King Crimson – Beat (1982)

“I swear at the swarming herds / I sweat the foul terrain / I rove the moving scenery”

king_crimson_-_beat_-_digipackOne of the few perennial bands of my life, I discovered them just a couple years after this record was released and they had already gone on their second extended hiatus. When I was a dumb young guy I thought Beat was equal to its predecessor Discipline (1981) which is of course preposterous, but it was sufficiently experimental to blow my unformed mind. I’m revisiting it now since I saw them last week and “Neurotica” opened the set. There’s plenty of ink out there on their more classic albums, but it’s slightly less daunting to take on this, probably the least consequential of their discography.

The Beats are a ripe conceit for a record, and “Neal And Jack And Me” sends dispatches from The Road through the perspective of the coupe itself—until keenly observed details like “eating apples in vans” and a hotel room’s “new soap and envelopes” reveal a new narrator. The interlocking guitars of Belew and Fripp, predominant on Discipline, drive this too, and as a teenager I was most thrilled by Belew’s growl and the song’s gut-punching dynamics. Once impatient with the song’s lengthy “absent lovers” runout, I’ve discovered from this listen a preference for the less florid passages. Similarly, my evolved (which is not to say advanced) sensibilities find the atmospheric mid-section of “Sartori In Tangier” more satisfying to me now than the rest of it. Overplaying seems to be Beat‘s raison d’être, and Bruford’s electronic drums on “Waiting Man” (which would unfortunately prevail on the next album) also have a distancing effect—a regrettable backfire for a song about human longing. And to finally get to the record’s single, “Heartbeat” is impeccably crafted pop for sure, but I don’t find the compulsion to play it over and over again like I used to (I’m far more inclined towards the flip, also the last song on the LP, but more on that in a minute) though the backward-sounding guitar solo is still pretty cool.

Belew assumes the role of carnival barker pointing out the points of urban interest in “Neurotica”—a thematic follow-up to Discipline’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (I can’t believe this never occurred to me before). It’s not a pale retread, but rather one of the more vital and enduring things on this record, with Belew’s wordplay put to effective service and some killer caKcophony too. It’s hard to shake some of these adolescent associations, and even if I can’t place it I know there is a sexy movie from the early 80s that employs a love theme that sounds exactly like “Two Hands.” Belew delivers a beautiful vocal, otherwise forget it. “The Howler” has some interesting components, including a pleasingly screaming outro, but nonetheless doesn’t quite coalesce. In this stretch of late-album filler, song structures seem like an imposition when the most glorious moment turns out to be an improvisation, and with “Requiem”—an instrumental worked out in the studio when it looked like the album runtime was coming up short—they conjure something magical. The founding guitarist plays over his own Frippertronics, so it’s hard to know when Belew comes in, but Bruford is bashing a real kit here, and Levin contributes an appropriately restrained bass figure, culminating in some spontaneous but sensitive interplay—recalling the highwire approach of the ’72-74 band—that exposes how sterile much of the previous half hour was.

This was the first King Crimson record to show stability in the lineup, but comes up a bit short on inspiration except when some fearlessness was necessitated. I still love a solid beat, but I’ll take the noise of “Neurotica” and “Requiem” over the more conventional songs here. I’m glad the current band has the right idea, and maybe they’ll play a variation on the latter as well—imagine Mel Collins wailing on that one!

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