King Crimson is wonderful and the world needs to know it. Founded in 1969, they have ventured through the regions of free jazz, psychedelic pop, new wave, and industrial metal, while never fully conforming to any one genre. Bandleader Robert Fripp does not rebel against mainstream music, like Rush or Fugazi. Rather, he exists apart from it, making music that sounds like it came directly from the depths of Tartarus and was performed by virtuoso musicians of every instrument on the planet. Obviously, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see him and his latest ensemble (the Seven-Headed Beast) live in my hometown. Please enjoy this brief write-up of one of the greatest concert experiences of my life.
The three drummers, Mastelotto, Stacey and Harrison, are front and center in Crimson’s current stage setup, and as such, it’s only appropriate that the concert began with a three-way percussion jam, “Drumsons.” The chimes and cymbals soon gave way to their classic track and usual opener “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I.” Including solos by every member of the band, the legendary 10-minute jam gave way to “Neurotica,” originally a very dense, avant-garde piece from the Adrian Belew era to which new frontman Jakko Jakszyk has lent a jazzy, melodic interpretation. Next was another Jakszyk song, and a personal favorite of mine: “Suitable Grounds For The Blues.” It combined the power and grit of the later Belew era with a soaring melody reminiscent of 60s/70s KC.
The next song’s unmistakable riff raised the hair on my neck and elicited jubilant shouts from the audience. It was King Crimson’s heavy-metal instrumental “Red,” which opened the album of the same name. Red is widely believed to be one of the greatest prog albums of all time and its first track evokes fond memories among many a fan. The infamous “Moonchild” soon followed, and my enjoyment of the hauntingly beautiful melody was dampened a bit by the anticipation of the mindlessly dull, ten-minute-long vibraphone solo which accompanied the original studio version. My fears were unfounded: that dark chapter of Crimson history has been replaced by a gorgeous upright bass solo (courtesy Levin) and washes of atmospheric guitar “Frippertronics” on this tour. It segued into another stone-cold classic, “Epitaph.” My favorite song from King Crimson’s classic debut was even more thrilling live, especially with Tony Levin’s wisely-placed bass melodies.
“Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part IV)” was next. It never really appealed to me in the studio, but the live version was quite an adventure. It was followed by the breathtaking power ballad “Islands,” from the album of the same name. I don’t like that album at all (it sounds really muddy and noodly) but I love live versions of its songs. The Seven-Headed Beast seems to have fully realized what Fripp was trying to do on that record all those years ago. “Discipline,” a ridiculously polyrhythmic guitar jam, was a pleasant surprise and suited the three-drummer format perfectly. Next, we heard “EleKtriK,” one of the best tunes on a personal favorite album of mine, The Power To Believe. As Jakszyk’s voice is better suited to old Crimson and as the aforementioned album never really became popular, I was not expecting to hear any of its songs, except, perhaps, “Level Five” (more on that one later).
Set 1 wrapped up with “Indiscipline.” From the first tap of the Chapman Stick, I knew we were in for a treat. For several minutes, the drummers soloed and improvised on top of the seemingly basic bass riff. I can’t put into words how unbelievable these drum solos were. There were call-and-response cycles, polyrhythms, bizarre percussion instruments, and more. It wasn’t just loud pounding, either; all three drummers were very musical in their solos, leaving plenty of space. And somehow, the string players stayed on time with each other amid the chaos. Almost as epic was the main part of the song itself. Rather than speaking and acting out the lyrics like Belew used to do, Jakszyk scatted them, improvising around a jazzy, swung melody.
Set 2 began with “Drumzilla,” a heavier and more dynamic drum solo than the former. This shifted into Belew-era classic “Frame By Frame,” which I enjoyed immensely. Tony’s backing vocals are surprisingly awesome. “Easy Money” was next-the highlight of the evening, in my humble opinion. The late John Wetton’s excellent 7/8 melody, with new lyrics by Jakko, echoed over the steady 4/4 beat. The jam section (including a bass solo!) took on a life of its own, exploring numerous sonic regions, before shifting back into the verse. It was followed by a virtuoso guitar cadenza based on a diminished chord. Every time they play “Easy Money,” it’s a little different. It’s the main reason I listen to their live albums.
“Radical Action II,” a newer instrumental which hasn’t yet made it onto a studio album, segued into the monumental “Level Five.” Robert Fripp intended this industrial instrumental as the fifth part of the “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” suite, and as such, I have to say it’s my favorite part. It’s one of the heaviest songs in the King Crimson discography, and the addition of two extra drum sets and numerous electronic effects makes it even better. Watching the drummers, in fact, was much like watching synchronized swimming, only with exponentially better music. They coordinated their movements rather cleverly, so that the performance was visual as well as audial. There was also plenty of room for improvisation, one of Crimson’s specialties. It was followed by “Starless,” one of their most beloved tracks. It wasn’t quite as awesome as the studio version, but maybe I’ve just listened to the original so much I have gotten accustomed to the studio sax lines. After playing “The Court Of The Crimson King,” the band left the stage.
After about thirty seconds, the Denver crowd was able to coax them back to the stage for the song that introduced King Crimson to the world: “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The killer riff pounded through the sound system as the fans sang along to the iconic, dystopian verses, more relevant today than ever. Then…the jazz bit. I love the jazz bit so much. It’s another one that takes on a new form every time it is played live. This time, it included a drum solo that segued into a little snippet of “Waiting Man,” one of King Crimson’s most underrated tunes. I left the Paramount Theatre more than a little starstruck, still shocked at what I had beheld.
These guys have still got it. Everything, from the production to the performance, was stellar. If you’re just a casual fan, I recommend seeing them at your first opportunity. If you’ve seen them before, I assure you that your next show will be nothing at all like your last. Long live the Crimson King!
2: Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part I)
4: Suitable Grounds For The Blues
6: Moonchild (including Cadenzas)
8: Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part IV)
2: Frame By Frame
3: Easy Money
4: Radical Action II
5: Level Five
7: The Court Of The Crimson King
Encore: 21st Century Schizoid Man
Cat’s foot, iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door
21st Century Schizoid Man
Blood rack, barbed wire
Politician’s funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
21st Century Schizoid Man
Death seed, blind man’s greed
Poets starving, children bleed
Nothing he’s got, he really needs
21st Century Schizoid Man