"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."
In other words, Fripp was unhappy with Crimson and decided to turn it upside down again. The results were 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic and 1974's Starless and Bible Black and Red, all three of which featured Wetton and Bruford, making his first Crimson appearances. The discs were more rigorous and interesting than their predecessors, in part because Bruford's complex beats propelled the music while avoiding mechanized or metronomic patterns. Red, in particular, was positively radical, an edgy, sometimes abrasive opus that influenced some rather unexpected performers. "This gent Kurt Cobain evidently called Red one of the seminal albums of his movement," Bruford notes. "And there are a number of other bands, such as Nine Inch Nails, with whom Adrian Belew has performed, Primus, the Rollins Band and so forth, that are going around indicating that King Crimson had something to do with their particular style of music. So we are in danger of becoming as fashionable as we've ever been."
At the time, however, Fripp was feeling trapped. No matter what he did musically, he still found himself lumped in with other acts for which he was fairly contemptuous. As he wrote in a 1993 letter to Vox magazine, "By 1974, the `movement' as a whole had been corrupted, diverted and gone irretrievably off-course...I believe I was the first person to use the term `dinosaur' to describe prog groups, in interviews during Autumn 1974 explaining why I was then quitting the music industry."
Fortunately, Fripp's retirement was short-lived. He worked with Brian Eno, whom he'd met after Bryan Ferry failed an audition for Crimson, on both 1976's Evening Star (a de facto sequel to the 1973 tape-loop classic, No Pussyfooting) and Discreet Music (an early experiment in ambience). Fripp also added his unique guitar stylings to two of David Bowie's best records (Heroes and Scary Monsters), Talking Heads' tremendous Fear of Music and the first three solo discs (all brilliant) by former Genesis leader Peter Gabriel; he also produced the second of these pieces, as well as a pair of excellent packages by the Roches. Exposure, an extremely worthy 1979 solo project, subsequently led to two more records that listed his name above the title (1980's God Save the Queen and 1981's Let the Power Fall) and 1981's League of Gentlemen, by a dance band of the same name in which Fripp's tricky, precise picking was transformed into a sweeping rhythmic device.
The last recording spurred Fripp to contact Belew (who'd played with Bowie and Talking Heads), Bruford and Levin; this grouping, he thought, could take the League of Gentlemen approach to a higher level. He originally intended to call the quartet Discipline, but during rehearsals, he came up with a better moniker: King Crimson. Belew, Levin, Bruford and Fripp proved to be among the sturdiest collectives to wear the Crimson tag, staying the course for three years and producing three provocative and deeply gratifying efforts: 1981's Discipline (highlighted by the surprisingly accessible "Elephant Talk"), 1982's Beat (kicked off by Belew's best recorded moment, on "Neal and Jack and Me") and 1984's Pair (erratic by comparison, but worthy of attention for the sprawling "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III").
And then, as abruptly as this version of Crimson had coalesced, Fripp shattered it. Even today, Bruford isn't sure what caused Fripp to take this step. "The band has always managed to implode just as it kind of scales the American Top 40," he says. "I have no reason why that should be. No doubt Fripp has his reasons."
One of the obstacles for Fripp was warfare with EG Management, which had handled Crimson since 1969. It took several years of legal wrangling to disconnect himself from the company's tentacles, and even though he's now free, he insisted that Bruford also sever relations with EG. Bruford didn't share Fripp's anger at EG, but he acquiesced anyhow. "I had no problem doing that," he notes. "Managers are a dime a dozen. So now the firm's no longer in the picture." Other complications included Levin's commitments to Peter Gabriel, Belew's solo career and Fripp's own promise to work with ex-Japan leader David Sylvian; the Fripp-Sylvian CD The First Day turned out to be among 1993's finest.
Finally, in 1994, the recording of THRAK was begun, and while the completed disc does recall the early Seventies Crimson at times, it can't be so neatly categorized. The opening instrumental, "VROOOM," employs squealing guitars and a walloping chord progression that's half In the Court of the Crimson King, half theme from Peter Gunn, while "Dinosaur" contains a strong vocal from Belew and lyrics that subtly poke fun at the entire notion of the reborn Crimson itself. Even better is "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream," a merging of Crimson and Trent Reznor-esque darkness that's a nasty joy to behold. The concluding "VROOOM VROOOM" is equally strong, thanks to Fripp's canny recasting of a passage written for (but not used in) Red. Admittedly, THRAK is not a seamless listening experience, but it's so inventive and well-played that you can't help being carried along by it.
Bruford believes that the addition of Mastelotto to the group has everything to do with THRAK's power. "My employment contract kind of has me down as the guy who's going to confuse and cause mayhem--be the terrorist, be the one who overlays meters on top of the basic meter and so on. My function is to snarl things up, be the instigator, provide the improvised feel," he claims. "And I think on THRAK, that works really well, because you can only really do that if you've got someone keeping the whole heart and soul of the band locked in to a steady four-four--and that's Pat Mastelotto. He has a big, wide beat that leaves a lot of little holes for me to poke my neck into. It's liberating."
Indeed, THRAK is a lot airier and more disparate than the Discipline triumvirate of discs, which were intended to sound tightly wound. But Bruford isn't concerned that these variations will confuse younger fans unfamiliar with Crimson's earliest compositions. "The nature of art is to deal with change--change for the musicians who go into the band and leave the band, change in the way the audience sees the band, change in the context of the way the band is operating," he states. "King Crimson is not a static group that's designed to give you unending pleasure in a repetitive style--such as, say, the Rolling Stones, where there's a minimum of change allowed. And that seems entirely natural to me, because one of the strengths of King Crimson is its elusive quality. That's allowed it to make strong comments, if you like, from just on the sidelines of the mainstream.
"Of course, the band wishes to connect with free-thinking adults who are not completely boxed in to what's important or unimportant or commercial or successful. The only thing the band asks is that when you come to a concert, you leave your preconceptions in the lobby."
King Crimson. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 18, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $25 (SOLD OUT), 830-2525 or 444-
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