These three CDs represent three totally different bands, doing totally different...
Chris Jones 2002-11-20
Like the seven ages of man Crimson's many guises have been distinct, both sonically and philosophically. There's the prog-hippie band of the original format; the funk-hippie line-up of 1971; the serious-minded explorations of the '72 band; even the art-rock New York vibe of the 80s configuration. This always makes King Crimson a tricky entity to pin down in print. Some may argue that this has a lot to do with the gradual move from democracy to benign dictatorship by guitarist Robert Fripp yet these three CDs which span the period 1972 to 1995 seem to indicate that the true cause of such a multiple personality disorder seems to stem more from the sum of the parts. While it's true that Fripp was the only constant throughout the band's history every individual player has always been allowed to stamp their identity on subsequent releases. If Fripp's really got a lot to answer for, its the unerring ability to choose the right men, at the right time. These albums each have plenty to recommend them.
The first two CDs in this latest addition to the 30th anniversary clean-up of all of the band's major label work are both long-awaited items available in digital format for the very first time. Earthbound is possibly the band's most atypical album. Infamous for its utterly non-digital genesis (recorded on a cassette recorder) its 'official bootleg' ambience sits strangely in the canon of a band infamous for their sonic precision. The truth is that at this point Fripp had hooked up with a bunch of musicians who, as he once put it, loved to 'blow'. Improvisation, always a key part of Crimson's modus operandi, here becomes 'jamming'. Mel Collins' squawking sax combines with Boz Burrell's scat singing on "Peoria" to produce the closest they ever got to funk. Yet the standard of musicianship remains high. "Groon" has to be one of the most adventurous things they ever attempted: all tricky jazz chords and knotty time changes and "The Sailors Tale" retains its feeling of wild abandon. Believe it or not, this is a snapshot of a touring band primarily having fun.
By the time USA was released, Fripp had eschewed the rock star lifestyle for spiritual retreat, leaving behind a two year legacy of a version of Crimson in many ways at their peak. This album documented their final stateside tour. Bill Bruford's masterful drums, John Wetton's skull-crushing bass and David Cross's conservatory violin (inexplicably replaced by Eddie Jobson on "Larks Tongues In Aspic Part II") could, on any given night if the stars were favourable, gel in fearsome displays of dexterity ("21st Century Schizoid Man"), or simply produce the most awe-inspiring noise based only on (seemingly) telepathic interplay ("Asbury Park"). This reissue comes with two extra tracks including a version of the worryingly complex fretwork of "Fracture" -a piece Fripp wrote to be so difficult that he had to keep practising it constantly while on tour! For many fans this remains their greatest incarnation.
By 1995's Thrak, Bruford was back along with other previous members Tony Levin (stick bass and baldness) and Adrian Belew (Beatlesque vocals and equally out-there guitar). However, in true Crimson fashion Fripp's vision of this incarnation (apparently glimpsed while driving through a Wiltshire village) was of a double trio; thus the extra drum and bass of Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn. Infinitely more polished, this album also tends to re-hash several older themes ("VROOM" is "Red" made even bigger and harder) while still displaying a band hungry for adventure. They're never content to let a smooth production job take the edge off such behemoths as drum duet "B'Boom" or the harrowing dissonance of the title track. This is all nicely balanced with Belew's tendency to push the band into more standard 'song' mode. Crimson had successfully reinvented themselves for the 90s and continue to do so to this day - always more than 'prog', 'art' or any label you care to place on them. These three CDs represent three totally different bands, doing totally different things, but in the same way. They remain rock's greatest conundrum.