giles could not only write songs, but sing as well, and his brother Michael shows flashes of brilliance, able to adapt his cymbal-heavy style to any type of music. Fripp you already know about. Besides that, there are plenty of guests to help fill out the group's sound, including lots of strings and backup vocals, and a few choice piano parts. Overall, even though this is a pop album at its core, it doesn't really sound like anything else out there, and for what it's worth fares better than two-thirds of the King Crimson albums did, even if the style is nearly completely different (you can hear traces of the '69 band here and there, particularly in Crimson's early ballads). Seek this one out.
Giles, Giles, and Fripp - The Brondesbury Tapes (rec. 1967-1968, rel. 2004)
Some people find Fripp's constant vault-raiding exercises obnoxious, and although I sometimes find myself agreeing with them (The Night Watch, which I paid $23 for), I've always felt that hey, if you don't like it, just don't buy it. The good side of this is that we at least get to hear all the good unreleased stuff that's been recorded over the years. Let's face it, who else would release an album full of demo tracks and rare tunes by Giles, Giles, and Fripp, whose one album didn't even go aluminum? And I'm glad it exists - the connection from GG&F to King Crimson becomes a lot clearer - "I Talk to the Wind" appears a couple of times, one of which was sung by Ian McDonald's girlfriend, ex-Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble. She appears on a number of tracks, including the brilliantly catchy "Make It Today", which is one of the dippiest songs I've ever encountered, which isn't to say that I don't enjoy it. Ian McDonald himself even appears on here, contributing a bunch of flute parts, and it was around this time Sinfield began his involvement with the group.
As for this release, it's basically a collection of demos, with sound quality that's a little murky, but it's plenty serviceable. Many of the tunes are demo versions of songs from Cheerful Insanity, but none of them are particularly interesting (although they are worth hearing again). The unreleased stuff tends to be pretty good, with some more serious work, including a good bolero ("Passages of Time"), and some darker unused Giles tunes that show a different side to the man ("Murder", "Hypocrite"). There is a lot of jazzier stuff, and Fripp gets a lot of neat instrumental passages ("Tremolo Study in A Major"). If you can get to the end, you can hear the nearly 7-minute "Wonderland", which features a blues base and goes through a lot of interesting movements. It's a shame there wasn't a cleaner version recorded. For collectors, there are a couple of versions of "Why Don't You Drop In", an anti-hippie tirade that was not only an early Crimson live staple but showed up briefly on the Islands album as "The Letters". As far as a rating goes, I left it blank since it's an archival recording and is unpolished in spots, plus it has a lot duplicated material from the studio album. All I can say is that fans of Cheerful Insanity will definitely want to hear this, and for those interested in the early Crimson, you get to hear the beginnings of the group (this time, a part of the jam in "Erudite Eyes" sounds a lot like the aural pilup of "Schizoid Man"). Overall this is pretty good for a release of this nature.
