Sunday, August 7, 2011

King Crimson's Altered Hypothesis: "Red" and "Discipline"

After the last post, I got a request that I suppose was inevitable: “What albums do you personally recommend as an introduction….to King Crimson?”  Writing a succinct post on a group that came to fundamentally define my musical tastes seems nearly impossible.  Far be it for me to dodge a bullet, though, especially considering what I went through to discover them.

The first album I heard by King Crimson was their 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King, but it was 1980's Discipline that shook up my musical conception in ways that took years to unravel.  I could easily fill a book with all of the memories and experiences that the album conjures up. It is currently my number one desert island disc, a position that it has held for decades, and it is going to take a really, really intense record to unseat it.  From an objective standpoint, however, Discipline is just a blip in King Crimson’s decade-spanning career.  Once they clicked for me, I eventually purchased their entire studio catalog.

Creating a historical reconstruction of their career, which would have to cover forty years and seemingly inexhaustible roster changes, could also span several chapters itself and would probably be interesting to very few.  Two of their most successful albums, however, just happen to sit right by each other chronologically, if not temporally.  The stylistic difference between the two represents a significant change in direction that would steer the course of the band for the remainder of their career.

Their 1974 release Red was the final album of a lineup that, in addition to the band’s “musical director” Robert Fripp, featured Yes drummer Bill Bruford and bassist/vocalist John Wetton (who would go on to find fame with Asia in the early 80s).  Red is dark, dissonant, claustrophobic, and often nightmarish, but is also sublimely beautiful.  This particular version of the band had the capacity to harness these juxtaposing extremes with intensely musical and virtuosic performances.

Red is an absolute necessity.  The following video of Starless is a gem of a find and, although it has some tracking problems, I would suggest stretching your attention span enough to watch the whole thing.

Fripp disbanded King Crimson shortly after the release of Red, which suggests that this performance might be a rarity.  Even so, it was recorded in 1974, and a case could be made that it predicted styles that would not emerge for decades.  I recently heard a note-for-note cover of its dissonant  instrumental title track find a home on a death metal band's set list, and the “crescendo-to-explosive-climax” structure of Starless has almost become its own genre - “post-rock.”

After a few years of production, side projects, and reflection, Fripp saw fit to reconvene the group in 1980 with a significantly different lineup.  He retained Bruford, but brought in Tony Levin on bass and Stick and ex-Zappa guitar mutant Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar.  The stylistic difference between this group and its predecessor is nothing short of staggering.  It was incredibly difficult to pick just one song from Discipline, but I think that, in terms of accessibility and adventurousness, Frame by Frame epitomizes its best attributes. 


On the surface, this is a great song with a beautiful melody.  With no video available in the 80s, though, it was not readily apparent that the guitar line in this song was actually two guitars playing in contrasting time signatures, rather than a delay effect.  Even more unimaginable, Belew was singing as he did it.  Live and effortlessly.  Then there was the inexplicable Stick, and the fact that Bruford simply chose not to use a hi-hat for the whole album.  It was rough for my high school mind to conceive, but the more I looked at it, the more I liked it…..

This version of King Crimson did more than just change members – they changed the hypothesis of the band’s fundamental experiment.  Most noticeably, the polymetric interplay between Fripp and Belew would become a foundational aspect of future incarnations of the band.  Furthermore, I would argue that Discipline is the very first "math-rock" album.  When I am moved by Battles' best work, or go jump on Rumah Sakit's polymetric rollercoaster, my appreciation is framed by this particular era of King Crimson.  

King Crimson became one of the few bands that threatened the ultimate superiority of Rush in my musical hierarchy.  These two albums, I think, are great representations of two very different incarnations of the band, both of which were groundbreaking in their own way.  More importantly, I think that they show the sort of “turn” that Fripp took going into the 80s from the traditional idea of what progressive rock was to what it would become. 


  1. Nice work, Jeff! I still remember listening to Discipline with you back in school. Those were some defining moments in my musical awareness, for sure. I find King Crimson popping up in unexpected places all the time, like in the movie "Children of Men". They used 'In the Court of the Crimson King' to great effect. Always enjoy reading your posts.

  2. When you introduced me to King Crimson in the 90's, I too was blown away by them. Totally opened my mind to a whole new concept of music. Brilliant musicians and song writers, Discipline will always be one of my favorite albums.

  3. Ahhhh.... Discipline. As with Brad and Barbara, I have you, Jeff, to credit for my introduction to KC. That album is always within reach and I do not get tired of revisiting it regularly. In fact, eveyone in my immediate family has been subjected to a listen or two.

    Incidentally, The Sheltering Sky has remained over the years my all-time favorite nighttime, dark, deserted road driving song. It is simultaneously creepy and beautiful.