PopMatters MARCH 23, 2012 - by Ron Kozar


With A Scarcity Of Miracles, a master guitarist keeps innovating.

A guitarist, said Paul McCartney, has to have riffs. Think back to almost any song by any early rock band, with its distribution of verses and refrains on the A-B-A-B model or some other formula. Somewhere past the halfway point, the singer is silent for fifteen or twenty seconds, leaving musical space for the lead guitar to fill. That's when the guitarist reaches into his bag of riffs.

We all know what a riff is - a short themelet, sometimes similar, sometimes not, to the melodic line pursued by the singer. When the riff is good, you might even prefer it to the sung melody. The guitar solo from George Harrison's My Sweet Lord comes to mind. If the riff is weak, you're just eager for it to end so that the good stuff can resume - can anyone remember the guitar solo from Bon Jovi's You Give Love A Bad Name? Bands over the years have experimented with different musical structures like rondos, suites, and jazz-fusion jam sessions, in addition to the continuing profusion of songs in the traditional verse-and-refrain format. But the role played by the lead guitar seems to never change. Somewhere in the song's architecture, the other performers back off, leaving a bare canvas of drums and bass on which the guitarist paints his picture, with riffs.

Robert Fripp, King Crimson's enigmatic guitarist, does not follow - has never followed - that formula. Crimson's latest release, A Scarcity Of Miracles, typifies his atypicality. His guitar doesn't wait for a cue from the other players, but flits in and out randomly at its own whim. Fripp coaxes unworldly sounds from his guitar, menacing us from the ether, descending on the main musical proceedings with hoarse locutions, sometimes with screechy, grating licks or weak, anaemic wails, always the acme of cool. The rest of the band sounds clear and close by, but Fripp's guitar is always muffled, distant. Fripp himself produced the album, so you know he wanted it that way. Its sounds arrive from afar in short phrases, in ghostly, disembodied voices, or in single, stray notes, but seldom in anything as tuneful and ordinary as a riff. An ear conditioned by mainstream pop might be confused by Scarcity and by Fripp's role in it; there's nothing to hum here. But ears that Fripp has taught over his four-plus decades in music expect more than riffs from him, and those ears will not be disappointed.

Nothing else in Fripp's oeuvre sounds quite like what he gives us in Scarcity, though a discerning listener might note similarities to his 1975 collaboration with Brian Eno, Evening Star. In his work with Eno, Fripp heralded the arrival of a new musical genre that we know today as ambient music - a species of sound usually found late at night on commercial-free radio stations. But ambient music is not the only genre Fripp had a hand in inventing. His 1969 album with King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King, famously inaugurated the era of progressive rock, a vein mined over the ensuing years by bands like Yes, Genesis, Procol Harum, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Prog rock guitarists are a select group known for virtuoso musicianship. Fripp is the founding father of that select company. When one thinks of sheer physicality or melodic soulfulness, other names come more readily to mind - names like Howe, Holdsworth, or Trower. Fripp seems modest by comparison, especially onstage - always sitting, never standing, situated far from centre-stage, expressionless, almost catatonic. But don't let the lack of showmanship fool you; there is no one better. His technical mastery and manual agility are second to none. His fingers fly across the frets with astonishing rapidity and uncanny accuracy.

But what distinguishes Fripp more than anything is the role played by his guitar in the music itself. For all their excellence as guitarists, the Howes and Trowers of the prog firmament always wait their turn, like good little guitarists, decorating the song with their quota of riffs at the moments reserved for them. They are hired hands, playing a supporting role in a production where the vocal line is always the essential part. Fripp, by contrast, is the boss - the designer and master-builder of the musical structures in which his guitar is the featured voice. He can riff with the best of them; some would call him the king of riffs. But a riff from Fripp is not just a brilliant ornament in someone else's song. Rather, it is the very backbone of the song, the keel of the musical ship.

