- Vancouver, British Columbia - Not a lot of time had gone by since the release of Discipline before King Crimson started working on new material. The album had gotten very positive reviews and was selling very well at record stores. While not a chart topper, it was one of Crimson's better selling albums, even making it into the Billboard Pop Albums chart peaking at 45. Without taking a break the new record was on its way. This would mark the first time in the history of the band that there would be a second record performed by the same personnel as the previous albums.
For inspiration, they turned to famous poets of the 1950s. Adrian Belew was asked by Robert Fripp to read Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road to inspire the lyrics. The beat movement was an exploration of alternative lifestyles, defying what was popular in its era and much of the literature would push liberalism in publishing in the United States. Many of the elements of that movement would eventually evolve into the hippie movement in the 1960s. The new album would explore that influential generation.
Despite the band retaining the same members, not all was well in the court of King Crimson. Tension was high in the band, particularly with Adrian Belew and Fripp clashing heads. Belew was stressed from his duties as front man and song writer. At one point he even reportedly ordered Fripp out of the studio. Though, it wasn't long before their differences were resolved and the new music proceeded as planned. This is also the first and only album of the band's to not be produced by any member. That job went to Rhett Davies, who had co-produced Discipline and produced albums from many other acts such as Roxy Music, The B-52's, and Brian Eno.
Beat – 1982
Robert Fripp – Guitar
Adrian Belew – Guitar and Vocals
Tony Levin – Bass and Chapman Stick
Bill Bruford – Drums
In June 1982, just nine months after their last album, King Crimson released Beat, their ninth studio album. The band would tour immediately and play the new songs, ones from the previous album, and some other occasional favourites from the 1970s; usually the instrumentals.
The album begins with one of the band's finest pieces, “Neil and Jack and Me,” which references Neil Cassady and Jack Kerouac, two of the beat movement's most famous writers. All of the strengths of the band are present in this track, showing the complexities of the duelling guitarists, backed up by Tony Levin's Chapman Stick. I highly recommend this song with headphones on because if you really listen to the layers of the music, it really is incredibly rewarding. That being said, if you listen to it more casually, it has a fun pop charm to it also. It's the perfect combination of Crimson's accessible side mixed with their challenging song writing ability. It defies the typical pop structure with no clear chorus, but just a number of verses separated by instrumental moments. Then, for the final minute and a half there is an extended outro that is easily my favourite part of the song as so many of the musical sections are layered against one another into a dramatic and emotional finale. It's absolutely brilliant and probably makes this one of my favourite songs by King Crimson ever.
It's followed up by the slower, more controlled “Heartbeat.” This is the only King Crimson album that doesn't have a title track, but this song is the closest thing to it. This song is significantly more simple than the previous song, but plays on different strengths. Its strengths are more in Belew's performance as a singer. The music has some amazing moments in it also, making it one of the most romantic Crimson songs in their catalogue, though that's rarely been their forte. Apparently Adrian Belew never quite felt satisfied with this version of “Heartbeat” and so he recorded a different version in 1990 for one of his solo albums. That version is good, but is more groove centric, while I personally enjoy this more smooth, romantic ballad.
Another favourite track of mine is “Sartori In Tangier,” a bold and dramatic instrumental track. It opens with a short, dark solo from Tony Levin and quickly moves into a much faster tune, featuring Fripp's Frippertronics in the front and centre. While the song is primarily lead by that, there is a break from that about half way through the song which I find to be the most pleasing section of it. It's a break where there is a calm from the harsher sounds of Fripps solos and makes for a pleasing contrast. The song is all around very strong and should please the fans who seek some more challenging material.
The next song is “Waiting Man,” which is another track I love. What's interesting about this track is that it's very controlled, but much of the percussion and guitar work is very fast. The song as a whole feels calm and subdued, but it's really not. Bill Bruford gets a chance to shine as his percussion gets some spotlight, while Belew's vocals take another romantic turn. While being very accessible, “Waiting Man” also doesn't really have a very typical song structure. It more builds and escalates in subtle ways, not unlike the song “Discipline” from the previous album. It is another example of that complex rock gamelan style that the band was going for, but in this case it's used in such a way that it's worked into lyrical song writing. It's an amazing song.
The second side starts with “Neurotica,” which was actually one of the first songs I ever heard from King Crimson. Looking back, it seems like such a random selection, but I'm glad I heard it because it no doubt inspired me to pick this album up when I saw it in the record store. It opens with sirens and whistles blowing followed soon by chaotic narrative vocals from Belew. The song then moves into a more controlled and slower section until it moves full circle into the frenzied, fast paced movement again.
Continuing the more romantic elements of the album is “Two Hands,” which isn't a groundbreaking track by any means, but rather just a chance to enjoy something a little more calm from the album. The lyrics were contributed by Margaret Belew, Adrian's wife. While it's not my favourite from the album, I appreciate that it's our last glimpse at this calmer more restrained Beat before the final two tracks start to explore the darker side of the group.
“The Howler,” named after the beat poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg, is probably my least favourite from the album, but is not without some very fascinating elements. It seems that this song attempts to mesh together abrasive, contradictory sounds together. It works strangely well, but doesn't really stick out in the album.
Beat finishes with the long instrumental experimental track “Requiem.” Recalling the 1970's King Crimson, this song was primarily improvised and as such feels very spontaneous, if not a bit unfocused. It really only works as the last track of the album, but it shows that they are a group still willing to take risks. It leaves the album on dark and solemn note.
Upon the album's release, Beat sold well, almost charting as high a Discipline, but seemed to divide critics. It's lukewarm reception would be continued for a number of years as many Crimson fans would cite is as a career low point for the band. The band took a brief break as Adrian Belew recorded and released his first solo studio album, The Lone Rhino, followed up quickly by Twang Bar King in 1983. Robert Fripp would also pursue other projects, including collaborating with Andy Summer of The Police. Together they released I Advance Masked later in 1982.
While the style of the music hadn't really taken any sort of bold leap away from Discipline, it was a very different album for a number of reasons. One of the ways is that it took them in a little more of a pop-ish direction. It explores the more romantic side of the band. While some fans have outright attacked the direction of this album, declaring it too accessible for what they expect out of King Crimson, I would argue that it is just more a more refined record than its predecessor. Discipline offered a very diverse taste of this new style. Beat is more focused and achieved almost as much but in a much tighter way.
I resent the idea that progressive rock as a genre has to be so inaccessible that anything that resembles pop music is shunned by fans. Granted, the songs on Beat are relatively shorter than most of King Crimson's catalogue, but it is not an album without challenging moments and consistent complexities. To take those elements and turn them into an album that is catchy and emotionally driven takes a great amount of skill and what it accomplishes shouldn't be ignored. I love it and, while some might consider this blasphemous, it is one of my favourite King Crimson albums. I can listen to it and appreciate it over and over again, especially the first five tracks. If the songs on Discipline intrigued you, Beat has just as much to offer.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes