Consider writer/director Toby Amies’ late-2022 documentary In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 a bookend to the British ensemble’s 1969 debut album of the same name, since bandleading guru guitarist Robert Fripp has called it quits for the group.
Again, of course. Fans have endured this scenario countless times during his leadership, only to have King Crimson return with different personnel after extended lulls. But at age 77, Fripp — for whom method and madness often seem to go hand in hand — might very well have orchestrated this documentary as a grand finale. Or at least considered it one following the group’s last tour in 2021.
“There is a lot of joy in what we do,” Fripp says early in the film when asked by Aimes if he’s enjoying himself. “And it’s also very difficult, because what is possible for this band remains in potential, and we have not yet achieved it. And that is an acute suffering.”
Stellar musical performances aside, the insufferable Fripp gets upstaged by the brave star of the film, keyboardist and drummer Bill Rieflin. The Seattle-born musician opens up to Aimes throughout, often with both great insight and humor, about the inoperable colon cancer he’s suffering from, and how it can “create a sense of urgency.” Having started with King Crimson within one of its unorthodox three-drummer lineups in 2013 (all situated on the floor of the stage up front, with the remaining musicians on a riser behind them), Rieflin moved to keyboards as drummer/keyboardist Jeremy Stacey replaced him up front in 2016.
“I accept the inevitability of my own death,” Rieflin says in summation. “The only thing that’s going to be left is the work, so it’d better be good.”
Rieflin and Fripp had developed a close bond within their working relationship, the guitarist seeming to appreciate the sense of humor Rieflin possessed, a trait the ever-serious Fripp is nonetheless incapable of delivering. Rieflin’s death on March 24, 2020, at age 59 is likely another factor in what’s likely Fripp’s permanent shutdown, as the documentary memorializes his friend and bandmate. Fripp even uses “wretched” to describe the feeling of leading the band from 1969 until Rieflin’s inclusion in 2013. Others agree.
“Being in King Crimson is kind of like having a low-grade infection,” says Trey Gunn, the band’s Warr guitarist from 1994 to 2003. “You’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well either.”
“If King Crimson is his baby, then he wants lots of midwives,” original drummer Michael Giles says of Fripp and his lineup shuffles.
“I think I broke Robert’s heart when I left,” says original multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald (1946-2022), “I love you, Robert. I’m sorry I broke your heart.”
“If it’s not done his way, he’ll take his guitar and go home,” says Adrian Belew, vocalist/guitarist from 1981 to 2009. “I’ve seen him do it.”
“Change is essential, otherwise you turn into the Moody Blues,” quips drummer Bill Bruford, a rare King Crimson musician capable of shifting between vastly different lineups and sounds from 1972 to 1997.
“I don’t have the problem,” Fripp counters. “The problems lie elsewhere.”
As always, there are no problems on stage during the film’s intermittent performances. Fripp, Rieflin and Stacey form a small symphony with vocalist/guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, bassist/Chapman stick player and vocalist Tony Levin, saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins, and drummers Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison.
Yet Amies counters those expected moments with the opposite throughout the 90-minute documentary and its additional short films, leaving in ample criticism from Fripp.
“Tell him that’s a load of shite!” the guitarist shouts when Amies asks Jakszyk about standing in the shadows of his predecessors. A nun explains why she’s a King Crimson fan while watering her house plants in Oslo, Norway. And when two female fans with no previous King Crimson experience attend a concert and ask if there will be dancing, Amies calmly explains that the setting is more like a classical music presentation.
Classic as well. Harrison’s orchestration of the three drummers’ parts make the front line function as a singular organism, with Stacey occasionally reaching to his left to play keyboards and Mastelotto employing the various acoustic and electronic percussive toys he’s surrounded by. Collins has survived various incarnations since 1970 and never sounded better; Jakszyk is particularly successful reinterpreting 1960s-1970s vocalists Greg Lake and John Wetton, and Levin provides the brilliant glue that’s united the band’s different lineups since 1981.
If the 2021 world tour was indeed King Crimson’s finale, the ensemble certainly went out in style even as it likewise played nostalgic favorites from preceding decades. Following Rieflin’s death, Fripp simply downsized the group from eight to seven pieces in the same unorthodox stage setup. That lineup put on a riotous performance at the Pavilion at Old School Square in Delray Beach on July 23, 2021.
Unlike other venerable rock groups, King Crimson purposely had only one steadfast member under Fripp’s guidance. When he felt a lineup had reached its peak, he pulled the plug on most or all around him, as additional gifted departures over the decades included singing bassist Boz Burrell, percussionist Jamie Muir, and violinist/keyboardist David Cross. Yet what might have seemed dictatorial and controlling to fans and other band members actually worked, since King Crimson remained relevant from the 1960s into the 21st century.
No other artist can list critically acclaimed, commercially successful releases from a groundbreaking 1969 debut extending into the 1970s (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Red, U.S.A.), 1980s (Discipline, Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair), 1990s (Vrooom, THRAK, Absent Lovers) and 2000s (The Power to Believe). All while variously employing, often simultaneously as only Fripp could, elements of rock, classical, metal, jazz/fusion, world music and electronica with precision and pace, beauty and intensity.
That includes veteran acts progressive and otherwise: AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers Band, the Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, the Fifth Dimension, Genesis, Iron Maiden, the Isley Brothers, Jethro Tull, Kansas, Little Feat, Los Lobos, Mother’s Finest, Pretenders, the Rolling Stones, Rush, Santana, The Who, Yes, the Zombies, and ZZ Top.
King Crimson certainly wasn’t for everyone, with its often-ominous chords, alternate tunings and dark musical undertones, but as the saying goes, heavy lies the head that wears the crown. Perhaps, after a 53-year run, court has been permanently dismissed.