New York Times NOVEMBER 1, 1981 - by Robert Palmer


What's in a name? Consider the curious case of King Crimson, the name of a succession of rock bands that were put together by the guitarist Robert Fripp between 1969 and 1974. During those years, King Crimson was more a revolving door than a band. The only musician who played in every edition of King Crimson was Mr. Fripp, and the changes in style and substance that marked the various King Crimson albums were a testament to both the fertility and restlessness of his imagination.

In 1974, Mr. Fripp disbanded King Crimson, declaring that in the future he would operate as "a small, intelligent, highly mobile unit." And he did. At his most recent performances here, he sat in a chair, looking something like a banker with his close-cropped hair and three-piece suit, playing dreamy improvisations on his electric guitar for a small, rapt audience.

This Thursday, King Crimson returns for a five-show, three-night run at the Savoy on West 44th Street, having already completed a series of European concerts. The new incarnation of the band includes Mr. Fripp and the drummer Bill Bruford, who was in the 1973-74 edition. The other two members are Adrian Belew, a guitarist who made his reputation as a sideman with David Bowie and the Talking Heads, and the bassist Tony Levin, who has created an utterly original style on his instrument and has been one of New York City's most sought-after studio musicians. Tickets for King Crimson's Savoy shows have been selling briskly, and there is a new King Crimson album, Discipline, on the EG label distributed by Warner Brothers.

All of this - the major-label album, the tour, the resurrection of a name as an apparently-successful commercial ploy - should be faintly amusing, if not disenchanting, to anyone who has followed Robert Fripp's career during the past several years. Mr. Fripp originally disbanded King Crimson, he said at the time, because the phenomenon of supergroups and stadium rock which the band had become part of, was severing all meaningful contact between musicians and their audience. He began performing as a guitar soloist in intimate settings in order to re-establish meaningful contact, playing through a tape-delay system that allowed him to build up dense clouds of sound. He called the system and the music that resulted from his application of it Frippertronics, although he always gave credit for the invention of the system to his friend and frequent collaborator, Brian Eno.

But Frippertronics could not contain Mr. Fripp's energies, and besides, he had a plan. The first phase in his plan was Frippertronics; the second involved the formation of an instrumental dance-rock band called The League Of Gentlemen in 1980. That group's music layered Mr. Fripp's flowing, legato guitar lines and the inventive keyboard work of Barry Andrews on top of a crisp, driving rhythm section.

When the other members of The League Of Gentlemen went their separate ways, Mr. Fripp set about putting together another band. He came up with a combination of players that pleased him so much, he said recently, he could think of only one thing to call it - King Crimson. According to Mr. Fripp, this development was a fortuitous twist of fate, an opportunity to reach a much larger audience than he had been performing for - and the beginning of the third phase in his plan, which was, essentially, a plan to re-enter the mainstream of rock on his own terms.

Mr. Fripp has released three albums this year, one for each step in his plan. All three were recorded under the banner of EG records, but even the mechanics of their distribution reflect a carefully thought out strategy. Let The Power Fall, an album of Frippertronics improvisations, was distributed by Jem, an independent company that supports new and unusual rock and rock-related music. The League Of Gentlemen was distributed by Polygram, a company with international clout. But Discipline, the new King Crimson album, has the merchandising expertise of Warner Brothers, who are better at selling progressive rock than just about anyone, behind it.

Mr. Fripp has had to take some critical ribbing for reviving the name King Crimson, but as a music that at least intends to be popular, rock always involves some commercial calculation. It's the music that counts, not the marketing strategy, and Mr. Fripp's most recent albums are organically linked, with each providing a series of musical stepping stones to the next. Let The Power Fall, the second and best of his Frippertronics albums (the first one was called Under Heavy Manners), is the sort of thing Brian Eno calls ambient music. One can listen to it, one can daydream to it, or one can put it on and do the dishes. Its deceptive simplicity involves the repetition of compact melodic kernels, which are developed in a highly disciplined manner over the course of each improvisation. The combination of rigorous development and bright, appealing melodies recalls some of the work of the composer Philip Glass.

On The League Of Gentlemen, Mr. Fripp and his cohorts applied an identical formula to a more rhythmically propulsive idiom. The result was some exceptionally attractive instrumental rock, though the album is marred somewhat by the insertion of snippets of jolly dialogue between various friends of Mr. Fripp's.

King Crimson always included a vocalist and lyrics; the original vocalist was Greg Lake, who went on to become one-third of the artrock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and the original lyrics were rococo and not always intelligible creations by Peter Sinfield. On the new King Crimson album, the songs were collectively composed, and the guitarist Adrian Belew has been drafted to sing them.

Since the album begins with Mr. Belew dismissing all verbalization as "just talk - elephant talk," and punctuating his rants by playing winning imitations of trumpeting elephants on his guitar, one probably shouldn't take the lyrics that follow too seriously.

The level of musicianship in the new King Crimson is very high indeed. Bill Bruford is a dazzling drummer, and he meshes well with the distinctive bass parts provided by Tony Levin, though one wishes Mr. Levin had been more prominent in the album's mix. Mr. Fripp and Mr. Belew are riveting electric guitarists who command so many unorthodox techniques, and employ so many sound-modifying devices, that one can't always be sure who is playing what. They sound like birds in flight, a swarm of bees, and various other natural phenomena as often as they sound like guitarists. But what could easily have become a duel of guitar egos remains as controlled as a Frippertronics improvisation. And the arrangements are basically an extension of the melodic-theme-and-variations techniques explored on Let The Power Fall and The League Of Gentlemen.

Most of the new King Crimson songs don't really work as songs. But when the four members of the band recreate the stark Saharan textures of Paul Bowles's novel The Sheltering Sky in their instrumental tone poem of the same name, or float shreds of sound over a rhythmic abyss, or charge ahead over dancing sixteenth-note rhythm patterns, they are well-nigh irresistible. And one suspects that this album is basically a warm-up for a band that could make art-rock interesting instead of vacuous and overblown, as the music of most of the bands influenced by the earlier King Crimsons has been. If Robert Fripp can sell music of this caliber to the masses by resurrecting a name, more power to him.