I will admit to having a complicated relationship with King Crimson. While I view them as one of the most respected and influential of the 1970’s progressive rock bands, I also have a hard time making it through any of their most renowned albums from start to finish. I just don’t go for the songs that much. They are good songs, but perhaps a little too conventional sounding. I like them…but not that much. The instrumental passages, however, can be sublime.
So back in 1996, when I heard that Crimson was releasing an album consisting of nothing but instrumental live improvisation, I did not hesitate to pick it up. And I was not disappointed. The opener, Thrak begins with a tense synthesized soundscape that is abruptly interrupted by gigantic, angular riffs from a pair of overdriven guitars accompanied by an undanceable dual-drummer attack. This transforms into a rattling of electronic drums that seamlessly mixes with the beginning of the second track, Fearless and Highly THRaKked. I was hooked.
But no one else was. To this day, THRaKaTTaK remains one of the most divisive, if not unpopular King Crimson releases, especially amongst hardcore fans. On lists of the “the best to the worst” Crimson albums, THRaKaTTaK often doesn’t even make an appearance. It is one of the few that is not on Spotify.
This era of Crimson was Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew on guitars, Tony Levin on bass (apparently eschewing the Chapman Stick), Trey Gunn on Warr guitar, and Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto pairing on acoustic & electronic drums. Given the instrumentation, this sextet had a rich palette of sounds to draw upon, which they did. Guitar mewling, bass rumblings, simulated keyboards, and abstract drumming…what is not to like? Lots apparently, with one reviewer complaining, “Where’s the music?”
That reaction is natural when you put on an album expecting one thing and get something else. Here, the something else is free improvisation. Not in the free jazz sense, but with a rock contextualization. Bruford and Mastelotto lay down complex patterns but provide the occasional beat. The rest sounds as if a conservatory-trained heavy metal band dropped acid.
No, there isn’t a beginning, middle, or end to these tracks. If you are looking for signposts on this journey, you are missing the point. Every microsecond of the album is beautifully crafted, dense, experimental, and multi-layered. The energy level from all six members is off the charts, even in the slower passages.
Simply put, in my opinion – which I accept may not have much weight, this is King Crimson’s best album, period. And not by a little bit, but by light years. PutTHRaKaTTaK in the same category as Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed and Sign of the Four from Metheny, Bailey, Bendiann, and Wertico…a departure so unexpected that it has a largely disjoint fanbase from the rest of the artist’s discography.