Sometimes it can feel as if contemporary versions of ‘classic’ rock outfits are more like a tribute band than the real thing. Not so with King Crimson.
Years ago, Robert Fripp made the memorable pronouncement that King Crimson exists when there is King Crimson music to be played. Seems that the need has never really abated.
What sets the progressive deity apart from other long-running acts is Fripp’s insistence that the music remain vital and relevant to contemporary audiences. This commitment is amply demonstrated on the album arising from Crimson’s 2016 tour, Live In Vienna.
Released in April 2018, this three CD set packs in a whole lot of music from all phases of King Crimson’s reign. Early piece such as “Pictures of a city” (In The Wake Of Poseidon, 1970) rubs shoulders with recent song “Suitable grounds for the blues” while “Cirkus” (Lizard, also 1970) is followed by “In discipline” (Discipline, 1981).
That last song raises a fascinating attribute of Live In Vienna (which, by the way, is a complete concert in two parts, CDs 1 and 2). The different incarnations of King Crimson are linked by the vision and guitar genius of Robert Fripp, yet the character of the band is strongly coloured by the vocals. From Greg Lake in the early days, through John Wetton and Adrian Belew, the voice delivering the words has varied markedly. How, then, does current guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, cope with this half-century of songs?
The answer is, very well indeed. His voice is similar in range to Lake’s, making “21st Century Schizoid Man” (one of the encores on disc three) more than acceptable. Sensibly, Jakszyk does not even attempt to sound like Adrian Belew, claiming “Indiscipline” as his own by adding an entire vocal melody to the largely declaimed original. It work brilliantly and is a highlight of an electrifying set. It is with Wetton’s vocal lines that Jakszyk finds the biggest challenge; “Easy money” lacks the swagger Wetton brought to the somewhat salacious lyric. But just as you contemplate breaking out USA (live, 1975), you notice that the band has eased into an extended improvisation (deliciously coloured by reed work from that incomparable veteran, Mel Collins) and comparisons simply fade into the mysterious mesh of music… which even includes some neat vocalising from Jakko J. It is quirky, inventive, and enthralling.
With three drummers and a keyboardist, this 21st Century Crimson can create wonderfully detailed musical canvases, a skill seen both in the fresh (yet fully recognisable) arrangements of overlooked classics like “Sailor’s tale” (Islands, 1971) and even, delightfully, part of side two of Lizard, “Dawn song” from the title suite.
The third disc opens with “Heroes” (should that have double quotation marks?) and a fine interpretation it is too, with Fripp clearly relishing playing the guitar part that electrified David Bowie’s classic. Also worth mentioning (well, for Crimso fans, anyway) is the welcome return to live action of that mutant beast, “Fracture”. If anything shows the vitality of this version of KC, it is the Starless And Bible Black instrumental, born 1974, still gleefully smashing brains today.
Live in Vienna, December 2016 may have taken fifteen months to reach fans, but this long-term Crimson devotee is duly grateful and is convinced other subjects will feel the same.