The Collectable King Crimson: Volume 3
Release Tuesday, May 6
It’s that time of year again: Robert Fripp and co. have reached a lull, anticipating their end-of-summer tour, and the only way to put food on the table (and promote the shows) is to release a blindly hand-picked bootleg from the King Crimson archive. And thank goodness they picked a decent show.
Robert Fripp started King Crimson more than thirty years ago, and to this day remains the only sustaining member of the band. For those who don’t know, Fripp is one of music’s most notorious guitar snobs, an anal-retentive maniac (who has kicked out fans from shows for taping), a pompous and condescending bandmate, and yet one of progressive-rock’s greatest assets. Championing his strange style of interlocking guitar parts, vertigo-inducing time signatures, and ambient sonic textures, every incarnation of King Crimson has stood at the forefront of its contemporaries.
With sporadic album releases throughout the nineties, it was hard to keep the fans interested all the time. The intermittent Crimson-related music projects have been numerous, but diverse. Fripp’s company, Discipline Global Mobile, has been releasing live King Crimson albums in special collector’s edition bootleg CDs to keep fans investing in the King Crimson moniker, a trademark that sits carefully under Fripp’s watch.
Just this Tuesday, DGM released The Collectable King Crimson: Volume 3, the third installment in a series of recovered live concerts spanning the band’s whole career. It’s clear that Fripp asked one of his lackeys to file through the archives and throw something onto a double disc set for immediate sale. The album art is shockingly dull and immature: a cheesy burgundy gradient emblazoned with two awful square pictures of the band playing live.
The recording is taken straight from the soundboard at a 1996 London show, the last show of that tour. The opening act canceled at the last minute, so Fripp opened with a self-indulgent “soundscape,” a technique and term he coined in the seventies which involves him creating repeated textures and ambient noises with one guitar and a decent array of guitar effect pedals. After draping the audience in a wash of fluttery guitar notes, the rest of the band joined him on stage to kick into “Conundrum.” This short percussion interlude did only a little to stir the audience, so it was up to singer Adrian Belew to get things started with “Thela Hun Gingeet,” a title that anagrams Belew’s soaring chorus line: “Heat in the jungle!”
Belew struggles his way through the lyrics to “Neurotica,” a song that features him essentially performing a spoken-word slam poem in distinct counter-rhythm to the rest of the band. Eventually, he finds his pace. The whole first set is pretty standard: the classic songs from the 80s incarnations and new tunes from the most recent album, THRAK. Of the new songs, which at that point fans were quite acquainted with, “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” proved the most accessible in the live setting. The 90s lineup of King Crimson introduced second percussionist Pat Mastelotto, who prevails on “Sex.”
The new songs also indicate that the band has steered away from using Belew’s maddening lyrics and skilled singing to attract attention. While Belew hasn’t changed a bit, the music tends towards arrangements that are clearly against pop standards. “Vrooom,” one of the more popular new songs, contains a multitude of noisy sections, chaotic rhythms, and intermittent dreamy passages that culminate into a really likeable King Crimson track.
The virtuosity is still there. However, the disc leaves a listener feeling standard and unmoved. Either the band didn’t preview the disc before release, or they’ve changed their sales standards: the concert contains a lot of mistakes and imperfections that many would consider unprofessional. Try listening to disc two while ignoring a drunken fan in the front row yelling “Crrrrrrimmmsssson!” every couple minutes. Then when you’ve had enough, try tapping your foot to classic songs like “Lark’s Tounge In Aspic pt II,” “Frame By Frame,” or “Three of a Perfect Pair.” You simply can’t because they are played much too fast. At times the beautiful interlocking guitar parts shift out of phase and become muddled and mediocre.
King Crimson has played much better shows, with much better set-lists, and with much more spirit. Belew stupidly says at the intermission, “Give us fifteen minutes, and we’ll assault you again.” The silly banter and amateur mistakes are not definitive of King Crimson, nor do they belong on a special edition CD meant to be a collectible. What does save this disc, and perhaps the key reason it was released, is the inclusion of the song “21st Century Schizoid Man” towards the end of the set. The song hadn’t been played in 22 years, due to over-rotation on radios. It was the song that put Crimson on the map, but Fripp didn’t want to sell out to pop stardom.
Once August begins, King Crimson will embark on a new tour. It’s been three years, but the general hope is that they’ve been preparing for a powerful and virtuosic sampling of their latest music. Though it’s generating income for the band, the fans could have done without The Collectable King Crimson: Volume 3 — it’s the forthcoming tour that’s going to really determine if Fripp plus five can reverse the effects of a couple bad releases in the King Crimson catalogue.