Some bands make a career out of writing and recording the same album over and over. Close your eyes and there’s little difference between the albums made by classic rockers Boston in the seventies and the ones they put out decades later. For all their appeal, there’s not a world of difference between Oasis’ 1994 debut “Definitely Maybe” and their 2008 release “Dig Out Your Soul.” That’s a feature, not a bug. There’s a sizable segment of the listening public that—consciously or not subscribes to the adage, “That was good; do it again.”
Other artists chart a different course. Though they may have stylistic signatures that unite their work—a distinctive and recognizable lead vocalist, for example—they follow their muse wherever it leads, with comparatively little thought or attention given to commercial considerations. Consciously or not, they adopt an attitude of, “We’ve done that. Now let’s do something completely different.”
Among the most notable musical acts in the latter category is King Crimson. Founded in the very late sixties by guitarist Robert Fripp, the original King Crimson was at the forefront of progressive rock. Combining a classical music sensibility with bone-crushing riffs and dramatic soundscapes, tracks like “21st Century Schizoid Man” signaled that the London-based group wasn’t interested in following trends.
And it didn’t. But the first-album lineup of the band—featuring future Emerson Lake & Palmer bassist-singer Greg Lake as well as future Foreigner multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald—fell apart within months. Fripp soldiered on, making “In the Wake of Poseidon” with temporary members. For perhaps the only time in its career, King Crimson made an album that sounded like its predecessor.
Yet for its five subsequent seventies-era releases, King Crimson navigated wild, jarring shifts in both its lineup and musical style. The music took a jazzier turn on “Lizard” (1970) and 1971’s “Islands.” Those two albums featured Mel Collins on saxophones, flute and bass flute. He’d be gone by the following release, but Collins would return to the King Crimson lineup in 2013, after a forty-year break. “I’m a much better player now,” he says with a warm chuckle.
By the time of the mighty “Red” in 1974, the group was a trio: Fripp, bassist John Wetton (later of Asia) and drummer Bill Bruford. The latter had quit Yes in 1972 because that progressive rock band didn’t present enough of a challenge; he’d find that challenge in great quantity with the demanding, knotty proto-progressive metal of tracks like “Fallen Angel” and “Starless.”
The boundary-pushing “Red” looked to be King Crimson’s breakthrough album, one that reached a wide mainstream audience while remaining steadfastly uncompromising in its musical values. But the ever-idiosyncratic Fripp had other ideas: he announced the group’s dissolution two weeks before the record’s release. It looked as if the era of King Crimson was over.
It was, and it wasn’t. After spending time as an in-demand journeyman guitarist collaborating with some of the more innovative artists of the era (David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno), by 1981 Robert Fripp was ready to return to King Crimson. But the reactivated band was even more different than it had been before: while Bruford returned, the other two members—guitarist Adrian Belew and Chapman stick wizard Tony Levin—were Americans. And the eighties King Crimson made progressive, polyrhythmic music that (in part) shared some of the musical concepts with which Talking Heads had toyed, taking them in radically different directions. That lineup would go on to do something no previous configuration of King Crimson had done: it made three albums.
Then King Crimson went away, again. This time it stayed away for nearly a decade. And when King Crimson returned in 1994, it didn’t resemble previous incarnations: the band was a double trio featuring two guitarists, two drummers and two stick players. The music was even less commercially inclined than ever before, combining metal, prog, modern classical and industrial in a singular manner that only vaguely resembled the few other artists exploring similar territory (Tool, Nine Inch Nails).
With the by-now-expected lineup and configuration changes, hiatuses and stylistic shifts, King Crimson has more or less persisted since then. The group released its most recent studio record, “The Power to Believe,” in 2003. The band members have remained busy collectively and together, though for the last several years King Crimson has functioned primarily as a live entity. Asked if a studio album is likely to figure in King Crimson’s future, drummer Pat Mastelotto is forthright. “Probably ‘no’ is the quick answer,” he says. “I don’t see us going into a studio.” He does make the point that the band “carr[ies] a studio with us at every show; everything’s being recorded.” But for now, live music is King Crimson’s raison d’être.
The current lineup is known colloquially as “the seven-headed beast,” and slightly more formally as King Crimson IX. With the exception of the departure of drummer Bill Rieflin in 2019 (he passed away in 2020), the group’s lineup has remained essentially the same for more than eight years (an eternity in Crim-land). Joining founder Fripp are guitarist-vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, longtime member Tony Levin (bass, Chapman stick) and sax and flute man Mel Collins, who was a member way back in 1970-72.
And this King Crimson has not one, not two, but three drummers: Mastelotto (involved with all of the group’s activities since 1994), former Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey (the latter also plays keyboards). In concert, the three drummers are set up out front at stage level, with the rest of the band behind them on risers. As with most everything involving King Crimson, things are done differently, and not simply for difference’s sake.
That do-it-differently approach applies to the music, as well. Even though there has been little in the way of new compositions from King Crimson over the last two decades, the live arrangements of songs from its deep back catalog are often strikingly different than the recorded versions. Taking full advantage of the group’s stunningly high level of musicianship—and those three powerhouse drummers—the seven-headed beast King Crimson executes its music with what might be called brutal finesse.
