Friday, December 08, 2006

In Praise of King Crimson

Robert Fripp's ever shifting King Crimson collective is, induspitably the foremost purveyors of that often-misunderstood genre of rock called progressive rock. In stark contrast to the labyrinthine diversions of contemporaries like Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis, King Crimson often brought an intuitive intelligence to their music, applying a cerebral approach and plenty of calculated firepower. Here are several stellar examples of the classic works that they have created throughout their forty-year existence in the industry:

The undisputed magnum opus of the band, and one of the true milestones of prog-rock. The textures on this album are varied and awe-inspiring: menacing Hendrixian freakouts and controlled post-bop craziness (the frighteningly explosive and efficient "21st Century Schizoid Man"), pastoral, lilting folk balladry ("I Talk to the Wind"), haunting, sinister medieval-influenced tonalities ("Epitaph") and theatrical, LSD-fuelled psychedelic rock ("The Court of the Crimson King"). In one word: breathtaking.

This sophomore effort might suffer in comparison to its more illustrious predecessor, but many virtuosic moments still abound here. The dramatic title track aspires to the epic heights of "The Court of the Crimson King", and succeeds to a certain extent, while "Pictures of a City" is another scholarly rock-out in the vein of "21st Century Schizoid Man". Meanwhile, the melodic ballad "Cadence and Cascade" practically glows with restful blissfulness, while "The Devil's Triangle" is Fripp's appropriately sly take on Holst's "Mars" suite.

LIZARD (1971)
Arguably the most misunderstood work from the first incarnation of King Crimson, this jazz-informed endeavour bears a heavy Miles Davis influence, circa the "Sketches of Spain" era. The acknowledged highlight is the cinematic, gargantuan 23-minute title suite (divided into four mini-suites), a brilliant, mercurial study in shifting generic textures, but there are other favourites too, like the lovelorn, airily placid "Lady of the Dancing Water" (which could well be the prettiest ballad the band has ever done), the jerky, atonal "Happy Family" (an underhanded dig at the Fab Four), and the ominous LSD-nightmare tone poem "Cirkus".

RED (1975)
The most realised effort from the mid-70s King Crimson line-up, renowned for their mind-expanding improvisatory instrumental jams. The lack of coherent melodic structures and the intentionally complicated production values might be cause for concern for some old-school fans, but on the plus side, it does possess tight, focused songwriting and intensely purposeful performances. The title track is a cacophonous but still melodic tour de force that compellingly displays Fripp’s one-of-a-kind tri-tone guitar-riffing method, while ‘Fallen Angel’ is an expansive six-minute ballad that abounds with lots of interesting sonic details. The indisputable standout has to be the 12-minute epic ‘Starless’, a carefully crafted, multi-segmented showcase that seems to incorporate everything that contributes to King Crimson’s majestic artistry.

The most cohesive effort from the 1980s mainfestation of the band has guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew bringing a welcome new-wave sensibility to the proceedings. The excellently paced title track is the unquestioned progenitor of all math-rock, the herky-jerky, madcap "Elephant Talk" brings to mind a more insightful Talking Heads, the overlapping, interlocking grooves of "Frame by Frame" is as dense as dense can be, and the brutal "Indiscipline" is King Crimson's cleverly sardonic take on heavy metal.

THRAK (1995)
Fripp assembled an innovative six-man, double-trio format for this newest line-up of King Crimson, bringing an immensely powerful, new-millennium aesthetic to a tried and tested genre. The sheer, overpowering, take-no-prisoners dynamism of "Dinosaur" will overwhelm first-time listeners, while "B'Boom" is a terrifyingly precise drums-and-percussion duel, and "Walking on Air" and "One Time" are brooding, sweeping ballads that prove that this new formation has its relatively sensitive side too.


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