King Crimson has never really been political, nor has it ever been particularly passionate. In fact, for most of the band’s existence but especially since its early ’80s comeback, King Crimson has been first and foremost about precision — or, to the borrow the title of one of the band’s most popular albums, discipline.
Yet in the hands of Robert Fripp, precision itself becomes political, and passionately so. Watching King Crimson perform at Chicago’s Park West, in the midst of a tiny four-city (but multiple night stand) tour, was to see five musicians at the peak of their proficiency making a statement by setting aside soapboxing and instead exploring the outer limits of their instruments. And in doing so, the band transcended its trademark discipline to achieve the most unlikely of outcomes: fun.
You could see it in the perpetually smiling Adrian Belew, grinning ear to ear as he tried to bend his guitar like a pretzel, holding the neck with one hand and shaking it by the whammy bar with the other. You could see it in Tony Levin as his fingers tapped across the ever-mysterious Chapman Stick (the sci-fi bass for bassists bored with just the plain ole version). You could see it in drummers Pat Mastelloto and new blood Gavin Harrison (of Porcupine Tree), locked in a perpetual push/pull battle between duet partners and duelists.
And, once, you could even see it in Robert Fripp — seated behind the speaker, stern-faced and serious, with a set of noise-canceling headphones on — who followed the complex (even for Crimson) “Three of a Perfect Pair” by looking over at Belew, theatrically blowing off his fingers and laughing.
The rest of the set drew largely from the band’s ’80s incarnation, including such staples as “Elephant Talk,” the manic “Indiscipline,” “Neurotica” and “Sleepless,” plus tracks from the group’s second ’90s comeback (specifically several from the “Thrak” disc, like “Dinosaur,” the title track and the pretty “One Time”). Scattered throughout the set were a few classics from the ’70s, like “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic Part 2” or “Red,” tracks too intense to fit the frilly definition of progressive rock.
Prog rock? No, King Crimson was always something else, and still is, a unique musical entity with the chops and creativity to go one step beyond. It’s alien music in the best sense, touching on everything from the Beatles to free jazz to avant garde classical, comfortable with melodies but just as at ease wielding industrial noise as a sonic weapon. Basically, it’s music from the future, and in typical Crimson fashion the band repeatedly reminded the sold-out crowd that the rest of the world isn’t quite there yet.