Song like “Indiscipline” have undergone nearly total reinvention: where in the eighties, Belew delivered the song’s odd, inscrutable lyrics in spoken-word fashion, these days Jakszyk sings them, applying a heretofore undiscovered melodic quality to the song. Yet the whiplash percussion dialogue (trialogue?) among Mastelotto, Stacey and Harrison keeps the composition well out of pop territory, closer instead to some unholy mix of gamelan, metal and jazz. Mastelotto mentions the tune as one in the Crimson set where he has a fair deal of freedom, something not to be taken for granted when a band has three drummers. “I sort of improvise and throw the drumming around differently every night,” he says. There’s structure, “but the way the notes fall is different every night.”
The band’s 2017 tour featured three-hour shows, and those dates often explored more abstract musical frontiers. Owing in part to the demands of mounting a tour in the era of COVID-19, King Crimson’s current tour features a shorter set. As much as Mastelotto enjoys digging into the more intricate works, he notes that recent sets built around some of the band’s best-loved material (there are no “hits” in King Crimson’s world)—songs like “Epitaph,” “In the Court of the Crimson King,” “Starless,” “Red” and “One More Red Nightmare”—make for a more powerful show. “Wow,” Mastelotto enthuses after citing that list of songs. “That’s a power punch, man!”
King Crimson squeezed rehearsals in right before the current tour got under way in late July. Shipping snafus meant that the gear shipped over from England was late in arriving, so the rehearsal period was shortened. “It’s not a band of musicians that are happy to ‘just turn up’ to the show,” says Collins. He marvels at the memory of seeing UK punk heroes The Damned. “They never used to rehearse!” he says with a laugh. “We can’t do that, because of the complexity of the music.”
Even without the changes wrought on tours during a pandemic, for King Crimson, being on the road is different now than it was in the old days. The band travels by bus—three buses, actually—and Mastelotto says that time spent together on the road has increased camaraderie among the band members. And that manifests in the music. “As things grow and you go through growing pains, bands just get tighter,” he says. “The music gets tighter as the personalities gain more trust in their interactions.”
Mastelotto thinks that the malleability of King Crimson’s material—its ability to withstand being reinterpreted and reinvented—is a testimony to its greatness. “I think that Robert [Fripp] in particular will be recognized as one of the great composers of the last century,” he says. “Stuff like ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ and ‘Fracture,’ those are serious compositions.”
He emphasizes that what audiences hear onstage, though, is the product of the creative commingling of all seven musicians. “The [whole] band contributes to it,” he says. “Robert doesn’t come in telling individuals directly what to play, with the exception of sharing his guitar parts between him and Jakko.”
Mel Collins notes that back in the early seventies when King Crimson was a quartet, they were playing challenging material. “We used to play ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ and as a four-piece, we played it really well,” he says. “It’s not so easy with the seven-piece.” Yet somehow, if the seven-headed beast doesn’t make performance of the complex material look easy, it definitely conveys the impression that this lot knows what it’s doing.
There’s an adage among musicians about the importance of the spaces between the notes. And that’s one that the members of King Crimson have taken to heart. Sometimes the music is so dense that the best thing for one or another of the players to do is… nothing. And that’s a daunting prospect, especially if you’re a drummer whose kit is set out near the front edge of the stage, well-illuminated and in full view of the audience.
“I love to hear Jeremy and Gavin playing solo,” Mastelotto says. But when he lays out of a musical passage, he’s conscious of not wanting to be a distraction. “In the old days, the lights might go dark, and you could stand up and exit, or dry your face off with a towel,” he says. “But we can’t do that now.” King Crimson made the collective decision that all members would remain onstage throughout the performance; no schmaltzy spotlit solo turns for this aggregation. “We decided to approach it like when you see an orchestra or symphony: the bassoon player doesn’t leave, even if he’s waiting five-hundred bars for his moment.”
Speaking of moments, Mastelotto says that now is the time to attend a King Crimson concert. “I don’t know how much more touring we’re going to do,” he says. “Without getting too deep into it, I think that now is the time to catch the band.” Collins chooses his words carefully on the subject. “This is not a farewell tour,” he says. “But… we’ll see.”
Nothing is guaranteed, especially these days. And Fripp—who has retired a few times already—is seventy-five. Levin is the same age; Collins is about a year younger. Even the group’s youngest members Stacey and Harrison are nearing sixty. And all seven are busy with musical projects outside of King Crimson. But as longtime followers of the band know, just because the group stops, that doesn’t mean it won’t start again someday. Yet if one thing can be assured, if it does go away and reappear, King Crimson X will almost certainly be different than what came before. That’s central to its… well, charm isn’t a word often applied to this band, so let’s say character.
Now as ever, everything about King Crimson’s music—its composition, its arrangement, its execution onstage, its history, its prospect of future activity—is a challenge. “It’s the age-old thing,” Mastelotto laughs as he twists a metaphor. “We’re trying to get ten pounds of music into a five-pound bag.”
August 29, 7:30pm at Ravinia Pavilion in Highland Park; $73-$112.
With a background in marketing and advertising, Bill Kopp got his professional start writing for Trouser Press. His more than 2,500 interviews, essays, and reviews reflect Bill’s keen interest in American musical forms, most notably rock, jazz and soul. His work features a special emphasis on reissues and vinyl. Bill’s work also appears in many other outlets both online and in print. He also researches and authors liner notes for album reissues, and co-produced a reissue of jazz legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s final album. His first book, “Reinventing Pink Floyd,” is due from Rowman & Littlefield in February 2018.