“Discipline is never an end in itself, only a means to an end.”
King Crimson has always been a band of impeccable timing. Throughout their career they have managed to know when to strike at the right time, such as landing an opening gig for the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park only a few months into being a band that launched their career or when reforming at the right time in 1981 to usher in a new wave of influences into polyrhythmic music that has influenced a generation of math rock bands. Crimson has also known when to vanish to create a sense of mythology and lore like Robert Fripp ending the band’s original run in 1974 at the height of their popularity to only have the legend of the Crimson King grow throughout the decade until the band’s return in the early 80’s and to repeat the formally and ending the 80’s lineup in 1984 only to return a decade later in 1994 to much critical and fan acclaim. Led by guitarist Robert Fripp since its inception, King Crimson have returcontrined again in 2017, this time as a 8 headed beast with a live set-up featuring 3 drummers, two guitars, one bass/chapman stick, saxophone, and keyboards. Robert Fripp and Co. have struck at the right time because King Crimson is seemingly more popular than ever before and they have returned to take their rightful place as true progressive rock and math rock innovators. If you’ve seen the name, but never dove into their extensive catalogue because you didn’t know where to start or maybe you just are curious what all the hype is about for a band that started in the 60’s and how they’re relevant to today, here’s some recommendations and opinions on some of the band’s best work and why King Crimson is more than just another progressive rock band.
Red is arguably the greatest album by King Crimson and should serve as a lightning rod as the go to album for any perspective Crim heads. Red was the final album released before the band’s original breakup in 1974, and the last in a trilogy of albums that became known as the ‘Heavy Metal Trio.’ The lineup of Red consisted of Robert Fripp, the sole original member, John Wetton later of Asia fame on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford formerly of Yes on drums. Crimson toured for most of the first half of 1974 and in the end of the summer went into Olympic Studios in London for what few knew at the time would be to create a rock album masterpiece and a bold statement in musical creativity.
From the opening riff of the title track “Red” the band flexes through musical muscle in a way that is undeniably memorable and was pretty unheard of in 1974 for an album to open with a near 7-minute-long instrumental track that features heavily distorted guitar and bass with elements of drone and odd-time signatures mixed in. This is the moment when King Crimson left Progressive Rock in their dust for something much more out of reach, something much more experimental and complex than took another 20 years before it had a name – Math Rock. That’s just the first track!!!
“Fallen Angel” combines lush melodies found on much of the band’s earlier albums and combines it with a suburb penchant of dynamics and drone that build the song perfectly led by John Wetton’s vocals and Robert Fripp’s guitar work. “One More Red Nightmare” is the Bill Bruford show and is a non-stop drum showcase with some incredibly well played fills jumping between odd meters that seem to stretch and pull the music with unwavering precision with an opening guitar riff that sounds like that something would easily fit in Black Sabbath’s repertoire, but is just a bit too technical to fully sound like something Sabbath would pull off.
The peak of the album and arguably the best song by King Crimson or any progressive rock band of that era is the closing track “Starless.” Everything about “Starless” is about as close as perfection as you get in music from Robert Fripp’s haunting guitar melody to John Wetton’s vocals with Dylan Thomas inspired lyrics to Bill Bruford’s tour de force drumming.
In many aspects one could also point to “Starless” as the first post-rock song. The song begins with a very normal verse and chorus structure, but after the first 4 minutes it drops out dynamically to an ostinato bass pattern, which over the next 4 minutes slowly builds until it erupts majestically into a very heavy transition that the last 4 minutes of the song continues to build upon that theme until the triumphant and bombastic climax that is delivered 10 years before Slint is formed, 20 years before Mogwai, and 25 years before Explosions in the Sky. The musical blueprint for “Starless” serves as the template that is used by many bands that are considered post-rock.
King Crimson broke up after the recording of Red in 1974, and it was seven years before the band reconvened with a different lineup and a different sound that would shatter any expectation that the Discipline lineup of KC would sound like its 70’s predecessor. With a lineup featuring sole original member Robert Fripp on guitar and joined by Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, Tony Levin on bass, and Bill Bruford back on drums this fearsome foursome took Crimson out of progressive rock territory and layered in elements of post-punk, electronic music, pop sensibility, African polyrhythms, and Indonesian gamelan to create something really unique.
