- Vancouver, British Columbia - It was 1984 and the 1980s incarnation of King Crimson had taken a break from recording and touring to follow their own endeavours and fulfil the other obligations in life. After Beat was released Tony Levin recorded on Peter Gabriel's fourth album, Adrian Belew recorded two solo albums, and Robert Fripp recorded a collaborative album with Andy Summers of The Police. But the time to get back into rehearsals for new King Crimson material had come. But this time, the creative process was less focused. They even recorded a bunch of material and more or less dumped it out, feeling that, for whatever reason, it wasn't what they were looking for. Personally, I'm quite curious as to what it sounded like.
They recorded and released a promotional single before the album hit stores. It was the song “Sleepless,” which they clearly had a lot of faith in. Their objective for the album was quite ambitious and their intent was to make something that would bring in a new audience that hadn't been exposed to King Crimson before. “Sleepless,” they felt, was the song that would be the bridge. There were numerous remixes and dance versions made for the track and even a music video, something that the band had not tried out before, but then again, MTV was still a fairly new presence. The video is disposable, the song is not, but I'll share more thoughts on it later.
After the album was recorded, Fripp and company decided to separate the material on the album into two categories. Side 1, the “left side,” was accessible, full of the pop tracks essentially. Side 2, the “right side,” was excessive, as Robert Fripp would say, as it was full of the experimental offerings similar to the improvised nature of King Crimson's work in the 1970s. This was seen as a concession to the new listeners so that they could keep to one side if they preferred one version of King Crimson over the other.
The “Sleepless” single wasn't the hit they were seeking despite a positive reaction from critics. Drummer Bill Bruford supposed that in Europe the song would have been a hit “if it weren't for the name King Crimson,” which many people associated with being artistic and well respected, but not capable of having hits. Despite the accessible nature of “Sleepless,” the band had a reputation, for better or for worse. Nevertheless, they had a lot of faith in the new album as a whole and were still a very popular touring band.
Three of a Perfect Pair – 1984
Robert Fripp – Guitar
Adrian Belew – Guitar and Vocals
Tony Levin – Bass and Chapman Stick
Bill Bruford – Drums
Three of a Perfect Pair was the third album recorded by this incarnation of King Crimson, another first landmark for the band. A perfect trilogy of albums, both united and distinct from one another, this one a sharp yellow in design to contrast the primary red of Discipline and blue of Beat. Unlike the last two albums, this one would be produced by the band entirely.
The album starts with its title track, a smooth and stylistic journey through broken romance, using psychological metaphors. The guitar work is typically complex, without seeming pretentious, and while accessible, it still feels very progressive with glitchy guitar solos and changing time signatures. My favourite aspect of the song is actually the lyrics though, as Belew's voice compliments the frantic feeling of the words. “Three of a Perfect Pair” is a great song.
It's followed by “Model Man,” which also works well because of the singing and lyrical combination. This one is another song about a crumbling relationship, but from a much more personal perspective. It all feels very earnest to me, as he confesses his imperfections, pleading for the love of a woman. It's one of their most passionate pieces and one that I connect with on an emotional level.
Next is the lead single “Sleepless,” which is a terrific song and it's understandable why the band had as much faith in it as they did. What confuses me is that the 30th Anniversary Edition of the album has a different version of the song than the vinyl copy that I also own and I don't really know why. The vinyl mix is on the CD, but as a bonus track, not in the songs original place, though that's the version I prefer. The other mix is good, but doesn't feel as complete. “Sleepless” is the track where Tony Levin really gets to shine as it opens with him slapping his bass with a thick groove. And it carries the whole song.
“Man With An Open Heart” is arguably King Crimson's most shameless pop song, but that isn't an insult. In fact, I greatly enjoy this track. It's a brisk and fun three minutes and it's interesting to hear Crimson enter this territory. For me, there is even a nostalgic quality to this track as it was one of the very first tracks that I heard from the band. A strange introduction in retrospect, but it inspired me to listen to more. The guitar playing has a quirky Asian sound to it, while the thumping bass adds a lot of volume to the track. Actually, Tony Levin's bass is really one of the best parts of the song. There is even a very specific moment, in the second chorus, where there is very distinct plucking sound which gets me every time. It used to be one of my favourite tracks by the band, and while I still hold it with high regard, there are Crimson songs that I've come to appreciate more.
The first side finishes with “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds),” a slower, more contemplative instrumental in the vein of previous successes such as “The Sheltering Sky” off Discipline. I'm not the biggest fan of the song, to be honest, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It always felt like it belonged on the less accessible second side to me, but now I can see why it's where it is. While it is not the most pop friendly track on here, at the very least it is a relaxing song that provides a calm breath of fresh air. The tracks that would follow are far more abrasive than this one.
The second side opens with “Industry,” which I would consider to be the weakest track. It's not that there aren't any good ideas in this song, because there are, it's just that it takes a little too long to get where it needs to go. It doesn't accomplish very much in a seven minute run time, though it highlights the rhythm section quite a bit. The talents of both Levin and Bruford are on display quite clearly here. The other two just play around with Frippertronics and various other guitar effects, some of which work very well and others not as well.
“Dig Me” is a strange track and the only song with vocals on this half of the album. It is spoken from the point of a view of an old car in a junkyard. It's a strange and jarring song, mixing their experimental ambitions with some of the more accessible stuff, particularly during the chorus. I enjoy the contrast of the two sides.