McDonald and Giles (1970)
This was a one-off album from Ian McDonald and Michael Giles with some help from Peter Giles on bass, Judy Dyble on vocals (I'm assuming, since she is pictured on the front cover, though technically no one is credited), and even Sinfield contributing some of the lyrics. Essentially this is sort of a remnant of the GG&F band, only without the F. The sound lies somewhere between there and Crimson, with kind of a folkish bent. The difference between this and similar records is that Michael Giles' performance is top-notch (as expected) and sometimes he gets into complex and almost funky grooves, the type that King Crimson was staying far away from. But there are also flashes of his earlier work - "Suite in C" shows Giles even getting to do some "Schizoid Man"-type fills. McDonald basically handles the rest, being credited for guitar, vocals, piano, flute, organ, sax, clarinet, and zither (!?). He also wrote almost all the music and handled most of the production. I do think that McDonald is better suited with an actual band like Crimson, as his vocal and guitar styles are pretty nondescript, but he fills out the album well, especially in the absence of a guy like Fripp. Overall, this is mostly pleasant music with a few neat tricks, but it's nowhere near as ambitious as the tracklisting makes it out to be - the 10+ minute "Suite in C" doesn't build much and is really just comprised of three seperate sections, and even the sidelong "Birdman" piece is mostly a bunch of seperate instrumental jams, which are some of the high points of the album ("Birdman: The Workshop", "Birdman Flies!") It's not really an epic piece, with few vocals and kind of a jazzy vibe, and doesn't repeat many themes, so in a way it's a lot like "Lizard". As for Side 1, there are a couple of ballads that are just okay ("Is She Waiting", "Flight of the Ibis", essentially an alternate version of "Cadence and Cascade", which McDonald wrote anyway), and one particularly funky piece written by Giles ("Tomorrow's People"), that runs strong for four minutes then pointlessly wanders on for three more. If you're wondering "how funky is it really?" all I can say is the Beastie Boys sampled it. I will say that it's a good listen and a definite point of interest for early Crimson fans, but being this lightweight and nearly completely devoid of any vocal hooks I can't see this being put on the stereo too often. If nothing else fans should get this just for the opportunity to hear Giles' unique percussion style again.
Robert Fripp - Exposure (1979)
Perhaps Fripp will get his own page someday, but I’m largely unfamiliar with his solo work, except for this one. It’s supposed to be part of a trilogy that involved Daryl Hall and Peter Gabriel, with a couple of tracks that actually did appear on Gabriel’s first two solo albums (“Here Comes the Flood” and “Exposure”). That’s kind of surprising because a trilogy suggests some kind of unity, while this album seems to be assembled kind of haphazardly, with rock songs, instrumentals, ballads, and random experimentation thrown in somewhat randomly. The reason has something to do with the endless list of guest stars, most of which fans of the 70’s prog and New Wave scenes should recognize – Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Tony Levin, Peter Hammill, Daryl Hall, Phil Collins, the keyboard player from XTC (Barry Andrews), one of the Roches, and a few more obscure figures. Most entertaining is Hammill, who is true to himself by oversinging everything – “Disengage” is intense by itself, but the vocals make it downright manic, and “Chicago” is a normal jazzy ballad turned completely dramatic. By the time “I May Not Have Had Enough of Me But I’ve Had Enough of You” comes on it almost sounds like he’s parodying himself. I wonder if Trey Parker was a fan. Fripp, of course, is the star, and there’s plenty of his guitar heroics here, including a “Red”-styled instrumental that sounds a lot like what King Crimson would try to do in the 90’s (“Breathless”) and some more experimental stuff like a chaotic jam session set over an intense family argument, sounding like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts gone horribly wrong. There’s lots of noisy and grating stuff (the shrieking vocals on “Exposure” are too much for me to handle), but also some genuinely pretty moments (“Mary”, the stripped down “Here Comes the Flood”, which is much better than the hammed-up version on Gabriel’s album), including a nice display of Frippertronics (“Water Music”, although I really could have done without that hissing noise). I always wondered what kind of album Fripp would come out with on his own, but this just raises more questions - what's he doing writing 50’s-style rock n’ roll like “You Burn Me Up I’m a Cigarette”? It’s very much a transitional album – you can hear bits and pieces of pretty much everything the man has done from Lark’s Tongues in Aspic to Three of a Perfect Pair, and as such it’s hard to imagine digging it all – but serious Crimson fans will definitely want it.
