Rock Meets Classical, Part 8: THRAK
King Crimson have returned with a new lineup, and they played their first shows last week, with a heavy focus on material from the 1970s. This is surprising, as the post-1980 incarnations of KC only ever performed four songs from the ‘70s - "21st Century Schizoid Man," "The Talking Drum," "Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part II," and "Red," all of which are also being performed on this new tour, alongside seven other songs from the era. This is the band’s first lineup without guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew in more than 30 years, and they didn’t perform a single song that Belew originally sang on or a single song from the ‘80s band. Instead, the lineup features guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jakszyk of the 21st Century Schizoid band, an ensemble dedicated to performing material from the first four King Crimson albums (and aside from Jakszyk, the group consisted entirely of players who performed on those four albums). The new KC lineup also features saxophonist Mel Collins, who performed on four albums from the band’s ‘70s catalogue in addition to playing with the Schizoid band.
Since the band has finally decided that it is time to look backwards in a more traditional manner, I thought it would be fitting to devote a post to discussing the more unusual ways in which the band preferred to look backwards over the past two decades. Instead of playing all of their classic ‘70s material live, they incorporated ideas from their earlier music into new compositions or reworkings of older songs. For example, the two longest tracks from The ConstruKction of Light (2001) ("FraKctured" and "Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part IV") are sequels to two of the most important songs to come from ’73-4 lineup ("Fracture" and "Larks II"), revamped with the interlocking dual guitars of the ‘80s band. In my last post, I pointed out the occurrence of the Discipline motive and another ‘80s motive in ‘FraKctured’ and the title track, and my next post on King Crimson will detail how the title track fuses motives and techniques from the ’73-4 band with motives and techniques used by the ‘80s band.
King Crimson’s self-referentialism did not begin with The ConstruKction of Light. The first appearance of this was on their last album of the ‘80s, Three of a Perfect Pair (1984), which closed with "Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part III." This track is the only obvious reference to the ‘70s band in the ‘80s band’s catalogue, but it doesn’t really feel like a ‘70s throwback. Despite opening with a solo guitar figure based around the "Larks" motive, it soon gives way to a dance beat with guitar parts drawn from the chorus of "Sleepless" (another song from Three of a Perfect Pair). Nonetheless, "Larks III" paved the way for all of the sequels of the ‘90s and 2000s.
Their next album, THRAK (1995), was far more aggressive, distorted and noisy than anything they had released in the ‘80s. THRAK was their first album after a decade of silence, and it ended up being their only album of the ‘90s. It was their most self-referential album, but in a subtle manner. Despite a certain amount of self-referentiality, the album wasn’t a retread of past material. Each King Crimson album contains an element of something new, as the band have always been fantastic at interacting with a current style of popular music while retaining their own identity. In the ‘70s, that style was British progressive rock. In the ‘80s, it was New Wave. And on THRAK, their sole album of the ‘90s, their touchstone was grunge and other popular ‘90s rock.
The ‘90s band, known as the "double trio," was an expanded version of the ‘80s band featuring the entire ‘80s lineup (Belew/Fripp/Bruford/Levin) plus two new members (stick player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto). It had two drummers, two stick/bass players, and two guitarists - two rock trios, pitted against each other. (Fripp, Levin and Mastelotto also appear in the band’s current lineup.)
The return to a heavier sound made this incarnation of King Crimson feel relevant and vital, and allowed them to fit in seamlessly with the music of the time. Despite containing every member of the ‘80s band, this lineup feels like a different beast altogether. THRAK features none of the interlocking guitar lines that were the staple of the ‘80s band (though these would return for their next two albums). Polymeters are still present, but mostly manifest in the form of battling drum sets. Nonetheless, Belew’s songwriting style and voice create a strong connection to the ‘80s band. Thus, THRAK also feels like a synthesis of the band’s ‘70s and ‘80s styles, but in a very different manner from The ConstruKction of Light.
The expanded lineup allowed for a much bigger, more chaotic sound, and this is immediately evident on THRAK’s opening track "VROOOM." The mix by David Botrill (TOOL, Peter Gabriel) highlights the double trio, with Fripp, Levin and Bruford in the right channel, pitted against Belew, Gunn and Mastelotto on the left side of the mix. Mastelotto holds down the main groove, while Levin plays the main bass line.
"VROOOM" initially feels like a return to the harsh, distorted textures and double drum craziness of the first two parts of Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973). With closer listening, it becomes clear that both "VROOOM" and its sequel, the album closer "VROOOM VROOOM," are structural sequels to the title track from Red (1974). First, take a look at the forum of each track:
VROOOM VROOOM: ABCABA
"Red" has a palindromic structure. The rather brief A sections (0:00, 5:47) frame the piece with the song’s main melodic theme - a continually ascending, mostly octatonic melody accompanied by constantly changing triads (also drawn from the octatonic scale). The B sections (0:27, 3:46) are harsh chordal sections which take up the bulk of the song, and the C section (2:45) is a quieter section with no drums, featuring a pulsing eighth note guitar chord with a low melody played by bass and cello in unison.
