The Predictable King Crimson: Something New (and Not)

Colonial Theater

Boston 9/16/2014

by Jimm O’D

The Mighty Crim has finally joined the ranks of the predictable- how nice for a change!

Disclaimer:  While the parent company of this website is a music agency handling artists, King Crimson is not one of them.

King Crimson has always been nothing if not “out there.”  Whether sonically, as they claim to be an “experiment in sound emerging from silence;” musically, with offbeat and often macabre lyrics and styles ranging from sweet to scarily metallic/industrial; or professionally, with sporadic but impressive output (often recognized after the fact) and infamous personnel changes such that the human resource pool and network has become seemingly limitless, the band has always kept listeners and critics guessing at what’s next.  The current incarnation of the band has now underdone itself in a most distinguished way.


Without a current album to tour behind, and with a lineup including returning and related members, Robert Fripp and company are both justified and allowed to reach back into the band’s catalog as they have never done before.  Without Adrian Belew fronting, they are able to brush over their 80’s output with an instrumental or two and similarly treat the 90’s, albeit with a bit more time devoted to material from Thrak (1995); and with Jakko Jakszyk handling the lead vocals, the “audient” (Fripp’s coined term) is treated to a sampler of updated versions of classics from the early albums, circa 1969 to 1974.

Jakko, having established himself as a viable KCrimson singer with his father-in-law’s alumnus ensemble, the 21st Century Schizoid Band- which included former reed-man Mel Collins, proves sufficiently well- suited to handle original singer Greg Lake’s material; when it comes to selections from the John Wetton period (yes, he of Asia fame), Jakko’s singing is at least adequate to the task.  One of two tracks from the Islands (and Earthbound) album here is the instrumental Sailor’s Tale, but we know from the Schizoid Band’s discs that Jakko does well with (pre- BadCo bassist) Boz Burrell’s singing; and, predictably true to Fripp form, the Lizard album is overlooked entirely.  (Longtime listeners will note, however, that Belew did an amazingly spot-on Gordon Haskell vocal for the 1991 box.)  Jakko’s guitar is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all- he’s more than adequate there!

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The first thing one sees on the stage at a current King Crimson concert is three drum sets.  They are right KingCrimson4 up front and running across the stage; the usual “front line” is positioned behind- a pleasantly predictable semi-surprise indeed.  While waiting, attendees are treated to a recording of Robert Fripp asking each of the other band members for his thoughts on the matter of photography in the concert hall; each of the six offers, of course, their humorously dry, witty or snide rebukes of the practice.  Similar recordings occur a handful of times throughout the two-hour show, offering observations or responses to the various discussions that come up around the band over the years, such as “prog” or art-rock and bombast or pretentiousness; frequent personnel changes long seen as personality issues or inconsistency but nowadays credited as being important, influential and even ‘progressive’ in the academic sense, as contributory to the development of the field; or even just the longevity of the recurrent madness or genius that is “a way of doing things,” as the founder says of King Crimson’s approach to making music.

Pat Mastelloto, once the new kid on the block but now the veteran drummer, is positioned left; Bill Rieflin, the most ‘peripheral’ of the current members, sits center-stage with a small keyboard setup (possibly including Mellotron, or a 21st-Century version) as part of his batterie; and Gavin Harrison, the second ‘newest’ member and drummer for 2011’s A Scarcity of Miracles with Jaksyk, Fripp, Collins and Tony Levin (a ProjeKct) is to the right.  The front line, positioned in back, places Mel Collins at one end and Fripp (seated, of course) at the other, with all his many devices; bassist and Stick-man extraordinaire Tony Levin stands (more stationary than usual) next to Collins, with Jakko just off-center. 

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“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” starts the set off perfectly.  Surely one of the boldest compositions KingCrimson5ever to come screaming and clanging out of the Crimson collective, the 8 or 12 -minute instrumental stays true to the original but updates David Cross’ violin with saxophone and retains one-time second percussionist Jamie Muir’s brilliant and chilling chimes.  Another long instrumental follows, one of those plodding monsters from the mid-90’s “double-trio” Thrak band, and then things settle down for the atmospheric and moody, ambient funk of the title track from the latest venture (arguably not a true Crimson number), “A Scarcity of Miracles,” with duet-ing or counterpointed sax and vocal lines.

