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Re:Collection – King Crimson, THRAK, And The Next Step

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King Crimson, one of my very favorite bands, is about to start getting the Re:Collection treatment. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing about this band and its staple member, guitarist Robert Fripp (who refuses to be considered its leader even though he really is) so why not inflict it on everyone, right? I've got a lot of territory to cover, and, as I realize now, I'm sort of diving in deep here with this one – we'll catch up later as I get into other eras of the band.

It looks like the rumor mill, if such a thing can exist in the relatively small, enclosed environment of us dorky prog fans, is starting up about the latest incarnation of King Crimson, due to start work (and some touring) next year for a new album to follow later that year or in 2009. The rumors are that the band may be a five-piece for the first time in ages – decades, actually – and as I've watched the talk and suspicion mount over the past few weeks, it has turned the rumors are true, there is a fifth member, and it looks like it's a second drummer.

Ten years ago I would have been extremely excited about this. Not just excited, ecstatic. Of all the incarnations of this band – the historic first album lineup with Greg Lake on vocals, the short-lived Jamie Muir/Bill Bruford percussion-battle era of Larks Tongues in Aspic, the Bible Black/Red era, the Discipline line-up years – I found the Thrak-era enthralling because of the dual-drummer (well, dual-everything) format.

The double-trio, so named because of its unusual lineup of two guitars, two basses (well, things along those lines – bass and Stick-like touchstyle instruments,) and two drummers, was meant to create an ungodly amount of noise in the most spectacular way possible. Unlike, say, the Allman Bros., who used their two drummers to make one strong, united rhythm section, King Crimson used its two drummers in a push-pull arrangement, playing off of each other, tugging at rhythms, often splitting up and going head to head to do things that one drummer could not. It was one of those concepts that belonged more to jazz than to rock and which, at the time – the mid-90s, right in the middle of the minimalistic grunge and alternative movements – garnered a lot of snickering from the press for being excessive and indulgent. As Fripp has pointed out, the band often seems to take a lot of abuse at the time it does something unusual, only to see that move take on more importance when history has a chance to look back on it – and that has indeed been the case. The double-trio was a fantastic, boundary-pushing live band, if nothing else, and a decade later many of us are gaining a new appreciation from the many live releases from this period.

The double-trio never really became as fleshed out as it should have been, unfortunately. One EP, one album, a very long tour that spawned those many live albums, and then they dissolved with Bill Bruford and Tony Levin going their own ways. Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn fill the roles on drums and "bass-type devices" easily. Just prior to this unfortunate lineup change, the ProjeKcts, a series of exploratory concerts by members of the six-piece band in varying numbers and roles, proved that there was a lot of ground left to be covered, but Bill Bruford had lost interest – he wanted his own jazz band, the acoustic Earthworks, to be his primary concern (and good for us – Earthworks has turned out fantastic stuff since then!) Why Tony opted to move on, I'm not entirely sure anymore, but it certainly wasn't due to any bad blood (he is, after all, back in the band after Trey Gunn opted to leave a couple years ago, and just as it was thrilling to have the master of "touch guitar" Gunn on board, it's always refreshing to see Levin on basses and Stick.) The two albums from the new quartet unfortunately didn't seem to garner as much attention as it seemed like the double-trio did – the one that seemed to take quite a ribbing for being so excessive. Apparently all that excess did do one thing after all. It got them a lot of notice.

So the question has been bouncing around on King Crimson forums – who is this new member? The answer that it was a new drummer came pretty quickly, but just who has so far not been answered definitively yet. There is speculation that it might be Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison, who I contend is possibly rock's best and most all-around talented drummer. If it has to be someone, why not him? It would bring back something that the Mastelotto-driven band has lacked – a drummer propelled not only by ingenuity, which Pat surely has in spades, but also by an overabundance of skill and deadly precision, which is what Bill Bruford brought to the band.

