WHEN In the Court of the Crimson King hit the FM airwaves in late 1969,
the immense creative force and instrumental virtuosity captured within
its grooves left many listeners stunned. Besides the Mellotrons,
jazz-inflected woodwinds and drumming, and Greg Lake’s majestic vocals,
guitarist Robert Fripp’s excoriating power chords and searing sax-like
solo on the opening cut, and his idiosyncratic playing on the remainder
of the album, heralded an aesthetic that generations of
guitarists—“progressive” and otherwise—would seek to emulate.
King Crimson has disbanded and reformed numerous times, and navigating the many personnel changes is a daunting task. But viewed from a guitar perspective, the various lineups fall roughly into four categories:
• 1969-1972: Fripp’s playing on the first four albums is largely ensemble oriented with minimal soloing.
• 1972-1974: Fripp’s guitar is primary, with extensive soloing, in a lineup that included bassist John Wetton, drummer Bill Bruford, and violinist David Cross (with percussionist Jamie Muir on one album).
• 1981-1984: Crimson reemerged with Bruford, bassist/Stick player Tony Levin, and guitarist Adrian Belew. This band was all about guitar.
• 1994-present: The ’80s lineup expanded to a sextet, then contracted to two different quartets. Fripp and Belew kept the 6-string focus throughout, though Fripp’s role as soloist diminished somewhat.
Two recently released box sets, The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One 1969-1974 and The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume Two 1981-2003, provide a good introduction to both studio and live recordings from those periods—and live recordings are essential to understanding King Crimson, as the various lineups typically reworked material and improvised extensively in concert, resulting in many of their most powerful performances.
In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969
Referred to as an “uncanny masterpiece” by Pete Townshend, this was the only recording released by the original lineup of Fripp, bassist Greg Lake, woodwind/keyboard player Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles, and lyricist Peter Sinfield. Get the Original Master Edition created from the recovered master tapes in 2004.
Essentially a power trio with guests, Red is the consummate heavy guitar album. Fripp’s masterful intermingling of hair-raising arpeggios and crushing chords with melodic lines played on guitar, violin, saxophone, oboe, and cornet results in compositions possessed of uncommon gravitas.
The Night Watch, 1997
Recorded live in Amsterdam in 1973, and featuring brilliant performances of an often-cosmic character, this two-disc set captures the Fripp/Wetton/Cross/Bruford band at the height of its power. The magnificent four-CD box set, The Great Deceiver: Live 1973-1974, will take you even farther out.
Larks Tongues in Aspic, 1973
The music on this groundbreaking recording is generally heavier and more guitar-oriented than that on previous Crimson albums. Juxtaposing delicate percussive textures against menacing unison fuzz-guitar-and-bass figures and pounding "Rite of Spring"-like odd-metered assaults, the opening cut presages what follows. Highlights include the angular riffing on “Easy Money,” the lovely chord changes on “Book of Saturday,” and the soaring soloing on “The Talking Drum.”
Starless and Bible Black, 1974
The follow-up to Lark’s Tongues is its equal in many respects, featuring live improvisations along with now-classics. Fripp’s gorgeous tremolo picking is showcased on “The Night Watch,” and his serpentine cross-picking on “Fracture.”
On the dual-guitar lineup’s debut, Fripp’s Apollonian “manual sequencing” and “guitar gamelon” techniques provide the perfect foil to Belew’s trumpeting elephant sounds and other Dionysian explosions, and both push Roland’s new GR-300 guitar synth to its limits. Every song is a gem.
The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, 1968
Fripp’s prodigious tremolo-picking abilities and penchant for fuzz sustain and echoed volume-pedal swells were already in evidence on this obscure disc released one year before he and drummer Michael Giles formed King Crimson.
In the Wake of Poseidon, 1970
This excellent follow-up to the debut largely comprised material the band had already been performing live. Studio shots show Fripp wielding a Bigsby-equipped ES-345 in addition to his three-pickup ’59 Les Paul Custom, which may account for the jazzier tones on some songs.
Fripp plays an array of keyboards in addition to guitar on this underrated album. His electric and acoustic guitar tones are wonderfully crafted and blended with electronic sounds, piano, oboe, English horn, trombone, and cornet. At times, the music sounds vaguely like a European classical ensemble interpreting electric Miles while tripping on acid. Dig the echoed Anglo-funk rhythm work on “Indoor Games,” and the ominous brooding of the reverb-drenched solo near the end of “Lizard.”
Opening with the languid, trance-inducing “Formentera Lady,” the music gradually intensifies and morphs into the epic “Sailor’s Tale”—a fuzz-guitar-and-sax-driven composition featuring harmonized sustained lines and extraordinary chord work fueled by lightening-quick picking processed through multiple slapback echoes. “Ladies of the Road” features a truly orgasmic guitar solo.
Neal and Jack and Me, 2004
This DVD repackaging of the Three of a Perfect Pair—Live in Japan 1984 and The Noise—Live in Frejus 1982 videos vividly captures the ’80s lineup performing selections from Discipline and the subsequent albums Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984). Explore the latter two CDs—on which the band expands upon, and eventually exhausts, the approaches explored on Discipline—if you are intrigued by what you hear.
The only full album released by the six-piece lineup, Thrak is a marvel of electronic processing and studio mixing. In turns mysterious and menacing, the often highly engaging music moves like an immense dinosaur—for better or worse.
The Power to Believe, 2003
Power draws upon Crimson’s extensive musical legacy, while skillfully interjecting bits of electronica and other contemporary elements. The myriad synth and electronically processed sounds are often breathtaking.
While the music on this disc is not necessarily “tired,” the bootleg-quality recording makes for challenging listening. Those wishing to hear what early ’72 Crimson sounded like live will fare better with Ladies of the Road, which also features a bonus disc containing 11 different versions of “21st Century Schizoid Man”!
Culled from various live performances in 1996 by the sextet lineup, this disc contains eight improvisations based on the song “Thrak.” While there are some nice moments, much of the music is meandering and/or absurdly heavy-handed, and the guitar-triggered piano samples are simply insufferable.
The ConstruKction of Light, 2000
Some nice playing by Fripp and Belew notwithstanding, the uneven compositions and comparatively weak Mastelotto/Gunn rhythm section conspire to make this one of Crimson’s least well-constructed and illuminating efforts.