Discipline more than any other King Crimson album was and is a predominant influence on math rock. If you don’t believe me, go listen to bands like Tera Melos and then listen to Discipline. In my own personal anecdote, the first time I saw Tera Melos live was in Detroit, MI, in February of 2007, and Nick Reinhart came up to me after the show and complimented me on the King Crimson shirt I was wearing that featured the album artwork for Discipline and we talked a bit about love for KC and other weird prog bands, and Reinhart has stated multiple times over in various interviews that Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp are main influences of his.
Polyrhythmic layering is a theme found throughout the album, with the guitars usually playing against each other in competing time signatures such can be found on “Frame by Frame,” “Indiscipline,” “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” “The Sheltering Sky,” and “Discipline” which is quite staggering and impressive. The title track “Discipline” is especially complex is the use of compounded time signatures being layered on top of each other. The opening section of the song finds the guitars to be playing in 5/8, while the bass is in 4/4, and the drums are in 15/16 with the bass drum playing in 4/4 to go along with the bass line. Bill Bruford described the bass and drum track in “Discipline” as “feeling random, but it isn’t.”
Experimental use of technology is an element that drives the sound of the album throughout. Starting with the opening track “Elephant Talk” the opening bass line is played on a Chapman Stick Guitar, which was a fairly new instrument at the time, and Tony Levin plays a lot of the album on Chapman Stick in comparison to a traditional bass guitar. Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp both use early Roland Guitar Synths throughout the album and is responsible for much of the guitar sound that is present. Belew himself also uses pedals to recreate elephants, birds, and an array of sounds throughout “Discipline”. The song “The Sheltering Sky” might be the best example of the experimental use of guitar synths and music technology employed on the album. Bill Bruford also embraces technology and was one of the first drummers to utilize a fully hybrid electronic/acoustic drum kit. His kit is a mix of acoustic drums including roto toms, octobans, and a gong drum, instead of the usual tom toms and floor toms one would expect, and he incorporates Simmons electronic drums to emulate a lot of tom fills and hits throughout the album and the Simmons drums when combined with the octobans and roto toms created a really unique timbre of sound over the snare and bass drum, and for most of 80’s Crimson Bruford would ride on octobans where most drummers would ride on cymbals.
In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
It would be impossible to discuss the best King Crimson albums without including the band’s debut masterpiece In the Court of the Crimson King. Everything about this album is classic and influential, from the iconic album artwork of the screaming face, to landmark and influential songs like “21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Epitaph,” and the album title track. One could easily argue that ITCOTCK is the first true progressive rock album and forever changed the course of heavy music. From the opening hit of the album on “21st Century Schizoid Man” the music is in your face and bombast. King Crimson released this album to make a statement, and in fact the actual credits of the album list ITCOTCK to be “an observation by King Crimson.” This was a band defining itself by its own rules. The album came out in 1969 and the music for the time was heavy, it was truly experimental, and it was filled with a combination of technical complexity and lush melodies and timbres. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to hear this album for the first time when it came because so much in the prog, metal, and later on in the math rock and post rock communities rely on the musical foundation that KC started with this album.
The band whether they intended to or not credited their own lore with the release of ITCOTCK. They were one of the first bands to combine jazz with what would now be called metal, to combine improvisation with conventional song structure, and somehow managed to have radio hits like “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the title track while also being very long songs that relied as heavily on musical chops and skill as it did on composition arrangement and songwriting. It’s one of those rare albums where everything just lined up and created a perfect storm that brought King Crimson to the forefront of experimental rock music, and without the success of this album who knows if the band would have been around long enough to make another classic like Red. This is the album that introduced Robert Fripp to much of the musical world and some of his most well-known guitar parts to this today can be found on the album, just listen to his solo on “21st Century Schizoid Man” which has made dozens and dozens of music lists over the years as one of the best recorded guitar solos ever.
One of the unique aspects of ITCOTCK is the lyrics. Peter Sinfield was a member of the original lineup of King Crimson, but he didn’t play an instrument, he was the band’s sole lyricist. Where many prog rock bands get criticized for whimsical lyrics based in fantasy lands and overblown concept albums, Sinfield writes lyrics that feel very personal, have a lot of political and social over tones, can be witty and clever, and most importantly for the band have a touch of macabre that matches the dark and serious tone of the music. The song “Epitaph” may have some of Sinfield’s best lyrics on the album, and the song’s chorus line “Confusion will be my epitaph. As I walk along a cracked and broken path. If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” are self-reflected and introspective lyrics 20+ years before emo is a genre and is a far step away from other contemporary hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or prog bands like Yes. Sinfield wrote lyrics for the first 4 Crimson albums, but nothing he did will ever match his work on the band’s first album.
