The Holy Trinity, Part One: Yes

yes73

Ah, Yes.

Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.

Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.

Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.

One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.

Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.

Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.

Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera; the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds. That voice, those instruments, that compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.

When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.

Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.

Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).

An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.

Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.

It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.

A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.

Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.

Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.

One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.

With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.

The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.

Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.

If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?

Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.

Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.

This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), to the operatic (yes, I said it) majesty of the middle section (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out.

“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.

It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.

There’s something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/the-holy-trinity-part-one-yes/

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The Holy Trinity, Part One: Yes

Ah, Yes.

Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.

Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.

Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.

One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.

Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.

Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.

Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera; the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds. That voice, those instruments, that compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.

 

When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.

Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.

Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).

An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.

Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.

It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.

 

A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.

Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.

Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.

One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.

With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.

The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.

 

Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.

If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?

 

Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.

Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.

This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), to the operatic (yes, I said it) majesty of the middle section (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out.

 

“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.

It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.

There’s something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

 

http://www.popmatters.com/column/the-holy-trinity-part-one-yes/

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King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study

Although it was already suggested that Pink Floyd is the archetypal prog-rock band (HERE), an equally compelling case could be made for King Crimson. By practically any criteria, King Crimson has always epitomized everything we talk about when we talk about prog. Only more so.

From their first album, which remains the Rosetta Stone of progressive rock, to their four decade-plus career making music, King Crimson looms large and remains impossible to ignore. While the title track of their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is still the purest and most perfect expression of the prog-rock aesthetic, it’s the sheer depth and breadth of their catalog that inspires a singular awe. The Dark Side of the Moon is the Sgt. Pepper of prog, but In the Court of the Crimson King is The Beatles on Ed Sullivan: a pivotal moment that announced a new reality. After 1969, nothing was, or could ever be, quite the same.

To fully fathom what In the Court of the Crimson King signifies, it’s useful to consider it as less an uncompromised statement of purpose, and perhaps the first influential album that forsook even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you have to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—out of time.

So…what is it, exactly, that King Crimson accomplished on the album that arguably remains their most fully realized vision? It has all the necessary ingredients: impeccable musicianship from all players (but special props must be doled out to Ian McDonald, whose flute and saxophone contributions grant the material its majestic, at times ethereal air), rhythmic complexity, socially conscious lyrics—courtesy of Peter Sinfield, and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but is grounded in history and looks forward, not backward.

Of course, it came out of an era and the minds from which it was conceived, a dark, sensitive and undeniably psychedelic space. And then there’s the mellotron. The Moody Blues did the most to incorporate this peculiar instrument into rock music, but King Crimson henceforth made an improbable art out of it. Throughout the album Pete Townshend (the same year The Who dropped Tommy) declared “an uncanny masterpiece”, the mellotron functions as accompaniment (“Epitaph”) and, at times, lead instrument (“In the Court of the Crimson King”).

After this remarkable opening salvo, what happened next is at once unbelievable, but also the impetus for what makes King Crimson quite unlike most successful bands. The group almost imploded, with bassist/singer Greg Lake agreeing to front Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and spend the next decade driving snooty critics insane), and multi-reedist/composer Ian McDonald—whose input was so affecting on the first album—departing, not necessarily harmoniously.

Robert Fripp, the acknowledged mastermind and reticent leader, was now captain of a suddenly uncertain ship as the ‘70s began. Somehow, he convinced Lake to stick around long enough to lay down some vocal tracks (which, it must be said, are some of the most powerful of his career), and the Giles brothers (Michael and Peter, on drums and bass) were enticed to finish what had been started. The resulting album, In the Wake of Poseidon, manages to be many things, most of them quite good, and in the end is greater than the sum of its puzzling pieces.

Naysayers have pointed out that it’s a rather paint-by-numbers impression of the preceding album, but this opinion is facile. While the sensibility and most of the line-up is the same, In the Wake of Poseidon indicates signs of the ambition and restless creative energy that would characterize the next two albums. The tension and release: harrowing notes followed by tranquil ones, are the signature calling cards, and on songs like “Pictures of a City” and the sprawling “Devil’s Triangle” (modeled on Holst’s “Mars”, from Planets, and boasting more mellotron than most bands could cram into a double album), they exist alongside each other in a uniquely organic way. Few bands, in sum, mixed beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

Considering that the only constant during these early years was change, the quality and variety of the next albums is astonishing. The line-up rotations turned out to be a fortuitous blessing, as the third and fourth efforts sound distinct and unconnected. This is actually a rather exceptional phenomenon within the prog rock movement. Where bands like Genesis and Yes steadily built up confidence and momentum, eventually hitting on all aesthetic cylinders (on albums like Close to the Edge and Selling England by the Pound), King Crimson, almost by default, churned out individualized works. Put another way, one would be hard pressed to find two works by the same band as distinct yet rewarding as Lizard and Islands.

