Seven years after abdicating the throne, King Crimson reappeared in 1981, with guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford joined by frontman Adrian Belew (Fripp’s first-time guitar foil) and bassist Tony Levin.
Fripp’s return to the rock field, starting in 1977, included studio work with Peter Gabriel (with whom he also toured), David Bowie, and Talking Heads. Fripp had enough musical sense and sensibility to have pursued almost anything - maybe modern classical or some such - but he instead soaked in the post-punk scene in NYC. His solo album Exposure (1979) was a mishmash of ambitions; tracks like “Breathless” and “NYC3” took the next step on from “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues”, while “You Burn Me Up” nodded to punk. “Exposure” and “Here Comes the Flood” revised the experience with Gabriel. Contributing vocals to Exposure was Daryl Hall, with whom Fripp would make a separate album called Sacred Songs.
A significant development of the time was “Frippertronics”, a tape-loop system that allowed Fripp to build up waves of sound in real time and solo over the top if he wished. This was a direct follow-up to the looping work Fripp had done with Brian Eno back in 1972. Frippertronics would become a stand-alone genre (as on the Let the Power Fall album) and could also be used in a band context.
The other main development was Fripp’s crosspicked ostinato style as explored within The League of Gentlemen. In this lopsided quartet which worked for several months in 1980, Fripp and organist Barry Andrews traded contrapuntal lines over a danceable rhythm section. They made one studio album, and in 1996, DGM released an “official bootleg” entitled Thrang Thrang Gozinbulx. Look no further than Fripp’s fast, repetitive patterns for a clear preview of the style he would bring to the 1980s King Crimson. “Trap” is perhaps the most complex of the League’s pieces, while “Ooh, Mr. Fripp!” from the live album is a parent of “Frame by Frame”. At the end of the LoG’s run, Fripp was ready to commit to a major group, and his record company knew exactly whom he should call.
Bill Bruford had not succumbed to new wave or much of anything else that distracted him from drumming at the top of his game. Most of Bruford’s late-70s energy went into his self-named band that straddled the rock-fusion line. Unfortunately, it was not a big moneymaker, no matter how many jaws were dropped by their musicality, and Bruford agreed to a new group with his old sparring partner.
The Fripp-Bruford axis is definitive of Crimson, in my opinion. On one side is disciplined stasis; on the other, an enthusiastic restlessness. Fripp’s written parts need contrary commentary to be interesting, and Bruford is perfect for the role. For Fripp, the musical tension was sometimes distracting, and at the new Crimson’s rehearsals, he even drew up a list of suggestions (or no-no’s) for Bruford’s drumming, such as outlawing the standard hi-hat and ride-cymbal timekeeping. Faced with obstacles, Bruford adjusted his playing and constructed a hybrid acoustic-electric kit that gave him new combinations.
Adrian Belew wasn’t necessarily an odd choice for the new KC lineup. He had followed Fripp into the studios of both Bowie and Talking Heads (and toured with both). Also, Belew’s band had supported Fripp’s League of Gentlemen live. Why a second guitarist in Crimson, though? Fripp wanted a polymetrical two-guitar attack, and obviously Belew would bring a unique soloing (and singing) voice, too.
Veteran bass mercenary Tony Levin and Fripp knew each other from working with Gabriel, and Levin also contributed to Exposure. A background in jazz and classical aside, Levin’s forte was solid pocket playing; he was and is a master of balancing substance and space in a rock/funk bassline. Levin also played the Chapman Stick, a tapped string instrument that covered both bass and guitar ranges. Its rich, percussive attack would be a big part of the new Crimson sound.
Quartet in place, then what? Fripp’s master plan was to downscale the dramatic flourishes and go for more tempered arrangements. Bali’s polyrhythmic gamelan music provided a model of interwoven threads in steady motion. The new Crim music occasionally rubbed shoulders with the spartan funk and worldly stylings of contemporaries like Gabriel and the Heads, and it also indulged the abstract instrumental leanings of King Crimson’s older courts. Free improvisation was minimized, at least at first.
