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King Crimson

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King Crimson is a British musical group founded by guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles in 1968.

Their musical style has typically been categorized as rock and roll, progressive rock and math rock. Though its membership has fluctuated considerably during its lifetime, the band continues to perform and record music. The name King Crimson was coined by Peter Sinfield as a synonym for Beelzebub, prince of demons; according to Fripp, Beelzebub is an anglicized form of the Arabic phrase “B’il Sabab”, meaning “the man with an aim”.

A considerable amount of King Crimson's history consists of the various personnel changes that have occurred within the group. Throughout its history, Robert Fripp has been the only consistent member, although he has stated that he does not consider himself the band’s leader, necessarily. To him King Crimson “is a way of doing things”, and the musical consistency that has persisted throughout the band’s history, despite frequent rotation of its members, reflects this point of view.

King Crimson has found little success in the way of radio or music video presence, but they have a vast discography, tour frequently, and have one of the most devoted followings of any contemporary musical group.

Robert Fripp and Michael Giles began discussing the formation of King Crimson in November of 1968, soon before the breakup of the short-lived and unsuccessful band Giles, Giles, and Fripp. The first musician to be added to the lineup was singer-guitarist Greg Lake, who was to play bass and sing. Lyricist Peter Sinfield and composer Ian McDonald were soon recruited, and thus the first incarnation of King Crimson was born.

Early in January 1969, the group rehearsed for the first time. The group’s high-profile premiere took place at the famous free concert in Hyde Park, London, staged by The Rolling Stones in July 1969. The first King Crimson album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October.

King Crimson went on tour through England, and later the United States, performing alongside many contemporary popular musicians and musical groups, including Iron Butterfly, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac. Tensions and musical differences within the band eventually reached a limit, however; Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left the band in December 1969 to pursue solo work. In 1970, they recorded the McDonald and Giles studio album. McDonald went on to be a founding member of Foreigner in 1976.

King Crimson's lineup fluctuated tremendously during the next few years. The remaining trio of Fripp, Sinfield, and Lake persevered for a short while, releasing the single Cat Food/Groon in March of 1970. During this time, material was being developed for King Crimson's second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Woodwind player Mel Collins came on board, and bassist Peter Giles appeared on several tracks. Greg Lake departed in April to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer, leaving King Crimson without a vocalist until Gordon Haskell took over singing, in addition to playing bass, for the band’s third album, Lizard. Andy McCulloch played drums for the album, with Jon Anderson of Yes appearing on one song. Haskell and McCulloch left just before the release of Lizard, leaving King Crimson as a rock band without a singer, bassist, or drummer.

Fripp began auditioning. Drummer Ian Wallace and vocalist Boz Burrell were selected, but after more than two dozen potential bassists had come and gone, Fripp decided simply to teach Boz to play bass. Burrell maintains that he was chosen because he preferred the more “twangy” Rotosound brand of strings. In the midst of the lengthy tour that followed, the band released Islands in 1971. At the end of that year, King Crimson parted ways with long-time member and lyricist Peter Sinfield, who then hooked up with old friend Greg Lake, and became the primary lyricist for Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The remaining members undertook a tour the following year, with the intention of disbanding afterwards. Recordings from this tour were later edited by Fripp to become the Earthbound album.

Shortly after the Earthbound tour, Collins, Wallace and Burrell left King Crimson to form a band called Snape, with British blues legend Alexis Korner. Fripp once again began looking for new members. The first to join was improvising percussionist Jamie Muir, whom Fripp had been considering as a possible member for some time. Next came vocalist and bassist John Wetton; formerly of the band, Family, and one of Fripp’s college acquaintances. Wetton had been under consideration for the previous lineup of the band, but that proposition had fallen through. Now that King Crimson was starting over from scratch again, the opportunity was ripe.

Drummer Bill Bruford was next to sign up, choosing to leave the commercially successful Yes for the relatively unstable and unpredictable King Crimson. Bruford himself was more interested in artistic pursuits, and the framework of King Crimson appealed to that sensibility in him. Finally, violin, viola and keyboard player David Cross was selected to flesh out the sound of the new band. With Pete Sinfield gone, a new lyricist was needed. John Wetton recommended his old friend Richard Palmer-James, who got the job.

