-->The King is dead. Long live the King.
When the king in question is progressive rock legends King Crimson, this is not news. Practically alone among all contemporary music ensembles, King Crimson has made a habit of being active for a few years before splitting up, then reforming a few years later – typically with a radically different lineup and sonic palette. Just last week, leader, guitarist, and lone mainstay Robert Fripp announced that the group, moribund since 2008, would be “returning to active service” as of September 2014.
Predictably, the lineup (Crimson’s eighth since 1969) is new and highly unorthodox. The group’s foundation comprises no fewer than three drummers: previous members Gavin Harrison (on loan from latter-day proggers Porcupine Tree) and Pat Mastelotto, and Bill Reiflin (REM). On-again, off-again member Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick) is on again. Saxophonist Mel Collins, who last played with Crimson in 1974, returns, while newcomer Jakko Jakszyk (who played in a Crimson cover band as well as a trio with Fripp and Collins) joins Fripp on guitar duties.
As notable as who is in the band is who is not. Guitarist Adrian Belew, who endured through three lineup changes over the past three decades, was not asked to participate. On his Facebook page, Belew noted, “Robert informed me in an email that he was starting a 7-piece version of the band. He said I would not be right for what the band is doing.” Drummer Bill Bruford, widely considered to be Crimson’s (and the progressive rock genre’s) all-time best drummer, retired in 2009 after penning his autobiography, which details the increasingly prickly relationship he had with Fripp at the end of their 20-year association.
Fripp has often said that studio recordings are like love letters while live performances are hot dates. In a break from group history, the new incarnation of Crimson has no plans for making a studio recording (the last Crimson album of new material was released in 2003) and instead is compiling a concert tour focusing on the U.S., during which the band will perform new renditions of classic material.
Though the active-inactive-reactive pattern has long been established, Fripp’s news has shocked the progressive rock community, largely because Fripp himself announced his own retirement from performance in an interview with The Financial Times in August 2012. The original King Crimson went through three lineups from 1969-1974 before Fripp announced that the band had “ceased to exist.” It did not reappear until 1981, when Fripp and Bruford reformed with Americans Belew and Levin. That lineup made three albums in three years and broke up in 1985, only to reform in 1994 as a “double trio” with two guitarists (Fripp and Belew), two Stick players (Levin and Trey Gunn), and two drummers (Bruford and Mastelotto).
Today, with an eighth lineup after four hiatuses, King Crimson is again, in Fripp’s words in “Go! mode”. About the only conclusions one can draw from this is that there is likely in the future to be yet another hiatus with perhaps yet another lineup – that, and the fact that whatever music this new King Crimson makes, it will be highly adventurous, unusual, and heavy. In every incarnation, the band has been a musical pioneer, whether with the Mellotron in the late 60s and early 70s, group improvisation of the highest order in the mid-70s, intricate electronic interplay in the 80s, and bombastic noise in the 90s and 00s. In an era when old bands routinely reform for money rather than from inspiration, it is refreshing that a consistently noncommercial group like King Crimson feels it still has useful work to do.
Apparently Mel Brooks was right. It is good to be the King.