"VROOOM" adds an extra C section, so it isn’t palindromic, but otherwise the structure is identical. As in "Red," the A section (0:27, 4:09) features constantly changing, non-tonal chord progressions underneath a descending melody. The B section (0:35, 2:24) consists of a harsh chordal riff, similar to the B-section of "Red," but with a blues lick underneath. (As a side note, this blues lick is reprised during the polymetric noise jams in another song on THRAK, "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream.") Instead of a pulsing chord, the C sections (1:43, 3:10) feature a clean guitar arpeggio pattern in 7/8 which is a bit reminiscent of the song "Hope" by the Robert Fripp String Quintet's Kan-Non Power (1992). Nonetheless, the parallels to ‘Red’ remain clear, as this is the softest part of the song, it is drumless, and the melody is in the bass, played by Tony Levin. Instead of a cello doubling, Trey Gunn plays a bass line to accompany this melody, creating a bass duet.
The parallels are made even clearer in "VROOOM VROOOM." Instead of repeating the C section as they did in "VROOOM," they add a brief reprise of the A section immediately following the C section. The A section (0:20, 2:50, 4:56) is again an ascending melody accompanied by constantly moving, non-tonal chord progressions. The B section (0:55, 3:05) is a variation on the B section from "VROOOM," featuring the same guitar riff that appeared over the blues lick - but this time, the chords in the B section are also constantly moving, creating a much more unsettled feel. It is in the C section (1:57) that the parallels to ‘Red’ really come to light - the textures are almost identical to the C section of "Red," with the same distorted pulsing eighth note guitar chords (in the same voicings) and a bass melody underneath, this time played an octave apart by both Levin and Gunn, giving the melody a doubled feel very similar to the cello doubling in "Red."
Unlike in "Red," the A sections in "VROOOM" and "VROOOM VROOOM" are a little different each time they’re played. And unlike "Red," both "VROOOM" tracks feature a very quiet string quartet introduction and a coda after the main song. Both codas are chaotic jams based on a series of constantly descending chords. Since the codas are clearly separated from the main song, occupying their own tracks, they allow the "VROOOM" tracks to stand on their own as sequels to "Red."
The coda of "VROOOM" is followed by THRAK’s first vocal song, "Dinosaur." "Dinosaur" is also referential, but in a different way - it begins with a mellotronesque guitar synth, evoking the sounds of the ‘70s, then launches into a distorted variation on "I Am the Walrus" by The Beatles. The self-aware lyrics openly acknowledge King Crimson’s status as a ‘prog rock dinosaur’ (according to the media and tastes of the time, progressive rock was extinct), but the band proudly own the label. This makes the self-referentialism of the "VROOOM" tracks feel defiant.
"Dinosaur" is followed by "Walking on Air" - another vocal song, and the album’s first mellow ballad. This one almost feels like a sequel to Discipline’s "Matte Kudesai," but the context evokes the album structure of their ‘70s albums, which frequently opened with loud and aggressive rock songs followed by placid ballads.
"Walking on Air" is followed by "B’Boom", a drum duet which serves as an intro to the title track. "THRAK" is the most abrasive, experimental and dissonant track on the album. Its structure is much like a free jazz tune - a head followed by free improvisation and a reprise of the head. Free improvisation was a trademark of the ‘70s band that the ‘80s band mostly avoided, and the return to it is yet another way that this lineup evoked the ‘70s band. However, the only free improvisation this lineup did was in the context of this song, so it was far less frequent than ‘70s improvs. Eventually, the band edited many of their live "THRAK" improvisations into a continuous jam and released the results as THRaKaTTaK, which may be the most ‘difficult’ release in King Crimson’s entire catalogue.
"VROOOM," "Dinosaur," "Walking on Air" and "THRAK" all showcase very different sides of the band - and that’s just in the first four songs. "People" shows the band at their funkiest, while "One Time" is a mournful ballad. This lineup of the band had a very large range to their sound, which was expanded even further when they performed music from their back catalogue live (with expanded arrangements for the double trio).
Unfortunately, the double trio only released one album. After unsuccessfully attempting to write some new material, the double trio dissolved into subunits called ProjeKcts, with the goal of exploring and developing new material through live improvisation. These improvisations eventually yielded the title track from The ConstruKction of Light, which I’ll discuss in my next post on King Crimson. Bruford and Levin left the band after the ProjeKcts, reducing the band to a four-piece, known as the double duo.
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