In late 1994, a 31-minute CD entitled VROOOM was released. The first track was a monster of “remorseless forward motion,” its boogie bassline and lacerating guitars interrupted twice by delicate interludes before a coda stomped the cacophony to a halt. Next came a song of sorts, although the distorted vocal was just another timbre doled into the funky mayhem, with two drum sets in a tug of war throughout. The following “Cage” was a frenetic head rush of discipline, clocking in at less than two minutes. After these three tense pieces came the calming sighs of a guitar synth, and then, with a jolt, “THRAK” sent any expectations of respite scurrying under tables. Strict in its metrical overture, abrasive in its middle improvisation, “THRAK” was the epitome of industrial-strength sonics. It was followed by another improv, which unfolded cinematically and ended with humor. The final track’s gentle guitar chimings, Latin-ish rhythm, and melodic vocal brought relaxation at last. The CD was a self-described calling card, and the name was King Crimson.
The easiest way to describe the Double Trio incarnation of King Crimson is to say it’s the 1980s Crim with two added members, although that’s an inaccurate account of how it came about. But the roster includes Fripp, Belew, Levin, and Bruford, with newcomers Trey Gunn (Stick and Warr guitar) and Pat Mastelotto (drums and percussion).
After the 1980s Crimson broke up, Robert Fripp nurtured his Guitar Craft school. Eric Tamm’s Fripp biography covers the Guitar Craft experience so well that I’m not going to bother writing about it, but I should note that GC was where Fripp began using the so-called New Standard Tuning, based on fifths instead of fourths. I should also say that the League of Crafty Guitarists’ Intergalactic Boogie Express is a truly amazing album. And finally, Guitar Craft is where Fripp first came across Trey Gunn, who eventually moved on to Chapman Stick. (And later, the Warr guitar, another tapped-fretboard instrument.)
Fripp and Gunn were part of a short-lived band called Sunday All Over the World (an album came out in 1991), and Gunn played with the Robert Fripp String Quintet, which also included the California Guitar Trio. It’s safe to say that Gunn was “in” with Fripp, if not an exact protege. In playing live with David Sylvian in 1993, they worked with drummer Pat Mastelotto, a pop-rock veteran. So the new members of King Crimson had already spilled live blood with the leader.
Why a six-piece? Mastelotto could provide Fripp with the “rocking drummer” he desired, leaving Bruford free to terrorize the rhythms as he wished. Gunn could find a middle ground between Levin’s low end and the Belew-Fripp guitars. It didn’t always work out so simply, but the expanded Crimson had plenty of arrangement options, to say the least.
Personal note on the VROOOM EP blurbed above: I first got into KC around 1991 in college, and at that time, of course, it was a historical adventure. Somewhere in ’93, I’d read a magazine article hinting at a new Crimson, but this was before the Internet became such a surprise-ruining rumor mill, and I wasn’t watching the calendar or anything. Then sometime in 1994, when I walked into a record store, I saw the new EP from King Crimson. Had no idea it was out. Bought it, took it home, put it in the player with no preconceptions, and it scared the hell out of me. How does one reclaim that sense of exhilaration? Or maybe it was just the thrill of finally experiencing new Crimson after studying the past.
This 2-disc set wasn’t released until after THRAK, but since it represents King Crimson’s first live performances in 10 years, I consider it the chronological re-crowning. The arrangements veer from the fluttering gamelan style - such as it exists in Discipline-era tunes - to heavier slabs of sound, and the sextet is more than capable of exploring many points inbetween.
The material includes some 1980s classics, three 1970s selections, and several new pieces. The ‘80s tunes have plenty of pent-up enthusiasm (“Frame by Frame”, “Elephant Talk”) yet can also sound overcrowded (“Sleepless”). These revisits of “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues pt.2” have an authentic scrunch, thanks in part to Trey Gunn’s versatility. In “Red”, for example, he helps recreate the layered guitars of the original studio version, and he also underlines the heavy bass movement. “LTIA pt.2” is now prefaced with “The Talking Drum”, which gets solos from Gunn, Belew, and Fripp in an excellent crescendo of tension. I will wait to detail the new works that would appear on THRAK, though I can say that they are all worthy performances, and the spontaneous nuances of “VROOOM” and “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” are as good as any other live versions. Plus, they have that “maiden voyage” patina about them. The new “THRAK” (heard in two takes) is a polyrhythmic improv beast. Hitched to the front of “THRAK” is a double-drum piece entitled “B’BOOM” (Bruford’s nod to Max Roach’s M’Boom, I suppose), where Pat and Bill dispatch a dynamic dual solo. Introducing “B’BOOM” are two captivating examples of Fripp’s so-called soundscapes, which expand the atmospheric looping premise of Frippertronics via advanced delay, harmonizer, and synth devices.
