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In The Court of the Crimson Things

February 16, 2012

For those that don’t know me too well, I’m a Progressive Rock addict. Incurable, really. It’ll kill me one of these days, as surely as heroin or crack cocaine. I’ve listened to a fair bit of the stuff from many different bands in many different flavours and time signatures, and for the longest time, my favourites have been the perfect troika of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson.

Yes recently recorded their latest album, Fly From Here, which has fans divided because it’s essentially a reunion of the most controversial line-up in Yes’ history, and does not include Jon Anderson at the helm. But I wrote a review of their last album, which should cover most of my thoughts on that. For those who don’t want to go there, suffice to say, Jon can live without Yes, and Yes can live without Jon, and I’m fine with that, fan of both that I am.

Genesis, of course, had a rather successful reunion tour back in 2007, to which I was happy to have bought very expensive tickets to see with my wife. Sadly, as we knew would be the case, that was it. No album. Great concert video, but no attempt to make new music. The band’s discography officially stops at 1997, with a good but somewhat uneven Calling All Stations, which deserved more love than it got, but was probably never going to be what I wanted it to be: a true return to progressive rock form for the band that had the most influence on me musically.

Just one more great album is really all I ask, but honestly, with Phil retired from drumming, Mike making more Mechanics albums with a new line-up and Tony making more orchestral music, the likelihood just isn’t there. I think that, more than anything, I miss the idea of Mike and Tony clashing with a great drummer and a great vocalist, making challenging but pleasing music. There’s never quite been another combination that worked the same, way, although Mike and Anthony Phillips produced some really good stuff early in their mutual solo careers. Maybe Tony and Steve? That would be nice, if highly unlikely, considering how much they competed (with Tony often winning) back in Steve’s final days in Genesis. Steve’s latest solo album is probably the closest I can expect, and though it’s a brilliant album that makes me very happy, it’s still not Genesis, and never could be.

Which brings me to the ever shifting, ever-unassailable King Crimson. Actually, that line pretty much says it all. They’ve flirted with the occasional bit of pop music or hard rock single over the years, and from the beginning, they’ve recorded soft, pastoral ballads right alongside the crunchy, jagged material they’re most widely known for. But for my money, what has always been missing from their canon was that one album that any music lover could jump onto and identify as the King Crimson entry point. Kc fans LIKE that their band is hard to take. It’s the last real boy’s club of progressive rock music, really, and frankly, as a fan of pop music as well as prog rock, and let’s be honest, a fan of women, boy’s clubs put me off.

I don’t listen to and extoll the virtues of Kc to appear smarter than anyone. It’s not an ego thing for me. My brain is a little damaged, and it seeks out challenging music of a certain calibre, but even I draw the line in places. The nice thing about Kc is, they’ve generally always been my high water mark. Even side projeKcts involving various recombinations or solo efforts by Crimson alumnus that bore more than a passing resemblance have made me quite, quite happy. But until recently, I guess I pretty much figured that, after recording their high water mark album, The Power To Believe (2002?), Kc, like Genesis and, to some people’s minds Yes, had really finished up at least a decade ago.

Then two things happened: well, three or four, at least, but two in the form of fully realized albums from last year. One was the Tony Levin, David Torn, Alan White project, Levin/Torn/White, which I reviewed with great relish. As much as I’ve enjoyed Adrian Belew’s forays into solo Crimsonian music with his Ampersand series, it hasn’t felt precisely like the continuation I’ve been looking for, any more than the continuing series of ProjeKct albums that have been issued sporadically since before The ConstruKction of Light (2000?). However, paradoxiacally, the Levin/Torn/White album, which consists of only one Crimson alumnus, just feels like Crimson music at its finest. I’ve been interested in hearing the Stickmen project as well, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

But even with this lovely album to warm my bones by, there was and is still something missing: a bona fide entry point for non-fans. Something fans can point to and say ‘Here, listen to this, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is good about King Crimson’s music, only with a new line-up and songs you can (almost) dance to.’ Crimson itself had only accomplished this once, with The Concise King Crimson collection, which was my first serious foray into their music, but is both horribly dated and out of print, and frankly, which even I found hard to take in places. It has taken me over twenty years to get to the point where I can genuinely enjoy listening to 21st Century Schizoid Man, and I still haven’t found the love in my heart for Cat Food or Elephant Talk.

But the recent ProjeKct 7, so dubbed by Robert Fripp himself, entitled Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins, released an album last year called A Scarcity of Miracles. This is a very controversial album amongst Crimson fans, as it turns out. Seems the old school boys don’t much care for Fripp mixing the streams between King Crimson, the ProjeKcts, his solo work and his critically acclaimed work with David Sylvian over a decade ago, which is very much what Miracles sounds like to most people who have heard more than just the main canon of King Crimson music–or only select parts of it, most likely.

If The Power To Believe was the grand summation of everything King Crimson had done on record from Lark’s Tongues in Aspic onward, then Miracles is the summation of everything else Fripp has worked on in the fringes of King Crimson, while seeking a new direction for the band to go in. To my ears, he’s finally cracked it. If he’s looking for a new way forward, I personally believe he’s found it, and this first salvo is easily the most accessible, enjoyable album Fripp has ever recorded with his own name in the masthead.

It may not be Crimson of old, but then, what Crimson ever is?

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