Review – Thrak (1995) by King Crimson

Part II of How I learned to listen to King Crimson

My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror 

Robert Fripp, Die Zeit, May 1995 

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Bill Bruford, Auditory Illusions, BBC Radio 4 2019

In 2019, I heard that King Crimson had released an album called Thrak in 1995. The title reminded me of another great progressive rock band, the mighty Thotch who recorded their classic song Land of the Crab in 1975.

Thotch perform Land of The Crab in 1975

But Seriously © Phil Collins, despite its opaque title and equally impenetrable cover art this is a great album.

The music itself can also be opaque and impenetrable at times, partly because there are two bands playing at the same time. In different time signatures. The two bands are in fact a double trio:

Robert Fripp        

Guitar, Soundscapes, Mellotron 

Trey Gunn 

Stick, Backing Vocals 

Pat Mastelotto 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

Adrian Belew 

Guitar, Voice, Words 

Tony Levin 

Basses, Backing Vocals 

Bill Bruford 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

But, as Tom Johnson wrote in 2015 it was difficult to sustain for a whole album

In theory, it sounds fascinating, and is a real challenge to the way rock music can be approached. In practice, however, the band, well, didn’t. The only real example of this approach to be found is VROOOM: Pan your speakers left or right and you’ll hear two separate trios playing, you guessed it, slightly different versions of the same song. They merge back together as Coda: Marine 475 begins. As promising as the idea had been, it proved too much to accomplish an entire album that way at the time. 

Tom Johnson Something Else Review

VROOM is the opening track. The first minute is King Crimson in a microcosm, a universe in a grain of sand. It begins with a lovely, nostalgic-sounding theme on Mellotron strings which soon drifts uneasily down in pitch before we are briefly thrown through countless galaxies in Space and the grinding industrial prog-funk-metal of the double trio kicks in.

VROOM segues into Coda Marine 475, which according to Robert Fripp takes its title and spoken words from the Marine 475 Syndicate at Lloyd’s Insurance. Musically, something very interesting is going on. This sounds like an example of an auditory illusion called the Shepard Tone, in which a tone seems continually to ascend or descend in pitch but in fact gets no higher or lower, trapped like a brown paper bag blown by the wind against a rusty gate. The music appears to be constantly descending here; the great Hans Zimmer used the same effect, only with an ascending tone, in his score for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.




‘Shepard Tones are what anxiety sounds like ‘ (YouTube comment)

Dinosaur begins with short Mellotron intro, sounding like a Mahler symphony beamed from a distant planet, then dystopian guitars crunch and grind; the same thing happens again after a lovely pastoral interlude at around 3.36. But there is humour in the lyrics, which seem to acknowledge that the once hip young Crims [sic] of the 1960’s have been left behind,

When I look back on the past
It's a wonder I'm not yet extinct...

I'm a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones  

(The term ‘dinosaur rock’ itself now seems to be largely extinct; a quick image search mostly reveals rocks shaped like dinosaurs…)

Walking on air is a lovely ballad, similar to Matte Kudasai from the 1981 Discipline. Even in the midst of all this Thrakking, King Crimson can surprise us with beauty.

But don’t get too comfortable. We go briefly spinning into the galaxies again before we land at B’boom. It’s a drum solo. For two drummers. What can I tell you? Well, since you asked, it does sound rather like The Flowers of Romance by Public Image.

Gentle reader, I recently re-discovered my hand-written notes about each track on the album. Under the heading Thrak I wrote one word:

HELP!

A visceral reaction to a visceral song. It’s time to Unleash the Frogs (well, one frog and seven fridges). You may remember (you won’t, but I’m being polite) that I began my opening blog in this series, How I learned to listen to King Crimson with a quote from an Amazon review of the album.

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

It’s a compelling image. And the song would make an excellent soundtrack to a dystopian movie, perhaps about a Plague of Frogs (or fridges?)

But now I need to explain how I came across the album Thrak, and why I have chosen it as the first of the albums to feature in this series rather than some of the more famous ones. I admit I hadn’t heard of it until I emailed Bill Bruford about to ask him about auditory illusions in music – particularly rhythmic illusions. He suggested, modestly, that I should listen to a track from this album called Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream as I might find it interesting. I did. There’s one extraordinary section where the two drummers play in completely different time signatures. Listening to the track on the train when I was on my way to meet Bill I happened to be facing backwards and I became disorientated. It felt as if I was moving backwards and forwards at the same time. I felt as if I were moving in two different, but related dimensions at the same time, like the passenger and the person on the platform in Einstein’s thought experiment about the train being struck by bolts of lightning. This was a musical bolt of lightning, one of those rare moments when the musical landscape is briefly illuminated and its contours reveal themselves. The reason I felt so disorientated was that the two drummers, Bill himself and Pat Mastelotto were playing in two different time signatures at the same time.

Another moment of revelation came when I met Bill himself and he explained the key to King Crimson’s music,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Suddenly, I understood. (Italics added for emphasis and a little bit of pretension). As far as King Crimson were concerned I now had a key to enable me to unlock the doors of perception © A Huxley and Wm Blake. And no Mescaline or sitting naked in my front garden seeing visions of flights of angels had been necessary. Although that would have been nice.

So my journey through King Crimson’s dystopian delights begins. It would be great if you could join me on my travels.

See you next time.

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