OAKLAND — Kings come and go. No amount of grandeur and ruthless ambition can forever stave off usurpers, misfortune and time. But a king who reigns over a golden period lives on in memory. England’s King Crimson sits in a throne of unquestionable royalty in progressive rock. In October the band will mark the 50th anniversary of its celebrated first album. On Friday, the second of two nights at the Fox, King Crimson held court.
The band, led by guitarist and concept-master Robert Fripp, started promptly and played two hourlong sets, starting with muscular drum workout “The Hell Hounds of Krim.” From there King Crimson segued to the nerve-wracking bass intro to “The ConstruKction of Light” and held forth with a relentless show of instrumental and conceptual prowess. On “The ConstruKction of Light” the band bathed the audience with a fascinating display of intricate guitar showers. The musicians veered dangerously into smooth jazz territory with “Islands,” but bombast and intensity ruled the evening, as the assembly onstage unleashed a bodily impact of highly coordinated sound.
King Crimson has had many lineups over 50 years. Friday it performed as a septet, bolstered by a formidable fortress wall of three drum kits at the front of the stage, played by Gavin Harrison, the wolfish Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey, who also played keyboards. Behind this rhythmic rampart, atop a riser, was the band’s backline, featuring Mel Collins on saxophone and Tony Levin on bass. In the back corner sat Fripp himself, ensconced in a shrine of noise-modifying devices and keyboards, guitar in hand, like a sonic Dr. Moreau lording over his passel of strange musical monstrosities.
Occupying King Crimson’s rock-star vocalist chair–a position previously held by rock luminaries such as Greg Lake, John Wetton and Adrian Belew–was Jakko Jakszyk. Jakszyk fulfilled his duties with charisma, his curly hair flowing as he cried out impassioned vocals and accompanied his searing guitar solos with pained facial expressions. There weren’t many opportunities for Jakszyk to sing his guts out, as the greater part of the compositions were instrumental; however, he achieved some golden moments on the spoken-word fan favorite “Neurotica” and on the high-strung tour-de-force “Indiscipline.”
Perhaps most striking was the perfectionism required by the musical arrangements. While one might question the need for three drummers all playing essentially the same parts, there was no doubt a meticulous synchronicity extended to the four musicians assembled in the back row. At certain moments one instrument would take off on a wild spree of free notes. Collins was a maniac on the sax and there was some guitar improvisation by Jakszyk and Fripp, foe example. But for the majority of the concert the band was intensely focused on delivering elaborate arrangements and complex interplay via massive sound.
Cheers erupted at the first sprinkling piano notes of “Moonchild,” a subdued and pretty number featuring a bass solo by Levin, who with his shiny pate and mustache looked like a livelier version of the aged hotelier from the TV show “Twin Peaks.” “Moonchild” was followed by a tense interlude of sparse instrumentation, with symmetrical scale jazz guitar runs. The transition out of this jam felt a bit stiff and calculated, but the band’s guiding aesthetic of purposeful dissonance gave the interlude an eerie forest ambiance before the band left the stage for a 30-minute intermission.
King Crimson returned with a metered, highly involved and tom-drum-heavy percussion ritual, highlighted by a dexterous run of cymbal interplay among the three drummers. Next came the harsh tonic of “Red,” a show-stopping exercise in heavy riffing and the night’s one true rager. The second set was as puissant and forceful as the first, if not more so, winding down and building up again with the halfway mellow and melancholy “Starless” before fans were treated to the soaring opening melody of “The Court Of The Crimson King,” a definite triumph to end the second set.
The encore included “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Fripp then shared a moment of levity at the strictly no-photography show as he produced a camera, laughing, and took pictures of the audience while his illustrious band filed off the stage.
In all, the performance was appropriately lengthy, with hits and deep cuts from throughout King Crimson’s long career, full of languid builds to jarring instrumental nightmares.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.