To classify King Crimson as a progressive-rock band would be like enclosing them in a disproportionate cage. Insufficient, inadequate and undermining. It would be fairer to describe the ever-changing ensemble lead by Robert Fripp as a magnificent source of inspiration for many audiophiles over the years, ever since debut album, clear-cut symphonic work in five acts In the Court of the Crimson King was released on October 10, 1969. Considered one of the most influential records of all time and a huge turning point for musicians, a key point of ItCotCK’s success might possibly be the use of European music as a base influence.
“At that time, nearly all the British bands were using the blues or soul music – American music – as their influence,” explained Greg Lake, lead vocalist for the LP. “Since that well had been visited so many times, we decided we would try to use European music as our base influence, in order to be different. Robert [Fripp] and I had all been schooled in European music. We understood it. We played Django Reinhardt, and we did Paganini violin exercises and so forth. […] It was very easy for me to adapt to using European music as the basis for new creations” [Source: Ultimate Classic Rock].
Originally from London, King Crimson has released 13 studio albums (1969-2003) and 15 live albums (1972-2018), quite an incessant career thanks to Robert Fripp, the sole permanent member of the band since the very beginning. One of the most impressive facts about their long-term career is the wide variety of genres covered in the studio albums, such as prog-rock, jazz fusion, experimental, hard rock and new wave, to get a rough idea of the fascinating canvas of the group.
As of today, King Crimson is formed of eight musicians, the “Double Quartet Formation”. Upstage, from right to left: Robert Fripp (guitar, Mellotron, keyboards and soundscapes), Jakko Jakszyk (lead vocals, guitar), Bill Rieflin (Mellotron, keyboards and Fairy Dusting), Tony Levin (Yellow Bass, Chapman Stick, electric double bass, backing vocals) & Mel Collins (saxophone, flute). Downstage, from right to left, the drum (acoustic and electronic) trio: Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey & Pat Mastelotto.
It is quite relevant to note that King Crimson does not allow any photos to be taken or filming to be done throughout the show. Huge signs are displayed on stage, informing all attendees that they might be asked to leave if seen taking pictures. In fact, bands like A Perfect Circle are already adopting this course of action [Source: DGM Live].
The show consisted of two sets with a 20-minute interval in-between: the first set from 7.30pm to 8.35pm and the second from 8.55pm to 10.40pm.
It was twenty past seven, echoing bells were ringing at the [London] Palladium. The theatre reverberated with the enigmatic and somewhat eerie sound which impelled the Middle Ages. At 7.30pm sharp the Double Quartet Formation appeared in gallant suits. The three drumsons introduced the band with electronic percussion, which quickly derived in ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. One’ (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973). Fripp pounded his guitar, but no sound appeared to be coming from it. As a matter of fact, the sound was there; but it was slowly emerging from silence to an acid and strident vibration enough to wake the dead. A very suggestive rhythmic, multiple-texture composition where rock meets classical. Groovy “Suitable Grounds for the Blues” made a perfect addition to the show’s debut, a track written by Jakszyk and Fripp and included in the live album Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (2016). Releasing the tension from the two opening tracks, ‘Cadence and Cascade’ (In the Wake of Poseidon, 1970), an absolute lyrical gem whose highlight was definitely Collins’ flute solo. A beautiful song which was made available as a free download and tribute to Greg Lake, who died on December 7th, 2016. Download the track here (although there is no Collins’ solo in this recording).
Back to the masterfully coordinated chaos, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. Two’ (Larks Tongues in Aspic, 1973), Jakszyk’s guitar followed the trail of Levin’s yellow bass. In the meantime, keyboards and Fripp’s guitar produced musical signals of distress. On a very fascinating occasion during LTiA pt. Two, Jakszyk seemed to be proposing a question with his custom-built PRS P24 guitar with ItCotCK’s album artwork on it (the face of the 21st Century Schizoid Man). Levin’s bass plus the three drummers answered rhythmically. Then Collins’ sax broke in, seemingly disagreeing with the electric guitar, bass and percussion discussion. These intense feelings were relieved when symphonic and melancholic ‘Epitaph’ (In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969) presented some soothing mellotron against the confusion.