Starless and Bible Black (1974)
Between 1972-1974, King Crimson released what is known to many die-hard Crimheads as a trilogy of albums that have become to be known as the ‘Heavy Metal Trio.’ Those trio of albums are Red, which is already listed above, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and Starless and Bible Black. The core of the lineup for the trio of albums was Robert Fripp on guitar, Bill Bruford on drums, and John Wetton on bass and vocals, with contributions from others worth nothing such as Jamie Muir, David, and Mel Collins who plays sax in the current formation of the band. Many Crimson fans might suggest if you’re going to list two albums from the ‘Heavy Metal Trio’ the second album after Red should be Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, which is one of the most popular albums of the Crimson catalogue. If you’re new to KC and looking at which Crimson albums to dive into here’s why Starless and Bible Black is a better choice to get your Crim on. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, while featuring some of Crimson’s best songs, does not fully represent what King Crimson sounds like. Crimson at its core is known as a great live band, and Starless and Bible Black maybe more than any other Crimson studio album fully represents the raw and live sound of the band on record. Larks’ Tongues is an album where many of the instruments sound confined and boxy and all the songs on the album sound better on subsequent live albums than the studio recording.
What’s most interesting about Starless and Bible Black is for the most part it is mostly a live album. More than half the album was recording live in Amsterdam in 1973, and the band took soundboard recordings straight from the mixing board, which cut out any audience noise. It’s the band sounding in their prime and natural element and I think the idea to mix studio recordings with essentially live recordings really resonates on the album and songs like “Fracture” and “The Night Watch” sound larger than life and are so technically impressive that you would never guess these songs were recorded live at a concert and not in a proper studio. The opening track “The Great Deceiver” and third track “Lament” are the two proper studio recordings on SABB, but they are also some of the best examples of Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford’s dynamic playing styles combined with upbeat driving rhythms and multiple time signature changes along with non-conventional song structures, and could be called proto-math rock songs.
Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)
Three years after Discipline, the lineup of Belew, Bruford, Fripp, and Levin released Three of a Perfect Pair, which would be the final album of the 80’s lineup of Crimson as the band once again broke up and did not reunite until the mid-90’s. An interesting dichotomy of King Crimson has also been their ability to blend technical mastery and flex their playing muscle and craftsmanship along with creating some hauntingly beautiful and memorable melody lines and catchy if not at times poppy sounding vocals. TOAPP is maybe the best KC album to showcase these two seemingly opposing forces on one album. The self-titled opening track is one of the stand out tracks of the 80’s lineup with interweaving guitars that are predominantly in 6/8 in the verses before going to a 7/4 chorus, which features some of Adrian Belew’s best vocals with the band. Songs like “Model Man” and “Sleepless” follow suite showcasing the band’s pop sensibilities while still crafting some experimental sounds along the way.
TOAPP also blends more of the 70’s Crimson experimental heaviness into the band’s post-punk and new wave influenced 80’s material more than their other two 80’s lineup albums Discipline and Beat, and the final track on the album is called “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 3” as a sequel to parts 1 and 2 that are the opening and closing tracks on the 1973 album of the same name. The instrumental songs “Industry” and “No Warning” deliver some of the most heavy and experimental sounding compositions from 80’s Crim and have a lot in common with early industrial music in their feel especially from Bruford’s use of electronic drums and Fripp and Belew playing Roland guitar synthesizers. The song “Dig Me” is a mix of heavy industrial odd-time experimentation in the verses with stop on a dime Beatles-esque chorus with a very catchy and lush vocal delivery from Adrian Belew. All in all TOAPP is a great album at showing everything Crimson can do from being a prog powerhouse, post-punk rebels, instrumental experimenters, and can shine in pop sensibility, when they feel like it.
William Covert is the drummer from math rock band Space Blood, whose new off-the-wall album Tactical Chunder is available via Lonely Voyage Records.