Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

King Crimson: Three Of A Perfect Pair


1) Three Of A Perfect Pair; 2) Model Man; 3) Sleepless; 4) Man With An Open Heart; 5) Nuages; 6) Industry; 7) Dig Me; 8) No Warning; 9) Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part III.

General verdict: Not a highly innovative, but still musically satisfying conclusion to New Wave Crimson.

Technically, the «three» in the title should be the exact same as the «three» in the title track — "she" ("is susceptible"), "he" ("is impossible"), and that elusive third element which always has to be there to break up the perfect correlation, or complete the imperfect triad, whichever angle you prefer. But it is also hard not to correlate the title with the fact that Three Of A Perfect Pair con­cludes the early Eighties trilogy — even if there is little evidence that Fripp intended this album to be the last one during the 1983 sessions. Because it, too, can be seen as one last comple­ment to the formula that was worked out and perfected with Discipline and Beat. Bringing nothing radically new to the table, it does a good job at taking that formula to its logical extremes — the artistic difference between ʽMan With An Open Heartʼ and ʽIndustryʼ stretches out longer than any two points on Discipline or Beat, and, perhaps, that is precisely the point that Three Of A Perfect Pair was supposed to illustrate.

Allegedly, the decision to put «pop songs» on the first side and «avantgarde experiments» on the second one was intentional — so that the fans could take a better look at the two different faces of King Crimson and understand which one they loved best, or, more properly, understand that there was really no internal contradiction between the two. Not everyone did; since most of the fans did not exactly flock to Fripp for «pop» reasons, some of the songs on Side A have the dubious dis­tinction of finding themselves among the most despised numbers in the KC catalog — with poor Ade Belew and his pop fetish taking most of the blame for that, even if Fripp is officially credited as a co-writer on everything (and it is not highly likely that anything could sneak its way onto the album without direct approval from the Overlord).

In any case, material such as ʽMan With An Open Heartʼ is perfectly valid — a catchy, well-written, definitely-not-unintelligent piece of New Wave pop, with a slight touch of Far Eastern influence for its main melodic hook and some gorgeous skating-on-thin-ice interplay between the two guitars; as for the romantic (and, technically, quite pro-feminist) lyrics, ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ had already shown that a heart-on-sleeve attitude would be a permanent fixture of this King Crimson as long as Belew stayed on in the band (plus, lines like "she could be sleeping in the comfort of another bed, it wouldn't matter to a man with an open heart" are actually ambiguous and could be attributed to family problems rather than noble attitude). ʽModel Manʼ, conceived in much the same manner, is less efficient because it does not have a clear hook — more about the lyrical message (Belew's own take on ʽIt Ain't Me, Babeʼ, essentially) as the band just hops around the groove without too much passion.

The title track, however, is where it's really at. Take away the vocals and you have yourself another perfectly jaw-dropping ʽDisciplineʼ-style jab at spinning a geometrically arranged guitar cobweb — with a proto-dial-up-modem guitar solo to boot (reminiscent of Belew's work on Remain In Light's ʽBorn Under Punchesʼ). Throw in the vocals, and it becomes an instantly memorable and even potentially moving pop song — delivered by Adrian in a mournful and empathetic mood that perfectly agrees with lines like "they have their cross to share" and "they make a study in despair". It is on tracks like these, really, where your last doubts about the potential humanity of King Crimson's instrumental style should dissipate: it is not easy to make math-rock sound as if it actually means something (beyond, you know, math), but at their best, the Fripp/Belew team could point your emotionality in the right direction — and now, all of a sudden, those guitar cobwebs seem like a great metaphor for complicated human relations.

Another great achievement, in a completely different subgenre, is ʽSleeplessʼ — one of the scariest tracks in King Crimson's entire repertoire, though, admittedly, it would take a live per­formance to truly bring out all of its potential terror. Unlike the Larks / Red Crimson, the Discipline-era Crimson weren't so keen on nightmare-oriented stuff: ʽSleeplessʼ, too, came around more by accident, after Tony Levin had stumbled across that deep-driving bass pulse, but the rest of the band understood that here was a chance too good to waste, and rallied around the man to create one of the greatest anthems to the «Nightmare of Insomnia» ever written. Slow it down a bit, fiddle around with the tonality, make the vocalist sound on the verge of suicide, and you have a Cure classic. Don't do anything, and you have... I'm not even sure what you have, but it's awesome, especially late at night when it's ghost time, and these four guys take you on a speedy, jarring, relentless trip through the heart of Ghostland. At the very least, if we are talking straightforward «psychedelia», ʽSleeplessʼ has to be at the very top of the genre when it comes to King Crimson tackling it (to clarify: Fripp's «mathematical» approach to music-making is not what I would typically associate with classic psychedelia, but every now and then he and his pals fuck with your mind on a more atmospheric, aural-painting level — ʽSleeplessʼ, to me, seems like one of the few KC tracks that could have successfully been covered by other artists, because it is less dependent on Fripp's unrepeatable idiosyncrasies).

