King Crimson has finally found its true iteration.
King Crimson left behind progressive rock sometime around 1973 with the release of their finest work, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. That record, with its plunge into free improvisation, avant-garde jazz, modern classical and even a liberal dash of jagged metal, signaled the end of Robert Fripp’s revolving-door unit as something even slightly tethered to the increasingly sedate, bloated, ironically conservative prog scene and marked the group’s ascension as rarefied makers of truly boundless music. Since that time, Crimson has spiraled off into myriad directions, each new iteration of musical exploration informed by a lineup so prone to constant revision that Fripp long ago began labeling incarnations like software patches.
King Crimson 8.3, the result of a reshuffling that saw the 2014 touring septet augmented to an octet when drummer Bill Rieflin rejoined the band after a stint with Swans and took over on keyboards to retain his fill-in Jeremy Stacey, is the band documented on Meltdown, a three-CD set culled from performances during a July 2017 residency in Mexico City. The lineup in question, also including longtime KC drummers Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto, guitarist-vocalist Jakko Jaksyzk, early Crimson wind instrumentalist Mel Collins and bass maestro Tony Levin, presents Fripp with a rare opportunity. Other versions of the band have all largely been restricted to whatever new material they had concocted during touring and recording sessions, able to dip back into Fripp’s knotty back catalog for only a few cuts conducive to the arrangement of musicians on hand. Here, however, the presence of a triple-percussionist polyrhythmic section, double-guitar contrast, and the throwback presence of a dedicated keyboardist and saxophonist/flautist allows Crimson to traverse the entirety of its hydra-headed canon with unprecedented freedom. That Fripp and co. can manage this while also heavily revising existing compositions with intensely technical transposition and intuitive free improvisation only compounds the breathtaking accomplishment captured in these shows.
Consider that the band opens with one of Fripp’s most notoriously difficult pieces, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. One,” originally a mire of freewheeling, avant-garde percussion by Jamie Muir with jazz-metal fills from Bill Bruford. The track is prime fodder for recalibration by an additional drummer, and the weaving attacks from each percussionist is dizzying to track. Heavy tom fills thunder over skittering, scraping metal as sinister fills weave lithely through the composition. When the band lurches into the song’s crashing riff, Fripp’s crunchy pattern and Jaksyzk’s soaring lead is complemented by Collins roaring between them on saxophone. All the while, Levin lays in tar-thick basslines and solos as the drummers build to repeated crests that shove jazz into the realm of post-rock. Fripp rarely trotted out this track after Muir’s departure from the Crimson orbit, finding its alchemical mixture of heady composition and tortured, caterwauling improv impossible to replicate, but this octet manages the feat of not only retaining the energy of the original recording but expanding an already colossal arrangement to incorporate some of the band’s various phases: the English jazz of the early years, the molten metal of the ‘70s, the art-funk of the ‘80s and even the dense math rock of the double trio era. Fripp’s decision to open with the composition comes across as nothing less than a statement of intent, throwing down a gauntlet to announce just what this version of his 50-year-old project can do.
Nearly every track on the mammoth album is worthy of similar praise. The band’s ‘70s material is a study in refinement, the gradual shedding of Fripp’s quintet into an ad-hoc metal trio folding in the sonic curlicues into one giant assault. With seven other musicians at his beck and call, Fripp reverses that trend and drastically revises classics like “Red,” which blows up the space around its jagged riff with whining soprano saxophone and interlocking waves of percussion that sound like lava belching and cooling into the first land masses of a young Earth. “The Talking Drum” foregrounds a stuttering bassline as Fripp spirals off into deep space in the background over percussion grows over like kudzu, quiet beginnings slowly gnarling into a suffocating field of sound in which every available space is occupied by wooden blocks, snares or hi-hats. Elsewhere, the early, more pastoral material retains its supple grace but gains the added sturm-und-drang of this line-up’s dense rhythms.
In accompanying liner notes culled from Fripp’s tour diary, the notoriously crotchety, reserved musician can barely contain his effusive praise for the Mexican audiences and the playing of his bandmates. In his glee, Fripp makes a minor but noteworthy distinction, revising his designation of this band from Mark 8.3 to version 9. It’s a clear argument in favor of treating this lineup, arrived at not with the usual subtractions and replacements but addition, as a truly new era for King Crimson. It’s hard to argue with Fripp’s point, and it is a delightful irony that a career retrospective setlist offers the clearest indication in a generation that the band’s forward-thinking boldness is as strong as ever. As the octet careens through one of the most protean discographies in recorded music and expands it in new, thrilling ways, one is struck by the astonishing thought that King Crimson, after 50 years of existence and wildly different lineups, has finally found its true iteration, and that everything to this point feels like prologue.