Monday, September 5, 2011

A Little More on King Crimson: Essential Bookends

People commonly observe that time seems to speed up as life moves forward.  In some ways, I concur: these days, a year does not seem like a long time, but a year is a lifetime to a one-year-old.  In the early days of high school, things moved at a slower pace for me, especially before I began driving.  I used to take off on my bicycle pretty regularly on afternoon excursions during the weekends.  Sometimes I would just ride around and enjoy the freedom of twelfth gear, and others I would visit friends, or maybe…. I would go to the library?

As uncool as it may sound, I admit that there was a brief period that I pedaled up to the Manchaca branch library on my weekend afternoon outings.  This was right after Rush’s Power Windows was released.  That album had singlehandedly opened my ears to progressive rock, and for awhile thereafter I really could not get enough of the stuff.  After devouring Rush's back catalog and discovering Yes and Genesis’ 70s work, I was keen to find more bands that shared their adventurously virtuosic approach to the rock idiom.  Somehow, and I don’t recall exactly how, I discovered a self-titled “Encyclopedia of Rock,” at the library, and I spent several weekends pouring over the entries under the “progressive rock” index, taking notes and cross-checking personnel – all in the name of rock and roll (or something like it).  This was where I first heard of King Crimson.

Once I found out about them I became oddly obsessed - despite the fact that I had not heard a single note of their music.  I even had a dream in which I came up with a King Crimson logo that began appearing on my notebooks, book covers, and quiz margins.  MTV’s agenda at the time did not include the radical musical experiments from the previous decade, so King Crimson’s catalog wasn’t exactly available at the Skaggs Alpha-Beta.  It would require a more extended bike trip up to Sound Warehouse on Ben White to get hold of any of their tapes.

The Encyclopedia indicated that their debut In the Court of the Crimson King was a critically lauded masterpiece, and so I bought it on blind faith.  It wasn’t what I expected.  21st Century Schizoid Man had a few brisk technical passages that satisfied the testosterone-fueled musical concept of my teens, but overall the album was surprisingly mellow and ostensibly ponderous.  It seemed to have more in common with the Moody Blues (my parent’s music) than Rush (my music).  Initially, I did not dislike In the Court of the Crimson King, but it didn’t blow my mind like Discipline later would.

It took me awhile, but did come to see its genius when I eventually got over my myopic prejudice against 60s production.  In 1969, the mellotron was the apex of rock technology, as was multitracking and, in some respects, the electric guitar.  From this perspective, King Crimson’s 1969 debut is actually an astounding piece of work, but in the mid-80s I was too fascinated by pure technical prowess and shimmering production to appreciate its importance and brilliance.  I now view it as one of the band’s best works.

The above video is an incomplete performance of 21st Century Schizoid Man, but one of the few with original audio.  Its a pretty interesting snapshot of the devastating potential of that first King Crimson lineup, as well as their late 60s audience.

Much, much later, in 2003, as an assistant band director, I was teaching AP music theory.  King Crimson’s most recent album, The Power to Believe, came out that year.  Between solfedge drills and part-writing I tried to win over these students to the nuance of King Crimson’s work, using excerpts from Level 5 as examples of polyrhythmic cycling (in particular, the section that starts up at 3:00 or so).

I hope that The Power to Believe will not be the final King Crimson recording, but if it were it would be an excellent curtain call.  In this incarnation, the band was melding the intense proto-metal of Red with the rhythmic cat-and-mouse textures of Discipline.  Virtually every note felt like a culmination of the breadth and depth of the band’s four decade career (especially Fripp's guitar solo at 4:15!), but the overall work was hardly a “best of King Crimson” rehash.  In fact, I struggled to come to grips with the intense virtual drumming style that Pat Mastellotto developed for this version of King Crimson.  The band still strode forward, informed by the momentum of their most successful works.  It seems odd to suggest a place to start is at “the end,” but The Power to Believe truly is one of my favorite King Crimson albums, probably right behind Red.

It’s kind of amazing to think about the arc of experiences I have had because I stumbled across King Crimson’s entry in that library book.  My portal to the band was the material from the middle of their career, but in context, these bookends offer compelling innovations in terms of texture and technique.  For the expanding King Crimson collection, they are fundamental additions – perhaps even interesting places to start.


  1. Great post. It's funny, because it happened the other way around for me. I was completely against well produced, shiny new music in the 90's, and only listened to Zeppelin, Yes, Beatles, Tull, etc... I think my first Crimson CD was In the Court... and I proceeded in order form there. I only heard up to Red for many years, and when I first heard Discipline, I did not like it at all. It wasn't Crimson to me, and sounded completely 80's. Nothing like Lizard and Islands. But then it started growing on me, and I started seeing Fripp's unwavering intelectual honesty and his personal search for truth, and then couldn't get enough of any incarnation of Crimson. I have to confess though, I did not like the new bootleg from Chicago 2009, with Levin. I though he sounded horrible. Maybe I got used to those songs with Gunn... :-)

  2. It's amazing what you can find in a library, eh? :-)
    Great post! I am totally falling in love with King Crimson's music. Thank you for sharing this.