A stalwart of artsy rock, King Crimson has been around since 1969 in widely varying formats. The group keeps dissolving, only to be built anew years later; the only common thread through all the phases is guitarist Robert Fripp
, whose changes in guitar style and musical/technological interests have defined the group as it passes from one setting to another.
Crimson exists as Fripp's vehicle. He steers it. He recruits the musicians that will take it where he wants to go. And he's still going to some pretty interesting places.
Most fans split the band’s history into phases, although it’s sometimes debatable where one phase ends and another begins. With that in mind, here we go ...
Phase I: 1969-'70
Crimson started as a relatively democratic band:
The sound was melodramatic and heavy with the mellotron
, an early type of sampler which in this case was used to simulate a thick string section. Very prog-rock
, with deep, overly pretentious atmosphere all over the place. Signature song is "In the Court of the Crimson King
," a deep, mystical song with lots of beauty but not much subtlety. The band could also showed a penchant for wild stuff -- free improvisation
-- displayed in "21st Century Schizoid Man
" (rockin') and "Moonchild
" (more contemplative).
ALBUMS: In the Court of the Crimson King * In the Wake of Poseidon
Phase II: 1970-'72
The most obscure of the Crimson permutations. The entire band had left, but Fripp continued the name, using Gordon Haskell
and then Boz Burrell
as vocalists. The sound ventured further into prog rock, including guest stars such as Jon Anderson
ALBUMS: Lizard * Islands * Earthbound
Phase III: 1973-'75
As a side note, it's been reported (by me, among others) that Elton John
tried out for this version of the band. Those reports aren't true .... Elton was considered for Phase I when Greg Lake was in the process of joining Emerson, lake and Palmer
, but Lake agreed to stick around for the Crimson King
Pete Sinfield's lyrics were replaced by Richard Palmer-James'. Mellotrons were mostly abandoned in favor of harder-edged guitars and Wetton's thick, powerful bass. This is a jagged and rough band, but still capable of stopping on a dime. For many this is the best Crimson of them all.
Free improvisation featured heavily with this group. Several examples are found on their albums, particularly Starless, and The Great Deceiver box set contains many more improvs. Great stuff.
This band disintegrated in pieces. Muir left after one album. Cross was taken off the regular band roster after two albums, although he was still a guest player on Red. When this KC version officially dissipated, Fripp pulled a Pete Townsend and said the band was done. Like Pete, he was wrong.
ALBUMS: Larks Tongues in Aspic * Starless and Bible Black * Red
Phase IV: 1981-'84
This is the group that got me into King Crimson, and it's still my favorite. The personnel are etched in my mind's Rock Hall of Fame:
A radical departure from previous Crims, this band worked in complex, twining arrays of small notes, all interlaced in multiple time signatures. The title track to "Discipline" has a 17/8 bass and drum part underneath a more obvious 5/4 guitar theme, the two twisting in and out of agreement continually. The introduction of the Chapman Stick by Levin added a new dimension -- a third guitar, essentially -- and Levin and Bruford brought plenty of new electronics into the mix for a crisp, new sound.
I can't gush enough about this band. Discipline, for me, is a perfect album, and the interwoven three-part design on its cover is the perfect statement of the music. Beat is admittedly weaker but still magnificent. With Three of a Perfect Pair the group to lose steam, but its good moments are still great -- I like "Industry," no matter what anyone says!
By the third album, the group had tired of each other and went their separate ways.
ALBUMS: Discipline * Beat * Three of a Perfect Pair
Phase V: 1994-'95
KC was reincarnated as a Double Trio. The original idea was to have one trio for each stereo speaker; the "left" and "right" sides would play the same song simultaneously, but with lots of room for differences of style, so that each speaker separately would sound a bit different. The idea didn't work out -- they used it only on the EP version of the song "VROOOM"
-- but the double trio moniker stuck.
Trey Gunn was a find, adding a new guitar sound to deepen the Belew-Fripp knots of notes (he would quickly change from Stick to Warr Guitar, while Levin by this time was concentrating on plain bass). Mastelotto, much maligned for being a member of pop schlocksters Mister Mister, proved an able improviser with plenty of crazy ideas.
This phase started with a six-song EP as a statement of purpose -- Fripp called it a "calling card, rather than a love letter." Thrak was the major album from the double trio, as documented by nocodeforparanoia, above.
This is the only Crimson I've seen live, and they were great. Band members would later complain about crowding, saying the same ideas might ring more distinctly in a smaller group -- but I loved the thick mesh of sound they were able to produce together. Thrakattack is a mix of the bands' live improvisations, showing off much more electronics than before.
ALBUMS: VROOOM (EP) * Thrak * Thrakattack
And Beyond: 1996+
Things get muddy from here. King Crimson has existed as a near-continuous entity since the double trio, but in varying guises. Fripp wanted to keep the band as a going concern, as opposed to the years-long delays after phases III and IV, but he intended to keep it fresh by keeping it in flux.
To that end, Fripp introduced the ProjeKcts, subsets of KC that would perform freely improvised music in live settings, honing their spontaneous edge while exploring new venues that would become the new King Crimson sound. The four ProjeKcts were simply named ProjeKct One through ProjeKct Four and featured different permutations of Double-Trio members. I believe each ProjeKct toured. But all along, their endgame was a reformed Crimson.
From the material I've heard, the ProjeKcts did experiment quite a bit but never strayed far from central rhythms in their songs. Part of the reason is the awesome new electronic drums that Belew got, which could be programmed to play bass parts via the kick drum.
The new Crimson emerged in 2000 with The ConstruKction of Light, a quartet album featuring the Double Trio minus Levin and Bruford. Shortly afterwards, the band released a three-CD live package, Heavy ConstruKction, which features the ConstruKction of Light tracks; many fans prefer the live treatments to the studio album. Disk three of Heavy is almost entirely improvised.
Amid all this, Fripp started the King Crimson Collectors' Club, a subscription service that's churning out old KC bootlegs, literally by the dozens. Live performances spanning the entirety of Crimson have been released through this service, which is operated by Fripp without the aid of a corporate record label.
I'm not 100% up-to-date, but it appears that this version of KC will stay together loosely, with flexible personnel. There was talk that Levin hopes to return for the next album, for example.
Fans love the various Crims' for their adventures into free improv
, but the improv stuff doesn't make King Crimson as unique as some fans think. There's a long legacy of players who've done that sort of music since the '60s, many of them friends of Crimson (Keith Tippett
for one). The likes of Derek Bailey
, Evan Parker
and even newer rock guys like Nels Cline
and Henry Kaiser
take the free improv idea so much further than KC does -- I strongly recommend their work if the more abstract side of King Crimson appeals to you.
A King Crimson biography, a labor of love by writer Sid Smith, is in the hands of publishers who will begin reading the proofs in September 2001. No publication date is set yet. The definitive biography may be Eric Tamm's book, which is available online at http://www.progressiveears.com/frippbook/.
Much, much, much more information can be found at http://www.elephant-talk.com.