King Crimson and progressive rock

2023-01-21 @Arts

Twenty years of progressive rock listening. Twenty years? About right. Over the course. Less after discovering Jazz. Whence followed Fusion, Jazz-rock, avant-garde and Free Jazz.

Sometimes the experimental forms of Jazz and Rock overlap. Jazz appeals to rock. And vice-versa. Both appeal to classical, funk, psychedelic, Latin, New Wave, atmospheric, cosmic, African, folk, Mediterranean and whatever thingamajig. Instrumentation overlaps.

And yet progressive rock more likely draws on Classic Rock, while Jazz resolves to traditional Jazz forms, however spruce … More often than not I imagine.

Focusing on progressive rock, I still hold King Crimson at greatest esteem across the bunch. Appeal to KC above all, come that PR craving.

Though haven’t tapped the genre frontiers to any great extent. What have we, such magna powers as Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Colosseum, Soft Machine, Electric Light Orchestra, Genesis, Procol Harum, Rush, SBB, Eduard Artemyev, Brainticket. And Myriads unsampled.

Why King Crimson? More covered ground, more experimental variety, sustained more or less over a 30-year period to fair success.

Maybe I’m disillusioned. Or nostalgia. And heavy bias towards Jazz forms. Save for Soft Machine, I’ve found less Jazz in the above mentioned groups. But let’s not discredit disillusion.

King Crimson. Drastically changing ensembles, vocalists, instrumentation, philosophy. A chameleon band.

Among the constants: heavy riffs, the crescendo, rhythmic emphasis over pomp orchestration, fun percussion. Fripp’s bewitching guitar work. Bruford’s drumming over a good run.

But let’s proceed from theory to application. Can’t comment on most live or bootleg material. But concerning studio albums, not a single plain miss among the lot:

In the Court of Crimson King (1969): cornerstone PR, heavy Mellotron and horns, Greg Lake’s distorted vocals, a haunting mixture of Jazz, psychedelics, folk and chant arranged in ways I’d not heard prior.

In the wake of Poseidon (1970): similar spirit. Though technically lesser, not a sterile composition: the ballroom piano on Cat Food, the treatment of Holst in the Devil’s Triangle (aka Mars), the Jazz heavy Pictures of a City, the folk ballads, etc.

Lizard (1970): the first of plastic surgeries among the ensemble. New lineup, new vocals, an altogether different, chamber-oriented style, increasing Jazz and classical influence, creepy ballads. And that marathon 23-min suite with Jon Anderson on vocals made this my go-to album for the longest time.

Islands (1971): the most somber, the most subdued, the chamber album. Deemed unlistenable by some. I beg to differ. Formenta Lady: a calm ballad that soon transfuses into heavy Jazz. Ladies of the Road: mixture of Rock, Jazz and Blues. The string orchestrated Prelude: Song of the Gulls makes for a worthy contretemps. The title track: a soft chamber composition of piano and cornet in gradual crescendo (a technique inexhaustibly employed by Crimson). The album demands a respective chamber listening approach: a cosy, silent environment, close to the audio, near undivided attention. Then incredibly rewarding.

Another metamorphosis for the next three albums: new vocalist-bassist, new drummer, violinists, new spirit: louder, further electrified, riffs, staccatos, hypnotic arrangements.

Larks Tongue in Aspic (1973): masterful arrangement and rhythm. Larks Tongue in Aspic - Part I: a long suite incorporating violin, distorted guitar and heavy percussion. Something to expect but from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then a calm ballad, some sort of progressive reggae, an eastern influenced crescendo and the (Stravinsky-inspired) interchange of immortal riffs that’s Larks Tongue in Aspic - Part II.

Starless and Bible Black (1974): plentiful solid material which demands concentrated listening. Great Deceiver: a dynamic composition of chaos and reconciliation. Night Watch: a heavily electrified folk ballad. Much of the mid album produces rhythmically oriented instrumentals. The title track: a haunting, chamber development. Fracture: a long crescendo suite, alternating soft electric with hard distorted guitar along with folk elements.

Red (1974): a magnum opus for many. Electrically, the loudest hitherto. Immortal riffs. Thrashing saxophone on One More Red Nightmare and Starless, both masterful compositions. Providence: an improvisation calling for a chamber style of listening.

Then a 7-year break (hiatus). Then the 80’s new-wave influenced approach with Andrian Belew’s high-register vocals of heavy contrast to John Wetton’s tenor from the 70’s.

Discipline (1981): gradually acquired appreciation. Helps rid of prior Crimson preconceptions. Elephant talk: fun vocal track, new guitar synth instrumentation, Talking Heads kindred spirit. Discipline and Indiscipline appears to anticipate the rhythm of the early Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sheltering Sky: an exquisite instrumental highlighted by the crying guitar synthesizer.

Beat (1982): continuing new wave. Though technically inferior to the prior, plenty of ground broken. Highlights: Heartbeat - a pop-oriented Police reminiscence, Requiem - a chilling instrumental with hints of Free Jazz.

Three of a perfect pair (1984): possibly the weakest, though still an enjoyable album. But the instrumental numbers more than compensate for the lagging vocals. Clever guitar distortion, reminiscent of late-70’s, early 80-s Bowie.

Then a ten-year hiatus.

Thrak (1995): the heaviness of two bassists and two percussionists occasionally wears on me. But this and the successors ‘ way of blending the early 70’s, the 80’s, with some of the new, sits well with me. Vroom and Vroom Vroom continue the heavy riff and staccato tradition. One Time: a not infrequent Latin infused ballad. Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: a mixture of rhythm, funk and killer percussion.

The Construkction of Light (2000): evidently recycles some former motives, but with artful arrangement. Generally everything impresses save for numbers heavily catered to Belew’s vocals. The title track: solid instrumental suite. FraKctured: a goosebump evoking fantasy suite leveraging an old theme. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic – Part IV: initially a nod to Part II, but slower, longer, more percussive, dream-like, culminating with Belew’s subdued vocals towards the end (something reminiscent of Radiohead).

The Power To Believe (2003): in common vernacular, ravishing. Though not quiet the highs of the above, neither did the lows readily manifest. That is, more even and way more cohesive. Belew’s vocals feel more integral this time around: sometimes eerie, sometimes instrumental, but hardly imposing. Level V: supposedly the Larks' Tongues in Aspic – Part V. Go figure. Electrik: sublime. Power to Believe - Part II: the oriental with Latin with that early 80’s new-wave. Dangerous Curves: crescendo of expanding instrumentation, a nod to some 90’s video-game soundtracks. Power to Believe - Parts III and IV: tranquil, space-oriented codas.

The above thirteen albums comprise the studio work. Perhaps all the better they didn’t orbit more lasciviously. The relatively little output has rendered immeasurable value.

Questions, comments? Connect.