Wednesday, June 28, 2017

King Crimson and Their Radical Actions

When King Crimson released In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson (Atlantic) in 1969, Yes were a pop band covering The Beatles and The Byrds, Genesis were still Jonathan King’s Bee Gees knockoff, and Rush were covering Cream in church basements. That debut album is to progressive rock what Elvis Presley (RCA, 1956) was to rock and roll. It was the beginning. It was a lodestone and inspiration to Yes, Genesis, Rush, and many other progressive rock legends.

Unlike the artist behind Elvis Presley, King Crimson flourishes again—or one of its many incarnations does, anyway. Longtime members and prog legends Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford are not touring with them, but erstwhile member Tony Levin, the incomparable bass guitarist and Chapman Stick player, has returned. The current model has flourished on a couple of recent live releases, and they are flourishing on tour this summer. And, while they acknowledge their past (including that august debut), they distinguish themselves from the baby boomer nostalgia circuit and other superfluous, fatuous tripe cluttering what’s left of the culture with new material and fresh arrangements and performances of older tunes, all of it with a relevant artistic flourish.

Guitarist Robert Fripp, the band’s only constant, leads an eight-piece ensemble that is crossing North America on its Radical Action Tour 2017. The tour is named after last year’s deliciously and appositely named three-disc set Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (DGM). Recorded on tour in 2015, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind consists of new tunes and older ones, some long-unplayed, appropriately rearranged for the band’s current instrumental components. Mixing out the audience, the listening experience is akin to a “virtual studio album”.

A few weeks ago, the band released the EP Heroes: Live in Europe 2016 (DGM). Bookended by two different edits of a performance of David Bowie’s “'Heroes'”, it also includes even more recent recordings of three pieces also represented on Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind: “Easy Money”; a pared-down “Starless”; and the drum trio “The Hell Hounds of Krim”. This time, the enthusiastic audience is audible. Both recordings are essential to any rock fan—perhaps any music fan—fighting the obscurantist Endarkenment and its simple, shallow dreck. Listening to them, these days, is a radical action that will unseat the hold of monkey mind (on an individual and cultural level). And, as of this writing, both releases are streaming for free on Spotify—and are eminently worthy of purchase as well. Both are equally delightful to newcomers to the progressive rock legends as well as experts (I am closer to the former category).

There have been slight lineup changes since 2015, but a core band has stayed largely the same since then, highlighted by Fripp; Levin; guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk; and woodwind player Mel Collins. The melodies and trademark discordant chords are augmented by three lead drummers: The specific drummers have changed a bit, but longtime drummer Pat Mastelotto is a constant. 

Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind’s three discs are labeled “Mainly Metal”, “Easy Money Shots”, and “Crimson Classics”, respectively. Disc one is a bit of a misnomer. Although some of it is certainly puissant, much of it is anything but metal. Overall, the disc is more jazz fusion than metal. The latter style is evident in the suite of new pieces “Radical Action (to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind)”/“Meltdown”/“Radical Action II”, a highlight of the set. Like much of King Crimson’s material, the “Radical Action” sequence is instantly infectious despite the band’s musical complexity—it manages to both immediately hook and reward with repeated listenings. There are apparently no studio iterations of the new material—their last studio album was The Power to Believe (Sanctuary, 2003). “The Light of Day”, banal and bland, is one of the few weak spots on the entire set. “The ConstruKction of Light” is faintly Zappaesque; one can hear hints of his “King Kong”. Indeed, the band is one of the few keeping Zappa’s improvisational and sprawling, somewhat loose approach to live performance alive. Highlights of disc two include a performance of 1973’s “Easy Money”, now a showcase for Jakszyk’s smooth baritone which includes scatting and sound effects. “Easy Money” is a stellar exemplar of a trademark Crimson arc of a relatively straightforward song that develops into a manic instrumental jam and returns to the relatively straightforward theme. While this template of sorts often works well for the band, it is never formulaic. While each member of the band is virtuosic (on this song and others), none is ever ostentatious. Disc two also features the Nineties piece “VROOM”, in which Collins’s jaunty, honking saxophone is juxtaposed with Fripp’s angular, foreboding guitar to eminently listenable effect. The result is unmistakably King Crimson. Less characteristic is the recent “A Scarcity of Miracles”: gentle and dulcet, with Jakszyk singing his own lyrics and Collins approximating a smooth jazz style, it is something of a contrast and companion piece to the also-recent and more typical sound of “Suitable Grounds for the Blues”. The titles speak for themselves; Jaksyzk apparently knows his Endarkenment. The set even has a few drum trio pieces which continue to highlight the band’s current live sets. The classics disc rounds out the set, including a few from In the Court of the Crimson King. The debut has moments where it sounds like a creature of its crazy era, but “The Court of the Crimson King” is no longer a period piece here, with its emotive vocals and three drum sets. “21st Century Schizoid Man”—one of their most famous “songs” and the first track from the debut—is not as forceful and frenetic as its studio counterpart. In the context of these times and the age of some of the musicians, this one is a welcome reinterpretation, but it is familiar to all who are familiar with the tune, even without the caustic feel of Greg Lake’s original vocal. The set even has a few drum trio pieces which continue to highlight the band’s current live sets.

Heroes: Live in Europe 2016 is a much more compact statement. Fripp played on David Bowie’s “Heroes” and, while he didn’t receive a writing credit, he reportedly substantially influenced the arrangement and recording with his tones and performance. Since Bowie’s death, King Crimson has performed the song regularly. This version of this song doesn’t sound much like King Crimson, but is has a warmth that is nearly ineffable—the kind of warmth that can brighten the darkest night and the loneliest, most rankled soul, massaged from the instruments (including voice). You need to listen to it. It will surely save someone’s life if it hasn’t already.

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of seeing portions of King Crimson’s astounding Radical Action Tour 2017 show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Anyone with the slightest interest in King Crimson, progressive rock, jazz, or increasingly rare first-rate musicianship should seriously consider attending at least one show if they can. (See tour dates below.) Keep your phones away until the very end; signs on stage before each set warned that anyone using any kind of camera or recorder may have been asked to leave. As the group took the stage, a recording played of the droll Fripp explaining the camera/recorder/phone policy. Fripp noted that Tony wanted to take pictures of the audience. When he would reach for his camera after the music ended, the audience should consider that a cue to finally take pictures of the band. He added, “Let’s have a party!”—a curious way to describe a King Crimson concert.

Party or not, the concert was stupendous.

Three drum kits stood downstage. Behind them stood an elevated platform for the other performers. Mastelotto took the stage right kit, Jeremy Stacey sat behind the center kit which also contained his keyboards, and Gavin Harrison drummed closest to stage left. Above and behind them, from stage right, were Collins, Levin, keyboardist Bill Rieflin (one of the drummers on Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind), Jakszyk, and Fripp. Collins and Fripp were ensconced behind sound baffles. Fripp, who sat on a stool with headphones, also had some keyboards. A black curtain hung behind them all. They dress not like a rock band but like the middle-aged professionals they are. Perhaps the neckties are a bit much, but they are as refreshingly independent sartorially as they are musically.

The Radical Action 2017 setlists vary somewhat every night, but they generally continue the recent approach of concentrating on the 1969-74 period and very recent material while downplaying the Adrian Belew eras of the eighties, nineties, and zero decade. The few Belew pieces they’re playing are instrumentals or instrumental sections of longer works. Without completely spoiling the sets, highlights from that first period include “Pictures of a City” and “Easy Money”—both of which are on the live box set—and a few that are not which the band started playing this year for the first time since the mid-seventies. In addition to some of the recent songs from the box set, there is “Radical Action III”—a working title for a new song. “Radical Action III” is evidence, if any were needed, that King Crimson remains a creative force. I wish I were more familiar with their work, but I believe “Radical Action III” was the showstopper that had young Greek Theatre staff, most of whom are likely much less familiar with their work than I, spellbound. (Since they are not allowing recording, and it is brand new, “Radical Action III” is hard to find on the Internet.) It is quite a spectacle to see these eight players produce this unclassifiable music. They are remarkably focused and barely move onstage, despite the earth-shattering art they are making. Most of the physical movement came from the virtuosic Collins’s and Levin’s constant juggling of instruments. The show had something for everyone—very old songs, old songs, new songs, instrumental music, vocal music, drum trios (while the other five players sat out) … and “Heroes”. Classics like “Easy Money”, “Starless”, and “21st Century Schizoid Man” were both recognizably similar to their recent live iterations and very much live and in the moment. After “21st Century Schizoid Man”, Levin picked up his camera and conspicuously held it up. A glorious display of flashing phones followed from the audience. 

 At merchandise stands, the band are selling "tour editions" of Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind and Heroes: Live in Europe 2016, among other live and studio vinyl and compact discs. The EP is apparently not available as a tangible disc anywhere else yet. [Edit, 07/04/17 12:22 AM PDT: Heroes, as it is technically titled--the subtitle does not appear on the disc or packaging--is now available as a compact disc though not a vinyl record., unfortunately.]

Culture has changed detrimentally, and perhaps irreparably, since King Crimson took their first hiatus around 1975. A few more generations of progressive-inspired education have dulled the minds and attention spans of music fans, and a myopic music industry has devolved into predictable baby boomer nostalgia shows offering carbon copies of radio hits (assuming the aging popinjay can still hit the notes) and American Glorified Karaoke Idol pop tarts offering carbon copies of radio hits. Show’s like America’s Got Talent show that America’s got ballast more than talent. King Crimson are an exception. They are heroes in an age of anti-heroes and villains, continuing to take radical action to unseat the hold of monkey mind.

You should see them and listen to them.

King Crimson
Greek Theatre
Los Angeles
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Radical Action 2017 (for Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind)

first set:
Pictures of a City
Radical Action III
c) The Battle of Glass Tears
Fallen Angel

second set:
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One
The ConstruKction of Light
Easy Money
The Letters
Radical Action II
Level Five

The Court of the Crimson King
21st Century Schizoid Man

Remaining Radical Action 2017 dates:

June 28 Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre
June 30 Rochester, NY Kodak Hall (Rochester Jazz Fest)
July 3 Montreal, QC Montreal Jazz Fest
July 5 Toronto, ON Massey Hall
July 7 Quebec, QC Centre Videotron
July 9-10 Red Bank, NJ Count Basie Theatre

July 14-19 Mexico City, Mexico Teatro Metropolitan

Update (July 20, 2017): "Easy Money" from the June 21 Greek Theatre concert is now available as a free MP3 and $0.99 FLAC download at (downloading requires free registration). "Easy Money" varies significantly in length and content every time it is performed: