On the cover of a recent issue of PROG Magazine I came across this morning (issue 47, to be precise), Yes were quoted as declaring they were “the last of the old prog boys still standing.” This struck me as being sort of hilarious, given that Heaven and Earth (the recent album the feature was covering) gave every indication that Yes have completely ‘lost it’ as a halfway-relevant or impressive band. What may have lent the headline a greater irony in my case however was that, earlier this week, I had the opportunity to see the one band to whom it may have actually applied live in concert. I am, of course, referring to King Crimson, a band whose legendary (and often terrifying) reputation for technical skill and seriousness extend far past the meager borders of progdom. I had not trekked south of the border (from Vancouver BC) to Seattle in five years (the last occasion had been Porcupine Tree, performing The Incident for the first time live), but seeing King Crimson on the final date of a purported farewell tour was as worthy a motivation as any to renew my passport.
Moreso than any other band I can think of, King Crimson stand as symbolic of the technical and artistic ambitions of the genre. King Crimson themselves are seen as kickstarting prog with their 1969 debut. Since then, they’ve continued to explore and bend in various incarnations. Save for Robert Fripp‘s permanent membership, the current lineup is unrecognizable from the band who created In the Court of the Crimson King, who, too, would be practically unrecognizable to the lineup who did Red five years later in ’74. In other words, King Crimson have not been a stable band so much as an elite member’s club, for which nothing less than the top tier of musicianship (in Fripp‘s eyes, at least) is necessary for admission. To a great length, this format has worked out remarkably, and each of King Crimson‘s incarnations has been exceptional and novel.
King Crimson‘s eighth (and most recent) lineup brings that same recognizable technique to bear, yet simultaneously comes off as a fresh experience for the band. It is, for the most part, the same group that played on A Scarcity of Miracles two years ago; Jakko Jakzyk‘s soft vocals are comfortably recognizable amidst the Crimson frontmen of yesteryear and, though they took some getting used to on A Scarcity of Miracles, Mel Collins‘ smooth alto sax work added a fresh potential of improvised performance to theband (Collins hadn’t been around with KC since 1971). Not least of all, wizard-bassist Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison (of Porcupine Tree- my favourite modern rock drummer!) were there to offer their intricate touches to that album’s rhythms. Even though most of the members are the same as from A Scarcity of Miracles, the addition of two drummers gives the latest incarnation a completely new dimension.
It’s this triple-drum-assault wherein a discussion of King Crimson‘s performance in 2014 should really start. King Crimson had dabbled in playing with two drummer simultaneously (Gavin Harrison and Crimson veteran Pat Mastelotto), but the addition of yet another (Bill Rieflin, of R.E.M, Ministry etc.) makes it feel experimental and fresh. That’s certainly not a feeling I’d expect from a band closely approaching its half-century anniversary, so that sentiment alone should attest to King Crimson‘s longevity. In terms of the way it actually translated into the sound, I find myself weighing the pros and cons of it. It’s a disappointing thought, really, because I was expecting my first (and hopefully not last) live experience with King Crimson to have swept me off my feet to the point where I wouldn’t be able to feel mixed or critical about the show. But, alas, here we are.
There’s a certain getting used to three drummers on stage; it’s something concertgoers in rock would probably never contemplate in passing, and if they’ve ever seen multiple drummers, chances are it was at a recent King Crimson show. Opening propitiously with Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part I, it didn’t take long for Fripp & co. to properly demonstrate what three virtuoso drummers can do. At their best, Harrison, Mastelotto and Rieflin function as a single entity; most of the time, only two of them are playing drums regularly, while the third adds atmospheric ambiance. During the show’s most technically demanding parts (The Construction of Light and Level Five, specifically), the trio would switch partsfrom each other and give an astounding sense of back-and-forth that wouldn’t have been possible with the basic lineup. I started the show thinking of the trio as three virtuosos trying to outdo one another, but by the time it was over, I thought of them as some sort of multi-limbed kraken, performing in total unison. All ego is extracted, and all that remains are the ambitions of the performing whole.