That ship's name is King Crimson, and Fripp has always been its captain. Fripp's dominance of Crimson had its origins in the band's prehistory, with an unjustly forgotten album called The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp. Beneath that album's veneer of Oscar Wilde humour, Fripp's uppity guitar aggressively asserted itself, providing most of the musical interest. After one of the Giles brothers left, three other players joined, and the new ensemble, now dubbed King Crimson, went on to make history with In The Court Of The Crimson King.

Others who have served aboard the good ship Crimson have been chagrined by Fripp's captaincy. Bandmates jumped ship at every port of call; each of the band's first four albums featured a different line-up, except for Fripp. Some refugees from the early King Crimson attributed the band's horrible rate of turnover, perhaps too charitably, to the dark mood of the music and to artistic concerns. The facts, however, suggest that people just couldn't stand working with Fripp. In the let-it-all-hang-out world of rock, he was too interested, as he put it, in "quality control".

Interviews given by Fripp suggest a taciturn personality, but not a belligerent or intimidating one. Bill Bruford, the drummer from two of Crimson's later incarnations, portrays Fripp using passive-aggressive methods to maintain his grip:

"Two or three guys would noodle on something, individuals contributed a passage here, a song there, a refrain here, but nothing worked. Our Fearless Leader, guitar in hand, stared at his favoured spot on the floor, slightly to his right and a few feet in front of him, for minutes on end. The Active Ones - myself, Belew, Levin, Trey Gunn - ran up ideas, toyed with this, rejected that. The stare didn't waver.

"Eventually, exasperation got the better of me, and I heard myself voice my unsolicited opinion on the proceedings with a clarity that surprised me. This provoked reaction. The stare wavered; its owner put down his instrument and wordlessly left the room. The following day he could be persuaded to return only with profuse apologies..."

Fripp's aim was to move his music in new directions that others did not always understand.

The vision that drove Fripp, however, justified his bizarre methods. His aim was not to win points for congeniality, but to move his music in new directions that others did not always understand. In Crimson's early years, Fripp's goal was to wed jazz sounds and forms to traditional rock. To that end, and uniquely among rock bands, Crimson brought in saxophonists and trumpeters - not merely as sessioners, but as integral members of the band. Crimson's worthiest achievement in those years was 21st Century Schizoid Man, the signature song from In The Court Of The Crimson King. It's a crowded musical thicket, foliaged deep with thorny brambles of sound and daubed with brash lyrical flowerings, Schizoid features dramatic full-stops, from roaring tutti one second to complete silence the next. The discipline necessary to pull that off is a trait one instinctively attributes to Fripp. (A decade later, Fripp wanted to name a new Crimson line-up "Discipline".)

Crimson's first four albums between 1969 and '71 were a mix of brilliant successes and disheartening failures. But these uneven efforts provided a testing ground for methods that would shortly gel into something richer. When King Crimson resumed its on-again, off-again career in 1973, Fripp sought a purer sound, with thick, propulsive, hard-rock chords hauling the music forward with locomotive strength. That sound powered three albums that, for some, were Crimson's best: Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black, and Red. Fripp's benevolent dictatorship did not exclude creative contributions by others; on those three records, Fripp saw to the inclusion of one of rock's only violinists, David Cross. Aspic also featured a sometime-percussionist and general noisemaker named Jamie Muir, whom the liner notes credit not with this instrument or that, but with "all-sorts". Fripp encouraged Cross, Muir, and others to experiment with sound in ways that challenge the superficial listener; contrasting with the mighty, riff-powered tracks on Aspic, Starless, and Red are somnolent, atonal, rhythmless passages that stretch the definition of music. Fripp made room for it all, but it was always clear that these other artists served at Fripp's sufferance.

When Crimson came back to life in 1981 after another hiatus, Fripp re-invented the band yet again. This time, he sought a machine-like, minimalist sound - a pointillist sonic texture of notes crammed densely beside each other, endlessly, motorically repeated, to form a single, hypnotic fabric. That aspiration drove three albums: Discipline, Beat, and Three Of A Perfect Pair. You can't listen to them without being amazed at Fripp's sheer endurance; by the end of a five-minute song with non-stop sixteen-note picking, those fingers had to be tired. Fripp's approach on these three albums turned one of the usual formulae on its head; where most bands build their music on a foundation of drums and bass guitar, Fripp made his omnipresent riffing that foundation, leaving others - especially bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew - to build their own outcroppings upon it.

When Crimson re-formed yet again in 1994, Fripp evolved with it. The Discipline-era line-up of players returned that year for Thrak, but Fripp's sound seemed to reach back to an even earlier era, with shrill, trebly, chugging chords that built upon the Aspic-Red sound. Thrak's signature song, VROOOM, is a veritable feast of guitar rocking that out-Reds Red. With The ConstruKction Of Light in 2000 and The Power To Believe in 2003, Fripp reprised that sound, but with a weird overlay of Dadaist experimentalism, hints of which rear their heads again on Scarcity.

Through this entire musical odyssey, Fripp has remained faithful to his own muse, never seeking mere popularity. Though 21st Century Schizoid Man was always the band's biggest hit, Fripp disdained performing it after 1970, despite the urging of agents, record-company executives, and even fellow bandsmen. Fame and fortune were not his aims. Bandmate Greg Lake later made millions with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and John Wetton, Crimson's bassist from the Aspic era, went on to fill stadiums with Asia. But Fripp never sought the low-hanging fruit of commercial success, even when it was within his reach; if you need a few laughs, watch Fripp's half-hearted performance in the record-company's ill-conceived 1982 video of Crimson's Heartbeat. Fripp's imperviousness to commercialism eventually ripened into open contempt for the business of music. Consider this tut-tutting that appears in the fine print on Scarcity:

"The phonographic copyright in these performances is operated by Discipline Global Mobile [Fripp's company] on behalf of the artists, with whom it resides, contrary to common practice in the record industry. Discipline accepts no reason for artists to assign the copyright interests in their work to either record company or management by virtue of a 'common practice' which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible."

Whatever brought this on, it is clear that Fripp's experiences with record companies and agents have not been happy ones.

Though Fripp's indifference to audience preferences kept Crimson from scaling the heights of commercial acclaim, the band always commanded a loyal, intelligent following, especially among students of the guitar. Crimson's middling position surely helped protect Fripp's musical integrity. Great art is usually the child of hunger, not of plenty; Crimson has always had enough of a fan base to keep the lights on, but not much more, leaving Fripp and his bandmates just hungry enough to keep creating, changing, returning to the drawing board.

And so it is that, to this day, Fripp keeps striking out in new directions, and with new musicians. A Scarcity Of Miracles presents an entirely new combination of bandsmen to go with its unique, jazz-ambient sound. Mel Collins, a saxophonist from Crimson's early days, has returned, along with Tony Levin, the Discipline era's peerless bassist. They are joined by guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, veteran of a Crimson spin-off called 21st Century Schizoid Band. Jakszyk's vocals are nondescript, but designedly so - sparing and unintrusive in a musical landscape where the vocals do not take centre-stage as, indeed, they never have in any Crimson album since the first. On the drums is Gavin Harrison, a new face in the Crimson pantheon, whose drum-work resembles that of his predecessor Pat Mastellotto. A superficial first hearing would lead you to conclude that the sax dominates, since it is the instrument you hear the most. But Fripp's guitar provides the most compelling sound on Scarcity. With repeated hearings, his guitar's plaintive, ambiguous cadences will pull you deeper and deeper into the music.

Fripp offers A Scarcity Of Miracles to the world not as a King Crimson album, but as a "ProjeKct". Fripp invented that word to denote separate efforts made by fragments of the band in the decades since Thrak. Fripp has spoken of Crimson's "ProjeKcts" as the band's research and development program.

If that is the case - if A Scarcity Of Miracles adumbrates yet another new creative turn for King Crimson and Fripp - then listeners may look forward to another variation or two on the jazz/ambient theme until Fripp, and Crimson, find another neglected corner of the musical spectrum to explore.