King Crimson at Usher Hall

Ian Patterson By

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King Crimson
Usher Hall
Edinburgh, Scotland
September 18, 2015

It's been thirty-three years since King Crimson last toured the UK and you have to go back to 1973 to find the last occasion Robert Fripp's storied band played Scotland. That's a long gap, whatever way you look at it; malt whiskies mature faster. Little wonder therefore, that the band's twelve UK dates have nearly all been sell outs, as you wouldn't hold your breath in expectation of the next tour.

For fans, the expectation was surely heightened by the fact of the band's numerous lengthy hiatuses over the years. With King Crimson you never know when the next hibernation may prove permanent.

The only thing more surprising than King Crimson's return to live duty in 2014, after an absence of six years, was the new, three-drummer lineup; the trio's position across the front of the stage represented a radical departure from the norm but Fripp's King Crimson is essentially an ongoing experiment in new possibilities. The day it stands still musically is the day it atrophies.

Yet despite such a radical formation, this show—weighted heavily with old favorites- -was largely devoid of surprise.

The ethereal calm of a pre-taped Fripp soundscape was shattered by rapturous applause when the band took to the stage. An extended electronic hand-percussion intro from Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison—part gamelan, part steel drum in texture—paved the way for the sawing, death metal-esque riffs of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One." With guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk soloing, Fripp's riffs meshing with Mel Collins' burrowing saxophone lines and bassist Tony Levin's doomy underpinning of the twelve-limbed rhythmic front-line, it was hard to imagine a more dramatic introduction.

Not for nothing has this seminal Crimson number opened each night of the tour. The song—like the show as a whole—was an exercise in contrasts, with the music swelling and receding in waves: pounding intensity at one extreme yet subtle enough to harbour Collns' unaccompanied Roland Kirk-esque flute solo at the other.

Collins' return to the fold has arguably had a greater impact on this latest incarnation of King Crimson than the three drummers. Throughout the evening, his frequent improvisations on an array of saxophones and flute brought a sonic dimension to the music missing from the Crimson equation since his departure in 1972. And, in a set where disciplined interplay was the norm, his looser-spirited interventions lent the music an edge that was somehow lacking elsewhere.

Collins was to the fore on "Pictures of a City," switching between muscular baritone and lithe alto, while Jakszyk's vocals rose impressively above the barrage. Having started with two early seventies classics, the band then explored more contemporary terrain beginning with the title track to Jakszyk, Collins & Fripp's A Scarcity of Miracles (Panegyric, 2011) which, if it didn't quite reignite the King Crimson motor at the time, then it at least took the dust cover off. Fripp's gentle soundscaping, Rieflin's orchestral synthesizer and Collin's soprano buoyed Jakszyk on this lyrical vocal number, the likes of which have peppered the band's discography from day one.

A vibrant three-way drum dialog served as a sonically and visually stirring intro to "Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind)," whose intense, hypnotic grooves segued into "Meltdown"—perhaps the closest the music came in spirit to Crimson's 1980s incarnation. The knotty rhythmic contours and arresting harmonics of "The ConstruKction of Light," with Collins switching between flute and tenor, effectively signaled the end of the twenty-minute slot of recent/new material.

More such unfamiliar musical contours would,perhaps, have been the bolder option, but instead the guts of the remainder of the show visited tunes that were staples of the band's 1960s and 1970s shows. Still, a moving version of the epic ballad "Epitaph," a storming reinterpretation of "Easy Money" and the alternating poetry and fire of "The Letters" formed a striking tryptic.

A brief saxophone-cum-drums workout teed up the metal thunder and grace of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two" and a faithful version of "Starless"—still unsurpassed for orchestral grandeur and visceral punch—brought the main program to a thrilling conclusion and earned the musicians an instant standing ovation.

The encores kicked off with another drum feature ("Devil Dogs of Tessellation Row") and the band, to wild cheers, powered into "The Court of the Crimson King"; whilst the symphonic power of the tune remained undiminished by time, Peter Sinfield's fantasy lyrics—46 years on—sounded dated. With "21st Century Schizoid Man," on the other hand, the band snarled with a punkish collective energy, provoking a small number of young enthusiasts and, pleasingly, an older gentleman in full Scottish regalia, to dance wildly in front of the stage. The standing ovation that followed—for King Crimson—was prolonged and the applause heartfelt.

With rumors on the Crimson grapevine that a tour is already pencilled in for 2016, it will be interesting to see if more new material muscles its way into the show. The band could probably knock out its old crowd pleasers ad infinitum, for most of the material still has the power to impact. However, a fresh musical injection might be timely, otherwise Fripp's legendary band—three drummers or not—runs the risk of resting on its laurels.

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