By the way, the new quartet didn’t begin as a reformation of King Crimson. They were actually called Discipline and toured under that name in the spring of 1981. For Fripp, the “iconic presence” of King Crimson made itself available to the players sometime after their debut - yet they had been performing “Larks’ Tongues pt.2” and “Red” live from day one, so seeds were actively sown. In three years, they produced a singular studio triptych and some posthumous live recordings, which I am now ready, after much prologue, to review.
The blueprint for the new Crimson involves complex guitar interplay, rhythmic intricacy, a variety of electric timbres, unusual vocals, and a streamlined group sound. Per the album title, the strict equanimity of the arrangements abandons almost every rock dynamic. For example, rarely do the instruments phrase together, and if they do, little fuss is made about it. The guitarists can be either identical twins or Jeckyll and Hyde, and both Fripp and Belew add Roland guitar synthesizer to their array of tones. Levin and Bruford are a fine match: the former’s rock-steadiness on bass and Chapman Stick centers the music, so the drums can either lock down in reinforcement or play countermeasures. At its best, the group has a dazzling four-way autonomy.
“Elephant Talk”: This funky number establishes everyone’s basic role: Fripp plays clean, oscillating riffs, Belew comps and solos with different sounds (including elephant-like eruptions), Bruford provides a colorful beat, and Levin carries everything on a two-handed Stick line that involves tritones in the upper register. The guitar solos contrast Fripp’s polite synth with Belew’s wild abandon. The vocal takes a hint from David Byrne’s sermonizing style (who did a similar recitation of words on Fripp’s “Under Heavy Manners” from 1979) and reaches for the thesaurus: arguments, babble, chitchat, dialogue, “It’s only talk.” This sort of wordplay and “arty” delivery would inform a few more Crimson songs, as Belew realized that the music deserved something besides typical vocals.
“Frame by Frame”: The contrasting guitars and tight ensembles made this piece a stage favorite. One the one hand are Fripp’s fast single-note figures versus Belew’s rubbery rhythm chords; on the other, during the verses (and they are real verses this time), the two lock into a 7/8 riff together, but Fripp drops one of the notes and the guitars thus cycle around metrically. The non-traditional harmony involves minor-seventh chords moving around by thirds or half steps, which creates a tense logic.
“Matte Kudasai”: A gentle ballad where Belew shines as singer and guitarist. The soaring slide fills are part of his zoological library of homemade sounds, backed by Fripp’s simple E major comping. (On the alternate version of the song, contained on the remaster, Fripp adds a second lead guitar to the mix.) Levin and Bruford keep the song afloat with class.
“Indiscipline”: An ominous bass pulse, a monster riff in 5, and Belew’s spoken word sections make up a study in suspense and mayhem. Fripp’s terrifying solo is sort of a blur in the mix, but what’s clear is that this piece lets Bruford break free and wreak havoc across the bar lines, hence the title. The five-note main riff is also the first motif heard in “Discipline”.
“Thela Hun Ginjeet”: A funky piece in which driving rhythms carry disparate notions above: arty indulgence (the audio verite tape of Belew recounting a scary tale), off the wall vocals (including the anagram title chant), Hendrixian guitar sonics (Belew, in feedback heaven), and guitar dichotomy (Fripp’s high-speed anchor to Belew’s freakouts and wobbly sounds). Plus, it’s just so groovy - the drums and bass have a strong “jungle” momentum. The harmony once again moves minor chords in tense upward steps. In the final instrumental theme, Fripp and Belew bat notes back and forth in a manner similar to Fripp and David Cross’s exchanges in “Fracture”.
“The Sheltering Sky”: A drifting instrumental that suggests the mystery of foreign sands. Bruford’s log-drum pulse and Fripp’s exotic Roland synth scales stamp a passport to other worlds, tethered by Belew’s ingenious rhythm figure (strummed triads, minor to major) and Levin’s Stick. In the middle section, Belew paints with synthesized guitar over Levin’s slow seesaw; Fripp counters with clean single notes before adding to Belew’s cloudscape. It ends with a return to the original theme and the instruments drop out one by one, as if going their separate ways over the dunes.
