The Tuk Ten: Day 4 –King Crimson, THRAK (1995)
King Crimson is an enigma. Like many progressive rock bands, Crimson has had numerous lineup changes since its debut in 1968. The band continues to this day, having completed a tour in Fall 2017 that took it across the United States, coupled with an announcement that new music was on the way.
For many though, the most endearing quality of the band is that it gets together, makes a lot of noise, then disappears for a bit, only to resurface with a different lineup, with guitarist and mastermind Robert Fripp being the only constant. Fripp has a lengthy career outside of Crimson as a studio musician with over seven hundred (yes, 700!) recordings on his resume, with such musical legends David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Blondie, Talking Heads, and many others.
There are least five major versions of Crimson. The first was front by Greg Lake and produced, among other things, In the Court of the Crimson King, released in 1969 and named by Rolling Stone as one of the 50 most influencing prog rock albums of all time (#2 to only Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon).
The second was a power trio with Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass, and Bill Bruford on drums. This version of the band produced an album in 1974 entitled Red, which is a jarringly heavy album, which Kurt Cobain cited as one of his biggest influences in creating the sound of Nirvana.
The third incarnation was the 1980s quartet with Fripp, Bruford, and Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Warren Zevon) on bass and Adrian Belew (David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads) on guitar. That incarnation produced three streamlined and classic albums – all of which get honorable mentions in this column as indispensable listening – Discipline (1981), Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984).
That brings us to the fourth incarnation of the band which lasted from 1994 through 1999. This was an audacious lineup, and one which produced one of the most heavy-hitting but perfectly orchestrated recordings in their canon, and in all of rock music for that matter. It also had one of the most onomatopoetic titles — Thrak. One could imagine the sounds of two objects colliding violently –– thrak! — complete with the requisite 1960s Batman graphics sprawling diagonally across the television screen in your mind.
For this group was comprised of not one, but two guitar trios, sometimes playing together, sometimes playing in counterpoint against one another, but always playing with the precision of conservatory trained classical players. This lineup? Fripp (guitar), Levin (bass), Bruford (drums) and Belew (guitar), newcomer Trey Gunn (Warr guitar) and Pat Mastelotto (drums).
In the wrong hands, this many players would run amok and pull each other into opposite directions. Under Fripp’s direction, the double trio lineup played sleekly orchestrated pieces that run through Thrak from start to finish. Most of the album is instrumental, with a couple of “radio” tunes thrown in to showcase Belew’s considerable prowess as a vocalist. The use of the term radio tunes is a bit sarcastic, in that even those songs are pretty dense musically and I don’t think ever saw much, if any, broadcast exposure.
On Thrak, the ensemble itself is the star, with all of the players fully utilized, totally incorporated into the whole and complete synergy among the players. Like many Crimson recordings, the production on the album downplays the heaviness of the music. Then, one sees the band live and immediately realizes how heavy Crimson really is. (Recall that Tool and Crimson toured together in 2001, and the similarities between their two styles become immediately apparent to a new generation of fans).
Out of all the concerts I have attended — and there have been many — the single most devastating performance by any rock band I witnessed was in 1996 at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia, witnessing the double trio lineup of King Crimson. My college roommate Brother James and I made the drive down to the theater, having both of us having multiple listens to and partial digestion of Thrak in advance (as well as the EP which preceded Thrak which, of course, is named VROOOM and features the same lineup).
The power and precision that Crimson delivered that night was something that neither of us had ever seen, and will likely never see again. The band played for about 80 minutes, and there was no encore, which is another Crimson tradition. We sat in our seats for a while and then went back to the car, neither of us saying very much. It was one of those totally immersive experiences that demonstrates the idea that rock music can indeed be high art.
Thrak is really several albums of material rolled into one. The industrial, metal, heavy instrumental elements provide the framework around which everything else on the record is organized: VROOOM, Coda: Marine 475, THRAK, VROOOM VROOOM and VROOOM VROOOM: Coda, which is a gratuitous amount of use of that word, but Fripp does as Fripp does.
Second, there are a group of short soundscape fragments, some with vocals some without, that appear in between the heavier parts: Inner Garden I, Radio I, Radio II and Inner Garden II. Each of these fragments clock in at one minute or so in running time.
Then, the third group of songs are more accessible, featuring Belew on vocals and some of which might actually have received some radio airplay: Dinosaur, Walking on Air, People, One Time, Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream.
Finally, there is a percussion piece for two drumsets and percussion, which features Bruford and Mastelotto entitled B’Boom, a compositionally satisfying piece that is more than just two drummers ramming notes. The game of that track is a direct homage to the jazz master Max Roach who, in 1970, formed a seven-player percussion ensemble called M’Boom. That group released four albums, and is worth your time to get into something really avant garde.
For now, however, get this album, play it through good headphones — see my prior advice to avoid bluetooth earbuds — and crank the volume up.
Coda: Marine 475
Walking on Air
Inner Garden I
Inner Garden II
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream
VROOOM VROOOM: Coda
Bryan Tuk is a author, attorney and musician. His recent book: risk, create, change: a survival guide for startups and creators, is available on Amazon. You can find out more about Bryan’s writings and music at http://riskcreatechange.com
His law practice represents clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey and focuses on arts & entertainment law matters, copyrights, trademarks, nonprofit organizations, startups and entrepreneurs. You can learn about Bryan’s law practice at http://tuklaw.com.