“Unless you’ve seen this King Crimson live, you don’t quite have the right to hold an opinion about it. And secondly, unless you’ve seen this band live three times, your opinion is not likely to be substantial.” -Robert Fripp
Well, there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: my opinion on this latest incarnation of King Crimson ain’t worth a rat’s ass, but guess what, you’re going to get it anyway. You know, as haughty as that quote sounds, truth is he’s right; when it comes to King Crimson, every night is often very different, which is why there’s 25-some CDs of live material from the ’73-’74 lineup, enough to almost give one the impression that they played an infinite number of shows. But ’15-’16 Crimson is an entirely different beast – they use set lists, they play the hits, they don’t really improvise outside of premeditated sections. In other words they do what every other band of the 60’s and 70’s lucky enough to still be around is doing, though in Crimson’s case, they’ve earned it. Their live shows have always been about exploration and not looking back, to the dismay of many a casual fan, though it does earn them the distinction of being one of those bands you really do have to see live in order to really “get it”.
As for Modern Crimson…well, first of all, keep in mind that nobody expected this to happen. We are now in a portion of music history where rock n’ roll legends are starting to either die or retire for good, and given that King Crimson begins and ends with the now 70-year old Robert Fripp, the idea of Yet Another Radically Different King Crimson Lineup seemed about as farfetched as a reunion of the 5-piece Genesis (stay tuned!!). Not to mention the prospect of the band leaning mostly on material that hasn’t been played live in four decades. But hey, now or never right? The band’s 2015 tour was titled The Elements of King Crimson, which I think describes what this incarnation is all about – nearly every element of Crimson past is represented here. You’ve got sax, flutes, tuned percussion, mellotron (sampled, but whatever), dual guitars, and a singer who sounds like an amalgam of all the vocalists of Crimson’s past, for better or worse. As usual, there’s something new – a three-drummer front line which certainly seems to have attracted a lot of attention. For lack of a less dorky analogy, this is King Crimson in its “final form”; everything they’ve done in the past, and then some. They’ve even brought back the humor and whimsy that the band ditched long ago – why yes, that IS “Baby Elephant Walk” you hear during “Larks 1”. No longer are King Crimson all about being heavy and technical, though there’s obviously plenty of that too. As for the lineup: you’ve got Robert Fripp, returning members from the 70’s (Mel Collins), 80’s (Tony Levin), and 90’s (Pat Mastelotto), a member of the 21st Century Schizoid Band (Jakko Jakszyk), one from Porcupine Tree (Gavin Harrison), then one guy I’ve never heard of (Bill Rieflin).
In case you’re wondering whether or not that old hands can still pull this off (and let’s face it, they’re all old hands), rest assured that this is no Yes-style “classics at three-quarters speed” type show. There’s no chance Fripp would resurrect the band if it was; he’s made some questionable decisions throughout the band’s tenure, but they’ve always been able to play. But even still, the fact that Fripp, Collins, and Levin manage to harness this much fire despite their advancing age (all in their late-60’s when this was recorded) is downright incredible – Mel is just as wild and explosive as he was in 1971, Tony is still a bass God, and Robert Fripp is still Robert Fripp. They completely rock “Pictures of a City” – perhaps the best rendition of that tune I’ve ever heard. The middle section of “Easy Money” is incredible. Even the new tunes (“Radical Action/Meltdown”) are particularly crunchy.
As for the three drummers, they all play different roles: Harrison is the loud powerhouse (as he is on everything else I’ve heard him on), Mastellotto handles the percussion and electronic drums, while Rieflin fills in the blanks and alternates on the mellotron. The drum charts have been completely re-done, with most of the arrangements resembling the sort of interlocking guitar bits the band used to do; though from time to time they just bash it out, as you were probably hoping. The dual guitar bits are still part of the band’s repertoire, with Jakko taking the second guitar. Given how many “wild card” elements the band has had in its past, they really do need all seven members to be complete; while the tunes are rearranged, in some cases they really aren’t that much different, to the point where they even use some samples from the original records.
While that does make it all sound like a “King Crimson recital” at times, keep in mind that “playing the old stuff” actually is something totally new for this band – even the famed ’73-’74 lineup rarely reached back, outside of the occasional “Schizoid Man”. A lot of this material hasn’t been performed in over four decades, which means anyone under 60 never got a chance to hear any of it live. In addition to all the epics you’d hope for (“Starless”, “Epitaph”, “In the Court of the Crimson King”) there’s some fanbait in there, including two tracks from Islands and “One More Red Nightmare”, never played before this tour. The band throws in a few tracks from their more recent incarnations (“VROOOM”, “The ConstruKction of Light”, “Level Five”), plus about half an hour worth of new material, including three actual songs (“Meltdown”, “The Light of Day”, “Suitable Grounds for the Blues”). Notice the absence of any 80’s material – combined with the fact that they only play the instrumental half of “ConstruKction”, it almost seems as if they’ve left Adrian Belew out of the band’s history. Probably unintentional, but it makes sense given that Crimson was essentially Belew’s band from 1981 until now; effectively the singer/songwriter frontman that Crimson otherwise avoided.
This version of King Crimson does have a wider breadth than any incarnation in the band’s past, but they thankfully avoid the jukebox route. Old tunes get the interlocking rhythms and overly technical arrangements that were a staple of later Crimson, while newer tunes get the saxes, the flutes, and the ‘Tron, all of which went missing after 1974. Levin’s bass still pops and has some funk to it, Harrison bashes through everything, and Jakko sings in his own timbre rather than attempting to imitate the singers of Crimson past. Having three drummers on board allows them to add all sorts of new rhythmic elements that didn’t exist on the studio recordings, the sort which take several listens to properly sort out. It’s enough to make it feel like more than just a tribute to the band’s past; there’s no feeling of “there’s one from the 70’s, there’s one from the 90’s, there’s a classic, and here’s the new song so I can finally take a bathroom break” – I often found myself forgetting which incarnation the songs were originally from, always a good sign for a “get the early records first” sort of band.
Anyway, if any of that sounds intriguing to you, then you probably ought to pick up Radical Action right away, since its as good a live document as you could possibly hope for. Much credit must be given to producer David Singleton for that, who not only had to listen to every show of the band’s 2015 tour, but also clean and mix every single track in order to produce the “virtual studio album” represented here – three discs, sorted into different themes (“Mainly Metal”, “Easy Money Shots”, and “Crimson Classics”), with nearly all the audience noise edited out; if not for one little “whoop!” during “Schizoid Man”, you’d think this was all done in the studio. The box set also comes with a Blu-Ray for those who absolutely must see the band live, and I recommend you do, if only to see the ridiculous drum set-up. Despite being the third live album out of this incarnation, there is the aura of finality about it – it is every bit as definitive to the 2015 lineup as Absent Lovers was to the 1984 one, featuring a rendition of every single song they played on the tour. All this begs the question of where the band is to go next – no studio album is on the horizon, and the band has booked shows spanning out to mid-2017, supposedly adding material from Lizard (“Cirkus”) and Discipline (“Indiscipline”) on the way. They may well stay a live-only band; certainly Fripp seems to enjoy the road much more than the studio. But it’s tough to imagine them being capable of dropping a live document better than this one – my apologies if you got the Orpheum or Toronto sets, but if you’re a fan of King Crimson, this is the one you’ve got to have.