“Discipline”: The formal centerpiece of the new methodology examines chamber rock via Bali, a Western realization of Eastern influence. The interlocking twin-guitar parts resemble the tumbling mosaic of gamelan music - or the phasing of Steve Reich, if you like - and one of the main riffs might be heard to approximate the equidistant notes of a slendro scale. “Discipline” updates the “Fracture” scenario where a guitar stream provides the underlying skeleton, offset by a steady 17/16 bassline and drum pattern (played on log drum and other light membranes) and simple quarter notes in the bass drum. There’s a lot going on, and the irony, as Bruford once noted, is that the tune itself is “undemonstrative” - no big crashes, no changes in volume, nothing that grabs the listener and says “There’s some dangerous stuff going on here!”
“Discipline” begins with the guitarists spaced two beats apart on a minor key figure in 5. Fripp soon drops one of the notes, and his shortened meter cycles alongside the original (played by Belew) until both meet up several bars down the road. Wheels within wheels, this progresses through different motives and chord changes, which once again are a series of modulated minor-sevenths. Belew plays the “straight” role while Fripp either drops notes or plays in double-time, as in the middle section, where the rhythm section temporarily breaks down. The signature “Discipline” motif is a fast arpeggio in 15/16 that appears partway into the piece; in the homestretch, it moves upward (with some variations in notes) from C to C# to E to F#. These climbing tonics have no standard harmonic connotations, although it sounds to me like a renewal of purpose, if I had to give it an emotional description. During this stretch, Levin keeps a bassline going and taps a syncopated riff with his right hand. Bruford’s sharp snare sound and stray roto-tom shots have also entered the picture. In the final segment, the guitars alone cycle through the staggered meters and come to a sudden close.
Far from an ethnic pastiche, the purpose of “Discipline” is to make a rock quartet function in a certain way, and it sounds like a microcosmic world at work. The musical ideas dictate the structure, where the tune is just long enough to highlight the harmonic changes to best effect. It’s a touchstone for the group and for the rest of the Discipline album.
So is all this new music King Crimson? The gulf between KC69 and Larks’ Tongues was pretty wide, and the distance between Red and 1980s Crim is even greater. Times change, and so did Crimson. Beyond the surface, Discipline has certain qualities that put it in line with the best of the older Crimson works, even though the musical language is different. In fact, a new language is created from scratch, although I didn’t mention “Fracture” by accident - one can hear clues to the future in 1974. Put another way, if this group had continued with the name Discipline, a lot of comparisons to the King would have popped up along the way. Anyway, the album is one of Crimson’s rare studio masterpieces.
“Burroughs is in Tangier I don’t think he’ll come back / its sinister”
The trifold pun: one beat of music (depicted in pink on the blue cover) versus “Heartbeat” versus the Beat movement of Kerouac’s road, etc. The Beat inspiration gives the album its continuity, what with “Neal and Jack and Me”, “The Howler”, the bop monologue of “Neurotica”, and an instrumental bliss-out in Tangier. Look a bit closer and “Heartbeat”, “Two Hands”, and the music’s intricacies form a heart-hands-mind chain as well. Beat tumble washes the Discipline schematic and emerges with increased dynamics, a sharper contrast of tonal colors, and a new tunefulness, mostly thanks to Belew’s vocal advances. It’s not a better album than its predecessor, but it’s certainly not a poor one, and I don’t understand a lot of the criticism given to Beat. What were they supposed to do, make a carbon copy of Discipline?
Adrian Belew’s pop constructions “Heartbeat” and “Two Hands” don’t sound very Crimsonesque to be honest, and perhaps these are what weaken the album to some folks’ ears. Ironically, “Heartbeat” is the stronger song but the arrangement is rather bland. “Two Hands” has a silly lyric and is a bit sappy, but Belew’s warbly chords, Bruford’s log drum pulse, and Fripp’s guitar synth solo have idiosyncratic appeal. The other songs on the album are more group-assembled, beginning with the road fever of “Neal and Jack and Me”, where the guitar gamelan (now a three-way, with upper register Stick entwined) alternates with cruising rhythms and various mini-solos. During the shouted verses, Levin combines low-end punches with guitar-like punctuation chords on the Chapman Stick - just one example of his outstanding contribution to this band. Belew croons “Absent lovers” during the final groove and the gamelan mosaic finishes it out.
“Waiting Man” is one of the group’s finest achievements. Bruford uses the electric Simmons pads for a pitched percussion web that, along with Levin’s Stick riff, pretty much defines the whole track. Of course, Belew’s yearning vocal, Fripp’s metronomic patterns, and the funky solo section are essential elements, too. The studio version is more compressed and moodier than live versions would be. Bruford and Levin actually swing during the verses of “Neurotica”, a thrash-jazz rave-up whose manic text seems to have been the result of, “Hey Adrian, see how many animals you can name in a song.” Actually, the lyrics to the bridge are fantastic: “Arrive in Neurotica / through neon heat disease / I swear at the swarming herds / I sweat the foul terrain” and so forth. The music for this section involves a chromatic down-and-up riff that recalls something very similar in “Lament”. (One can hear hints of “VROOOM” and “THRAK” elsewhere in the song’s riffage.) “Neurotica” fades out with a lot of thrashing and bashing.
“The Howler” is very underrated. The components would take too long to describe, but I have to commend Belew for finding such an effective vocal to fit the lurching strangeness behind him. Sure, it all feels arbitrarily rammed together, yet the ideas are strong, and once again Levin sews it all up, especially in the arcane meter of the bridge. It’s noir-avant-prog-rock, how’s that?
On to the two instrumentals. “Sartori in Tangier” features a snaky Fripp solo over a claustrophobic Stick riff and electronic drum groove. In the center, Belew adds some lighter textures, and toward the end, Bruford twists the beat around mischievously. “Requiem” marks a return to free improv; first, Fripp solos over a haunting Frippertronics loop, then Levin brings in an upright bass part and Bruford starts extemporizing jazz-style on acoustic drums. Belew enters midway through with metallic feedback skronks, and the drums get wilder. By the end, the quartet has constructed a wall of mourning, howling, pounding noise. “Requiem” is completely off the track of anything we’ve yet heard from 1980s Crimson, and it sure is compelling. Not surprisingly, it closes the album.
Beat’s borrowed romanticism fills in the Discipline skeleton nicely, and about half the tracks are certified classics. I’m partial to “The Howler”, which isn’t a classic to the larger Crim community, but it raises my rating of the record nonetheless. I’m also fond of the semi-nostalgic sounds of the swirling Chapman Stick, the chorused guitars, and the Roland GR300. You can’t deny that the identifiable palettes of Messrs. Fripp, Belew, Levin, and Bruford are well represented by this record.
In which the gamelan ideal is largely abandoned for pop reductionism, industrial frippery, and lots of gizmo-tronica: Here comes Robo-Crim. The program is split evenly between Belew’s off-center pop songs and industrially flavored instrumentals, not as radical a divide as it might seem, thanks to the coldness of both. The abundance of synth drums, synth guitars, and synth bass (Levin’s new weapon) leaves much of the quartet’s tonal personality behind, as does the clinical production. Lest I seem too negative, this is an admirable album, if not a fully inviting one.
The two most celebrated tracks are the title song and “Sleepless”, both featuring ultra-slick foundations and emotionally blank vocals. “Three of a Perfect Pair” resurrects the gamelan guitars for the verses, Bruford holds down a complex beat, and Belew’s compuserve solo arrives from another world. “Sleepless” is well known for Levin’s slapback bassline and the roaring guitar-synth exchanges. It is indeed catchy but all of the fuss seems to cover a lack of content. The song has had a history of various mixes, some of which were intended to “right” Bruford’s drum part into a standard beat. Well, the remaster includes four to choose from, and I think the original version, reflecting the drummer’s choice to leave out the snare until the final verse, is the most effective.
The other songs include the new-wavy “Model Man” (albeit with a chorus in 7) and “Man with an Open Heart”, dominated by the slithery twang of Belew’s fretless guitar. Both songs have a neurotic personality, and the arrangements are like walking through a modern art gallery. Fripp plays sparsely on both. “Dig Me” is barely a song at all, more of an art-rock mix of spoken word, controlled chaos, and a brief chorus. Belew speaks from the perspective of an abandoned junkyard car that pines for the glory days on the road, including a poignant chorus plea (“I don’t want to die here”).
