From the June 27, 1995 Issue
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Thanks to the careful behavior of innovative guitarist/instigator Robert Fripp, King Crimson has always been a rather aloof entity. Formed in 1969 and heralding from the progressive rock era, Crimson endured several changes in personnel and direction before solidifying in 1974. That final lineup produced a scary trilogy of albums and escaped rock's boundaries with Mahavishnu-like modes and completely free improvisations (as documented on The Great Deceiver box set).
The King Crimson name lay dormant until 1981, when Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford were joined by Adrian Belew and Tony Levin. Their discipline was built on precise guitar interplay and intricate polymeters. After three years of fusing world beats with highbrow rock aesthetics, Crimson disappeared again.
Until now. Last year, the quartet of the '80s was joined by Stick-bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto. This double-trio quietly released Vrooom, a document of their first few rehearsals together. The title track, with its descending themes and heavy arrangement, was reminiscent of '74's Red. The remainder of the EP kept up the intensity, premiering two new songs and a free-improv. Judging by the sound, King Crimson was ready to hold court once again.
The recently released Thrak fulfills the promise. Although the band does draw from the vocabulary of Red ('74) and the spartan lyricism of Beat ('82), the music here is undoubtedly on a forward path. One reason is Fripp. His personalized guitar tunings and experiments in "soundscaping" (actually a continuation of his Frippertronic technique) color much of the record. But most noticeably it is the new lineup, in crafty arrangements and musical discourse, that defines Thrak.
The dual guitar approach is not unprecedented for Crimson. Fripp and Belew broke much ground in the early '80s. But what of the double rhythm section? Tony Levin remains a monster on the low end (check out his bass work with Peter Gabriel for further evidence). Trey Gunn plays the Chapman Stick, a ten-stringed instrument that easily bridges the gap between Levin and the guitars.
The drummers have found a productive partnership, playing off each other and the music with panache. Ever since Yes' best days, Bruford has been a polyrhythmic master by himself. Playing with another drummer, one can hear him reveling in the possibilities.
So what does it all add up to? A compelling collection of order and chaos, lyrical melancholy and erudite furor. The songs proper are few but memorable, largely due to Belew's confident singing. In earlier Crimson tunes, Belew's vocals often seemed pointlessly tacked onto the more interesting backing tracks. On Thrak, the vocals are an organic part of the music. The pair of bittersweet ballads,"Walking On The Air" and "One Time," are wonderful, haunting melodies with appropriate restraint from all players. Elsewhere, "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream" alternates funk and dissonant verses before the harsh interludes, where Fripp and Bruford thrash wildly over the menacing ostinato. Gripping stuff.
Throughout the album, especially in the many instrumental forays, one can hear the largest accomplishment of this Crimson. Namely, arranging these six virtuosi into a palatable whole.
Crimson rarely descends to traditional rock arrangements (rhythm vs. lead guitar, etc.). Instead, the challenge is to find each player a specific role. There are many spots where each has his autonomous part that fits into the larger mosaic; so when all instruments do finally phrase together, the effect is quite powerful.
Much of Thrak works in this fashion. "B'Boom" is a percussion feature, shifting time signatures and building in intensity until the title track slams in with no warning. Thrak explores the contrast between a jagged 5/8 riff and free blowing. The album closes with a "Vrooom" reprise: the main theme is explored to Bach-ish ends, then a slow reading of the coda shows how artfully ugly Crimson can sound.
Whether Thrak marks the beginning of a long or short chapter in Crimson history, it stands as another testament of progressive rock at its best. King Crimson has never made for easy listening, but one needn't be a scientist to enjoy it. As Adrian Belew once sang, "The more I look at it, the more I like it." Here's hoping that Crimson continues its intelligent reign.