Tentative Review #19

King Crimson

(released 1981)

1. Elephant Talk*****
2. Frame By Frame*****
3. Matte Kudasai*****
4. Indiscipline*****
5. Thela Hun Ginjeet*****
6. The Sheltering Sky*****
7. Discipline*****



Music by King Crimson. Lyrics by Adrian Belew.


The progressive rock album of the 1980s.

It isn't often that I begin my reviews definite assertions, particularly those that lack preceding clauses. In this case, though, I trust that my meaning will be perfectly clear.

1981 saw the re-emergence of one of progressive rock's most consistently innovative and interesting projects, led (as always) by the vision of Robert Fripp. Following the dissolution of Fripp's loosely-run League of Gentlemen project, the path of his career led squarely to a more tightly organized venture. Originally entitled "Discipline", the unit was to serve as the opening volley of Fripp's curiously titled (though sadly prophetic, in the light of subsequent albums) "decline to '84".

The other band members came fresh from prog-related ventures of diverse sorts. Adrian Belew had recently guested on the Talking Heads' Remain In Light (itself a rather proggy affair in parts), and had previously worked with Frank Zappa and David Bowie. Tony Levin had worked on Peter Gabriel's solo projects. And Bill Bruford was witnessing his own jazz-prog group fall apart after the departure of guitarist Alan Holdsworth.

With the possible exception of Levin (who despite his ability to function in the band never seemed to be overly taken with Krimson's music to begin with, and may very well have regarded the entire venture as extended session work), these musicans were in search of a stable basis from which to work their labours. With the re-emergence of King Crimson, such a basis was provided.

The '80s Crimson unit would eventually fragment over personality clashes which have not yet been entirely clarified to the listening public (though the division of Three Of A Perfect Pair into "Fripp" and "Belew" sides of differing musical styles may indicate that the split was more structural than personal). While the unit lasted, however, they were able to create music unparalleled in the musical landscape of the early 1980s.

Discipline captures the group at the crest of their artistic purpose, and is the definitive statement of the unit. Each track was filled with incredible guitar duets between Fripp & Belew (each maintaining his distinctive style at almost all times), incredible work in the low (and I do mean low) ranges by Levin, and frequently off-kilter work by Bruford. Furthermore, intellectual disciples of the group lacking in concrete musical performance skills could take comfort in the fact that each of the vocal tracks contained a puzzle of some sort.

Regarding the small minority of KC fans from earlier times who disowned the album, this reviewer will simply state that it is unlikely they would have been pleased with anything other than a direct mimicking of the Wetton-era sound. Discipline, though mingling elements of Talking Heads-esque "new wave" into its output, is indisputably a progressive album (both in the real and accepted senses of the term). Those prog fans who were disappointed by the work were, to quote Fripp's description of a different tendency, "out of tune with the times".

Regarding the individual songs ...

"Elephant Talk" begins with a striking tritone note (the symbol of musical chaos in the Middle Ages) from Tony Levin's stick. A more appropriate herald of KC's return could hardly be imagined. After an amazingly fast hammer-on section from Levin, the entire band emerges in a well-structured arrangement, which quickly yields to Belew's unusual lyrical foundation (I won't spoil these lyrics for those who haven't heard them yet ... but let us simply say that they have some correlation to the order in which the Tentative Reviews have been appearing). The song also features two diverse guitar solos (the first from Belew, the second from Fripp) which clearly state what each member was capable of contributing to the unit. A triumphant return, elephantosity and all.

"Frame By Frame" is a more subtle work, weaving amazing band instrumental passages (including drum work which ranks among the best of Bruford's career) with tasteful guitar duets which (to use Fripperian terminology once again) serve the rare function of touching the mind as well as the heart. The lyrics were reportedly written by Belew as a commentary on Fripp's (over?)intellectualism in governing the group -- as such, Fripp's own performance of extremely fast and repetitious guitar picking in search of a sudden end might be regarded as an in-joke of sorts. Perhaps.

I normally don't give five-star ratings to ballads, but "Matte Kudasai" merits an exception ... and this is where I should note that my copy of Discipline is the unremastered version, with Fripp's guitar lines dominating the introductory section. Although I've never actually heard the so-called "definitive" version of this track, I might be inclined to reduce its rating accordingly. As the original track stood, however, it was an unbelieveably gorgeous piece, showcasing Belew's vocal skills to their maximum effect. The title is Japanese for "wait for me".

"Indiscipline" is perhaps the most overtly "proggy" track on the album, with Fripp leading the band through incredibly dark instrumental passages rivaling those of the Larks' Tongues period. Everyone is in top form on this track, and everyone gets a chance to shine. As with "Elephant Talk", I won't ruin the lyrical enjoyment for those who've not yet heard the album ... let's just say that they often co-relate to my feelings after finishing a Tentative Review. ;)

"Thela Hun Ginjeet" is a rather strange track, to say the least. The bass line is notable for being slightly more conducive to dance situations than the average KC song, though not by much. Fripp's trademark noises are in attendance, as is a curious high-pitched percussive device. The feature of this track, however, is Belew's recitation of a near-fatal experience with two street toughs near the area of NYC in which KC were making their recording. If the legend is to be believed (and there's probably no reason why it shouldn't be), Fripp managed to secretly record Belew's description of the events with a handheld tape recorder, and play them back for the band afterwards. A curious number, but one with enough musical merit to grasp a five-star rating (though I'll admit that I considered lowering it by half a star). The title is an anagram for "Heat In The Jungle".

"The Sheltering Sky" has sometimes been described as the showcase piece of the album: beginning with a quiet percussive line, stating the main theme of the track at about the 1:00 mark, gradually developing through various subtle arrangements, resolving itself with a return to the main theme late in the track, and finally returning to the percussive line on which it began. A more successfully meditative piece involving bass, drums, and two guitars may be impossible to imagine

And, finally, "Discipline" closes the album with a statement of controlled expressivity, using the skills of all group members to create a successful whole (though the cymbal crashes in the middle of the piece serve as a momentary disruption). Levin is probably the standout player in this piece, though everyone puts in an excellent performance.

In summary, this album is a triumph, and is one of the few progressive albums which no fan of the genre can afford to be without. It may even be the most consistently good album ever released under the "King Crimson" name.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 15 July 1997; revised 22 September 1997)

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