King Crimson

Bismarck Theatre, June 14

In the early 70s it was a common complaint that the Beatles ruined rock ‘n’ roll. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band almost single-handedly spawned the oxymoronic genre of “progressive” or “art” rock. Legions of British bands tried to replicate its complicated tapestry of sound, but some took it to an extreme, like the Moody Blues, who used overblown orchestral arrangements to back up hippy-dippy poetry.

Progressive rock was not so much a sound as a concept. The idea was that rock music could be stretched to meld with other genres–especially classical, jazz, and theatrical music. While some of it was interesting, as recording technology advanced from 4- to 24-tracks many prog-rock bands became excessive, and their music served only as a platform to show off musical prowess and virtuosity, offering complexity for complexity’s sake.

Yet King Crimson took a different tack. As other bands became bloated, King Crimson tightened up its act. By 1974 they were down to a three-piece band (bass, guitar, and drums), cutting back on Mellotron, flute, and violin and reducing the music to a stark, heavy grind. Apparently, founding guitarist Robert Fripp saw where prog rock was going and wanted nothing to do with it. He dissolved King Crimson after recording 1974’s Red, killing the band before punk had a chance to.

But while the work of prog-rock bands like ELP and Yes no longer seems relevant, Crimson’s largely instrumental rock of the 70s has influenced several of today’s less conventional rock groups, including Primus and Shudder to Think. Countless other alternative bands, like Fugazi and Jesus Lizard, explore the same acrid musical terrain that King Crimson did 20 years ago.

Perhaps the one lesson Fripp took from prog rock’s heyday was the value of experimentation. He did some of his best guitar playing on projects with David Bowie and Brian Eno. Eno introduced Fripp to techniques combining tape recorders to loop, delay, and repeat guitar notes at different volume levels, creating layers of sounds. Fripp later augmented the idea with other electronic devices, coming up with instrumentals he called “Frippertronics.”

Since 1981 Fripp has periodically returned to King Crimson, dismantling and rebuilding the band, blending 70s bombast with elements of new wave, funk, and electronic music. Like fellow prog-rock expatriate Peter Gabriel (whom Fripp has produced), Fripp has tried to keep up with the times.

The newly reunited King Crimson’s concert last month at the Bismarck–their first here in more than 11 years–brought together all the members from its 1980s lineup: Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, and Fripp, in addition to Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn from Fripp’s side projects with David Sylvian and Sunday All Over the World. Fripp’s the only remaining member of the original group.

In concert Fripp is a musical Wizard of Oz, perched on a stool at the back of the stage, nearly out of sight. Critics have often said that Fripp is King Crimson. His guitar style–alternately piercing and humming delayed leads, gentle washes, sheets of noise, and precisely controlled power chords–is so unique that his playing is immediately identifiable. But live, Fripp acts as the glue holding the band together rather than the puppet master pulling all the strings.

Combining a lot of 80s material, music from their new reunion album Thrak, and a few numbers from their 70s prog-rock period, King Crimson in concert sound nearly identical to their records. Gone are the days when they would go on the road and pound out whole concerts of improvised material, testing the waters before going into the studio. What they offer these days is a sometimes entertaining update of their old music combined with avant-garde dance rock.

Fripp said recently that King Crimson had every intention of getting back together. Solo careers, side projects, and playing on other people’s records delayed their reunion. Finally last year they started rehearsing and in their first five days recorded the EP Vroom, which was exciting and raw. Their full-length follow-up, Thrak, which appeared in the stores a few months ago, is a major disappointment, consisting of identical or bloodless versions of the songs on Vroom along with a lot of filler and a few good new songs.

But played live, the new pop songs worked the best–the manic “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream,” the breezy “Walking on Air,” the eerie “One Time.” Not so successful were Crimson’s turgid updates of their progressive-rock sound, such as the plodding title track from Thrak and all four versions (three too many) of “Vroom.”

Techno-pop material from their 80s albums Discipline and Beat, such as “Elephant Talk,” “Frame by Frame,” and “Heartbeat,” sounded up-to-date, which is surprising considering how dated most new wave records now sound. (Have you listened to those Howard Jones and Thompson Twins albums lately?)

The height of the show was the chaotic “Indiscipline.” Its stop-and-go dramatics were intensified by the presence of an extra drummer and bass player. With all the musicians pummeling their instruments in different keys, the song thrashed with free-jazz-like momentum, embodying the excesses of 70s prog rock while transcending time, place, and genre, reminding us that King Crimson may remain important because they continue to elude categorization.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Westenberg.