I’ve been trying for nearly three years. But it’s time to face a simple, horrible fact:
I’m just not that in to the new King Crimson.
The legendary progressive rock stalwarts are now in their ninth incarnation, and I don’t think this band was meant for me.
I’m not saying what they’re doing these days is bad. Oh, no, no, no! The music being made by these eight(!) musicians is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s also — from the standpoint of my little ears — nothing all that new.
Perhaps I should explain myself.
I was introduced to King Crimson in the summer of 1985. I talk about this “discovery” extensively in my forthcoming book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears. I didn’t know anything about this band (including the fact that they had broken up in ’84) before being introduced to them by a fellow soldier during summer U.S. Army training. So when I first learned about King Crimson, the band consisted of Robert Fripp (guitar), Adrian Belew (guitar and vocals), Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick), and Bill Bruford (drums). The music made by this quartet quite literally changed my life. What else can one expect when this is the first tune I ever heard them play:
I was already crazy about music. This band took things to an entirely new level. I learned the importance of musicianship over hit-making. I was presented with an entirely new musical path, vastly different from the one I was on. I took to this new path with relish.
Before I go on, I should make something clear: I AM WELL AWARE THE 80S VERSION OF KING CRIMSON IS NOT THE ORIGINAL BAND. I KNOW Fripp was the only original member of the band in the 80s group. I KNOW the band released several records between 1969 and ’74. The material released during this time is quite good. I’m also well aware, with the benefit of objectivity and context, that the 80s band I fell in love with had little or nothing to do with what happened during those first five years. And I don’t care.
In the Court of the Crimson King is a legendary album. It is part of the foundation of what became the progressive rock movement of the ’70s. It is, without question, one of the most brilliant debut recordings ever released. It is also the most dated sounding album in the band’s catalog. The immediate follow-ups (In the Wake of Poseidon, Islands, and Lizard) all have their moments. But they’ve always struck me as a bit stuffy, even during the most brilliant moments. I still listen to these albums, yes. I find them all to be quite respectable, where others I know online and IRL swear by them to their dying breath. Were these the only Crimson albums I owned, I would treat them much like I treat Emerson, Lake and Palmer: I’d admire and respect them, but I wouldn’t be completely obsessed with them.
Things moved from respectable to fascinating for me when I heard the ’72-’74 Crimson, which featured John Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bruford. This was a powerful, attention-getting band. Some of its material had all the subtlety of a punch in the face. And I liked it! Of all the pre-80s Crimson, this is the band I go to the most. They’re not quite as stuffy. And while a few of their songs could be deemed “delicate” in places, the band was clearly not to be trifled with.
Still no Crimson knocks me out quite the way the ’80s band did and does. The addition of two Americans (Belew and Levin), the introduction of new wave, and the use of the latest musical technology (like Roland guitar synthesizers, Chapman Stick, and Simmons electronic drums) made this band truly exciting! Belew’s outgoing personality and guitar pyrotechnics made things flat-out fun! Every song was a high-wire act, capable of coming unhinged at any second. This was the band that took an already cool song to an even higher plane, like this:
For the longest time, there were no albums more important to me than Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. They were the standard by which I measured all other music in my collection, even though the majority of my friends simply could not grasp them. When I took up the guitar and formed a band, I named it The Sheltering Sky. The 80s King Crimson inspired me like no others. I wanted a band that could, as Fripp once said, “tear out ear hairs and stomp them flat.” I wanted a band whose sound could melt concrete. Every time I heard the 80’s band play this, I looked for my guitar, dying to join in.
It hurt me to my core to learn I would never get to see this band play live. When King Crimson resurfaced in ’94, they were a “double trio.” My core four were present, augmented by Trey Gunn (Warr guitar) and Pat Mastelotto (drums). And they were good. They were very, very good! This band was my first live Crimson experience, and I was not left wanting. But I still wish I could have seen my band play live. Just once.
The early 21st century Crimson (aka Y2Crim) was a quartet again, but Gunn and Mastelotto were now the rhythm section. And again, I liked this band a lot. They also inspired me to pick up my guitar and play along, to say nothing of trying to forge my own musical path. But it still wasn’t quite the same thing as the 80s group. This band was fun, but maybe not quite as much fun as this bunch, when they were still in their “honeymoon” phase.
Robert Fripp likes to distinguish the people following King Crimson into two groups: “Fans,” who are fond of one particular era, and aren’t willing to let the band leave that era; and “Enthusiasts,” who are more than willing to let the band grow and develop into whatever it is destined to be. I have always considered myself to be a member of the latter category. That is, until the latest King Crimson came on the scene.
Again, I am NOT disparaging this band. They are very good at what they do. But one of the reasons I’ve always loved Crimson is because they strive to move the music they play forward. This band’s music strikes me as a glorious step sideways. For starters, they are focused on the ’69-’74 material again. This makes many, many admirers of the band very, very happy. And good for them. I’m glad Fripp has found a way to resurrect this material in a way he finds interesting, and is enthusiastic about playing. He seems to be having a good time with it. Jakko Jakszyk is a fine singer, and just the man for the older material. But for me, the fun is gone without Belew. The band has gone from King Crimson to Robert Fripp and the Seven Studio Aces. The lead singer fronts the band from the back! They are supremely capable. But that Thing that made them special to me is gone.
I’m gonna get tagged by a few people for my point of view. To them I say this:
Not every Crimson is for everyone. I understand Fripp is the band’s leader, and can do whatever he wants with it. This is the direction he has chosen, and many people are happy with it. I’m just not one of them. If there is one thing I have picked up from Crimson followers over the years, it’s that each has his own favorite period. Everyone has a favorite singer, bassist, or drummer. Everyone has a favorite song, album, or gig. Everyone has a favorite version of this legendary band. And you are entitled to every single opinion running around in your head.
But the 80s Crimson is my musical Ground Zero. They are my favorite. They continue to light me up, from the first time I heard them 30-plus years ago to this very day. They, along with Frank Zappa and Miles Davis, make up my Musical Holy Trinity.
THIS is MY King Crimson. And for that, I make no apologies.