Next to these achievements, the second side of the album, although less «accessible» by itself in layman terms, actually seems somewhat more traditional — in fact, its would-be conservatism is indicated by the title ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Part 3ʼ given to the last track. Even if they are now a completely different unit from what they used to be, that instrumental shows clear melodic and structural proximity to the original ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ (particularly Part II), as if Fripp had suddenly woke up and remembered that the thread binding together the different stages of King Crimson has to be thickened, or people will think of the name King Crimson as usurped by out­siders. Nevertheless, for all its pragmatism, ʽPt. 3ʼ is still great fun: not nearly as hell-bent as the 1973 recordings, but just as kick-ass, and with an electronic / industrial cloaking for the new age. Also, for all its avantgardism, the main riff is surprisingly poppy in nature — hummable, danceable, and more bent on strict musical discipline than terrifying atmosphere.

Indeed, even the album's heaviest track, ʽIndustryʼ, is not so much brutal and scary as it is just... adventurous. I have seen somewhat indifferent fan descriptions of the track as a special effect show without too much substance, and while this may be technically correct, it should not take away from the cold and relentless power of the main groove (a flawless musical depiction of the slow and complex pulse of a giant robotic factory), around which Fripp and Belew weave an atmosphere of musical gaseous clouds, fumes, sparks, and coolant leaks (turning it into a veritable musical antipode of ʽNuagesʼ, the heavenly-psychedelic instrumental that closes the first side). But it would be hard for me to imagine the track as a subtle-symbolic artistic condemnation of the ongoing mechanization-robotization of society — this is more about the frightening, yet exciting marvels of technology than about any menace stemming from it. After all, these guys love technology, and occasionally, they even anthropomorphize technology: ʽDig Meʼ, a song whose broken, twisted, and perverted riffage makes me think of a Captain Beefheart influence, is Belew's sentimental ode to a rusty old car, somewhat moving in a strange Belewable way. How­ever, its somewhat forced marriage of an anthemic pop chorus ("I'm ready to leave...") to the almost atonal, disorienting verses may not be to everybody's liking.

If there is one single downer to all of this, it is only the realization that all of these songs, quite literally, would become far more presentable, energetic, tight, and impressive in concert: chances are high that after hearing the versions of ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 3ʼ and ʽSleeplessʼ on Absent Lovers, you will never want to go back to the studio originals again. In fact, while King Crimson have always excelled live, I would hypothesize that in no other era of their existence, before or after, would their studio creations seem so pale and fragile compared to a great night live. Quite possibly, this was due to the fact that the recording process had become even more dependent on testing out all sorts of technological gadgets, only a few of which they were able to take with them onstage — and had to compensate by putting a bit more muscle to it. But if you really love technological gadgets, and appreciate the New Wave era more for its collection of peculiar and unusual sonic textures than for its innovations in the realms of melody and harmony, then the Discipline trilogy might just be the culmination of all things you were looking for — and Three Of A Perfect Pair the, er, apex of that culmination. It does everything there was to be done, completes everything that could be completed, and totally justifies Fripp dismissing the entire band soon afterwards. Besides, given all the surrounding circumstances, I am not sure it would have been a good idea to keep up a King Crimson going through the mid-to-late Eighties; perhaps it was safer even for somebody like Fripp, with his generally high immunity to musical diseases, to sit this one period out.


  1. "ʽDig Meʼ, a song whose broken, twisted, and perverted riffage makes me think of a Captain Beefheart influence..."

    Honestly, I hear more of Jimi Hendrix in "Dig Me", due to the guitar noises, Belew's singing (at least in the Absent Lovers rendition) and possibly the chorus, with it sounding like something Hendrix could have written had he lived to see the New Wave boom.

    Lyrically, though, it does remind me a bit of Beefheart, so it is kind of a bizarre mix between the two, which is nice.

  2. There’s been no small amount of talk about how Red mirrors the structure of In the Court, but has anyone noticed that Three of a Perfect Pair kind of replicates Starless and Bible Black? Both have a handful of accessible, melodic vocal tracks concentrated in the beginning part of the album, both give way to more experimental instrumental (and at least quasi-improvised) music as they go along, both have one track each which kind of ‘merge’ these two styles and appear in the midst of the experimental stuff (“The Mincer” on SaBB, “Dig Me” on ToaPP) and both conclude with a heavy instrumental riff-rocker. Coincidence?

    Obviously, the structure isn’t exact, as “We’ll Let You Know” being sandwiched between “Lament” and “Night Watch” kind of disrupts the transition from ‘accessible’ to ‘experimental’ on SaBB.