KING CRIMSON, Discipline (EG, 1981)
PERSONNEL: Robert Fripp (guitar); Adrian Belew (vocals and guitar); Tony Levin (bass, Chapman Stick, backing vocals); Bill Bruford (drums and percussion)
- Elephant Talk
- Frame by Frame
- Matte Kudasai
- Thela Hun Ginjeet
- The Sheltering Sky
Spend enough time around me, and this album is bound to come up.
It’s the primary answer to the question, “How did you get in to so much unusual music?” There were other “gateway” albums, to be certain. But King Crimson’s Discipline kicked that door open for good. On more than one occasion, I’ve referred to it as my musical Ground Zero. Who I am musically branches out — directly or indirectly — from here.
As I discuss both in my book and on this page, this is the band that changed everything for me musically. Yes, this is not the original King Crimson, formed in 1969. In fact, Robert Fripp is the sole remaining member. But the quartet from 1981-84 was my introduction. Therefore, they remain the most important.
Ironically, I was not introduced to this band until the year after they broke up. Just as ironic, it was the song “Three of a Perfect Pair,” the title track of the band’s third album together, that I heard first in the summer of 1985. Luckily, it was part of a mix tape containing most of the group’s ’80s output, along with a couple of song’s from Robert Fripp’s Exposure album. When I got my own copies of Crimson’s ’80s records, I played Discipline first. Nothing has been the same since.
Discipline has been described by the band as its “honeymoon” album, which makes sense. Fripp disbanded Crimson in 1974, supposedly for good. When he decided to form a new band in 1980, only drummer Bill Bruford remained from the previous group. This version of the band saw the two Englishmen being augmented by two Americans in Adrian Belew and Tony Levin. Each member brought to the group not only their immense musical talents, but the latest in musical technology. Fripp and Belew embraced Roland guitar synthesizers, Levin had the Chapman Stick, and Bruford was augmenting his drum kit with Simmons electronic pads. Unlike other bands from that era, King Crimson had the good taste not to overuse these new toys. This has kept Discipline from aging as rapidly as other music from this era.
From Note One, there could be no doubting that this band was breaking new musical ground, using newer musical styles as a jumping-off point. “Elephant Talk,” the album’s opener, took on a distinctive New Wave flavor, while sounding like nothing else being brought forth in music during the era.
While my cassette made me familiar with the music, hearing it in the proper sequence only enhanced my appreciation. Discipline is a remarkably well-paced album. “Frame by Frame,” cranks up the energy level a bit more with things appearing to be on the verge of spinning out of control, only to be brought back to earth by the interlocking 7/8 guitar lines of Fripp and Belew. Not that being “back on earth” made things easier. “Matte Kudasai,” arguably Crimson’s best ballad during the Belew-fronted era, gives the listener a moment or two to breathe and process what has been taking place. But this song is also brilliant in its own right.
Things begin to ramp up again with “Indiscipline,” a marvelous piece of abstract art wrapped in a frantic bout of nearly avant-garde rock. Belew’s vocal (taken from a letter his first wife wrote him about a painting) and guitar howls are just part of the lethal mixture, along with Bruford’s nearly hostile drumming and Fripp’s over-the-top chording. Meanwhile, there’s Levin, holding down the rhythmic fort and giving the rest of the band a center to come back to.
“Thela Hun Ginjeet” brilliantly turns a frightening experience Belew had on the east London streets into hyperkinetic art. Things calm down again (relatively speaking) thanks to the African slit drum/Chapman Stick rhythm of Bruford and Levin and the sonic cloud guitar and abstract Turkish trumpet timbre of Belew and Fripp in “The Sheltering Sky.” It’s hard to describe just how deeply this song reaches me on an emotional level. The band’s sound is nothing short of ethereal, leaving the listener practically floating, being held aloft by the mix.
Things come to a tidy conclusion with the title track, a lovely bit of interlocking 5/4 with the guitars, augmented by Bruford’s self-described 17/4 and Levin’s steady Stick work. While the album can definitely leave the listener wanting more, it is really far more productive to just play the album again, and continue to absorb the remarkable sounds being brought forth.
This is one of those times when ignorance truly was bliss on my part. The original King Crimson music was still foreign to me, which meant I wasn’t bogged down by the band’s ’69-’74 sound. Upon its release, Discipline saw more than a little backlash from “original” fans, who were expecting Fripp to pick things up from where he left off with Red, the band’s ’74 release. Instead, Fripp made a quick left turn, leaving most of that sound in the dust while he broke new ground with this band. To be fair, Fripp’s original intent was to call this particular group Discipline. But the more they worked together, the more the group’s leader believed he had, in fact, found the next incarnation of King Crimson. Who am I to argue?
Discipline is devoid of flaws. Its music is unique, to be certain. Frankly, it still is! New listeners will find themselves in for a bit of a sonic shock, as much of what they know about music is torn asunder. Not much has been made to sound like it before or since. The closest one might come is from the Swiss band Sonar, who have taken the interlocking guitar sound to a different level. Still, their approach is nothing like this album.
I had not yet fully embraced jazz when I first heard this album. And while I had heard some brilliant playing by the likes of Genesis and Supertramp, King Crimson provided the link I didn’t know was missing. They showed me what is truly possible from four people, their instruments, clever lyrics, and the willingness to hang it all out over the edge, consequences be damned. I’ve been listening to Discipline for more than 30 years, and it has never, ever gotten old.
Fripp is fond of saying that a King Crimson album is a love letter, while a concert is more like a hot date. Discipline, to my ears, is the most loving of letters. For me, it was the best of beginnings to a three decade-plus musical relationship. I never listen to this album without learning something.
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