King Crimson’s eleventh studio album THRAK veered away from their prior discography in more ways than merely how it sounded. The band’s radical new form and sound was fittingly captured and delivered in a very different package than anything that had come before; not only were the fashions and times very different than their last outing circa 1984, but even the formats had changed. The 1980s band employed minimalist design on the larger canvas of the LP record, replaced in the 90s by dense textures on tiny CD inserts.
Eric Tamm published his book Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft in 1990, when King Crimson appeared for all intents and purposes defunct. He nevertheless correctly nailed its cyclical nature:
“King Crimson had always been a way of doing things, and indeed with the new band [King Crimson 1981–84] the historical King Crimson pattern played itself out once more: a short period of intense collective creativity resulting in a dynamic new musical style, followed by a decline into somewhat mannered refinements and repetitions of original insights and a fragmentation of group identity due to the individual creative leanings of the musicians.“
– Eric Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, page 9
Looking back from the point of view of 1990, the major phases of the King Crimson lifecycle did indeed fall into a trilogy of trilogies: roughly three albums per three years (with varying gaps of inactivity in-between). After their singular debut in 1969, this pattern fits the bumpy transition period of 1970–71, the adventurous jazz rock fusion period of 1973–74, and the new wave / math rock curveball of 1981–84. The THRAK era is where this organizational scheme falls apart. In stark contrast, this phase spanned 1994–96 but produced only one studio album.
However, that one single album of material nevertheless generated the biggest promotional blitz and world tour. This particular lineup would hardly be the first to record only one album, but it is certainly disproportionately represented by the largest number of supplementary releases. The band may consider their live work during this period to be more representative of their effort, but for better or for worse, history will judge them primarily for THRAK. Were the name “Islands” not already taken, the metaphor would perfectly describe THRAK’s isolation amidst the band’s other work.
The THRAK venture was a major commercial endeavor, very uncharacteristic of a band that often operated by the skin of its teeth, usually stopping short right on the brink of big-league mainstream operation. The relative stability of 73–74 was hard won after years of struggle, and 81–84 was famously the result of the members of a little band called Discipline realizing they had the name wrong all along, and were not only King Crimson in spirit but in fact had every right to the name. The revivification of King Crimson in 1994 was carefully preconceived and executed, and left behind a great deal of plastic and paper artifacts to review here.
While King Crimson mimed “Cat Food” on Top of the Pops in 1970 (the footage reportedly now lost) and MTV promo videos were shot for “Heartbeat” and “Sleepless” in the 80s, most of the usual promotional trappings passed the band by. As such, the discography prior to 1994 isn’t quite as visually rich as that of some of their peers (when even a prog rock dinosaur like Yes had produced quite a number of 7″ and 12″ singles, replete with single edits, dance remixes, and interesting artwork). THRAK was to be a quite different affair, unique in King Crimson’s commercial legacy: the single studio album with the greatest number of supplemental releases. It was pre– and post-ceded by a bevy of related EPs, singles, live albums, videocassettes, DVDs, limited editions, and a lengthy world tour. All of this collateral material required a great deal of graphic design and packaging, all energized by the promotional force available from major label Virgin Records.
First things first. THRAK was preceded months earlier by the EP VROOOM in November 1994. The extended play format became customary in later years, such as Level Five and Happy to be Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With each serving as teasers for forthcoming full releases. VROOOM was also their first CD-only release of an original studio recording (THRAK itself would be available on CD, cassette, and the short-lived minidisk format). Visually, VROOOM continued the band’s association with Bill Smith Studio that began in the early 90s with the archival releases Frame by Frame: The Essential King Crimson, Heartbeat: The Abbreviated King Crimson, Sleepless: The Concise King Crimson, and The Great Deceiver.
The signature style of this period is densely layered photography. In this case, Smith utilized photographs by The Douglas Brothers of a tower block, a ladder, a radiator, strands of hair, and tiled walls (according to In the Court of King Crimson, by Sid Smith, page 286). But for the first time since Earthbound and Starless and Bible Black, the dominant visual element is the typography. The word “VROOOM” takes up the whole of a three-panel folded jewel case insert. The austere typographic style established a significant shift in design direction, away from the serif fonts of yore. The band name and EP title are set in beautifully restrained
Helvetica Gill Sans (embarrassing error corrected 12/28/12, thanks to commenter Peter Grenader). Restrained, that is, in terms of color and point size — as we shall see, there are other ways of creating emphasis through type design, such as setting the word “VROOOM” in all caps and adding an additional “o”.