Fripp‘s arrangements sought to lift the triple-drummer-attack from its gimmicky roots, but there remains the sense that too much emphasis was placed on the percussive element in this latest incarnation of King Crimson. Each of the three drummers could have stolen the show on their own, and while I at first admonished myself out of ignorance for thinking it was a case of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’, that thought never blipped out of my head for long. I think it’s been largely a matter of mixing for the band- drums are notorious in live settings for their volume relative to the rest of the instruments, and having three drumkits sought to deafen the rest of the band. The issues with audibility were not so bad as to discredit the drummer trio idea entirely, but for a musical collective so famed for their tightness and all-round technique, I was pretty disappointed in what seemed oddly missing. Tony Levin‘s basswork could often be seen moreso than it was heard, and Jakko Jakszyk‘s guitar was curiously absent from the mix, although that may have been due to incidental error rather than an inherent problem with the way they were mixed.
Mel Collins‘ seemingly omnipresent saxophone also struck me as a somewhat mixed experience. Collins is a gifted soloist both with the sax and flute, but saxophone leads seemed shoehorned into spots where nothing was really needed. I understand this adaptation of older material was done so that every musician would have something to contribute, but I’m left to wonder whether it could have been with more tact and moderation than ‘another sax solo’. Especially during the frenetic parts to TheConstruKction of Light, I probably would have lost it if Collins had started mirroring the already-insane guitar parts on the saxophone. I do think Collins‘ rejoining of King Crimson is a great match for the band (although his distinctly ‘smooth’ way of playing takes some getting used to from harsher ears), but there was certainly room here for the arrangement to be improved.
When it comes to such a longstanding band, the topic of setlist choice can become maddening; everyone’s going to have the songs they want to hear performed, and older bands will often want to showcase recent material instead of the classics the concertgoers want to hear. For this show, large chunks of the Belew-era have been overlooked (I assume because Belew‘s vocals were too goofy for Jakszyk?) but there has been some lengths taken to cover the entirety of their career. Fans of Red rejoiced when the title track, One More Red Nightmare and the perennial favourite Starless were all performed. The first two parts of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic were also included, to no small excitement on the audience’s count. I was personally most excited when they played some of the weirdly schizoid work they were doing around the turn of the millennium. The ConstruKction of Light showed the band’s tightness at its best, and Level Five (from my personal favourite KC record, The Power to Believe) left me in a state of shock. The degree to which I was impressed by King Crimson at any given point was ultimately directly correlated to the degree of complexity they were playing. I love some of the softer and streamlined King Crimson they’ve recorded over the years, but live, they kept me hungry to hear more of the high-energy and ultra-complex. The tone of the show was probably too serious for their abundantly sparse and atmospheric moments; The Letters and Sailor’s Tale didn’t do as much for me live as they did in-studio on Islands, and their performance of The Light of Day (off A Scarcity of Miracles) felt underwhelming and dull.
I’ve indeed been critical of King Crimson live, and their sedentary, non-interactive style of performing their work live is doubtful to sway anyone who hasn’t already been ensnared by their doctrine of ‘music for musicians’ sake’. However, all of this might get across the point that I thought poorly of the show. On the contrary, it’s one of the most memorable shows I’ve seen this year. Perhaps the criticism is only so because there is the inherent expectation that King Crimson are musically excellent, or at least that my hyped expectations left little room for the real-life Crimson to keep up. It’s far from an emotional or warm experience (the only real interaction the band had with the audience was a condescending lecture via the PA system about ‘recording with our eyes and ears’ rather than with cellphones-jeez.) but there’s still no doubt in my mind that King Crimson have proudly retained their placehood as progressive rock’s perennial slice of high society. As a post-script, King Crimson recently announced another tour, fortunately keeping permanent retirement at bay for a while longer. Though my feelings were mixed, I’d still recommend checking out a show. For whatever musical expertise of theirs is taken for granted, the experience of seeing Fripp‘s unique vision realized before one’s eyes is still something pretty special. One thing can be said for King Crimson: they keep listeners on their toes.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One
Pictures of a City
Coda: Marine 475
A Scarcity of Miracles
The ConstruKction of Light
The Talking Drum
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
The Light of Day
One More Red Nightmare
Hell Hounds of Krim
21st Century Schizoid Man
Photo credits: Tony Levin