Wow, King Crimson reinvented themselves again. I’m so surprised. This installment of King Crimson is supposedly inspired by ’90s alternative rock and metal, and the previous two major eras of King Crimson – their improvisatory proto-metallic approach of the 1970s, and the New Wave/math rock fusion of the 1980s. In cliched terms – the more things change, the more they stay the same. If I were writing this review in 1995, when this album was still new, I would expect to focus on the new things (like the ‘double trio’ lineup, the evolution of Fripp’s guitar soundscapes, etc). Instead, it’s 2017, I’ve been familiar with KC’s discography for nearly a decade now, and what really strikes me about this is how it continues so many of the band’s past tropes.
Despite this, it does bear mentioning that Thrak does represent new territory for the band. While King Crimson has many an intense moment in their catalog, Thrak emphasizes the louder, dirtier parts of the band’s aesthetic in ways that previous albums didn’t. Part of it’s the greater emphasis on guitar parts – compared to something like the band’s debut, Thrak is certainly not a panopoly of instruments even if Robert Fripp occasionally relies on mellotron patches to provide more variety. The production is also more assertive, and arguably more ‘digital’ or otherwise synthetic sounding; that might be a natural consequence of the advancing decades, though. Either way, it’s enough of a change from the thinner and drier (if occasionally psychedelic) Three of A Perfect Pair that it inevitably will color your understanding of the material.
From a structural/songwriting perspective, Thrak is most notable for how it mixes and juxtaposes elements from the band’s past. While the overall intensity levels have been notched up, King Crimson also manages to throw in a few ballads that likely would’ve fit well in the radio rock universe through pop songwriting, even if something like the shimmery, clean, studio flavored “Walking On Air” isn’t exactly a match for the decade’s stereotypical grunge. Like any band that seeks to create such a clash of sounds, they also mix elements within songs, allowing a track like “Dinosaur” to abruptly jump from heavy rock to synthesizer textures, or providing a place for the infamous “Frippertronics” in the otherwise improvisatory “B’Boom”, or whatnot. Despite the skilled performances of all the other musicians, Adrian Belew is Thrak‘s MVP by virtue of being versatile enough on vocals to tie everything together. That seems to happen a lot with the more self-consciously avant-garde rock and metal albums out there, and the fact that it outpaces his distinctive guitar stylings is cause for consternation, at the very least.
Ultimately, when Thrak succeeds, it’s due to the double trio’s ability to mix, match, and coordinate despite the strain of being a lineup of six musicians already famous in their own right. Arguably, that lineup later imploded, although exactly how you interpret the existence of King Crimson’s late ’90s “ProjeKcts” is up to you. I’d say that it usually does succeed, and even when it doesn’t, it still makes a good soundtrack to the multimedia frenzy of its time.
Highlights: “VROOM”, “Dinosaur”, “THRAK”, “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream”
AKA “Melt”, at least in some circles (and quadrilaterals). Between his earlier forays into a solo career after breaking off Genesis (Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel) and his proper entrance into the ’80s pop world (Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel is probably a straight up pop album. From a studio/historical perspective, though, it’s a fascinating recording, full of musicians who either already were famous in their own right, or went on to fame afterwards – most relevant to my interests are the presence of Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, who would go on to explore similar songwriting ideas with a new lineup of King Crimson. It’s also the reason I haven’t given The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway serious consideration. For some unknown reason, I went into that album expecting a production at least somewhat what I heard here, and understandably didn’t find it. What was I thinking?
With an album like this, I literally have to focus on aesthetics. Peter Gabriel‘s songwriting is mostly well realized in a pop sense, with enough structural variety and experimentation to keep things going. Those who go in expecting progressive rock ala his career with Genesis will be sorely disappointed. The emphasis really is on the sounds and textures; the album’s lengthy studio lineup results in a panoply of instruments blessing every track, and little in the way of aesthetic repetition. Between that and the clean, intelligible production, you end up with a recording that definitely left me with a good first impression, regardless of its future strength or weakness.
Peter Gabriel seems to be divided into two loose sections, much like one half of his face on the cover art is meltier than the other. The first half focuses on individuals and personal degradation/struggle, while the second half seems to be more about societies and social problems at large. This content split doesn’t really go beyond the lyrics, although you could argue that the second half also sounds more experimental, with a wider palette of instruments. More often than not, though, the lyrical content is at odds with the music around it. The best example is probably “Family Snapshot” – a song about a political assassin with choruses that sound like the theme to a contemporary sitcom. A few tracks are more fitting, though, like the regimented stomp of “Not One Of Us” or the creepy, SFX-driven lead-in that is “Intruder”.
Ultimately, the way this album is structured and written makes it hard for me to objectively judge, but I would tend to come out mostly in favor. Its partial resemblance to contemporary “New Wave” recordings and Discipline by King Crimson, though were a major selling point, and if you’re into that sort of thing, you might have just purchased this album.
Highlights: “No Self Control”, “Family Snapshot”, “Not One Of Us”
You know, the last time we talked about Aphex Twin, I got awfully fixated on Slayer, and it kind of spiraled out of control. I’m all better now, though, I promise. From a musical perspective, the Richard D. James Album is all about strange juxtapositions. The big one is the contrast between the harsh rapidfire percussion and the soothing melodic lines underneath. To my understanding, this is a common technique today (at least by IDM standards), but in 1996? I wouldn’t really know. But this sound, portioned out into compact little tracks, makes for an interesting experience at the very least.
If I ignore the aforementioned beats, what strikes me about RDJ is how ‘organic’ many of the tracks sound. There are obvious synthesizer lines and pads, but also an orchestra’s worth of simulated symphonic instruments strewn throughout the album. Besides falling way outside my own expectations, this especially doesn’t stereotypically jive with the drills in the rhythm section. That’s enough to forcibly fixate me on the fractured aesthetic, and focusing on it makes for difficult writing, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s entirely necessary. If you cut out the entire rhythm section for whatever reason, you’d have an entirely different experience – not something that necessarily matches up well with the rest of RDJ’s pre-1996 (this) discography, but a very restrained recording. You’d also have fewer problems with ear pain if your sound system wasn’t properly set up with a consistent frequency response; this album is exceedingly trebly to the point I notice it even on my relatively tuned desktop, and that I even find it hard to handle on less precise EQs like that of my phone.
For the most part, the songwriting here is more conventional, although I have no idea what prompted Richard to write “Logan Rock Witch” (by far, the least appropriate track for a session of Hearts of Iron). It’s the usual IDM “new element/permutation every 4/8 bars” shtick; like other forms of pop songwriting, people use it because it’s easy and it works if you know what you’re doing. You could argue that the short songs work against this idea, but this is where the hyperactive rhythm section actually comes in handy, by blasting through as many patterns as possible and therefore creating useful, attention-grabbing variations in texture over time. A good deal of it seems to be in the interest of wacky sound effects, though. Ultimately, I think the songwriting here functions at least in a pop sense, but the aforementioned aesthetic juxtaposition does make it harder to accurately judge this.
Any flaws I perceive in RDJ don’t seem to stop me from listening to it, so that’s got to count for something. Maybe I should check back in a year or so and see how well this holds up?
Highlights: ” Peek 824545201″, “Carn Marth”, “Yellow Calx”