The instrumental tracks maintain the art gallery feel. In “Nuages”, murky electro-percussion (by Belew), chordal clouds, and hiccoughing synth bass support meandering solos from Fripp, Belew, and Fripp again. The new industrial (undustrial?) side of Crimson comes out to play in “Industry” and “No Warning”, both loaded down with an endorsement deal’s worth of gadgetry. The inhumane, factory-floor improv of “Industry” takes place over a martial snare pattern - echoes of “Mars”, perhaps. “No Warning” is a shorter tableau of singeing, grinding, humming, and drumming noises, and thanks to Levin’s underscore, there’s a vague linear development to the track. Two more hair-raising tours through the “Industrial Zone” are included in the bonus tracks.
And then there’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic pt.3”, whose presence seems to justify the name King Crimson in the midst of all the other new music. In terms of pure notes, it reconnects to the serpentine guitar figures of “LTIA pt.1” and also the hammering chords of “LTIA pt.2”, and the players have their moments, like Fripp with the high-speed crosspicking and Bruford with his counter-punctuations. But the overall arrangement is too stark to have the impact of its elders; the economy of the 1980s playing doesn’t really suit what is a 1970s idea. Nonetheless, the widening chord progression of the finale is good, and I like the way Bruford brings in the drumkit piece by piece. It fades out - maybe grand endings were passe as well.
Summing up the whole album is difficult. The usual report is that “it’s a disjointed LP that almost totally ignores 1981’s raison d’etre, but the band was going to break up anyway and at least they got a couple of good songs out of it.” I don’t hear any finality in it, not even in “LTIA pt.3”, which is fun but anticlimactic. The industrial bashes, in some sense, are forced yet inevitable: with the “Discipline” style exhausted, what’s left but the opposite extreme of mechanistic pandemonium? In the end, we’re left with nine strange souvenirs of an impasse.
Have I explicitly stated what an excellent group the 1980s Crimson is? Well, look no farther than these two discs taken from the last tour-stop in Montreal. Barring “Larks’ Tongues pt.2” and “Red”, the quartet concentrates on its own repertoire (which by 1984 was plentiful) and ends up unifying the tangents of the Discipline - Beat - 3oaPP trilogy. The gamelan streams, the geometric funk, the Belew balladeering and sloganeering, and the industrial machinery all sound at home together in a visceral companion to the tidy studio works.
The Three of a Perfect Pair material benefits most, as in a galloping “Larks’ Tongues pt.3” (Fripp’s solo tone is too blurry, though) and an “Industry” that is much more dramatic than the studio version. “Man With An Open Heart” emphasizes Levin’s synth-bass part and is stronger as a result, and nothing is held back in the tidal rush of “Sleepless”. The freedom of “No Warning” is touched on in the scary “Entry of the Crims”, where the players join an improv one by one before launching “LTIA pt.3”. “Dig Me” and “Three of a Perfect Pair” are not as watertight as the studio takes, but they’re both fun to hear.
Two of the show’s biggest highlights come from Beat. On “Sartori in Tangier”, Belew pops behind a drumkit to play a basic beat alongside Levin’s funky Stick riff, Bruford augments with polyrhythms, and Fripp rips off a hot solo. The theatrical extension of “Waiting Man” patiently layers of all the song’s components and has a great jam on the middle section. All of Discipline save “Sheltering Sky” is here, from the paranoid drive of “Thela” to an irresistible “Elephant Talk”. (Dig the two-handed Sticking in the F#m sections. Tony Levin is one of a kind.) “Matte Kudasai”? Magnificent. “Indiscipline”? Stage-friendly fury with Billford all over the place. The group even delivers the challenging “Discipline”, and you can hear the exhilaration as the players traverse the tune’s intricate web. It actually speeds up partway through, but everybody stays right on top of it.
