A Scarcity of Miracles
US: 31 May 2011
In the Court of the Crimson King
US: 10 Oct 1969
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 15 or 20 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, anemic 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 center-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 humor, 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 lineup, 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 favored 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…. ”