1. Elephant Talk (4:43)
2. Frame by Frame (5:09)
3. Matte Kudasai (3:47)
4. Indiscipline (4:33)
5. Thela Hun Ginjeet (6:26)
6. The Sheltering Sky (8:22)
7. Discipline (5:13)
Adrian Belew – lead vocals, guitars
Robert Fripp – guitars, devices (Frippertronics)
Tony Levin – bass, Chapman stick, backing vocals
Bill Bruford – drums, percussion
After two posts dedicated to recent albums, now it is time to go back almost thirty years – to the beginning of that decade that, in the eyes of many people, is synonymous with the ‘dark ages’ as far as progressive rock is concerned. In the eyes of many, the Eighties marked the triumph of style over substance, and therefore offered very little of interest to anyone looking for authentically progressive music. Obviously, this is in many ways a misconception, because during those momentous ten years for the history of the world a lot of great music was produced – even though it sounded different from anything released by the trailblazing acts of the early Seventies.
One of those bands, King Crimson (whose 1969 masterpiece, the legendary In the Court of the Crimson King, had reputedly marked the official birth of the progressive rock era), had been laid to rest by its mastermind Robert Fripp after the release of the monumental Red in 1974. Very few people expected them to resurface at the beginning of the new decade, when prog had become all but a four-letter word – not just with the inevitable Fripp at the helm, but also drummer Bill Bruford on board, as well as two newcomers (though with already a sizable amount of experience behind them) – bassist Tony Levin with his Chapman stick, and guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew.
For those who had known King Crimson during their Seventies glory days, the release of Discipline in 1981 was nothing short of a shock. No mellotrons (or any keyboards for that matter), no majestic vocal performances, no visionary lyrics – just a rhythm section to die for, two gifted guitarists trying to outdo each other at every opportunity, an incredibly expressive vocalist with an endearingly lazy American twang, and oodles of intriguing ethnic influences – notably Javanese gamelan music. On the other hand, it would not be correct to say that Discipline has no connection with the Crims ’70s output. Indeed, in some ways it takes up where “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic” left off – there is more than a touch of Jamie Muir’s crazy percussive brilliance in Bruford’s performance on this album.
One very evident influence on Discipline, especially as regards the tracks featuring vocals, is celebrated New Wave band Talking Heads, easily one of the most ‘progressive’ (in the true sense of the word) representatives of the so-called post-punk era – and no wonder, seen as Adrian Belew collaborated for some time with the New York band before being invited by Fripp to join the new incarnation of King Crimson. Belew’s manic, emotionally charged vocal delivery is noticeably influenced by David Byrne’s, although in my view Belew is by far the better vocalist. Needless to say, his style is light years removed from Greg Lake’s smooth, quintessentially English tones, or John Wetton’s rawer yet powerful delivery: as much of an acquired taste as Belew’s vocals may be, they are a perfect fit for the music showcased on Discipline.
It must be pointed out, however, that the numbers which feature more or less traditional singing amount to just half of the album. The true strength of “Discipline” lies in its magnificent instrumental tracks: the tense electric storm of “Indiscipline”, slashed by almost violent guitar flurries, and featuring a slightly disturbing spoken-word section; the ambient-influenced, African-tinged mood piece of “The Sheltering Sky” (inspired, like The Police’s “Tea in the Sahara”, by Paul Bowles’ novel of the same title), which provides a welcome respite from the overall intensity of the album; and the title-track, which rounds things off in style with Fripp and Belew’s dueling guitars weaving in and out of Bruford’s and Levin’s thunderous, intricate rhythmic background.
Of the tracks featuring vocals, the laid-back, atmospheric ballad “Matte Kudasai” (Japanese for “please wait”), an alternate version of which is provided as a bonus track in the 2004 edition of the album, is the closest the album gets to the mainstream. Though it is not a bad song by any means, displaying Belew’s gentler side as a vocalist, it feels somewhat out of place among the other, more exciting and innovative tracks. Conversely, opener “Elephant Talk”, spiked by all sorts of weird noises (courtesy of Belew’s notorious “elephant guitar”), a real vocal tour de force, with Belew half-singing, half-reciting his whimsical lyrics, sets immediately the scene, making it clear what the new Crimson are all about. In a similar vein are the dynamic, though not as frantic, “Frame by Frame”, and the funky, percussion-driven “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (anagram of “Heat in the Jungle”), in whose central section Belew relates his narrow escape from muggers in NYC.
King Crimson have always been quite famous for their stunning cover art, and Discipline is no exception, though – almost paralleling the album’s musical content – the cover is much more minimalistic and streamlined than such baroque masterpieces as ITCOTCK and “Lizard”. Incidentally, the background colour is that shade of dark red commonly known as crimson, framing a spectacularly intricate Celtic knot – deceptively simple, extremely stylish, just like the album it contains. However, do not be mistaken into thinking that Discipline might be – in true Eighties fashion – a triumph of style over substance. Although it may not everyone’s cup of tea, it is one of the undisputed masterpieces of progressive rock, and an enormously influential effort – as pointed out by Edward Macan, who dedicated a whole chapter of his seminal book Rocking the Classics to King Crimson’s comeback album.