On September 9th in Albany, New York, the new, ultimate King Crimson – at seven members the largest ensemble in the British band’s 46-year history, with three drummers and players from every major phase and decade – closed the opening night of its debut U.S. tour with the ultimate King Crimson song: the tortuous thunder and scathing paranoia of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” from the group’s 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. A nightly feature of Crimson shows until the end of their first live era in 1974, “Schizoid Man” was mothballed as founding guitarist Robert Fripp launched subsequent lineups, including the so-called Discipline quartet in the Eighties and the fearsome double-trio configuration of 1994 to 1997. The closest any post-Seventies Crimson usually came to greatest hits was the art-metal signature “Red,” from the 1974 LP of the same name, and the second part of the title piece from 1973’s Larks’ Tongue in Aspic.
But at the Egg, a classy, intimate concert hall, the latest Crimson – Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, saxophonist Mel Collins and drummers Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Bill Rieflin – delivered “Schizoid Man” like fresh terror with the percussionists, lined along the front of the stage, loading the main, booming rhythm with flying-shrapnel accents and executing the famous staircase-staccato bridge in rifle-shot triplicate under the sax and guitars. The waiting – all 40 years – was worth it. Any Crimson could have attempted the song in that time. This was the right one.
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It is a testament to Fripp’s committment to Crimson and his standards of exploration that this version – nicknamed Mark VIII, hatched earlier this year and hitting nine U.S. cities through early October – is one of the best new bands on the road right now, with the longest tale. Collins goes back nearly to the beginning; he first played on the 1970 album, In the Wake of Poseidon; Levin has done three prior stints; Mastelotto has been a regular since the Nineties double trio, across from drummer Bill Bruford. Harrison, previously in the British band Porcupine Tree, was the second drummer in a short-lived 2008 Crimson.
The new guys have their own recent associations with Fripp. Best known for his tenures in Ministry and R.E.M., Rieflin performed and recorded with the guitarist and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck in the improvising ensemble Slow Music. Jakszyk was the junior third of a group, with Fripp and Collins, that made the 2011 album, A Scarcity of Miracles. The current Crimson performed two songs from that record in Albany – the title track and “The Light of Day,” a bleak elegance that recalled Fripp and Collins’ prior, jazzy suspense and eccentric balladry on Crimson 1971’s LP, Islands.
Collins’ presence was an obvious trigger for the revival of Poseidon‘s long-dormant “Pictures of a City” (the saxophonist’s first recording with the group) and the Islands tracks, “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letter,” all rendered with authentic scoring (Rieflin doubled on mellotron) but treated with new flourishes – especially in Levin’s bass undertow and that drumming front line. At one point in “The Letter,” Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison filled a moment of silence with single, ringing taps on a cymbal – one per man, like the ticking of a soprano clock – before Jakszyk’s vocal reentry.
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In keeping with the cumulative, historical weight of its membership, the new Crimson visited every decade in its repertoire except the Eighties. (There may be too many moving pieces in this unit to address that four-piece material.) The title track from 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light and “Vrooom,” from a 1994 EP, were given tumultuous makeovers. There is a little new material – for now. “The Hell Hounds of Krim” – recorded during rehearsals and featured on a tour book-and-CD set for sale at the merch table – was the march-in music to a polyrhythmic upheaval of “Red.” The first piece in the encore, “Hoo Doo,” was a suspense of short, arhythmically triggered blasts of improvisation – a classic Crimson test of fan patience and stamina.
Fripp, now 68, presided over this two-hour unveiling of his eighth Crimson with apparent, characteristic distance: seated at the far right side of the back riser, wearing headphones and guarded by a monolith of outboard gear. He has always seemed, on stage, like a reluctant guest at his own party. But his formative and still essential place in the music was evident when the density of textures and motion opened around him. His rapidly strummed chords served as both rhythmic girders and tremors of melody through the two parts of “Larks’ Tongue” and the extended, inky convulsion of Red‘s “Starless.” Fripp slashed through the drummers’ overlapping math with long, siren-like notes laden with harmonic distortion. And in several striking passages with Collins’ sax and flute, he played languid, luxuriant arpeggios that suggested the Byrds on Mars – angular, resonant, even romantic.
Embracing the Moment
The future of this Crimson beyond the U.S. tour, especially in studio-album form, is uncertain. “Crimson as a musical undertaking can’t be judged from its records,” Fripp said in a recent British interview. “It can only be judged by live performance.”
He emphasized the latter point in Albany, in a pre-recorded welcoming announcement played over the PA a few minutes before showtime. “Embrace the moment,” Fripp suggested in his soft, precise speaking voice, firmly requesting that the audience turn off and stow all electronic devices. “Use your ears to record and your eyes to video.”
It worked. I periodically looked around the hall, for the tell-tale glow of cell phone cameras and recorders. There were none, all night. If you want a piece of this “Schizoid Man,” you have to be there.