Pete Sinfield - Still (1973)
Sinfield is known mostly for penning the lyrics to In The Court of the Crimson King and ELP's Brain Salad Surgery, becoming a recognizable figure in the prog rock scene despite never singing or playing on anything. It turns out the man was a decent guitar player and an okay vocalist, obviously not needed when you have Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, but completely capable of releasing his own solo album. His vocals sound about how you'd expect - dramatic, quivering, and accented, but not particularly pleasant sounding. More accurately he sounds like he could have voiced a wizard on one of those old trippy fantasy cartoons. He's far from great, but at the very least they should have given him a chance to sing on Lizard, the Crimson album that this most resembles. Predictably, there are a lot of silly fantasy lyrics (the first song is called "Song of the Sea Goat", draw your own conclusions) and a big Renaissance Faire atmosphere, with lots of flutes, spacey keyboards, and loopy production effects. This all works on "Under the Sky", which he had previously written for Giles, Giles & Fripp - it has an uneasy atmosphere and doesn't really progress the way a normal song would, feeling epic and otherworldly in a good way. I prefer the GG&F version, but this one really brings out the cool weirdness in the song. But when he starts tackling more...ahem..."earthly" topics, things fall apart a little - "Will It Be You" is an enjoyable but kind of stupid jangly love song, but there are lyrics like "who'll shine my armor for the next day's tournament?" Even stranger is a song called "Wholefoods Boogie", which is an honest-to-God boogie-woogie tune about eating fresh. And let's not forget the giant dragon painting that occupies the front cover. No doubt this dude was a hippie, but I would think even the other hippies would have found him a little weird. Still, in the end this is a pretty lightweight album that you won't have to try too hard to enjoy. There are two strikes against it though - one, there aren't really any good songs other than "Under the Sky" and "Still", and two, Sinfield is not really a good singer nor a really accomplished musician, and struggles to carry the album on his own. The good news is that plenty of past-and-future Crimson band mates show up here, including Mel Collins (who contributes a nice flute solo to "The Piper"), John Wetton, and Greg Lake, who totally upstages Sinfield on the title track duet...it's unusual to hear such a far superior singer as a guest, but he's certainly welcome, and I wish he appeared on all the tunes. Sinfield eventually followed Lake and joined ELP for a while and promptly disappeared, and his solo career pretty much ended here. There is a re-issue of this album called Stillusion, which jumbles the tracklisting and adds two new tracks, so it's probably the version to get. If you were one of the Crimson fans who liked Lizard, you'll probably get a kick out of this.
Jakko Jakszyk, Robert Fripp & Mel Collins - A Scarcity of Miracles - A King Crimson ProjeKct (2011)
I think it's pretty clear at this point that King Crimson is probably not coming back with a new studio album, with Fripp all but saying the group had disbanded for good. This is definitely not that album, though it does feature a pretty neat lineup. Mel Collins you may remember from the Islands band, while Jakko is an ex-member of Level 42 who happens to sound an awful lot like Belew. The album also includes Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison (who is or was Porcupine Tree's drummer). But King Crimson this is not. This is almost no virtuosity here - most of this is based on atmosphere and slow moving grooves. Here's the blueprint - a crawling, static drum line that backs a slow bass groove and New Age synth noise. On top of that, you've got our three musketeers - Collins doing little sax runs that sound an awful lot like the "jazzy" parts on a Sting album, Fripp occasionally noodling a bit on his guitar, and Jakko singing some obtuse lines about nothing (sample lyric: "Sundown...this house is empty now...these rooms still echo"). There's very little in the way of melody here - most of the good ideas get snuffed out quick ("Secrets") and despite this being a vocal record, almost none of the vocal parts are memorable (Jakko seems to have about a 3-note range). So when they finally stop jerking around actually come up with something with a fairly brisk tempo and a busy arrangement, it's a clear standout ("The Other Man").
The inclusion of this album as a "King Crimson ProjeKct" seems to imply that much of this was improvised. I have to think that's the case - there's certainly no real structure here, and on the first half-dozen listens, it's hard to tell any of these tracks apart, making the album sound longer than it really is. Is this what happens when Belew isn't around? I don't want to pin everything on Jakko, but he is seriously one of the most uninteresting singers I have ever heard, as he has virtually no inflection or feel on any of this stuff, sounding as though he's making a conscious effort to blend into the background. That said, "slow moving improv" has never exactly been this band's forte, and it isn't surprising that not even this lineup (including a 65-year old Fripp) can make it work.