Early prog rockers King Crimson released an unexpected come back album in 1981. The band had broken up years ago and kingpin Robert Fripp had pursued other ventures rather than keep the band going. It’s not even clear that Fripp wanted this to be a KING CRIMSON record, though adopting that name maybe did give the press more of a story to work with.
Fripp had been busy after the band ground to a halt in the mid 70s, working with Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, David Bowie and several other artists. This work would have had him crossing paths with bass/stick player Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew.
Belew had worked with Talking Heads, Bowie and Frank Zappa. Levin had been a key member of Peter Gabriel’s band as well as a in demand session player. Original Crimson drummer Bill Bruford had stayed active too, working with players like Allan Holdsworth who represented a second wave of cerebral, high-tech progressive rock music.
Fripp had some ideas that needed a band to execute them. He extended invitations to Bruford and then Belew. He hadn’t realised that Levin was available, but when that was clarified the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.
I think it’s the fact that they’d all been so busy that makes this album so successful. Instead of picking up more or less where King Crimson had stopped, they bought all this experience and their enthusiasm for contemporary styles with them. So the album is far from what King Crimson had done previously and thoroughly contemporary with the most obvious reference being Talking Heads – though that band had nowhere near the musical firepower that Fripp’s new outfit could unleash.
I’m not big on prog rock, often finding it tedious and pretentious (or tediously pretentious) but here King Crimson – as they eventually agreed to call themslves – manage to cover all the prog rock bases, remain nerdily clever AND conjure up engaging, attention getting performances. And nothing gets diluted – unlike their contemporaries Asia who couldn’t find a way to combine craft and appeal and simply dumbed everything down to bland, boring stadium rock.
Belew rather than Fripp may be the key here. A lot of critics liken him vocally to David Byrne. I think that means he sings like a white American without blues/soul/gospel affections. He doesn’t have Byrne’s gasping delivery, and his range and control are wider.
Belew’s guitar style with it’s array of rather non-guitar sounds, use of feedback and whammy bar tricks is some way removed from Fripp’s trademark speed and accuracy, but it turns out to be brilliantly complementary (since Fripp recruited Belew we can give him credit for foreseeing this outcome), and his vocals give the ear a peg to hang on.
And hooks… Boy do they have them! Even when they’re indulging in polyrhythms (which is much of the time) and Belew’s delivering his frequently smart ass lyrics they consistently grab attention with intriguing licks and riffs and a great command of musical tension.
Belew is a nerd’s delight with the alphabetical lyric on the opening “Elephant Talk”and the anagrammatic nonsene of “Thela Hun Ginjeet”, but he manages to convince with would could easily become gimmicky smart ass word games. He also delivers the gorgeous ballad “Matte Kudasai”- something that Byrne wouldn’t be up to.
Their considerable skills allow them to play with deadly precision on the fast “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (in case you’re wondering, it’s an anagram for “Heat In The Jungle” ) and “Frame by Frame” or the stop start “Indiscipline”. But they are also completely successful on the slower, simpler (for them) “Matte Kudasai” and the dreamy instrumental “The Sheltering Sky” (which has Fripp deploying his “Frippertronics” system and sounnding a lot like John Martyn). Several times they achieve the effect that Fripp apparently was looking for – a blending of the rhythmic and harmonic, something like an Indonesian gamelan band, only with guitars rather than with primitive xylophones.
This album is one of the most successful examples of “prog rock”. Their technical skills are on full display; they are often intellectual; they eat odd time signatures for breakfast and they do all of this without falling into the traps that lie in wait for all prog rockers: being overblown and too smart for their own good. It’s an impressive and also thoroughly satisfying listening experience.