A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 11 (Discipline, 1981)

After three collapses and three reformations, this fourth collapse of the influential and successful Wetton-Bruford (and Cross and Muir) brand of King Crimson in 1974 was the final one and the true end for the band. So everyone thought, apparently including Robert Fripp himself. He must have had some great foresight, because the “first wave” of progressive rock Crimson inspired in 1969 would famously die off in the following years, with fellow prog men Yes, Genesis, and new ex-prog band member supergroup Asia transitioning into highly successful commercial 80s pop/rock and others trying, failing, and disbanding.

Throughout the rest of the 70s, everyone from Crimson went off on their separate ways, including Fripp, who started a solo career and got into collaborations with other hardcore music guys like Brian Eno. His path took him into further collaborations with David Bowie and Talking Heads, where he’d meet the up-and-coming American guitarist Adrian Belew, who got his start with Frank Zappa and also ended up working on tour with Bowie and Talking Heads. This big musical web ended up putting Fripp and Belew together in a new project, with Bill Bruford returning on drums and the also American, also extremely talented bassist Tony Levin joining in (also on something called the Chapman stick, which is a sort of big guitar neck without the body powered by touch alone. Sorry to any stick players reading for the probably awful description.) This new group was originally called Discipline, but eventually I guess the group felt it was Crimson-ish enough with about half of the old 70s band there to bring that old name back, so they did, and their new “debut” album received the Discipline name instead.

I’ve been trying to avoid lengthy “history” sections like the above, but it’s impossible to avoid in this case. If you were to jump directly from Red into Discipline, straight from “Starless” to Elephant Talk, without knowing the name of the artists involved, you’d never believe they were both created by King Crimson. Yet they were — despite the shared name, this Crimson sounds nothing like any Crimson that came before it, the difference in sound being all the more dramatic because of the passage of time. More importantly, I’d argue as many others have that despite their very different New Wave-ish sound at this point, King Crimson along with Peter Gabriel were the only “old prog” guys left working in that truly progressive spirit. Discipline is another seriously influential album, their last “big” release in that earth-shattering sense, and it’s easy to see why: all seven songs on this album are exciting and fresh, combining Crimson’s experimental edge with a new catchy pop sound. They’re woven together effectively kind of like the knot on the album cover — the perfect cover to describe its contents, even if it probably does have some esoteric reason behind it (just ask Mr. Fripp about that — it was the same with the Larks’ Tongues sun and moon graphic, though beyond looking cool I have no idea what it’s about.)

The signature of this new 80s Crimson was the “interlocking guitar” sound. For the first time, the band had two guitarists in Fripp and Belew, and they use that opportunity to play intricate and complex figures, often in different time signatures, that weave around each other as on Frame by Frame and the instrumental title track. These are more than just pieces to show off technique — they really pulled me in when I first listened to this album and they still do. This intricate guitar work around Levin’s bass/stick and Bruford’s drums to even better effect in the fierce Thela Hun Ginjeet, in which Belew recounts his run-in with some tough guys in New York City where they were recording. And of course it wouldn’t be a King Crimson album without a wild experimental piece: see Indiscipline, one of the times I think the wild experimentation works, possibly expressing paranoia or neurosis through the unhinged instrumental sections and Belew’s vocals just as well as Talking Heads could in their own work, and at times even better thanks to Belew’s impressive guitar effect antics.

Bocchi is good, but can she make her guitar sound like an elephant? With the right equipment, probably. I have no idea what these guys were using to make their bizarre sounds.

And look, there’s an honest-to-God love song on this album in Matte Kudasai — the first Crimson love song ever? I think it might be, unless you count “Ladies of the Road”. It’s a good one too, featuring more of Belew’s guitar tricks with his replication of seagull cries and also the two non-English words I remember hearing on a Crimson album. I understand 80s Crimson was fairly popular in Japan, and it’s no surprise if so — there’s something city pop-sounding about “Matte Kudasai” and a few of Belew’s more pop-oriented songs still to come. But then city pop and New Wave seem to have been tied together pretty closely anyway, and similar fusion/proto-electronic guys like Yellow Magic Orchestra were already well established by this point. And finally, don’t forget about The Sheltering Sky, a nice, peaceful instrumental that I used to overlook.

I’ve seen Discipline described as feeling cold or distant, but I never had that feeling about the album myself. It’s extremely precise, sure; if you’re a fan of “math rock” you absolutely need to listen to this stuff if you haven’t already, especially if you want to know who influenced guys like Tool. But does precision equal coldness? I don’t know. Even if it does, this music is both enjoyable and innovative enough that it doesn’t matter, but there’s plenty of warmth in “Matte Kudasai” and heat in “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (right in the title too, if you know what it means!) Discipline is excellent overall and a must-listen: I’d rank it right up with Crimson King and Larks’ Tongues all together just below the pinnacle of Red, even if, again, it sounds absolutely like none of those albums.

But that’s the game with King Crimson as we’ve seen. Expect the unexpected! There’s a lot more Crimson to listen to as well — I think we might be halfway through the catalogue at this point. So I’ll hopefully see you next time.


4 thoughts on “A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 11 (Discipline, 1981)

    • Absolutely, same. Since both the singer/guitarist Belew and Fripp worked with Talking Heads and Fripp with Eno as well, I’m sure a lot of their work rubbed off on and influenced this album. Belew sounds a little like David Byrne too.

  1. Ayy, it’s Discipline! Man, the weird guitar tones, the interlocking instruments, the proto-EDM four-to-the-floor riff repetition and drive… there’s a reason this is Rate Your Music’s #1 for ’81!
    “…despite their very different New Wave-ish sound at this point, King Crimson along with Peter Gabriel were the only “old prog” guys left working in that truly progressive spirit.”
    This is something I strongly agree with – the forward-thinking “spirit of prog” is mainly found in the post-punk of the ’80s plus related genres like new wave, synthpop, even italo disco and house/techno in a way. It’s sort of like how I see hyperpop/PC music as being the most “prog” in ethos and spirit of 2020s popular music genres, rather than ’10s/’20s djent-influenced math rock like you might hear in a modern Gitadora game.
    Hope you’ve been well! Or at least as well as circumstances admit!

    • Totally agreed with Discipline in the top spot for 1981 — I can’t think of an album from that year I like better, though I’m sure some others measure up. I definitely see that progressive spirit continuing in a lot of electronic and related genres too. I’m not too up on the very newest music but I have heard the term hyperpop, and I’d like to dig around for more good new stuff soon. Just wandering around on Bandcamp can be very rewarding like that.

      And I’m doing as okay as possible, thanks! Hope the same for you.

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