Pardon a technical diversion, but I’d like to address Fripp’s new guitar sounds. Gone are the JC120, the GR300, and the individual effects of the ‘80s, all replaced by a slew of digital rack processors and up to date guitar synths. On the positive side, the otherworldly soundscapes sound excellent, and some of the “regular” guitar sounds (such as the distorted rockface of “LTIA pt.2”) are effective. However, the clean sounds (using a Les Paul copy to trigger a synthetic single-coil sample?) can be very glassy and fake sounding, and the attempts to update the analog GR300 synth sound (hear “Elephant Talk” or “Sleepless”) are silly. I only mention this stuff because Fripp is so high in these mixes, and the old-fashioned vitality is sometimes missed.
Belew still sounds like unpredictable, fun-loving Belew. Tony Levin stays down low on Stick and bass, while Trey Gunn occupies his own space. The drummers both play semi-traditional kits (Bruford even has a hi-hat again!) augmented by various percussion. Mixing the Double Trio was/is surely a chore, and each of their live albums has a unique balance. This one’s Fripp-centric, although everyone registers well. Anyway, this historical release captures Crimson back in action, breaking in each other and the material.
One might have expected THRAK to pick up at least partly where the 1980s Crimson had left off, yet the new material instead looks to the intelligent hard rock of the Red days. There are echoes of older pasts, too, like a particular riff’s reference to “Cirkus”, the occasional Mellotron snippets, and the thematic/episodic running order. All of this makes sense - if you’re going to resume King Crimson after a decade’s absence, and a quarter of a century after it first began, you may as well make an album with a large sense of history.
A couple of improvisational segments aside, the majority of THRAK splits between instrumentals from Fripp and song-oriented pieces from Belew. The album has a smoothly constructed feel (a benefit of having tested most of these numbers in Argentina) and at the same time explores some of the idiosyncrasies of a six-piece ensemble.
“VROOOM”: Sounding like “Red” riding a groovy bassline, “VROOOM” asks permission from the past to move into the future. The heavy double-stop riffing is a Fripp specialty (“Red”, “Breathless”), and the tinkling arpeggio segments recall Guitar Craft. The geometric opening fanfare is more unprecedented. What’s surprising is how straightforward the beat from Levin and Mastelotto is, while Bruford antagonizes the groove. The most complex sequence is the extended reiteration of the fanfare theme, where a two-chord motif backpedals in fifths, pausing every third time on a major chord - sort of a “coming down to earth”. The mix separates two guitar-bass-drum trios hard left and right, a rather obvious demonstration of how the group might deploy itself, although this production tactic conceals the aggressive sound that “VROOOM” has on every other recording. In any case, it becomes the new Double Trio anthem.
“Coda: Marine 475”: Straight out of “VROOOM” comes a stomping chromatic descent where the guitars and drums bicker over a slow yet relentless pulse. The simple musical premise allows the group to explore its rock-symphonic capabilities. After a few descents down the chromatic scale, the “Coda” ends on a low C, and Crimson has arrived with no uncertainty.
“Dinosaur”: In this hard-edged song, Belew looks back on youthful foolishness with a wizened eye. One might read between the lines to get a “prog-rock dinosaur” pun out of the lyrics - and the Mellotron sample of Belew’s guitar-synth might add to the joke - but Crimson sounds the opposite of washed-up. The guitars snarl and sneer, the drums tumble around each other, and Levin covers the low end with a huge sound. (Interestingly, Levin opts mostly for upright bass or regular electric bass on this record, leaving the Stick work to Gunn.) The pseudo-classical diversion in the middle (Belew, Levin, Gunn) might imply the inner journey of the song’s protagonist, while the following Fripp solo - after a dramatic pause - connotes a harsher reality.
“Walking on Air”: A descendant of “Matte Kudasai” in which Belew’s precious vocal sits atop a pretty chord progression, celestial coloring from Fripp and Gunn, and restrained bass and drums. The gentle side of the band.
“B’BOOM”: A three-part drum piece that contrasts solid Pat and disruptive Bill. In the first part, Pat states a 6/8 rhythm with shakers on toms and Bruford does some metric modulation with kick, snare, and a Simmons boo-bam sound - his meters get shorter then longer against the steady 6. Then Bruford plays a snare signature to signal the next round, a heavy sticking pattern in 7 for Mastelotto and a twisting “backbeat” from Bruford. After a short interlude from Pat, both drummers match strokes on the same tom pattern in 7, with Bruford occasionally rolling on top. It’s almost a cliche to expect a coordinated drum solo from a band with two drummers, but “B’BOOM” makes a smart job of it. It leads directly into -
“THRAK”: The polymetric basis of this scary overture came from a Guitar Craft exercise. Fripp and Mastelotto accent beats 1 and 4 of a quintuple meter, while Gunn and Bruford hammer 1, 4, and 6 from a 7/8 meter. The main effect is that the two patterns break apart, offset each other, and then rejoin after a certain number of bars. Fit into these bar lengths (and right on top of the 5/8 accents) is a monstrous series of notes, voiced by Fripp and Levin, as Belew’s electric clouds hover above. In the middle, the group plays a bustling stretch of industrial free jazz. It doesn’t go as far out as the live performances, probably a good idea for the studio record.
“Inner Garden I”: Dark arpeggios from Fripp support a downcast Belew vocal, clocking in at just under two minutes. Part II of this little vignette/interlude will reappear to frame the next segment of the program.
“People”: A tight, off-center funk piece with a monster bass line from Levin and a twisted rhythm part from Belew. Mastelotto displays his pocket-beat skills in the main song portion. The lyrics are the weakest part of the album, and Belew’s “ahh” and whispered lines in the breakdown are ill advised. Nonetheless, the playing is tip-top, and Bruford takes over at the end to play the fade-out vamp under a backwards Belew solo.
“Radio I”, “Radio II”: These two short soundscapes appear on either side of “One Time” as transitional cushions.
“One Time”: A mature ballad featuring an elegant Latin foundation and swirling Frippery behind an excellent vocal. Even if Belew could never create a song with the sort of majesty of an “Exiles” or “Starless” (whose aesthetics come from another time and place, anyway), he finds his own brand of Crimson melancholy with this one. The middle section pits elementary string drones from Belew against the cosmic expanse of Fripp’s drapery, while Gunn’s subliminal notes glow and dim like stars.
“Inner Garden II”: Resuming progress quite abruptly, the conclusion of this contemplation lasts just over a minute.
“Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream”: The contrast between the slow funk of the verses and the mayhem of the two thrashing sections recalls the extremes of “Indiscipline”. In the verses, Belew’s distorted, edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown vocal bounces between nonsense and wordplay. Underneath, everyone offsets one another: Fripp’s abstract shapes intersect Belew’s funky riffs; Gunn’s wahs and whooshes color Levin’s bass part; and Bruford’s complex variations dress up the primal Mastelotto beat. In the thrash sections, Tony and Pat lock down and Robert and Bill take off; the latter’s meter-shredding is especially thrilling the second time around. The Mellotron makes an appearance in the third verse. Like “Indiscipline”, this is more of an tension and release exercise than a true song, but it works just fine.
“VROOOM VROOOM”: In which elements of “VROOOM” are revamped, reversed, and remodeled in a hard-rock application of classical principles. Also reversed are the drummers’ roles: Bruford carries the main beat while Mastelotto comments percussively. The drumless section in the middle has clipped guitar chords and a doomy bass line very similar to the middle of “Red”, and it was in fact written for that old tune but omitted. This section is the best part of “VROOOM VROOOM”, at least in the studio version, while much of the remainder of the track (the descending chord-riffs) comes off arbitrary and repetitive. I think the piece works best in the live format, where the tempo and energy are up.
“VROOOM VROOOM: Coda”: An inversion of “Marine 475 Coda” that sounds like a multi-headed monster awakening from a century’s nap, or perhaps a team rearranging furniture in hell’s conference room - ugly guitar sounds grumble and growl under a lumbering pulse. Toward the end, a Bruford press roll brings the splintery oscillations of Fripp’s processors to the fore. The “Coda” ends the album almost humorously, so heavy is its burden.
THRAK is the most “complete” sounding album since Discipline or Red, take your pick, even if it doesn’t ascend the groundbreaking heights of either. The only questionable part, as far as I’m concerned, is the “People” vocal, but otherwise Belew presents quality songs, and the instrumental parts are good. Some have criticized this Crimson for not reaching its full six-way potential, and in terms of their lifespan, that’s obviously true. But THRAK gets the ball rolling with “Coda: Marine 475”, “SSEDD”, “THRAK”, and parts of the two “VROOOMs”. When I first heard this album I rated it very highly, then my opinion diminished over time. Coming back to it for these reviews, THRAK is back up in the Very Good Crimson Album range, shy of All Time Great.
