- King Crimson: Still riding the prog-rock highway.
King Crimson fans have always looked for deep meaning from the monster prog-rock band. From 1969's In the Court of the Crimson King to this year's The ConstruKction of Light, Crimson albums are steeped in a grandiose art/rock/epic mystique. Layers of technocratic proficiency and ambition encase the work, inviting devout listeners to peel them away to glean some significance. The ConstruKction of Light, the group's 14th studio album and its first in five years, surely qualifies, right?
"I don't know if it means anything," laughs singer-guitarist Adrian Belew, who's celebrating his 19th year in the band. "For me, overall, it means a renewal of King Crimson, in the sense that we've started a new lineup, a new band, and a new page. I really enjoyed the making of the record, which is probably reflected. Usually, making a King Crimson record is like going through immigration or going to the dentist for a root canal. But this one was almost fun."
No doubt. Guitarist Robert Fripp, the only original member of the band (which also now includes bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto, both of whom joined for 1995's Thrak), has had some sort of driving concept for Crimson since the start. He steers the band through its various guises -- including a "fractalisation" of the band, which split it into four separate projects a few years ago.
"It was Robert's decision that we had to take a serious look at whether the six-piece band could actually operate," says Belew of the new lean quartet. "We could hardly get everyone together in one place at one time on one continent to rehearse and write. It was a little expensive as well. And it just turned out that Robert was going in different musical directions than Bill [Bruford], and Tony [Levin] was planning to go on tour with Peter Gabriel. Which left the four of us, and the question was: Were we committed or not? And we were. So we took it from there. And it's good that the band has redirected itself. Pat and Trey are really filling the role of the new rhythm section so well, and it makes the band a little more modern sounding. And I feel better in a quartet. Everyone contributes more and has more responsibility. It's a little easier to determine roles."
For The ConstruKction of Light, King Crimson redirected itself toward a modern albeit occasionally technically stifling soundscape that hasn't been heard since 1981's Discipline. Belew partially credits the regeneration to the band's self-purpose.
"We all decided that there were some pretty interesting things that we haven't done yet, and let's go for them," he explains. "Personally, I have changed all my gear around, so I can find new sounds, new attitudes, and new areas to work in. The only one who doesn't change much is Robert. But that's OK, because he's kind of a centerpiece."
And with that core position comes a despotic urge to do whatever he chooses with the band -- like breaking it up into the various "ProjeKcts" that tied up its members for the past three years. Restructured into four smaller groups designed to function as "research and development units on behalf of the main band," Crimson's split was a Fripp indulgence that didn't always sit well with the other members.
"Robert's idea for doing projects was a way to generate different building blocks," Belew says. "That simply went on far too long for my tastes. I enjoyed my role, because I was a drummer in ProjeKct Two, so that was a radical change for me. There was no songwriting, singing, guitar playing, et cetera involved. It was new for me, and I liked that band, actually. We had fun. It was a chance for Robert and Trey to go wild and let me go wild and try to find some interesting rhythms to fit behind them.
"Overall, though, I'm not a fan of all the projects," he admits. "It gets old. I like the music that we do that's a combination of improvised and written pieces. If you look at the band on stage now, it's about 80 percent constructed pieces of material that sound the same from night to night. I prefer that ratio."
And it's that improvisational anticipation that has kept the band a cult favorite for 30 years. Belew, too, as an insider to the machinations of the group, is a fan of these musical flights of fancy, particularly in the studio.
"We start with improvising, and we may have a few set pieces that we're writing," he explains. "At some point, there may be something in there that can be turned into a song. That happens frequently. So, while we were doing the proper record, we also had an improvised record going on at the same time. We would work on the set pieces and always set aside time to improvise and see what came out of that. It was three months of pretty intense work, but very enjoyable."
Enjoyable? Hardly a word to describe the often-tumultuous relationships Fripp has had with his co-workers. But Belew, who joined Crimson in 1981 and is Fripp's longest-lasting partner, says things are cordial between the two of them.
"Robert and I have a great partnership, as far as our personalities go," he says. "I think we both realize each other's importance and contributions, and we give each other the proper leeway. Every now and then, there will be a disagreement on something, but we are way past the stage of being uncivilized about anything. I think Robert has the overall vision of the band, and I'm supposed to contribute some of the innovation and maybe inject a little excitement into the proceedings, because some of the musical pieces that we work out are, at first, very stiff. It's up to the players in the band to take them somewhere."
And Belew believes the members of the current band are more in tune with each other.
"I think this lineup has more of a particular wavelength together," he says. "I can kind of sense where everyone's taking things. That makes the improv a lot more interesting, because it's not just noisemaking. You're really trying to get somewhere. It seems to me that there is a tradition to what we do musically. There's a common thread that runs through all the records. And then there's always this need to challenge things and move forward and take the band into directions it has never gone."