King CrimsonThe Power to Believe
Released 2003 on Discipline Global Music
Reviewed by aether, 18/06/2011ce
KING CRIMSON: The Power To Believe (2003)
My favourite music writer Simon Reynold's newest book, "Retromania; Pop Cultures Addiction to its Own Past" bemoans (whilst, to be fair, admits his (abd our own), complicity in) our modern culture's obsession for what he terms, 'retromania.' I.e. Re-visiting trends, re-enacting, re-issuing, re-forming, re-releasing, nostaligia-based, "RE"-culture. Have we truly lost the ability to move forward with popular music forms, crushed under the gigantic burden of Rock's massive historical past, is the question Reynolds (beautifully and intelligently, as always) investigates.
With that in mind, I though I would include an old review (from my own blog) on a group that are: a) certainly no nostalgia peddlers (even if they might throw in the odd old song, you can bet your life it'll be surrounded by two huge forward-thinking rock improvs that will positively glisten with stlylistic, tehcnological and aesthetic presience. And b) are STILL arguably finding new avenues for the idiom of intelligent experimental Rock music to wander down. To whit, KING CRIMSON.
This can all be evinced on their last studio LP: 2003's The Power to Believe. Indeed, Reynold's argument for our obsession for Re-tromania finds creedence in the fact that - despite being one of the most truly progressive rock bands of the last 40 years - none of the reviews on this site involve any albums past the year 75/76! Of course, to be fair, part of Crimson's skillful march forward is to reinhabit their own past with new technological flavours - something found, indded, on this LP (with looks back to their 70's Holst-borrowed riff from "The Devils Triangle" amongst other things - rejigged for the modern technological fetishist.
However, for one, reinventing and revisiting their own oeuvre is not the be all and end all of this LP (or their career) and the results are, I think, far superior than any other 90s/Noughties Rock rear-guard revivalists, still intent on making albums that are shadows of their former great selves. Does anyone rate any of Yes' 90's or Noughties albums?? In this way, you can sort of forgive YES, Genesis and their ilk for their career spanning nostalgia re-vivalist 'pension plans' tours. Unlike Crimson they've long lost the ability, the passion and the BELIEVE to push the magical idiom of Rock music forward. The Power to Believe indeed - an LP that has that belief - a pertinent title for an LP that I believe truly has the bravery to believe in Rock music continued future.
Feted throughout avant-rock circles, band leader, Robert Fripp, has shown scant regard for commercial concessions of any kind. If King Crimson are to be known for anything these days, barring their (considerable) past glories, then it’s as a band STILL pushing the ‘rock’ format onward - a direct riposte to those who claim rock music has nothing new to say, with no new ways of saying it! That’s not to say they never put a foot wrong: indeed, many of their main phases are (frustratingly) capped with a disappointing entry into the canon (Islands, Beat, Thrakattack). That said, the late 90s and early 2000’s witnessed something of a renaissance for King Crimson. Their double-trio dates in the mid-nineties, if not always succeeding on stage, certainly worked on record, and this re-birth has been compounded in the new millennium, bringing Crimson renewed critical kudos, (the sudden interest in all things progressive has, of course, helped). One critique often levelled at King Crimson is their supposed over-reliance on massed ranks of musical technology. However, I would argue this is less a reliance, than a skilled, pioneering application of digitalised ‘tech-ware‘. Indeed, Crimson stand alone in this field, as one of the only true examples of the late-60s ‘Rock rear-guard’ who apply digital musical technology in a way so as to still AVOID the overly clinical, vacuous digital-ness common to modern rock music from the 1980s onwards. Early signs were visible on The ConstrucKtion of Light, although that LP lacked the beefy production aesthetic that is, thankfully, at the very heart of this late-masterpiece: The Power To Believe (2003).
Fripp, in particular, manipulates digital realms in order to investigate timbre, space, pitch and resonance - not to do a clean-up job on them. On a more general level, the band, as it stands today, can easily stand alongside the formal iconoclasts of today’s post-rock community; more often than not, proving a central and abiding influence upon such bands (Mars Volta, Tortoise et al.). Take opening number, “The Power To Believe I: A Cappella” for example. Adrian Belew’s vocal performance is digitally filtered so that weird fractal sprays of gaseous sound issue forth from the main sonic spine of vocal, delayed reverbs flitter and wobble around this spine, as a distorted veil of sound is draped over it. Crimson then blast in with an earth-shaking riff that introduces “Level Five,” an endless maze of a riff, densely packed within one of the band’s unusually odd time signatures. Trey Gunn’s Warr Fretless Guitar (a kind of weird bass/guitar hybrid) - provides a bass undertow like no other, as if the very tectonic plates upholding our continents are rent asunder to its mighty sway. It’s a devilishly cavernous bass sound, full of throaty resonance, and the performance as a whole is as if Dante’s Inferno is erupting from within the speakers, the guitars and drums full of anxiety and shifting sonorities. This is Crimson at their very finest, make no mistake!
Something often forgot about King Crimson is that, for all their musical and improvisational virtuosity, technological expertise, experimental brio, and harmonic daring, they are a band that writes SONGS also. You can just imagine Duke-era Genesis butchering a song like “Eyes Wide Open,” but in these capable hands it remains compelling for more than just its top line and harmonic/rhythmic base. “Facts of Life” is a muscular, but hook laden, power stomp, full of metal-like staccato ur-riffs, ricocheting around the stereo-band, as the chorus breaks free in a similar way to VDGG’s "Killer." “The Power to Believe II” starts the albums most impressive segment: a middle eastern scale played on a heavily-treated guitar-synth buzzes in and out of earshot, while a glassy, wet rhythm box pounds out in the background. In many ways similar to their own “Sheltering Sky” from Discipline, it segues into a beautiful gamelan percussive riff with breathy flute sound-alikes blowing a cool breeze across the top - its very hypnotic and tender, almost ramshackle, as if it could blow away at any time, but it tugs at the heart strings like no other - as huge sub-bass drones ululate up from the depths - the initial vocal that opened the album returns accompanying this tune - huge oily fretless bass notes tremble as Fripp provides one of his best trademark sustained guitar solos. It’s a staggering piece of music, and as if it couldn’t get any better, Crimson lurch into “Dangerous Curves” - an update of their Gustav Holst-borrowing number from 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon, “The Devil’s Triangle” - an absolute monsterpiece!
A sinister sounding string-synth pulls discordantly at the main harmonic foundation created by the bass staccato, as musical elements are gradually added, it erupts into a kind of futurist-electronic spy theme, until ferocious guitars belt out the beat - the musical neurosis increasing until it finally dissipates into a final raspy guitar chord - like the dying breath of an evil witch. “Happy with what you have to be happy with” is one of Adrian Belew’s post-modern lyrical experiments in self-reflexivity ("I’m gonna have to write a chorus, We’re gonna repeat a chorus”). The LP ends with a final return to the title track - a more experimental take full of odd time-signatures and winsome guitar cries. This wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Red - its sinewy, clunky bass sound a dead ringer for John Wetton.
Given the resurgence of interest in prog rock, its easy to forget that Crimson have (barring a few short gaps) been steadily ploughing their own furrow for more than 40 years. And this LP shows that Crimson are one of few prog stalwarts left who have a ready audience there, willing to gollop up new material, not just celebratory “greatest hits” package tours!