An hour-long “THRAK” courtesy of engineer David Singleton’s stitching/editing talents, where undustrial improvs from various “THRAKs” in the fall of 1995 are welded into a suite of five pieces, bookended by the polymetric main theme at the beginning and end of the disc. Given that the “THRAK” improvs tended toward harsh mayhem, this artificial extension of the process makes a strenuous listen. In hearing all these excerpts, one can isolate the individual tactics that certain players used for their Thrakking: Adrian either plays a guitar-synth piano, or takes a power drill to his axe, or pick-scratches his strings; Tony remains on upright bass, often doing the obnoxious scratching/scraping as well; Robert goes for synth soundscaping (great), or a warped guitar-synth piano (hideous), or a nasally, distorted lead. Bill brings out the marimba samples on his Simmons pads when he’s not engaging Pat in premeditated drum cues. Trey snakes around everything with indeterminate sounds, unencumbered by a particular slang.
I don’t view this as completely free improvisation, because the “THRAK” improvs were conditioned by the abrasive nature of the “tune” itself. In other words, if the double trio were to just improvise from nothing, they might have come up with more consonant, flowing, rhythm-centered creations. Nevertheless, there’s a vanload of variety within the thrakazoid parameters. The transient rhythms and Crimson velour of “Mother Hold the Candle Steady” recall the Starless era, as does much of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” suite. “This Night Wounds Time” has a great mini-soundscape early on and later develops a sneaky 10/8 Bruford groove. Without listing tracks and times, there are several truly captivating episodes strewn throughout. Also, different players reference the 5/8 “THRAK” theme at various points.
For every good moment, there’s some messy turbulence to match. Overplaying in a six-way improv is a sin, and Belew should be first in line to the confessional. The drill is a silly, unmusical prop, and the string scratches aid nothing. (Tony’s guilty too.) For all of the criticisms Fripp unleashed on his “insensitive” mate Bruford over the years, it’s clear that Bill understands the protocol of free improv better than anyone else on the Double Trio stage. He knows when to add, lay out, support, or counterattack. Pat’s punctuations follow him well. The most valuable contributions from Fripp are the evocative guitar-synth string passages, which serve the same purpose as the Mellotron in the old days. The downer from Fripp is the brittle distortion sound for his chromatic noodling. Hard to tell if that or the drilled Strat is the more irritating presence.
This is a controversial album, not least amongst commentators who apparently aren’t aware of its artificial genesis. It’s a hellish tapestry any way you approach it, but I appreciate the intent.
The ultimate Double Trio document. Drawing from two different live sources - August 1996 performances in Mexico City and a late ’95 stint at the Longacre Theater in NYC - it covers almost all of the stage repertoire, minus “VROOOM” (!) and the oldies “Sheltering Sky” and “Waiting Man” that were added to later setlists. Nevertheless, the Double Trio lives up to its reputation as a fantastic repertoire band.
Disc 1’s Mexico City tracks launch an overwhelming series of howitzer blasts like “Red” (best live version, period), “Larks’ Tongues pt.2” (almost ditto), and a relentless “Neurotica”. “VROOOM VROOOM” has a ton of energy, followed by the roil of “Coda: Marine 475”. Bruford takes big risks in “B’Boom”, while the “THRAK” improv builds to an incredibly intense peak on the back of a coordinated drum cue. And hold on to your hats, here comes “21st Century Schizoid Man” for the first time since 1974. The only bad thing about it is Belew’s ridiculous British affectation in the vocal. Otherwise, the sheer sound of Bruford and Fripp running through this flagship - with fine contributions from everyone else - is enough to complete the circle and make hairs stand on end. A few tracks before, “Prism” adds Adrian to the Pat/Bill team for an impressive percussion piece.
Disc 2’s less assaultive NYC tracks fill in the pointillist details. (They are drawn from the original Collectors Club title On Broadway, a fine 2CD set on its own.) The opening “Conundrum” is another Pat/Bill specialty that faces the two men onstage playing a ritual “elevenses” pattern on separate toms. Then comes a slew of well-rendered goodies: “Thela Hun Ginjeet”, “Frame By Frame”, recent tunes like “One Time” and “Sex Sleep”, and on through “Indiscipline” and “Elephant Talk”. A reprise of “B’Boom/THRAK” leads into Belew’s solo rendition of Lennon’s “Free as a Bird”, a superficial lark. Closing out is “Walking on Air”, a nice bonus track from Los Angeles to say goodnight.
Turns out, extreme potentials aside, the Double Trio’s forte was delivering established material with power and spontaneity. Thus the sense of authority behind all these performances, especially on the first disc. A simultaneous compliment to the material and its players is that none of the tunes sound old in the least.
Live at the Wiltern (Collectors Club)
July 1, 1995
A “major show” to Fripp, the Wiltern CC features a typical 1995 setlist spread across two discs. The energy translates well in “Indiscipline” and “LTIA pt.2”, and Belew goes to another level in some of his guitar solos (“People”, “Elephant Talk”). Also, Fripp replaces the tinny synth sound in “Elephant Talk” with a vibes patch - interesting. (None of it beats the original GR300 sounds, but technology marches on.) The trio drum piece “Prism”, usually rendered as a front-of-the-stage encore, finds the drummers behind their main kits, and there are some Frippian soundscapes involved (?!), so that’s rather unusual.
Overall, this solid recording is recommended for the completist who has digested the gulf between B’BOOM and VROOOM VROOOM, and who wants more nuances to savor.
This disc contains excerpts from the Double Trio’s attempts to generate a second round of new material. Having satisfactorily arranged themselves into an expanded rock band for THRAK, the group now tries to break new ground. The 20 tracks range from miniature fragments to sketches/jams (“Presidents”, “Jimmy Bond”, “Sad Woman Jam”) to extreme sonic experimentation. Belew, Fripp, and Gunn run through every possible patch on their processors. Levin plays more Stick than he had before and also adds a keyboard synth bass, just like in the 3oaPP days. The drummers are the real delight - Mastelotto’s creativity starts to burst forth and the dual percussive web becomes ever more complex. Listening to these rehearsals without prejudice, one hears a group with vast resources and almost unlimited potential, and they make a few efforts (“Split Hands”) at radical six-way interaction. So on the surface, it sounds like a forward step.
Unfortunately, this was the last time (to date) that the Double Trio was all in a room together. Despite the overall positive vibe of the music, and the audible excitement of the players (especially Bruford), there was private frustration as new material failed to solidify. Well, “material” is overstating it - I realize that there’s plenty of possible evidence not on this disc, but I don’t really consider two contrary chromatic lines (“Ragin’ Drone”) a sketch, much less a composition, nor do the Guitar-Craft-styled “Circulations” beg the word opus. And the snaky “Split Hands” riff that’s heard in other permutations as well? It’s “Stultified” from the 1982 Fripp/Andy Summers album I Advance Masked. From Fripp’s point of view, the Double Trio writing rehearsals were unworkable because no one settled their parts and no pieces were finalized. Some thoughts from an outsider:
If you’re going to assemble a six-player band and essentially limit writing privileges to two of them, the writers have to present more comprehensive material than just a handful of cool-sounding scales. And I’m not referring to Adrian.
If you do stick with skeletal ideas (hand-me-down or not), don’t be surprised when your creative subordinates try almost anything to invest them with interest, thus a bevy of bass, drum, and textural ideas that will probably shift daily.
If the above free-jam attempts to realize structure aren’t working, then perhaps you should put the other foot down and write out a complete arrangement.
Yes, I’m suggesting that maybe the Double Trio required a stronger guiding hand. When people say the six-piece Crimson failed to live up to its more extreme potentials, blame shouldn’t go to the concept itself, nor to the special players involved. It might go to a musical and artistic director who had bitten off more than he could chew. Again, if there were pieces of “detailed writing” floating about, there’s no evidence on this CD, nor in any interviews I’ve read from various Crim members. Yet Fripp felt vindicated down the road when some of these Nashville ideas reappeared more successfully in the KC ProjeKcts and also the reduced Double Duo Crim.
Anyway, that’s the ugly backstory of the Nashville Sessions. Surely there are other angles to be considered, but mismanagement is how I see it. The leftover music is fun, funky, and far out. The bittersweet, “what might have been” finale of the Double Trio. (Think back to “Larks’ Tongues pt.1” and imagine how a six-man Crimson might have resumed that sort of chamber-rock ideal, for just one example.) It’s an artistic travesty that a group of this caliber should have fizzled out prematurely.