King Crimson are one of the most frustrating bands in rock history. Between 1969 and 1975, they released seven studio albums and two live albums. None of the studio albums featured the same personnel as its predecessor. Someone was always coming or going; sometimes guitarist and founder Robert Fripp would toss the entire band. But basically, if you liked a King Crimson record, you could count on hearing something totally different on the next one. The music shifted from drifty psychedelia to crunching, ultra-distorted riffing (both heard on their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King) to classically influenced—but not symphonic—art-rock on albums like In the Wake of Poseidon and Islands. The band was capable of brilliant, intuitive improvisation, particularly its early ’70s incarnation with bassist/vocalist John Wetton, violinist David Cross, drummer Bill Bruford and percussionist Jamie Muir, which made Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red while gradually shrinking from a quintet to a quartet to a trio, but this was paired with some of the most boneheaded, if not offensively bad, lyrics around.
The group disbanded in 1975, having seemingly exhausted the potential of their sound. (The live USA was a hell of a farewell gesture, turning the intricate, meditative songs from Tongues, Starless and Red into proto-metal blowouts.) When they reformed in 1981, they were a completely different band, largely due to the presence of guitarist and singer Adrian Belew, who had previously worked with Frank Zappa and David Bowie, and was working with Talking Heads at the time he joined King Crimson. Bassist Tony Levin also joined the group at this point; he and Belew remained crucial KC collaborators into the 2000s. The new direction, which owed a lot to New Wave and the arty funk of Belew’s other projects, was quite far from the spacious yet spiky art-metal of the ’70s lineup, but these albums have their fans. Still, the group disbanded again in 1984.
It wasn’t until 1995 that another King Crimson album arrived. Thrak was recorded in a “double trio” configuration: Fripp and Belew on guitars, Tony Levin and Trey Gunn on bass, and Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto on drums. Bruford and Levin left before 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light and 2003’s The Power to Believe (the last studio album to date), both of which were made with just Fripp, Belew, Gunn and Mastelotto.
The group stopped touring in 2004, resumed in 2007 (with more membership fluctuations), then stopped again. In August 2012, Fripp announced his retirement from the music industry. Just over a year later, in September 2013, he changed his mind, revealing the existence of a new, seven-member version of King Crimson that would begin performing live.
After two years on the road, they’ve released a three-CD set, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. (Get it from Amazon.) It was recorded at 2015 performances in Japan, Canada, and France, but all audience noise has been edited out. This incarnation of King Crimson consists of Fripp on guitar and soundscapes; Mel Collins on saxophone and flute; Jakko Jakszyk on guitar, lead vocals, and flute; Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick; Pat Mastelotto on acoustic and electric drums and percussion; Gavin Harrison on drums and percussion; and Bill Rieflin on drums, percussion, and keyboards. Most of these guys were former members of one KC lineup or another, with the exception of Jakszyk and Rieflin. (Rieflin has since left the band.)
The repertoire performed, over the course of nearly three hours, draws from the band’s earliest years and its most recent studio recordings, but the 1980s albums are completely ignored. And for the most part, the songs have been re-arranged in such a way that they fit together well. It’s not always easy to hear what all three drummers are adding to any given song, but at least two of them are usually interacting in complementary and fascinating ways, reminiscent of the way the quartet lineup of the Melvins would construct a sort of rolling-and-tumbling rhythmic back-and-forth that gave the heavy riffs and shouted vocals an unexpected airiness. “The ConstruKction of Light” is mostly built around jangling, almost harmolodic guitar interactions, but is interrupted by a Collins saxophone solo so cheesy, it’s like someone suddenly turned on a smooth jazz radio station mid-song. That’s made up for, though, by “The Letters,” on which he erupts into free jazz frenzy as the drummers go wild behind him. There’s also some fairly shredtastic (by KC standards) guitar. Indeed, the performances seem to grow more raucous and improvisatory as the set goes on—while the first disc ends with a fairly driving version of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part 2),” and pieces like “Sailor’s Tale” (performed frequently in 1971-72, but subsequently abandoned until this tour) and “Red” have more noise and whomp to them. And the final track, the closest thing King Crimson have to a hit, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is delivered in apocalyptic style, the vocals a distorted howl and the drums like an avalanche.
This is both a nostalgic project (Jakszyk seems to be going out of his way to sing as much like John Wetton as possible) and a way to be more than just a repertory band going through the motions. The material has been radically reworked—and, presumably, improvisation takes over in different ways night by night—and the set list combines old and new in order to highlight the aesthetic through-lines that have marked the band’s nearly 50-year career. It’s hard to imagine this being anyone’s starting point with King Crimson, but were that to be the case, it’s good enough that it would send them on a highly productive journey through the band’s back catalog (while guiding them away from those ’80s albums). And of course, longtime fans will love it.
Buy Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind from Amazon