So why am I, for lack of a better word, disappointed? Because this doesn't seem like a step forward. It's terrain already covered by the band. Following Thrak, it would have been great to keep pushing forward with that format. But now, I don't see what the point is. One of the problems cited by many was that, when it came to the double-trio, the additions brought to the sound by the two additional musicians was just too subtle most of the time. And I can see that. While that format afforded a very filled-out live sound, it was something that wasn't really as necessary as it might have seemed even for songs that thrived with that complexity, such as the "VROOOM" pieces, when the new quartet took to playing them live.

The double-trio never got the chance in the studio to really take on its own life, despite having existed for well over three years. It was only on the road that it developed itself – but this was after one EP (VROOOM) and their lone studio album (Thrak) had already been recorded. The band had intended to record Thrak in such a way that two sets of trios would play at the same time (say, Bruford, Gunn, Fripp and Mastelotto, Levin, Belew) but in slightly different ways (time signatures, etc.) that would be separated in the sound field. In theory, it sounds fascinating, and is a real challenge to the way rock music can be approached. In practice, however, the band, well, didn't. The only real example of this approach to be found is "VROOOM" on the album – pan your speakers left or right and you'll hear two separate trios playing, you guessed it, slightly different versions of the same song. They merge back together as "Coda: Marine 475" begins.

As promising as the idea had been, it proved too much to accomplish an entire album that way at the time. The band hoped to develop the ideas in this area before the next studio album (cue ominous thunder.)

To that end, DGM has made available two sets of studio rehearsals, one from VROOOM's sessions and one after the Thrak tour for its follow-up album that give glimpses of what the band might have achieved. As can be guessed, what we get to hear is rough and incomplete – but, for fans of the band, fascinating for what we missed out on. There are plenty of ideas that the ProjeKcts and the quartet ran with, but not in quite the way that the double-trio would have.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I hope, this time around, if there is going to be an additional member, and it has to be of the percussive sort, that it isn't just an experiment that is meant to be fleshed out later. Given that The Power to Believe will be five years old soon, and King Crimson has been off the road for several years, my hope is that if the idea of another version of a dual-percussion backed band is serious, then I hope that time was used to really effectively make a place for both drummers. It can be done – Jamie Muir's short tenure with the band back in the 70s is still held in high regard, and very little material was ever recorded with man sparring with Bill Bruford. The band hasn't had especially good luck with more than one drummer, it seems, so it's hopeful that this time around they've put some extra effort into making sure that there is more there there for whoever it is that fills that other drum chair – if it is indeed another drummer. And if it's Gavin Harrison, well, that's a pretty exciting development, as most Porcupine Tree fans would tell you. King Crimson may never be the type of band that reaches “household name” status, but Harrison brings the kind of firepower that garners a lot of attention. It could be a very exciting couple of years for the band.

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About Tom Johnson

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    wow, interesting developments there tom. hmmm, if i had to pick a second drummer, it would probably be Terry Bozzio.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    That would be an interesting combination, but I’m guessing Terry’s reputation for difficulty is what will forever keep him out of the band. Fripp doesn’t seem to deal well with oversize egos, especially when it comes to the drum stool. But those Bozzio/Levin/Stevens discs prove that it would have been a hell of a pairing, at least when Levin is involved.

    I think Gavin will make a better match for the band, however – he’s got such a perfect touch. Everything he does is just fascinating to listen to, kind of like how Nels Cline’s addition to Wilco does something phenomenal even though he’s probably doing something very simple most of the time. Finesse, I guess is the best word to describe it. Gavin’s another Bruford, where Bozzio’s a little wilder – Pat’s already got that territory covered. If they only needed one drummer to cover everything (and if Terry worked electronic drums) he might be the man for the job.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    hmmm, i didn’t know he had that reputation. all i know is that i saw him at a drum clinic once and his chops were phenomenal. no so much the technical aspects but the musicality of it all.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    Yeah, I’d read something about how ego was what had destroyed the relationship in the Polytown project – him and Mick Karn clashing all the time, actually. But he’s an incredible monster on drums, that’s for sure. That tuned-percussion thing is amazing to hear. He basically can play melodies on his drums.