Heaven, Earth and the End of the Road

I have anticipated few music purchases the way I anticipated King Crimson’s latest deluxe box set, Heaven & Earth. When it finally came in, I practically sprinted to Planet Score Records to pick it up. This was the compilation I had been waiting for.

For me, this box set (all 18 CDs, two DVDs, and three blu-ray discs of it) represents King Crimson’s final true attempt to grasp the music of the 21st century. Between 1997 and 2008, Robert Fripp guided his Crimson bandmates in both proper title and under the guise of assorted “ProjeKcts” — sub-units of the former “Double Trio” whole — through a relentless stream of experimentation and improvisation that culminated in two albums, two EPs, and a boatload of live shows featuring the band embracing modern electronics and what Fripp dubbed “Nuovo Metal,” both much more aggressive in sound than anything “original” 1969-era fans might have anticipated.

This, to me, was King Crimson at its most exciting and adventurous. Not everything they did worked, but the willingness to take such a bold musical leap so relatively “late” in the game gave me nothing but respect for these musicians as they chased the Muse to whatever conclusion might have come forth. I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in this box and the musical wonderment that might spring forth.

But there is a flip side to this acquisition. This may very well also represent the end of the musical road for me and King Crimson.

In 2013, a “semi-retired” Robert Fripp re-formed Crimson by removing Adrian Belew as the co-guitarist/vocalist/frontman, put three drummers at the front of the stage, expanded the size of the band to as many as eight members, and re-embraced (primarily) the band’s ’69-’74 repertoire, gradually adding material from other periods as he went along. The result has been ENORMOUSLY successful, delighting audiences worldwide who have been clamoring for the “classic” material throughout every one of the band’s eras. Good for them.

The current King Crimson is loaded with extraordinary players making damned fine music. But for me, the bottom line over time remains the same:

I’m bored.

The punters will lose their collective minds at this statement. How could I possibly not be thrilled by the current lineup? Can’t I see what a transformative (that word is used a lot) experience this group is? Can’t I understand what a wonderment this music is?

Yeah, I see it. It’s wonderful. And after a couple of plays, I’m bored. There’s nothing new here. Not enough to go crazy about, anyway.

There’s no getting around this simple fact for me: the ’69-’74 material is old.

Fripp would have me believe that the songs being played are new, because of the new arrangements and the new mindset. But that material is between 45 and 50 years old, and it doesn’t resonate as well as it used to, even with the advent of new technology. The new Crimson has found a comfort zone in the classic material, and is milking it for all its worth, to the delight of the “classic”-oriented fanbase.

Y2Crim (as some came to call them) —  and the music that led up to it — was another story.

When I listen to Heaven & Earth, I hear a band and its members pulling away from its comfort zone and setting a course for uncharted waters. I hear a legendary group reaching out toward what was is possible, thanks to a younger rhythm section (namely Warr Guitarist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto, although bassist Tony Levin was highly adaptable) embracing the sound and technology of the time. I hear the established leaders in Fripp and Belew working to make their legendary sound fit into this new context, which had all but dumped the psychedelic and new wave for something much closer to metal, augmented by bouts of “drum ‘n’ bass.” It didn’t always work, but there are few — if any — progressive rock cliches put on display.

ProjeKct One (which was actually the second group to spring into action) was probably the most closely related to the ’90s “Double Trio” sound. Fripp, Levin, Gunn, and drummer Bill Bruford cranked out eight(!) sets of completely improvised music over four nights, yielding some fascinating sounds. ProjeKct Two was a happy accident, which featured Adrian Belew as the group’s percussionist (playing the new Roland V-Drums) while Gunn and Fripp grooved merrily along with him. Mastelotto took over drum duties for ProjeKct Three bringing with him a full arsenal of “beat boxes,” samplers, and other devices to augment his frenetic grooves and opening up a world of possibilities for Fripp and Gunn. The addition of Levin to this mix became ProjeKct Four, which was able to become even more adventurous. Some of the grooves they created were even considered (gasp!) danceable!

When all was said and done, King Crimson’s “research and development” phase produced two full-length albums in The ConstruKction of Light (2000) and The Power to Believe (2003), as well as some remarkable music in between. For a variety of reasons (well documented in the box set’s copious liner notes, written by Sid Smith), the band was not particularly high on TCOL. Trey Gunn said it best, when he called the album “the map, but not the treasure.” While it is far from their greatest work, I think there are some wonderful gems to be found on that album. With that being said, I think the band missed out on what truly could have been, as evidenced by ProjeKct X, the companion work that accompanied that first album (and the origin for the H&E title).

The problem with having an established musical vocabulary is that the musician in question can come to rely upon it to his own detriment. Robert Fripp has a style and methodology that has made him a progressive rock god. It has also stunted his ability to think outside of that particular box, large though it may be. The riffs Fripp put together for TCOL produced some interesting results, but ultimately fell back on his use of the interlocking guitar sound from the ’80s (as on the title track) or his frantic 160-plus bpm, minor-third moving picking technique from the ’70s (as on “FraKctured”). They’re effective, and ultimately leave fans saying, “That’s King Crimson, all right.” And there’s no harm in that.

Here’s where things go a little sideways. It’s evident via the ProjeKcts that Mastelotto and Gunn were pushing the band’s sound into foreign territory, and Fripp and Belew weren’t always certain what to do with these new grooves. While Gunn had no problem keeping up with the drummer, Fripp was trying to use the same stabbing chords and single-note lines he always employed, which occasionally ran counter to the groove. This frequently brought something fresh and new to a brutal, grinding musical halt, even as the piece continued. Belew, meanwhile, would find a sound to fit what he was hearing and do a scorching run over the top. His attempts didn’t always fully mesh, either. And he certainly would have had a tough time writing lyrics for these new sounds.

And so, King Crimson fell back. So to speak.

Fripp has always made an effort to credit the entire band with writing King Crimson’s music, which is highly admirable. But the writing not done by Fripp or Belew is/was for the most part “reactive.” That is to say, the rhythm section built its contributions around what had already been established by “the front line.” To truly propel the material from the ProjeKcts forward, Gunn and Mastelotto would have had to become more “proactive” with their compositions. Fripp and Belew would find themselves writing around lines established by the rhythm sections. I cannot speak to how frequently this was done in the past, but I would be surprised if it happened more than a couple of times.

Such a move would completely shift the dynamic of King Crimson at its very core. Some would consider it almost counter-intuitive to the band’s way of doing things. The guitarists would no doubt find themselves attempting to navigate uncharted waters. To be certain, the drum-n-bass grooves would not be the easiest to add lyrics to. But King Crimson would most certainly have been breaking new ground in its quest to move forward. And that, to me, goes to the heart of what this band has always been about.

But that didn’t happen.

I fully understand that what I want and what would keep King Crimson viable in the marketplace may very well have been two different things. One of the keys to remaining relevant in the music industry is to be able to read the room and know your audience (unless you were Rush, but that is a very rare exception). Perhaps Fripp knew what I am hesitant to admit: a step further “out” and away from what the band had been would be a step too far. The current band — relying on older, re-worked material — is selling out venues around the world. They are a staggering success. Would the same thing happen in a Crimson based on metal-tinged, electronic grooves? Perhaps not.

Most of us become who we are musically at a relatively young age, say between 18 and 21. We determine then and there what we like and dislike, and variations on that theme are few and far between. I give Robert Fripp all the credit in the world for stretching out as far as he did. But even the most pliable rubber band breaks sooner or later. Just about any musician will tell you that music forced will never be as enjoyable or memorable as music made from a position of comfort and inner joy. And so, to my ears, Heaven & Earth represents the musical rubber band’s maximum tautness. It could not be stretched any further.

Which brings us to the current state of King Crimson: loved by most, met with mild to moderate indifference by Yours Truly. When I make this statement, I am constantly bombarded by people online who tell me I must experience this band in person to truly understand what is happening. And while I understand what you’re getting at, I don’t completely buy it. I have loved many groups — including Crimson, whom I didn’t see live until a decade after I learned about them  — without ever seeing them in concert. My Jean-Luc Ponty experience did not add to what I had already been hearing on LP and CD for 30-plus years. It was great to see him live at last. But had I not been there, I still would have loved the music from his Atlantic Records years, which was his focus for that tour. I feel the same way about today’s King Crimson: I respect their playing, without question. Being there probably won’t add or subtract anything from that level of respect.

Should Robert read these words, I’m reasonably sure he would offer me the opportunity to “move on,” since he has chosen his direction, and that’s the way it is. And all I can say in reply is, I believe you’re right, Robert. And I believe Heaven & Earth represents my final stop on the King Crimson express. I sincerely appreciate the joy your music has brought me for the past 35 years, and I will continue to enjoy all I have collected. But my collection goes well beyond you and what you have to offer. It’s time to hitch a ride on a different musical train, and see where that adventure takes me.

Thanks for the ride.

#cirdecsongs

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