As ever a guiding force, the dominant sounds come from Fripp, holding down guitar and mellotron duties, and orchestrating the proceedings like the prickly perfectionist he has always been. King Crimson, as evidenced on these albums, could invoke other times, places and feelings practically as a matter of course. This, again, can be attributable to Fripp, one of the most keenly intelligent (and quietly driven) leaders of any group. Like many great coaches, he is not always easy or enjoyable to exist with, but players under his guidance tend to do their best work. Has there been a figure in popular music anything like Fripp, leading as many disparate bands, overseeing a vast body of work that is reflective of the various times it was created?

In a gesture of prog-rock bonhomie, King Crimson benefited from the vocal services of Jon Anderson (who was soon to become famous as the lead singer for Yes) on the title track to Lizard. That goodwill may have been strained when Bill Bruford, Anderson’s band mate and arguably the elite drummer of the era, left one supergroup to join another. With Bruford’s dexterity, driving the beat forward while keeping pace with Fripp’s increasingly complicated playing, the band (inevitably?) assumed a more forthright and forceful sound.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: that is not an album title so much as an eccentric ode to the path less traveled. Most of the work made during the prog rock era can be described, at least to some extent. The title suite of their fifth album, comprised of two parts, remains a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As usual, Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussive stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The following one-two punch of Starless and Bible Black and Red (both 1974) find the band taking the next logical (or illogical, if you like) strides forward, with John Wetton (bass, vocals) and Bruford anchoring the proceedings with a confidence and stability that, to this point, had not stretched beyond a single album. The two albums are a treasure trove of forward-thinking prog, a blend of bucolic and apocalyptic.

For an example of the former, the live recording “Trio” is a melancholic tone poem; its title signifies the absence of Bruford, who instinctively understood his participation was not needed for the improvised tune. In classic Fripp fashion, Bruford was nevertheless awarded an equal share of compositional credit as a nod to his astute restraint. For an example of the latter, album-closer “Fracture” might best signify King Crimson’s quiet-to-chaos dynamic, and features one of Fripp’s towering solos. (Bonus trivia: listen for the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for “The Simpsons”.)

Although the band seemed, sonically, locked in to make a sustained run, Red turned out to be their final album of the ‘70s. This was entirely Fripp’s decision, the result of burnout and likely, if understandably, residual exhaustion from his almost ceaseless work. The album begins and ends with signature songs—for the band and prog-rock. The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored by a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility: it’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.

The closer, “Starless”, is epic in every sense of the word; one of the all-time prog masterworks. Brooding and heavy, fraught with feeling and foreboding, it’s an exercise in precision, the apotheosis of their “dread and release” formula. It builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the darkness; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

It was during the next string of albums, commencing with Discipline (1981) that King Crimson set itself apart as the only original era prog band to make significant (not to mention enjoyable) music after 1980. A case could be made that Discipline represents some of their finest playing/composing. Retaining Bruford and recruiting the ludicrously versatile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound.

Fripp had not been inactive during King Crimson’s hiatus: his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel feature some of the most inspired—and imitated—guitar pyrotechnics of his career. His exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise. On songs like “The Sheltering Sky” Fripp incorporates virtually every trick in his arsenal, creating something that integrates multiple source-points (African, Indian, and Western). The title track is like a business card for the new decade: Fripp asked a lot of his audience, but he has always asked more of himself.

If the next two albums, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair are not as consistent or wholly substantial as Discipline, they still stand tall alongside almost anything else being done in the early-to-mid ‘80s. Another hiatus was in order, and Fripp wisely kept King Crimson on the sidelines as hair metal and early grunge duked it out for the next decade.  The band resurfaced in 1994, as a double trio (retaining Belew, Levin and Bruford and adding Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto). The resulting albums, Vroom and Thrak, are as good as any fan could reasonably have expected—or hoped for.

After this the band splintered into a billion parts and side projects, still drawing crowds and earning accolades. If it’s safe to suggest the band’s best years were well behind them, still they endure, living defiance of the notion that prog rock died like the dinosaurs decades ago. Certainly bands like The Mars Volta and Porcupine Tree owe considerable debts to King Crimson’s old and newer influences.

So where does that leave us? With this: the music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It’s not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to confront trends or commercial-minded fashion is created without any of these considerations in mind. King Crimson, as much as or more than any other prog rock band, consistently shaped and refined a unique vision, arguably creating whole new types of music in the process. There are numerous songs (some already mentioned) that are truly unlike anything else from any other genre: the results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Steadily led by the restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; at their best they transcended it altogether.

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