Rehearsals began in late 1972, and Larks' Tongues in Aspic was released early the next year, and the group spent the remainder of 1973 touring Britain, Europe, and America.

This era of King Crimson demonstrated a kinship with the nascent heavy metal music then developing mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Fripp’s guitar playing was loud and aggressive, and Bruford’s propulsive drumming meshed with Wetton’s often powerful bass guitar.

Muir left the group early in 1973, and during the lengthy tour that followed, the remaining members began assembling material for their next album, Starless and Bible Black. By early 1974, the album was finished. Most of the album was recorded from live performances in 1973, with only two full tracks (The Great Deceiver and Lament) and part of another track (The Night Watch) being studio productions, a fact that emphasizes King Crimson's essentially live nature. Fripp never felt that recordings of any sort were adequate to capture the atmosphere and energy of a live performance. Another recording of live gigs, USA, was recorded soon afterwards but not released for another year.

David Cross’s place in the group, meanwhile, was coming under pressure. His role as a violin-player had been more important in the earlier days of this version of Crimson, but as the music progressed — and got louder — he increasingly felt his contribution was unheard and sidelined: reduced, as he once said, to being just the electric piano player. He went, leaving the remaining trio to record Red.

Red included former appearances by Robin Miller on oboe, Marc Charig on cornet and former King Crimson member Mel Collins on soprano saxophone. Cross appeared on Providence, recorded in its namesake in Rhode Island. Ian McDonald also returned as a session musician on alto saxophone, with plans to rejoin as a full-time member. Fripp, increasingly distracted from Crimson by the writings of the mystic George Gurdjieff, even spoke of being replaced by McDonald. This was the second time in the band’s history that Fripp considered leaving the group to continue without him.

The Red line-up never toured, however; two months before the album’s release, Robert Fripp announced that King Crimson had ceased to exist. “King Crimson is completely over for ever and ever,” he said. It seemed that King Crimson was to end in Red; instead, it was the end of an era.

Early in 1981, Fripp and Bruford began considering the formation of a new group, to be called Discipline. The two spent some time searching for a bassist, but had little success in recruiting one until Tony Levin stopped by. Levin was known for his session work with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Peter Gabriel and others, and would have been one of Fripp’s first choices had he known Levin was available. King Crimson had its bassist.

During this time, Fripp called up guitarist Adrian Belew, who was on tour with Talking Heads. Fripp had never worked with another guitarist in the same band, so the decision to seek a second guitarist was highly indicative of Fripp’s desire to create a sound completely unlike King Crimson. Belew, for his part, was flattered. He would join immediately following his tour with the Talking Heads.

During rehearsals and initial recorded sessions in 1981, Fripp began suspecting that this new band really was King Crimson, despite his decision to call it Discipline. The other members concurred, and so King Crimson was reborn. The group released a trilogy of albums: Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. Belew was responsible for the vocals, as well as almost all of the lyrics on the three albums. Also, with Belew, King Crimson for the first time had a lyricist who was also a performing member of the band.

This version of King Crimson bore some resemblance to new wave music, possibly as a result of Belew’s tenure with Talking Heads, often considered progenitors of the genre. Fripp intended to create the sound of a “rock gamelan”, with an interlocking rhythmic quality to the paired guitars that he found similar to Indonesian gamelan ensembles.

After Three of a Perfect Pair, King Crimson disbanded for several years. Fripp entered into a series of legal wranglings with his management, and this occupied much of his time, but resulted in the development of Discipline Global Mobile, a company through which King Crimson and various side projects and archives have emerged.

In 1991, Fripp invited former Japan lead singer David Sylvian to front a new King Crimson lineup that would have also included Chapman Stick player and Guitar Craft alumnus Trey Gunn. Sylvian declined the offer, yet the three musicians composed and toured together in 1992. When the trio went into the studio to record, former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta was brought into the fold. An extremely 'Crimsonesque' CD, entitled The First Day was the result of their recording together and the disc was released in July 1993. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Fripp made the future King Crimson lineup known for the first time: Fripp, Belew, Levin, Gunn and Marotta. Fripp, Gunn and Marotta had already convened in early ‘93 to throw some musical ideas around. The results of this gathering between the three were the seeds to future Crim tracks, “Vrooom” and “One Time”.

During the autumn of 1993, Sylvian and Fripp went out on tour to promote The First Day. Marotta had prior commitments as a session drummer, but was still expected to become the drummer for the planned reunion of Crimson in January of 1994 (as was even written in the Sylvian / Fripp tour book that was printed in August of 1993). Former Mr. Mister drummer Pat Mastelotto had auditioned for the spot vacated by Marotta and won the job, even beating out original Crimson drummer Michael Giles. Sylvian / Fripp went on the road for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, Marotta made it known to Tony Levin that he was not going to take part in the reformation of Crimson after all, due to the lucrative session and production work that was coming his way. Levin and Belew lobbied Fripp to ask Bruford to return to his old band, but Fripp and Gunn already had the highly impressive Mastelotto in mind for the job. Eventually both drummers were brought in to the band.

Fripp has stated that he “envisioned a double trio” back in the fall of 1992, but that is obviously not quite accurate when actual events are taken into account. The “double trio” formation of King Crimson was not a planned event, being more of a compromise. Bruford was brought in to appease the two former members, as well as a majority of the band’s audience. To many fans, it couldn’t have been Crimson without Bruford, and when the inclusion of Marotta was first announced, there was significant derision toward the idea. The same treatment would most likely have been accorded to Mastelotto as well, had Bruford not been asked to rejoin his former band. Harsh words between Fripp and Bruford were often exchanged in print interviews throughout the late eighties. Even though he and Fripp did not get along as well as they once had, Bruford was tacked on at the last minute. The compromise was made.

King Crimson was re-formed as a sextet in 1994. This “double trio” formation released a few CDs in the mid 1990s: VROOOM (1994), THRAK (1995), and THRaKaTTaK (1996). The new King Crimson sound was something of a mixture of “Discipline”-era complementary guitars with the heavy rock feel of 1974’s Red. Staging and rehearsing the sextet was an expensive proposition, however; this, combined with the level of experimentation within the band, soon contributed to its collapse.

In the late 1990s, Discipline Global Mobile operated as a distinctly artist-friendly label, and featured not only the works of King Crimson, but also of many Crimson side projects. ProjeKcts One, Two, Three, and Four, each a splinter group (a “fraKctalisation”, according to Fripp) of King Crimson, released various recordings, demonstrating the improvisational musical high-wire act that the constituent musicians are able to produce.

In 1998, DGM created the King Crimson Collector's Club (KCCC), a subscription-based service that released a live recording (originating from soundboard or bootleg recordings) every two months.

After the ProjeKcts' task was completed, Bruford quit the band, and Levin let his active involvement in King Crimson rest until further notice; this left Belew, Fripp, Gunn, and Mastelotto as the next line-up. Their first studio effort was The ConstruKction of Light (2000), accompanied by another album, Heaven and Earth, which was released under the name ProjeKct X. Heaven and Earth was edited together by Mastelotto from material recorded during the rehearsal and recording period of the studio album.

After the economic reversals of 2000 and 2001, DGM ceased acting as a general label and artist’s blog site and refocused its energy on King Crimson. A lengthy The ConstruKction of Light tour was followed by another tour opening for the band Tool and the Level Five tour that served to write, rehearse, and evolve new pieces for the next album. In 2003, the album The Power to Believe was released and the band toured in support of it.

In late November 2003, Trey Gunn announced his departure from the band. Both Robert Fripp and Tony Levin reported that Levin will become active bassist of King Crimson again. The current line-up thus is Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. A 2005 interview with Belew revealed that the band was on a brief hiatus, and planned to return to studio work in September 2007.

Fripp, as noted, has described King Crimson as “a way of doing things”, and also as “an experiment in organizing anarchy”. Over a period of 35 years, and many changes in membership, configuration, and instrumentation, King Crimson has maintained a kind of constancy in its musical vision rare among long-lived bands.

The music of King Crimson was obviously grounded to some extent in the rock of the 1960s, and especially the acid rock and psychedelic music movements. The first King Crimson frequently played Donovan Leitch’s “Get Thy Bearings”, and were known to play the Beatles’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.

However, where bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones played more sophisticated forms of American rock, Crimson attempted to “Europeanize” what had previously been an essentially American form of music. To a great extent, they stripped away the blues-based foundation of rock music and replaced it with a foundation based in the modern European symphonic tradition. Though they cast a wide net, two names in particular seem to have had a powerful influence on Crimson's music.

Gustav Holst is the more obvious of the two on the surface. The first incarnation of King Crimson played the Mars section of Holst’s suite The Planets as a regular part of their live set. The influence of Bela Bartok is subtler, but has been referred to many times by Fripp and other band members, and seems more pervasively present in the band's overall musical repertoire. As a result of this influence, their first album is frequently viewed as the nominal starting point of the symphonic rock or progressive rock movements.

Fans have two equal and opposite complaints about each new album or incarnation of the band: either they say that it's nothing like the King Crimson they know and love, or they say that it's exactly like what has gone before, and nothing new has been added. The apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding that, while King Crimson constantly creates new sounds and new pieces, several themes remain constant from the earliest versions of the band to the present.

The most obvious of these themes is composition by the use of a gradually building rhythmic motif. The Holst Mars that the first King Crimson played is a clear example of this, a complex pulse in 5/8 time with strings and winds — or, as played by King Crimson, mellotron — playing a skirling melody above. This piece transformed into “The Devil’s Triangle” on the In the Wake of Poseidon album, and was followed by many other forms, from “The Talking Drum” in 1973 all the way to “Dangerous Curves” in 2003.

A second theme that has remained constant throughout the career of King Crimson is an instrumental piece, often embedded as a break in a song, in which the band plays a passage of a rhythmic complexity that would almost challenge a group of classically trained musicians working with a conductor. King Crimson's single best-known song, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, is an early example of this. Their series of pieces collectively titled Larks' Tongues in Aspic (also including pieces of similar intent, “Thrak” and “Level Five”) go deeper into polyrhythmic complexity, delving into rhythms that wander into and out of general synchronization with each other--to the point where the listener is frequently unable to even count the main measure beats--yet through polyrhythm synchronization all finish together. (Occasionally these pieces fail onstage; Fripp refers to these failures as “train wrecks”.) Perhaps the apex of rhythmic complexity in the King Crimson repertoire was the trilogy of early 1980s albums, which contained gamelan-like rhythmic layers, and continual staccato patterns overlaying each other (a case-in-point being “Neal and Jack and Me” from Beat).

Other themes harder to document clearly include the composition of insanely difficult passages for individual instruments (especially Fripp’s guitar --notably “Fracture” on Starless and Bible Black); pieces with a loud, aggressive sound not unlike heavy metal music; and the jarring juxtaposition of pretty tunes and ballads with weird, often dissonant, noises.

From the beginning, King Crimson performances featured improvisations, in which the music can, and frequently does, go anywhere. Improvisations can be imbedded in composed pieces, like 21st Century Schizoid Man or Thrak, but most Crimson performances over the years have included at least one stand-alone improvisation, where the band simply started playing and took the music wherever it went, sometimes including passages of improvised silence (as Bill Bruford’s contribution to the improvised Trio). The earliest example of an unambiguously improvising King Crimson on record is the spacious, oft-criticized (as self indulgent) extended middle-section of Moonchild from the first album, in which the composed parts act as bookends to the improv.

Unlike most jazz and rock improvisation or jamming, these sessions are rarely in any sense blues-based. They vary so much in sound that King Crimson has been able to release several albums consisting entirely of improvised music. Occasionally, particular improvised pieces will be performed in different forms at different shows, becoming more and more refined and eventually appearing on official studio releases (the most recent example being Power to Believe III, which originally existed as the stage improve, Deception of the Thrush).


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