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Instruments of war

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King Crimson, in one form or another, has made a habit of reappearing every few years lately, as if to apply its logic to current trends in the music industry, then slips away almost entirely unnoticed by the majority of casual listeners. Robert Fripp, if not the “captain” of the group then at least the rudder (he will happily debate you on this point), steers the old ship Crimson out of storage whenever he feels there is something for the band to address. Just what that might be is always a mystery, but its roots are generally in whatever rock-related music is garnering attention at the time. King Crimson emerges as if to say, “Well, yeah, you’re doing it, but let me show you how it could have been done.”

The problem any incarnation this band has faced is getting its music heard by more than its legion of die-hard fans. The appeal of the music is more in the power of the mathematical precision with which Crimson’s members undertake each piece, and as such, is generally geared toward people who prefer to “listen” to music – as opposed to those who “like to rock.” For all the effort the band puts in “rocking out,” the result is nearly always something more akin to rock-via-modern-classical music than something from the gut. Apparently, it must be very difficult to rock out when you play in odd time signatures – the same kind of time signatures that prevents the other thing associated with rock, dancing. Dancing to King Crimson, while not entirely improbable, is generally unlikely – and would certainly have to be the free-form, aimless “interpretive” dancing that isn’t inhibited by an ever-changing beat. Paired with the kind of music Crimson generally puts out – “intellectual” – the result would, at the very least, be entertaining to watch.

Much of the efforts of the band, starting with 1981’s Discipline, have been on intricate, interlocking guitar pieces inspired by Gamalan music that Robert Fripp became fascinated with at the time. Instead of simply melodies, the guitarist were often building patterns around each other, weaving in and out of each others notes. The result, to the casual listener, is a lot of seemingly very repetitive music. To the attentive listener is revealed fascinating textures, almost the musical equivalent of fractal imagery. Again, not something that fills the dancefloor. Think Philip Glass, filtered through rock instrumentation, and you are not far from what much of the Discipline-era band produced. Think Talking Heads and Philip Glass, and you’ve just about nailed the sound perfectly.

King Crimson disappeared in the mid-80s, only to pop up again 10 years later. Metal seemed to be on the band’s minds – metal, in the form of the “alternative” rock that was popular at the time, that is. Crimson slipped back out before the public eye, however limited it may be for them, and presented its take on the sludgy, cacophonous guitar-rock that permeated the airwaves. It wouldn’t last long, but the band toured behind one album, Thrak, for several years before succumbing to its own weight. It attempted so much, but had so little to move it forward, that efforts to produce a second album ultimately failed. The embryonic song structures, however, did carry forward into a series of splinter groups that applied the latest and greatest in music technology, utilizing the very equipment and sounds that propelled the band’s nemesis – techno, a music so stiff and unchanging that “live” performers were very often simply cueing up patches in the Powerbooks – but did so live in loose improvised extensions of the Thrak bands final compositions.

These projects, or ProjeKcts, as they were called, were a proving ground for the next step of King Crimson, and promised great things. Unfortunately, a severe case of cold-feet ensued while the band prepared 2000’s The ConstruKction Of Light, and the result was a dreary, dismal, and at times, downright boring album. The ProjeKcts promised, and often delivered, a bold new step not only for King Crimson but for rock music in general. The ConstruKction Of Light wound up being more about hindsight, deriving some its “new” material from reworkings of past glories, and utilizing very little of the exciting material the ProjeKcts helped develop. Most of all, the very attitude of the ProjeKcts was entirely missing, an element that proved key to the success of this band’s material.

King Crimson clearly learned from past mistakes while recording its latest album, The Power To Believe. Rather than revisit an older song, they pushed it a step further – “Elektric,” for example, is an obvious nod to the most successful piece from the previous album, the title track “The ConstruKction Of Light,” albeit more paranoid and frantic – surely a reflection of the current atmosphere the world suffers under in the wake of events like Sept. 11 and the possibility of war with Iraq and North Korea. Instead of simply redoing that song, they twisted and turned it inside out, revealing new textures and motifs to play in and around. “Dangerous Curves,” a piece developed live on the ConstruKction tour, is an ever-building crescendo, broken in spots by tension-relieving passages, and mimics the kind of anthems seen in war movies. And where Discipline was Talking Heads filtered through Philip Glass, “Level Five” is [i]Black Sabbath[/i] meets Glass – and specifically, “Iron Man.” Of course, the outcome is considerably more menacing than either Talking Heads or Philip Glass. “Eyes Wide Open” is this band’s “One Time,” for those familiar with Thrak, or “Heartbeat,” if you prefer the 80s band. The song is one of the few moments of innocent optimism in a very dark album, and even then it’s a good deal more dark than the previous bands’ offerings.

The only let down is “Facts of Life,” and that’s not really even bad, it just doesn’t fit well in the flow of the album. It feels as if it is trying very hard to do so, but the album’s lineup might have been that much stronger had it been relegated more toward the beginning rather than smack-dab in the middle.

As is often the case with this late-model King Crimson, the vocal material tends to clash with the instrumental material, the instrumentals being particularly meaty and climactic sounding, while the vocal stuff tends to be lighter. Taken as a whole, however, the album feels like a buildup to an apocalypse – an innocent’s view of the instruments of war being assembled before his very eyes. The outcome of that war is left to the listener’s imagination.

On more technical notes, the production is stunning, with instruments panned and spaced out on the soundstage in intriguing ways that have never before been heard on a Crimson album, and the actual sound is very modern, thanks to the guidance of the producer, the mysterious “Machine,” whose credits include production/engineering work on White Zombie and Pitchshifter albums in the past. His experience shows. While the actual music may not be shocking and new for King Crimson, the production values certainly are, and Machine has injected a bit of new energy by taking King Crimson’s penchant for new technology a step further, clipping and distoring drums, and filling in the background with unusual ambient noise.

For those who were excited by the promise the ProjeKcts seemed to predict in future Crimson releases, but were let down by the resulting backslide of ConstruKction, this may be the album for you. It isn’t entirely new terrain for the band, as much of the 80s interlocking-guitar motifs are present, as are the careening crescendos so representative of the 70s versions of the band, but they are presented in a way that makes them exciting and bold, and most of all, new to ears that have heard it many times before.

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