If King Crimson's impressive 1981 reincarnation was a product of founder/guitarist Robert Fripp's musical bent, this year's model clearly belongs to guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew. In fact, were it not for a strong dose of "Frippertronics," Fripp's pyrotechnic trademark, "Beat" (Warner Bros. 23692-1) could pass for a companion piece to Belew's recent solo release, "Lone Rhino." King Crimson, with Fripp and Belew sharing guitar duty, appears at Merriweather Post Pavilion tonight.
"Beat" is--you guessed it--a concept album, the theme of which is spelled out in the title. Every rocker, it seems, is eventually compelled to pay homage to Big Daddy Neal, Brother Jack and the generational gurus who built the foundation for the rock 'n' roll life style. Of course, a concept can only be honed so fine before losing its textures; how awful it would be to hear King Crimson attempting free-form jazz, and anyway, Allen Ginsberg was already busy with the Clash. To their credit, Belew et al. don't strain their subject, milking every beat-generation metaphor and posture. Instead, they focus musically on the freewheeling spiritual elements that intrigued Kerouac and company, letting the lyrics draw from the original meaning of the term "beat."
And what an interesting spin Belew puts on that meaning. The opening track, "Neal and Jack and Me," cuts right to the heart of this well-traveled tale; but it does so from the perspective of the vehicle that carried Cassady and Kerouac to immortality. "I'm wheels," howls Belew in streamlined stream-of-consciousness, "I am moving wheels/I am a 1952 Studebaker coupe," and right away it's Dharma Bums and Talking Heads in fender-to-fender collision, the impact made spectacular by Fripp's and Belew's bizarrely visionary guitar work.
It's a heady act to follow, and "Heartbeat" seems predictably wan in comparison, although Belew's eerie vocals match Fripp's cold-metal clarity wail for wail. "Sartori in Tangier" renews the pace, being just a shade less forceful than "Requiem," the LP's other instrumental and closing track. Throughout the record, Bill Bruford's rhythmic Africanisms and the borderline funk of Tony Levin's bass/Chapman stick support give generous but necessary rein to the guitar eccentricities, especially on the wild, aptly titled "Neurotica," in which Belew gives vent to his most rambling instincts. Belew tugs at Kerouac's ghost just enough to suit his purposes; elsewhere, he evokes some still-living disciples, among them William Burroughs ("Waiting Man") and Ginsberg himself ("The Howler"). His aim is neither to lionize them nor lay them low, but to limn the way their legacy of existential angst pervades the present culture.
For all of that, some of the most interesting lyrics appear in "Two Hands," penned by Belew's wife Margot. Yet Belew's compositional skills are consistently equal to his gift for words, as demonstrated on "Lone Rhino" (Island IL9751). Although not a "concept" vehicle like "Beat," this album echoes and expands on the kind of reverse anthropomorphism touched on in "Neurotica" and "Neal and Jack and Me." A streetcorner siren is a "Big Electric Cat," a carping wife is a momur (any relation to the momus?) and the rock guitarist, perpetually on display and ever on the road, is "The Lone Rhinoceros."
Belew's weird guitar braying sounds quite natural in this rock-jungle scenario, but he hasn't lost his sensitivity to pure melody. A fine sense of humor keeps ponderousness at bay, especially in "Adidas in Heat": Beer slob Saturday addict pops another top "Kill that sonovabitch" he screams at the TV The thrill of victory, the agony of my feet Adidas in heat
Belew's strange sensibility is clearly an acquired taste, and none of these songs will elbow Asia off the airwaves. But both "Beat" and "Lone Rhino" are fascinating studies of a talent that knows the roots of inspiration.