November 9, 2001
The culmination, or perhaps the final death throe, of the revitalized King Crimson, reassembled by Robert Fripp in the early 80s, Three of a Perfect Pair also harks back to the earliest days of King Crimson--back when Robert Fripp conceived of a record album as consisting of two contrasting sides. In fact, with a little stretch of the imagination, one could say that this is a totally electronified "In the Wake of Poseidon". The distinction of sides is emphasized by the fact that (on the original album) the sides were designated as 'right' and 'left', not one and two.
In terms of sound, this means that one side is full of 'normal' songs, in the Fripp-Belew-Levin-Bruford vein familiar from the previous two albums, while the other side, by contrast, is a glorious maelstrom of seemingly improvised stuff, culminating in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part III".
1. The album opens with "Three of a Perfect Pair", one of the most compelling songs Adrian has ever sung. Immediately, the parallel guitar lines of Fripp-Belew hook you, Adrian's voice soars gloriously above, and the exquisite Levin-Bruford rhythm section kicks in. Adrian's guitar solo is a particular standout here as well, as it sounds like he is literally tapdancing on all kinds of footpedals more than playing his guitar. And PS, to everyone who likens Adrian's voice to David Byrne, Byrneisms are rare for Adrian. And here he shows that it is Roy Orbison that is the best analog to his voice. ("Frame by Frame" from Discipline is another apt example.)
2. "Model Man" and "Man with an Open Heart" (as the man in both titles suggests) are fairly similar, and very straightforward songs. Both are, for want of a better word, sweet; neither quite rise to the level of the opener. But, one really must pay attention to the musicianship here. The entire band is playing with a virtuoso restraint that rewards attentive listening--especially Bruford's drumming. It is simply a joy of subtle variations to listen to.
3. "Sleepless", a Tony Levin show piece, is an infectious things with a very neat sounding bass line. Unfortunately, its novelty eventually tapers off, and the song seems rather long. A very solid effort all the same.
4. Side "One" originally ended with "Nuages (That Which Passes Like Clouds)". Even now, some 17 years after the debut, this songs remains a marvel of electronic instrumentation--drums, stick, guitar synths...at times, it is impossible to tell which instrument is responsible for which sound. And the piece itself is intensely gorgeous, with one of the most beautiful, almost acoustic guitar solos Adrian has ever committed to tape. It still impresses me that the song could never have been played on traditional rock instruments--inventions like the stick and electronic drums were necessary.
The grandeur of the opening and closing songs of this side more than make up for the comparative "shallowness" of the other songs on the side.
But then we come to the other side.
1. "Industry" begins with a bass thump that turns out to repeat itself for the entire 7 minutes of the song. Frippertronic washes then enter, a rather sorrowful guitar line, then Tony's bass (sounding like he's trying to snap a string), and Bruford with his usual unusual and scrumptious accompaniment. The whole thing increases, with Fripp building up a splendidly dissonant wall of parallel guitar notes, and then fades away to where it began again, slipping without pause into...
2. "Dig Me", the only improvisation with lyrics on side two--a classic example of Adrian's sympathy for machines (recall his "Rail Song" from Twang Bar King). This song tries my patience--the opening lick, actually. The whole song seems treated to sound completely metallic, even Adrian's voice in places. The chorus, however, sounds like it was kidnapped from the other side.
3. "No Warning" is aptly titled, and seems to be a brutally atmospheric free-form improvisation that succeeds brilliantly, owing largely to the intensity of playing by Bruford. A timid guitar line, like a foghorn in the fog, beeps briefly, as Frippertronics and drum waashes build ominously around another high-pitched guitar. Then the fun begins--Bruford kicks loose with what is virtually a drum solo, accompanied by Frippertronic backgrounds and minimalist soloing. Levin's bass, meanwhile, is skulking around underneath adding darkness to the atmospherics. Really, you just have to hear it--best at loud volume.
4. The album closes with "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part III", the third installment of the eponymous title track of King Crimson's second most important album. (There is a Part IV now as well, from "The ConstruKction of Light".) The song begins with musical quotations from the first two installments, and then breaks into its own complex, impossible and articulated guitar line backed marvellously by Bruford and Levin. After a while, the song lurches into an extended section of gruesomely edgy guitar chords by Fripp over Belew's spry, whammy-barred rhythm section (which, humorously enough, contains a musical quotation of its own when Belew borrows one of his own riffs from a previous solo album). Once again, Bruford and Levin hold down the fort with right-on thumping.
Without question, this is my favorite King Crimson line-up (though Trey Gunn's replacement of Tony Levin since then is not the least bit disappointing), and "Three of a Perfect Pair" is probably the most well-realized of this line-up's three albums (as the name suggests). Pop songs with progressive edges, progressive improvisations with pop accessibility, "Three of a Perfect Pair" is a marvelous combination of both worlds, conveniently divided on the original album into sides, so you could listen to either one or the other.