‘Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind/Meltdown/Radical Action II’ (Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind, 2016) came next, more than ten minutes of the twenty-six of new (2016) material included at the live album. Thought-provoking fact: current King Crimson requires 42 tracks for the three drummers alone. The 2015 tour, from which Radical Action is picked over, ran for a total of 38 shows. Therefore, to produce a recording like Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold of Monkey Mind), somebody had to listen to 1,596 individual drum tracks… just the drums! [Source: All About Jazz]. ‘Level Five’ (The Power to Believe, 2003) succeeded, a rare and intense heavy-guitar track blended with electronic drums which seem a mix between Tool and Nine Inch Nails. To finish with the first set, relieving ‘Islands’ (Islands, 1971) made the Palladium settle back to a simple, enthralling trio by the keyboards, Jakszyk’s vocals and flute. The track evoked smooth sailing through the Mediterranean, possibly amongst the Balearic Islands (a reference to ‘Formentera Lady’, the first song on the Islands record).
It was interval time. The first set had provided some food for thought which drew to the following conclusion: what King Crimson does best is illustrate mundane consciousness (confusion, madness, amity, contemplation) with rhythmically proficient and texture-assorted harmonious ‘Discipline’, which was precisely the track that opened the second set alongside with ‘Indiscipline’, both tracks from the Discipline (1981) record. This was, very possibly, the best moment in the whole performance: when Harrison, Stacey and Mastelotto immersed in a complex polymeter (two different rhythmic values performed in the same tempo, overlapping multiple times). The public shouted several times to proclaim how they were taking pleasure in the percussion tour de force. They kept repeating themselves when under pleasure.
‘Cirkus’ (Lizard, 1970) began softly with a harp effect on the keyboards, gradually building in intensity with loud mellotrons and cymbal rolls. From the same album, ‘Lizard: Bolero, Dawn Song, Last Skirmish and Prince Rupert’s Lament’ reminded one of Hans Zimmer’s intensity building up on his modern soundtracks (see ‘Time’ by Zimmer). Fripp’s guitar started out on its own with a clear, distinguished tone. By the end of the track, it had changed completely to a pungent echo. There was a skirmish: the three drummers and Levin versus Fripp and the keyboards. Such splendid opposing forces!
Perfect twins ‘Moonchild’ and ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ (In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969) followed. ‘Moonchild’ featured an extraordinary electric double bass solo. Levin leaned against the instrument in a moving way, it almost seemed he was whispering in its ear. The bass’ accurate fretless notes reflected in the theatre. ‘Easy Money’ (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973), more like ‘easily hypnotized’, seemed to put musicians in a trance. Jakszyk gave the effect of having his soul stripped by his absolute performance of the famous track. In fact, when it finished someone amongst the public shouted: ‘Majestic!’. Then, ‘Neurotica’, the only song from Beat (1982) created an eclectic New Wave atmosphere, some groovy bass lines and jazz-like drumming.
Finally, two of the most well-known songs were going to conclude the performance: ‘Starless’ (Red, 1974), that always teaches you that King Crimson is never as lovely and sweet as it seems at first… it is just an image which will always be wrecked with some chaotic bass line, or percussion, or mellotron creepiness (in the best sense); and ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ (In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969), the debut track of the band’s career. For such an awe-inspiring finale, it was quite disheartening to see someone take a couple pictures with flash just when the stage’s lighting was going from bright white to dark crimson. In fact, Fripp pointed at the transgressor for several moments. What is the point of breaking the rules of the band you supposedly admire? Could have disrupted the whole performance distracting them with the flash.
To conclude it is entirely suited to quote Meme de la Prog: “I finally saw King Crimson live and I don’t need to listen to music anymore”. The experience goes beyond the music of any kind.