by Justin Eisenstadt
As most people know by now, I am a huge fan of the progressive rock music from the late 1960s through mid-1970s. If the term "progressive rock" (or "prog rock" as I will refer to it henceforth) seems weird and scary to you, then you need to: 1) calm down, because those are just words and words cannot actually hurt you, and 2) click this link and read about this genre at ProgArchives.com, which contains far more information than any reasonable person could ever possibly use. You'll also find reviews, previews, an extremely active forum, and their Top 100 Prog Albums of All Time (and I'm quite proud to say that Close to the Edge by Yes is the #1 album on that list). This site is a great resource if you're looking to dive into the world of 20-minute songs, overly zealous use of keyboards, and complex lyrics about sci-fi and fantasy.
King Crimson, founded in 1968 by Robert Fripp (who has been described by music writer and critic David Kamp as a "Tiny British guitar god of nutty-professor mien") could arguably be credited with inventing the genre of progressive rock practically overnight with their incredibly influential 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. However, that's not the album I'm going to review today.
No, the album I want to talk about today is their 1981 album Discipline, released after a seven-year hiatus. It combined 80s the new-age sound with the dark and heavy sounds of the 70s. King Crimson has undergone numerous lineup changes throughout their decades-long career and has constantly redefined their sound, but Discipline represented a far greater paradigm shift than any KC album released before or since. The band's previous album, Red (1974), was a magnificent accomplishment considering the band was down to just three members and Fripp, by his own admission, had completely lost his damn mind and genuinely believed that the world was coming to an end. I highly recommend that album as well, and just as a taste I'll throw in a track from Red entitled "Starless," not only the best song on that album but one of the best songs King Crimson ever recorded.
Two months prior to the release of Red, Robert Fripp declared that King Crimson had "ceased to exist" and was "completely over for ever and ever."
In 1981, Fripp formed a quartet consisting of himself, Bill Bruford (the longtime drummer for both King Crimson and Yes, as well as many other excellent prog bands), bass player Tony Levin (a session musician who has played on 500 albums, and who Sean would know best as the bass player in Liquid Tension Experiment), and singer and guitarist Adrian Belew. Fun fact: this was Robert Fripp's first time ever being in a band with another guitar player. Fripp called this quartet Discipline. Within six months of forming, the group decided to resurrect the King Crimson name.
Now Adrian Belew is a very interesting guy. He has an incredibly unorthodox approach to guitar playing, and is capable of coaxing sounds out of his six-string that sound more like animals and machinery than a musical instrument. In addition, his singing voice sounds eerily similar to that of David Byrne, frontman for the Talking Heads. What's especially interesting about that is that Adrian Belew actually toured extensively with the Talking Heads. Listen to the first track off Discipline, "Elephant Talk," which demonstrates Belew's Talking Heads vocals and his ability to make a guitar sound like an elephant.
Holy crap, that was weird, right? BICKER. BICKER. BICKER. Well, we're just getting started. Yep, this album is the musical equivalent of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster - it's like having your brains smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. But it's not quite Animal Collective or Sleepytime Gorilla Museum weird - unlike those bands, this is still oddly enjoyable. The songs on this album don't really have traditional verses, traditional choruses, or, well...traditional anything. I believe that much of this album's brilliance stems from Robert Fripp, the mad scientist, finally learning to release some control and let the talents of his fellow musicians shine through. Perhaps that's why this album is widely considered by fans to be the band's greatest album after In the Court...
The other star of this show next to Belew is Tony Levin. On this album, Levin introduced the band to an instrument called the Chapman Stick, a ten-stringed bass-like instrument invented in the 1970s that is played purely through two-handed tapping. "Elephant Talk" was led primarily by the Chapman Stick, playing a sort of Go-Go style bass line. Now turn up the volume and listen to track two, "Frame by Frame," which sounds like being in the middle of a factory that's churning out creepy rock and roll. Welcome to the machine.
Now, I'm not going to go through every single song on the album, but there are two more songs that I feel it is imperative that you listen to. Both feature some truly breathtaking weirdness from Adrian Belew. The first is called "Indiscipline," and even I have to admit that this song is downright terrifying. Apparently, the lyrics of the song are based on a letter that Belew received from his then-current wife, Margaret Belew, about a sculpture that she had constructed. And I sort of wish I hadn't told you that, because the lyrics are far scarier when you don't have any clue what "it" is. The other song is track five, "Thela Hun Ginjeet," which is, of course, an anagram of the phrase "heat in the jungle." In the middle of the song, there is a voice recording of Adrian Belew talking about a run-in with a group of London Rastafarians and the police. Belew was unaware that he was being recorded while telling this story and had no idea that the recording was going to be used on the album. He wasn't exactly thrilled about that, but he was a good sport and went with it.
So that's King Crimson's Discipline. If ever there was an album to be enjoyed under the influence of mind-altering substances, this would be it. What's even stranger than the album itself is the fact that it was actually pretty popular when it was released, especially among die-hard King Crimson fans. In fact, the new sound was such a hit that Adrian Belew has fronted the group ever since, taking his place in the hallowed ranks of King Crimson singers including Gordon Haskell, John Wetton, and my favorite, Greg Lake. And if you have any nightmares (or even just really cool dreams) after listening to these songs, just leave a comment below and perhaps I'll consider adding a disclaimer next time.