Brighton Dome, Sat 5th Sept
If King Crimson are can sometimes be seen as the archetypal prog band... well, perhaps they were. Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and the rest had definite roots in blues, psychedelia and pop. (Prog fans tend to be most blind-slighted about that pop business.) Whereas with these boys its like they just showed up one day sounding like they did. So it might not be surprising that they were one of the few bands labouring under that often-desultory label to do what was promised on the lid.
Much of prog's aspiration was really delusion, it served up bog-standard rock music merely gift-wrapped in pseudo-classical ostentateon. Whereas Crimson, at their best, actually progressed things. I racked my mind for a musical analogy for guitarist and main man Robert Fripp, but simply couldn't come up with one. The nearest I could muster was “the English Frank Zappa”. But it only really works because the two could cover so much musical territory while still sounding like themselves. Part of which meant never sounding like one another. Perhaps he's most like Top Cat. You know, the one, the only, truly original.
No-one had much expected this reappearance, as Fripp had announced his retirement from a music industry he never cared for. It seems to have followed him winning a righetous yet protracted battle for creators' rights, which had left him in his own words “too happy. Time for a pointed stick.” When it was announced this would be a return to the sound of the first run of the band (there's been eight), people then wondered which era (there were three).
And while I confess to not being as familiar with their output as I'd like, I side with those who favour the final era. By the last album, 'Red', time on the road and general attrition had reduced them down to a trio. It was the hard centre which remained, the heaviest, most condensed, most riff-based incarnation. And what makes it is what's in the riffs themselves, sounding like something beyond standard rock fare. There are those who liken hard rock to the sturm und drang of classical music. King Crimson are one of the very few bands who can actually wear that comparison.
There's two things about the live line-up that immediately strike you. First, in his characteristically contrarian insistence he's not going to confirm to rockism, Fripp has taken to looking as much like a chartered accountant as he can. And as the band assemble on stage they're all bedecked in his customary uniform of shirt and tie. It's unusual attire for a drummer, yet the only concession to them is they're allowed black shirts instead of white.
Yes, “them”. There's not only three drummers, making up nearly half of the seven-piece group, but they line up at the front of the stage. It's bassist Tony Levin who takes pole position behind them, pushing Fripp himself to the edge. (From where I sat his head occassionally popped up atop a cymbal.) He has spoken with some glee over this swapping of conventional“backline” and “frontline”.
This must surely be the first time they’ve ever played precisely this setlist, even if you were to disregard the new tracks. By the time they were in their third phase they’d burnt their bridges to anything from their first. (The link claims they'd stopped playing 'Epitaph' before the end of the Sixties.)
But, happily for me, its mostly that later sound they take up tonight. There is, before you ask, the inevitable drum solo. But the lined-up solos so often associated with prog yield to ensemble playing. The drummers dominate, often both starting and finishing numbers like a unit in themselves. They can synchronise like reiterating the beats in triplicate, but spend most time shuffling elegantly around one another. Guitar lines often arrive not just quitely but distantly, like the approach of stealth bombers.
Its a sound which is perhaps reflected in the poster image. The figure has Fripp's favoured attire of button-down shirt and tie but is also, and perhaps more noticeably, single in his vision. While the band members are listed like chemicals in a compound. (An earlier symbol of the band had been knotwork.) It's all about how things come together.
There does sometimes seem a tension between their wanting to take this new line-up and run with it, and the need to serve up the classic tracks the audience will recognise. (You can tell when they go back to an earlier point because one of the drummers will have to shift onto keyboards.) This makes it almost impossible to ascertain whether this is a celebrity “lap of honour” tour or the start of a bold new era – the glass was almost exactly half-full and half-empty. And there are times when sheer cleverness does get in the way. Like coffee nerves, some tracks run through a whole slew of ideas without ever settling on any of them.
But then if I didn't like everything, I'm yet to hear a King Crimson album where I liked everything. They're just too idiosyncratic, too inscrutable for that. And the parts I liked... I reckon myself to have heard music I've not before, and most likely won't again unless I get another chance to see King Crimson.
They finish on what's perhaps their signature number, '21st Century Schizoid Man' Perhaps predictable, but then it remains strange in essence - no matter how many times you hear it. Arriving with their first album, it's perhaps the earliest example of their “heavy riffing from Mars” style. With its distorted sound and scratchy vocal, its too wired, too agitated, to fit in with prog or even hard rock. It almost looks forward to punk, but is too grand and terrible, too overpowering for that. It's a track that never really fitted signifying a band that never really fitted.
The gig starts with a recorded message from the band asking for people to watch the gig rather than film it. And it looks like their wishes have been obeyed for, bar a few rehearsal clips, there's little YouTube footage of this tour. You'll just have to take my word for it.