Now that the show has begun in earnest, things get interesting.  There’s no telling what might get retrieved from their massive catalog, and some will ‘lament’ the exclusion of one song or another (like “Epitaph” or a couple from Starless and Bible Black), but once each of the next few begins, the listener is bound to breathe a sigh of “ahhh, yes… yes of course.”  From the second album, “A Man, a City” seems to have lost the bluesy punch of the 1970 studio version in favor of the more hard-hitting approach of the live band at that time.  “The Letters” reads much like the album version, which of course evolved from an earlier composition and so remains a favorite of the writer (Fripp), and this leads into another 71/72 track from Islands, “Sailor’s Tale.”  This may well be the first time in decades that Fripp has resurrected his abstruse banjo technique originally strummed on a Les Paul; and the mellotron fade at the end goes on for so long (as it should) that the audience is confused about whether and when to begin clapping.

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The next instrumental is mostly based on “Larks’ Tongues 3” from 1984, but seems to have traces of other things, possibly parts of the latter-day “Frakctured” and possibly the 72/72 predecessors of that 2000 re-composition.  Discipline, the only 80’s number to represent the Belew quartet, winds around its own theme and,KingCrimson6 like the instrumental before it, mixes in traces of other compositions.  Then the band breaks into “Red,” and we’re back on more familiar ground.  It’s always interesting to see how current technology will update Fripp’s original 1974 mellotron sounds, and this time Mel Collins’ flute and sax round it out and fill it up.  “One More Red Nightmare,” from the same Red album, gives Collins a chance to blow like the good ol’ days, but without then-returning original sax-man Ian McDonald to serve as foil; and this is where Jakko’s vocal delivery comes up a bit short.  It’s an odd song anyway, with howling, screechy vocals delivered full-strength, and the current singer just doesn’t quite have the breath (or breadth) to hold up.

Now, things begin to wind down.  A six-handed drum section deriving from the 90’s track called “B’Boom” segue-ways into the thrilling “Talking Drum” from 1972, with some of the lead guitar by Jakko replacing Belew’s substitute for violin, and winds augmenting the old guitar and violin lines.  As it should, this brace of instrumentals breaks into “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two” which is no less exciting for its patterned sequence.  However, the next song is perhaps the most welcome (of course!) surprise of all: “Starless,” the last 70’s band’s swan song and one of their strongest and strangest selections, shows us that three drummers may not have been necessary to replace Bill Bruford’s original genius, but they take nothing away, either.  Fans are delighted to see that the stunning guitar lines in the vocal section are as searing as ever in the hands of the master, but are now more straightforward without the old, pre-Frippertronics “sky-saw” sound as developed with Brian Eno.  This is Fripp playing Fripp, in fusion mode.  The crescendo stays true to form, but contains much less of the album version’s interplay, as we have one sax here and no oboe, cornet, or soprano sax; and the soaring, stinging guitar part in the section, provided here by Jakko, is played down or perhaps drowned out, being more inaudible (at least from 8th row center) than even the 70’s live band’s version.

After a suitable pause for applause, the band returns to the stage in their dignified manner, like University professors at recital for parents and alumnae, and they quite civilly deliver a highly percussive KingCrimson3 instrumental mostly reminiscent of the “Two Sticks” motif from 1995 or so, before quieting down and then erupting (in true, delightfully predictable KCrimson fashion) into the classic encore.  No surprise here, naturally, what other song could possibly fill the bill at this point but the 1969 opening track from the very first album (called “an uncanny masterpiece” by none other than Pete Townsend); the same song that for years remained the only one from the early days to stay with the 70’s band and even, at times, the 80’s and 90’s Belew-era bands… “Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man.”

Case closed and curtains drawn on an altogether entertaining but not so very exciting set.  One comment overheard was, “that was pretty special,” and that, indeed, sums it up.  This is the first and thus far only time that the one, true King Crimson, the forefather of all things ‘prog’ and granddaddy to so many successful and commercially visible bands and super-groups, has been allowed and authorized, founding father Fripp and all, to delve back into at least a few ‘deeper’ catalog cuts with members from several line-ups across the decades, to deliver a set that is this kind of (at least somewhat) strong and satisfying.

This is the first time in almost fifty years that the band has covered no new ground, brought out no new material or launched into any improvisational adventures. 

And good for them!  It is quite about time that these torchbearers of creativity, this assemblage of virtuosic experts with such a rugged individualist at its center, should countenance and sanction themselves to simply deliver the product and enjoy their own music.  The predictable King Crimson is still more surprising and stimulating than most bands, and longtime listeners are now to be rewarded for their decades-long forbearance in waiting and hoping to one day hear some of this music at the hands of its actual owner.

King Crimson’s three drummers: Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin & Gavin Harrison, take a solo during rehearsals for the US tour at Elstree studios, 2014. Video by Trev Wilkins.

Disclaimer:  While the parent company of this website is a music agency handling artists, King Crimson is not one of them.