My favourite track of side two is “No Warning,” a perplexing, spiralling soundscape. It's not an easy listen, but it's a fascinating display of what sort of noises can be made from instruments when they disregard any conventions of typical songwriting. Bill Bruford steals the show, providing a chaotic rhythmic shower of noise. They are smart to keep the song relatively brief, because I think if it were another seven minute marathon, I might not enjoy it so much. At three and a half minutes, it accomplishes plenty and leaves a sense of wonder.
The album finishes off with “Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 3,” a bold continuation in the 1970s Crimson tradition. That they brought back the name “Larks' Tongues in Aspic” is not a cheap throwback to former glory to get attention, as some might instantly conclude, but rather, it's a chance for this crucial incarnation of King Crimson to unite with former incarnations and become part of the Crimson discography. It is adventurous and carries the same spirit of the previous “Larks' Tongues” tracks. It opens with a quick solo by Fripp and soon the whole band joins in a fast and intricate rock tune, which is really exciting and well worth listening to. About a third of the way through, the song takes a turn, changing tempo and mood entirely. I don't enjoy this portion as much, as it tends to rely on a screeching guitar sound a bit too much, but is not without some good moments.
Three of a Perfect Pair is the hardest album for me to listen to objectively because it was the first King Crimson album I ever heard in entirety. It was also the first vinyl record I ever owned myself. But the more I listen to the album, the stranger it seems to me. The disconnect between the two sides is startling, and while I see the idea behind separating them the way they did, I don't know if I enjoy all of the results. Particularly, there is a lull in the middle with “Nuages” and “Industry” that takes up a lot of time and doesn't really go very far. This is more taxing with the CD release, or on an iPod, because there is no need to break and flip a record around. With one or two tighter and more interesting compositions, the album might have been their best of this era.
It's worth noting that I'm particularly impressed with Tony Levin's contribution in this album. He is very good in the previous albums, but in this one I often find that what he adds to the songs adds a lot. “Model Man,” “Man With an Open Heart,” and even “Dig Me” all benefit a lot by his choices. Belew's lyrics are probably their strongest in the album as well, though they are less plentiful. When the work is strong, it is very strong.
Critics were heavily divided on the album upon Three of a Perfect Pair's release. I don't know if they knew what to make of it. Some would proclaim that it was fruitless until the second half of the album where it has a steady flow. Others would dismiss the second half for being utterly pretentious and felt that the band worked well as accessible song writers. I'm of the opinion that pretentiousness comes from people who try to achieve something beyond their capabilities to elevate their egos. King Crimson is a band full of seasoned and highly talented musicians. They can dabble in extremely experimental music because they have already proven that they can.
A successful three-month world wide tour accompanied the release of the album. Shortly thereafter, Robert Fripp felt dissatisfied with the way the band was working and decided that it was time to lay King Crimson to rest again. Bill Bruford and Adrian Belew reportedly were frustrated with this, Belew specifically feeling that it was not communicated very well as he found out about the break up while reading a music magazine. Nevertheless, the band members remained on good terms.
Tony Levin would continue to be a prolific session musician, mainly playing and touring with Peter Gabriel, who would release 1986's very successful album, So. Bill Bruford would also do some session work, but primarily pursued his own band, this time called Earthworks. Rather than rock, Earthworks was a jazz band and released their first album in 1987. Also, he would rejoin with a few members of Yes, his band before King Crimson. With Yes having gone in a Pop/New Wave direction, some fans were wanting Yes to return to its Progressive Rock roots. The compromise was Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, a band of past Yes members without the obligations that came with the name. They released one self titled studio album, which Tony Levin played bass on as well, and a live album. Bruford soon would also rejoin Yes for a brief period of time, playing on Union, which brought together the members of Yes and their ex-members of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. He would leave Yes again shortly after a tour.
Adrian Belew would continue to release solo albums as well as form a new band called The Bears, which was more of a pop group by nature. Belew wanted that project to focus on more simple song writing, so even though he had many guitar tricks, it would be much more restrained with that group. They released two studio albums, one in 1987 and another in 1988, and toured. When their albums underperformed in sales and their record label closed down, they broke up the band.
Robert Fripp would record just one more album with Andy Summers called Bewitched later in 1984. By 1985 he began teaching guitar in a program he founded called Guitar Craft. In this program would rise a musical project called The League of Crafty Guitarists, who would release several albums through the years. Robert Fripp would marry singer Toyah Willcox in 1986 and that year also release an experimental album with her called The Lady or the Tiger, which was primarily a narrative story put beside some of Fripp's music. As the years went by, it seemed less and less likely that King Crimson would return.
I have a great fondness for a number of the songs on Three of a Perfect Pair. I think the first four tracks make a mini masterpiece, diverse, elegant, and unforgettable. The album also finishes fairly strong. While I might not thoroughly enjoy this one as much as I did Discipline and Beat, I respect its ambition quite a bit. While I think the album achieved what it set out to do artistically, I don't think they hit the mark commercially. Three of a Perfect Pair sold well enough, but charted just under what Beat peaked at. I don't think that it brought in the new listeners that they were hoping for. That being said, it did its job 20 years later when I got it and started becoming an avid King Crimson listener. The three albums, Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair are a wonderful trilogy, by some of the tightest professional musicians I've ever heard work together before. They're my personal favourite King Crimson line-up and I wish I was alive at the time to see them perform together. This would become a defining era for the future of the band, which would eventually reunite and evolve.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes