Tentative Review #134

King Crimson

(released 1996)

1. THRAK ****1/2
2. Fearless And Highly THRaKKeD ****1/2
3. THRaKaTTaK Part I ****1/2
4. The Slaughter Of The Innocents *****
5. This Night Wounds Time *****
6. THRaKaTTaK Part II *****
7. THRAK (reprise) ****1/2




THRaKaTTaK is easily the most controversial release by the newest incarnation of King Crimson. It may be the most controversial release by any such incarnation.

Since "reforming" in 1994, King Crimson have released four interrelated albums and a considerable amount of supplementary material [let's not even touch on the archival releases for the moment...]. Of the primary works, the first three to emerge were: (i) VROOOM, a 31-minute document of the group's early recording sessions, combining amorphous improvisation with composed songs, (ii) THRAK, a "proper album" which showcased the results of this recording process, and (iii) B'Boom, a live recording of a 1994 show in Argentina, with few radical departures from the relevant studio recordings. Although some fans criticized the latter two works for being unduly "safe" by King Crimson standards, all three works were generally "approved" by the interested audience without too much complaining.

THRaKaTTaK, however, has divided audience opinion.

The structure of the album requires some explanation. During the tour for THRAK (summer/autumn 1995), King Crimson nightly embarked on group improvisations in their performance of the middle section of the album's title track. This was easily the most unpredictable aspect of the show, with all six musicians engaging in a level of sonic experimentation not permitted by the rest of the setlist. Belew's MIDI-piano work was (from the evidence at hand) at the forefront of the performance, although the other five musicians were strongly in evidence as well.

THRaKaTTaK consists of several such improvisations, fused together by the magic of modern production and bookended by the introduction and conclusion to "THRAK" itself. The liner notes give no indication of the source performances of each track [and I have a sneaking suspicion that Fripp won't be providing this information any time soon ...], nor as to the number of different improvisations used in the making of the album [it seems fairly clear that some tracks, at least, are taken from more than one performance]. The end result is about 70 minutes of terrifying instrumental improvisation from a unit of acknowledged masters within the genre.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this album was not to the liking of all Crimson enthusiasts. Some audients found the album to be little (if anything) more than unfocused noodling, and largely "unmusical" at that. Conversely, others believed that this release brought the potential of the six-man lineup to a sort of fruition -- if not in the sense of a "double trio" [has usage of this term been discontinued?], then at least in the sense that all six talents were utilized in a more successful manner than their more song-oriented studio album permitted.

As per the star ratings, this reviewer obviously fits into the latter category.

THRaKaTTaK is not a conventional King Crimson album. While King Crimson are most notorious for their chaotic instrumentals, such works are only one aspect of their recorded legacy -- all studio albums by all incarnations of the group, after all, also feature more structured (and generally more pop-oriented) compositions. With THRaKaTTaK, the balance is tilted almost entirely to the former aspect.

Fans of the more musically adventurous side of Krimson (who probably make up the vast majority of people reading this review) might be expected to have some natural affinity with this release, at least in theory. Whether all such persons will be entirely able to submerge themselves in an album this extreme is a different matter.

THRaKaTTaK is not a conventional King Crimson album. But it may be the album that many followers of the group -- fans and detractors alike -- have always expected them to make.

In terms of Robert Fripp's attitude towards the role of music and the nature of the music industry, this album plays a useful role on four levels that I can think of (there are assuredly more to be discovered). In a practical sense, THRaKaTTaK cuts a gaping hole into the demand for bootleg materials from the THRAK tour. Given that the setlist remained generally consistent from night to night, with only minor variations in the performances of most tracks, the variant "THRAK" improvisations are presumably the most sought-after aspects of the different shows for hard- care enthusiasts. By combining several such works on a single, over-the- counter product, Fripp has managed to make much of the bootleg trade superfluous.

Second, and on a related matter, the very fact that an album of such an unusual nature was released gives some credence to Fripp's idiosyncratic methods of audience relations. Fripp, in the liner notes, claims to be responding to a the requests/demands/desires of some audients in releasing a work of this sort; if we are to take him at his word (and there's probably no reason not to), the very existence of THRaKaTTaK might be taken as evidence of a functioning audience/artist relationship.

Third, -- and this is merely speculation on my part -- the album may be regarded as an experiment in "applied soundscapes", incorporating the ambient settings of Fripp's equipment into a structure in which they directly function as a background complement to the "action" in the more immediately noticeable elements of the music. If so, the project is considerably more subtle than the "applied Frippertronics" experiments of 1979-80, and quite more rewarding.

Fourth, the album may be regarded as an experiment in reducing the ego of the individual artist into the collective nature of the whole. In the early 1980s, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew sometimes engaged in guitar duets wherein it was extremely difficult (if not entirely impossible) to identify the actual individual behind any particular sound occurring at any given time. This motif was continued to some extent on VROOOM and THRAK, wherein the "doubled" nature of most instruments created problems for any audients wishing to identify particular performances with specific individuals (although some pieces were obviously more difficult to determine than others).

While this process is not perfected in THRaKaTTaK, it is nevertheless taken to a fairly elaborate level: Fripp may be confused with Belew, Gunn may be confused with Belew, Gunn may be confused with Fripp, Gunn may be confused with Levin, Bruford may be confused with Mastelotto. There are occasions in which it is difficult to identify, with any degree of certainty, the individual in relation to the sound. Given the manner in which the live performances were arranged (with Fripp surrounded by darkness for most of the show), and given Fripp's repeated cautions about hero worship and the unrestrained ego in the musical workplace, it seems highly unlikely that this sonic ambiguity was accidental.

In spite of this fourth, however, the general manner in which each artist contributes to the end result may be discerned without too much difficulty. Given the self-similar nature of most of the tracks on this release, moreover, an examination of each artist's general contribution may serve a greater purpose than a point-by-point analysis of each particular track.

The King Crimson member who stands out most distinctly is (as per the nature of the live performances) Adrian Belew. His MIDI-piano melodic lines generally provide a strong measure of "definite" musical continuity throughout these tracks, preventing the string instrument section from drifting into musical entropy. While some MIDI-piano is probably from Fripp (and the "duet" at the beginning of "THRaKaTTaK Part I" presumably involves both), Belew may nevertheless be most strongly identified with this frontman/lead-melodist role.

Robert Fripp and Trey Gunn frequently occupy similar sonic ranges; moreover, both often focus on sustained-tones in their contributions to the music. To paraphrase a comment made about John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley regarding their work with Miles Davis, it is often difficult for the untrained ear to clearly distinguish between the two (Fripp's tone is generally a bit higher, I believe). As some have noted, Gunn probably has a stronger melodic presence than is frequently assumed; the nature of the recording, however, makes specific identification as such rather difficult

Not all King Crimson members, however, integrate themselves to the project in the same manner. There is little in Tony Levin's background to suggest a natural affinity for a project of this sort, which may be why he seldom takes a dominant role within the improvisations. Although his exploration of the low range of his instrument (courtesy of a bow) yields several interesting moments, it would be difficult to think of THRaKaTTaK as a particularly notable exhibition of his abilities. Those looking for the distinctive bass lines which Levin is noted for might be advised to seek out B'Boom instead.

Those pondering Bill Bruford's current role in King Crimson might consider his drum performances as evidence of one "a part and yet apart". There are moments when Bruford provides seemingly out-of-context jazz- rock beats behind fairly ambient soundscape sections; while musically enjoyable, they seem to be interpolations of a musical ethos (i) suits King Crimson, but (ii) is distinct from what the other members of the unit are endeavouring towards. As against this, his electronic percussion fits the music perfectly.

Pat Mastelotto's performances also fit the collective nature of the music, but this reviewer is not suitably versed in the nature of his playing style to offer any particular comments [except that his performances can be mistaken for Bruford's at times, which may make the observations of the previous paragraph somewhat problematic ... caveat emptor, I suppose].

As mentioned above, it would be less than appropriate to apply the standard Tentative Reviews method of track analysis to this recording. Despite this, some observations on specific tracks may be made. "Fearless And Highly THRaKKeD", despite its title, is one of the more ambient (and dare I say comparatively gentle) tracks on the release, focusing on a more prominently ambient musical setting. "THRaKaTTaK Part I" differs from the other tracks in beginning with an extremely abrasive MIDI-piano "duet", and concluding after only four minutes [note that most of the improvisations hover around the ten-minute range]. Of the other tracks, it need only be noted that "This Night Wounds Time" is the most successful, approaching a level wherein music transcends its normal restrictions, achieving a state of sonic purification.

It may also be worth noting that the bookend performances of "THRAK" are abbreviations, and feature a nastier tone setting than occurs on the studio version.

THRaKaTTaK can be somewhat harrowing in its full, 70-minute+ glory, and may take several listenings to be fully digested. Fans of the more eccentric aspects of King Crimson, however, should have rather little difficulty accepting the premise of this work, and only slightly more difficulty adapting themselves to the finished product.

This is strongly recommended to all fans of the group who believe the album will be of interest to them. It may find a few supporters among the ambient set as well.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 13 Jan 1999)

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