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"Because I've been in King Crimson and Yes and Genesis," says Bill Bruford, among the planet's best-known drummers, "I always get the stuff about British progressive rock--which is not a subject dear to my heart. It's a term that journalists invented, but we musicians don't really acknowledge those particular categories. Yes and King Crimson are frequently lumped together, whereas I see the two as entirely different bands--about as different as Nirvana and Ornette Coleman."
True enough, Bruford has been part of a dizzying number of widely varied ensembles over the years. He's served time with, among others, Gong (co-starring Steve Hillage); Moraz-Bruford (featuring onetime Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz); National Health (with future Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray); Wakeman, Wetton and Bruford (Wakeman is known for Yes and albums issued under his own name, while Wetton was in King Crimson, Roxy Music and Asia); U.K. (Wetton, Allan Holdsworth and ex-Roxy Music violinist Eddie Jobson were also involved). He's completed various solo works as well (Bruford made four discs in the late Seventies/early Eighties, including the well-regarded 1978 LP Feels Good to Me, in which he was joined by Holdsworth, Annette Peacock and others). Some of these groups were impressive, some were dreadful, but all were marked by superior musicianship, to which Bruford contributed mightily. In many ways, he's spent the past quarter-century-plus as a free agent, a percussion mercenary who's sought to balance musical tests with the potential for considerable financial remuneration. But he also has his favorites. When asked to compare the satisfactions of playing with Yes versus contributing to King Crimson, for example, he pulls no punches.
"The two are entirely different organizations," he points out in a clipped, erudite British accent. "Yes is a kind of megacorporation heavily indebted to its record company, whose artistic endeavors are therefore circumscribed somewhat by the need to pay the bills. This causes all kinds of problems, because you then have to have things called hit records--and trying to make hit records is an enormously silly game.
"King Crimson, on the other hand, is a free organization in the sense that the band can play whatever it wants. King Crimson has managed very astutely to be its own boss and play whatever music it cares to play irrespective to the fashion, tastes or times. So for me, playing with King Crimson is absolutely more fulfilling. Because King Crimson is more open and is not so concerned with mass success, it's a place where stranger things can happen."
Which brings us to the Virgin Records release THRAK, the first recording to bear the Crimson stamp since Three of a Perfect Pair, released eleven years ago. The band's lineup for THRAK sports all four members of the Crimson incarnation that shook up the musical scene between 1981 and 1984 (Bruford, guitarist/Crimson auteur Robert Fripp, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew and bassist/Chapman stick innovator Tony Levin), plus two players new to the band (percussionist Pat Mastelotto and stick player Trey Gunn). But rather than choosing to perform songs that build upon the last sounds Crimson made, the sextet has taken a riskier tack. To whit: The model for THRAK is 1974's Red, a critically revered primal scream of a platter that was too much even for many longtime Crimson champions. As Bruford puts it, "The only thing we more or less agreed upon is that we wouldn't really interest ourselves in the Eighties period of King Crimson. Instead, we would go back to access the vocabulary and sound of the 1974 Crimson--only now we would do it with six players and with all the increased knowledge we've gained over the last twenty years."
When asked for the roots of this decision and the rationale behind Crimson's decade-long layoff, Bruford replies, "I'd have to refer you to Fripp. He's the only one who can put the band together or stop it."
Just as important, Fripp is the person who's kept Crimson intriguing through its many stages of development. The story is a complex one, as Fripp acknowledges in ironic fashion throughout "A Short, Personal History of King Crimson," a press biography he penned in conjunction with the launch of THRAK. Most bios of this sort cover a single sheet of paper, or perhaps two. "Short," by contrast, is fifteen pages long. And it could have been much longer.
Crimson played its first gig in April 1969, at the Speakeasy in London, and within a matter of months, Fripp and his accompanists (keyboardist Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles, lyricist Peter Sinfield and bassist Greg Lake, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) unleashed their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. The album remains Crimson's most successful, sales-wise, in part because it had much in common with other so-called prog rock from the period; in particular, "21st Century Schizoid Man" sported the thudding, somewhat pompous power-chording that was then in vogue. But it's also infused with an eagerness to push boundaries--to juxtapose gentle and brutal passages, for instance. Hence, Court has aged better than many of the allegedly timeless discs that came out of the same musical environment.
By the next year, Crimson was in flux. In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard, from 1970, and 1971's Islands featured a variety of contributors, including Boz Burrell, a co-founder of Bad Company, but they simply didn't measure up to Court. In the bio, Fripp himself acknowledges that "it was probably not as radical an outfit as the others; the musicians were more linked to the tradition than myself, and were better partiers."