The older tunes “Red” and “LTIA pt.2” both sound more modern and somewhat friendlier than their original recordings. (Not necessarily better, though.) The drumming is smoothed out, the guitar tones are a little different, and thus these two warhorses sit well alongside the contemporary material. Yet overall, the Discipline quartet has a brighter disposition than the Starless KC. The savagery is more compartmentalized, the structural tension more academic. Absent Lovers balances the physical and intellectual, and it’s stimulating on all fronts. Does it replace the studio trilogy? Not really. But it’s a must-have.
Live at Cap d’Agde (Collectors Club)
Aug. 26, 1982
A fine sampling of Crimson circa Beat, playing an abbreviated set in front of Roxy Music. The group is in hot form on material like “Waiting Man”, “Thela”, and a strong “Matte Kudasai”. The expansive “Sheltering Sky” contains electrifying Fripp flurries. Levin bungles a couple of notes in “Neal and Jack and Me”, which is otherwise an energetic rendition. “Elephant Talk” is a wild safari with Fripp’s guitar parts more prominent than on the studio version.
Three bonus tracks come from the following night in Frejus - “Indiscipline”, “Heartbeat”, and “LTIA pt.2”. The Frejus concert was also filmed; it was first available as a video entitled The Noise, and is now part of the Neal and Jack and Me DVD that also contains a 1984 concert. Anyway, “Heartbeat” and “Larks” are well done, and this might be the ultimate “Indiscipline”. The opening drum solo goes on a tad too long, and Adrian’s spoken sections are rather drawn out, but in the thrashing sections, the band ascends to another plane. Maybe you have to see the video footage to get the full effect - Fripp’s hands in lethal flight, Belew waggling the Strat in front of the screaming amp, Levin hunched down, the lone soldier clinging valiantly to the tempo, and Bruford gleefully ripping the rhythms apart. The counter-beat that Bruford superimposes in the final seconds is just shy of genius.
Despite a couple of moments that betray the hazards of live performance, this disc is one of the very best available in the KC Collectors Club. A couple of other 1982 CC titles have problems regarding pitch - either the engineers weren’t paying attention, or the band used in-between tunings on random nights (and I jest on that count). Whatever the cause, I found them unlistenable. But Cap d’Agde is right on.
These writing rehearsal excerpts could be subtitled “The Bridge Between BEAT and 3oaPP”. Finding a direction for Three of a Perfect Pair was not easy, and we can hear that the group originally clung to “Waiting Man” as one template, as can be heard in the pitched percussion and catchy Stick lines of “Reel 3 Jam” and “Say No”. Meanwhile, the techno future beckons in the crazy synth sequence of, er, “Sequenced” and an “Industry” prototype called “Fragmented”. “Robert and Bill” features the high-speed opening line of “Larks’ Tongues pt.3” as played by Fripp and Bruford in tandem; it may have been too overbearing to make the final arrangement, but it is bloody impressive. The bittersweet “Robert’s Ballad” would have wound up a third-rate “Matte Kudasai” had it gained a vocal. (Everything is instrumental.)
Elsewhere is some unclassifiable stuff, like the guitar-synth rocker “San Francisco” and the moody “Steinberger Melody”. The same bassline from the latter is rehashed in “Grace Jones”, an off-center funk setting for Belew’s controlled feedback and Fripp’s synthetic melodies. “Heat in the Jungle” is based on a big, tumbling bassline and eventually settles into elegant terror. All of these sketches leave a lot of options available to the group, and any other band would probably be thrilled to come up with half of what Crimson does here. Regardless, good judgment meant not rushing into a new album, and on this evidence, a lot of Three of a Perfect Pair was still waiting to be written.
Obviously, these are works in progress, and they give a great insight into the quartet. Fripp’s liner notes ignore the wonders of the group and take a glum view. “Why don’t we try this bright idea?” seems to be another in a long line of digs at Billy B. It sucks to work with creative, enthusiastic people, doesn’t it?
Robert Fripp has more than once said that Beat and 3oaPP were the price that had to be paid for bringing Discipline into the world. Well then, is it any surprise that the group broke up immediately after the 1984 tour? Belew tended to his solo career, Bruford and Levin had various projects ahead, and Fripp was soon off to found his Guitar Craft school. For three years, though, the foursome made up a most intelligent, challenging, and rewarding group. Whatever the internal tensions, the music was unparalleled.
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