Onomatopoeia dictated the naming convention of the next few releases and the titles of a few key compositions. The tracks “VROOOM”, “VROOOM VROOOM”, “THRAK”, and “B’BOOM” were set in all caps, adding visual emphasis that made them stand out in track listings but also suggested great volume and density. The theme of creative capitalization would linger throughout King Crimson album and song titles until at least 2000, by which point it had evolved into idiosyncratic misspellings and camelCase, particularly with words like “ConstruKction” and “ProjeKct”.
VROOOM was originally sold with an insert card autographed by all six band members. Experience selling his own independently released solo albums influenced bassist Tony Levin’s negative opinion of the design: “who picked these disgusting colors — what is it, cranberry? Why does King Crimson have a cranberry CD cover?” (Beyond the Bass Clef: The Life and Art of Bass Playing, page 106)
VROOOM also featured the first use of an intriguing six-pointed icon used sporadically across the lifespan of this particular lineup. I have no evidence to support the following supposition, but I’ve long wondered if its origins were perhaps related to the celtic knotwork emblem that adorned Discipline, originally derived by John Kyrk from the Fourth Way Enneagram associated with G.I. Gurdjieff.
But a more literal interpretation is as a graphical representation of the double-trio concept for the band. More than a mere sextet, the concept of two guitar/bass/drum trios could just as easily be described as three duos (here we go again with the trilogies!). The emblem would appear in one form or another on nearly every double-trio release, effectively branding them all as part of series. Most notably, it served as the dominant visual element for the live album B’BOOM and the tour program. In retrospect, it perhaps might have made for a better cover of THRAK itself. It would have better branded the album as part of the continuüm following the visually consistent run of albums in the 1980s.
The main event was a big-budget studio album recorded at Peter Gabriel’s bucolic Real World Studios in the fall of 1994 and released in April 1995. THRAK dates from a particular period in the early to mid 1990s when bands as diverse as My Bloody Valentine, Curve, and Nine Inch Nails were exploring dense, noisy, layered electronic sounds — albeit couched in traditional pop/rock songwriting. Many of the key albums from this period bore the names Flood, Alan Moulder, and Mitchell Froom in their credit sheets, and their signature sounds spilled out into the mainstream when bands like U2, Garbage, and even Suzanne Vega hired them.
Another force influencing the genesis of THRAK was the world music scene surrounding Peter Gabriel’s Real World. The associated record label, recording studio, and world music festival were all gathering steam at the time, and brought a number of musicians together from around the world that would not have ordinarily collaborated. In was in the midst of these two contexts that Trey Gunn and Robert Fripp worked on at least three records with producer David Bottrill at Real World Studios: David Sylvian & Robert Fripp’s The First Day, Toni Childs’ The Woman’s Boat, and finally, King Crimson’s THRAK. They all share a dense, dirty, heavily processed sound, but one also lightened by world music elements.
After the VROOOM EP introduced “VROOOM” and “THRAK”, the original CD booklet for the THRAK album included the additional sound effects such as “crash” “wallop”, “pop”, “bang”, and “snap”, each illustrated (in varying degrees of literalness) by a digitally altered photograph.
The interior artwork is generally in keeping with the Bill Smith Studio aesthetic, but the front cover is curiously unique, and apparently an example of Smith working slightly outside of his wheelhouse. It appears to be a single photograph instead of a deeply layered collage. The image is artfully cropped and seemingly adjusted for color and contrast, but otherwise unmanipulated. It is not only unlike other Bill Smith Studio works, but also uncharacteristic of THRAK-related releases like the Dinosaur and Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream singles. It’s more reminiscent of the abstract, textural work of Russell Mills, who created famous sleeves for Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Nine Inch Nails, and many others.
The subject of the cover photograph is a detail of an unidentifiable object. For some reason, I continue to picture an axe head or a wrecked car door, even though Bill Smith has since revealed to Sid Smith:
“I have to be able to hear the music for an album cover that we’re doing. It seems to be to have a very hard, metally kind of vibe to it and that’s what gave me the idea for the cover.” The piece of metal he eventually used was a section of a computer security cupboard in Smith’s premises, which hadn’t quite lived up to the manufacturer’s guarantee.
– Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crimson, page 270
I suspect these mundane origins bely something deeper. Bear with me as I gently enter into Freudian territory. The rusted metal hunk is clearly emblematic of something distressed, distorted, loud, and heavy. It is manufactured, manipulated, technological, and masculine. But the left edge of the object is obscured by shadow, a chiaroscuro created by an enigmatic hole. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think the hole represents a female aspect, marking a division between the harshly lit ruined object and the murky textures hidden in shadows. If I’m in any way right about this, the THRAK cover is a continuation of the themes of dualities expressed by the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Three of a Perfect Pair sleeves, inspired by the union of opposites (sun/moon and male/female) in Tantric theory.
In April 1994, THRAK shared the record store shelves with some of the above releases. This is a very incomplete selection of what would have been brand new at the time, and likely to be featured alongside. There is a wide variety of graphical styles, and only the Tricky and Belly albums come close to the highly textured, layered look that Bill Smith Studio created for VROOOM and THRAK. The usually reliable Pink Floyd art department also disappointed that year with their overcooked cover for the live album Pulse — suggesting a band that couldn’t make a decision and instead decided to decorate their album with every single design idea they had all at once (which included a battery-powered LED light in the spine). My favorite of these is the Faith No More sleeve, with its bold, powerful illustration of institutional oppression. As you can see, THRAK rather disappears into this jumble.
THRAK is the only King Crimson album to be made available in more than one edition at the time of release. In the early 90s, compact discs were often packaged in cardboard sleeves called longboxes, in part to combat shoplifting but also, more practically, to allow music shops to display the new stock without rebuilding their shelving already optimized for much larger LP records. By my memory, THRAK was released after longboxes were discontinued (a major complaint being that they were incredibly environmentally wasteful).
A special limited edition set featured the CD in a stamped metal longbox, including the tour program, 24kt gold CD, rice paper sleeve, and a VROOOM badge. Gold-coated compact discs are reputedly more reflective (possibly improving playback fidelity) and may even decompose more slowly than standard “silver” discs. Remarkably, the limited edition did not include the standard CD booklet, or indeed any additional artwork or any sleeve notes at all. As such, the standard retail CD is a more attractive item in terms of overall design.
The original 1995 CD edition was the first King Crimson studio album to not be released on vinyl, and the first to feature packaging designed specifically for the jewel case format. It remains far and away the most lavishly illustrated of all thirteen studio albums. A multi-paneled foldout came in lieu of the traditional stapled booklet, effectively one-upping the gatefold LP format in all but dimensions.
What does not work so well, however, is the fully-justified and thus virtually unreadable lyric sheet. Also, the photographs are often overly literal depictions of the music, including a toy car with motion blur, a shattered lightbulb, and dinosaur bones.
By and large, the 30th Anniversary remastered editions issued between 2000–2001 sported dramatically improved packaging over all previous CD editions. In many cases, they even surpassed the original vinyl (Earthbound and USA in particular benefitted). The one exception is THRAK, and the only instance where the original package design was more appealing. For the first time, no vinyl edition existed to replicate, so the the original CD booklet was deprecated in favor of an entirely new booklet of historical clippings. A selection of the original artwork was relegated to the inner gatefold spread. The credits and lyric sheet are even more illegible than the original, and the photographs are reduced to postage stamp size.
The track “Dinosaur” was released as a single on compact disc in 1995, alongside a promotional version with a different cover. Part of the appeal of singles to fans and collectors is original material such as b-sides or alternate mixes, but Dinosaur offered only live recordings available elsewhere, and abbreviated single edits.
The live album B’BOOM (named after the Bill Bruford / Pat Mastelotto) duet, was released in August 1995. Labelled as an “official bootleg”, it was rushed to market not only to document the band’s return to the stage for the first time in a decade but also in an effort to beat the bootleggers. King Crimson was heavily-bootlegged in the past, and they rightly anticipated their first live shows in over a decade to be likewise a target.
The dominant image of the double trio icon on the front cover makes the point that the band configuration is even more important live than in the studio. The symbol extended even to the physical placement of the musicians on the stage, although you wouldn’t know it from a booklet free of photographs. The Photoshop ripple effect looked striking at the time but is now rather dated.
The second and final single “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” was released on compact disc in October 1995, with another sleeve by Bill Smith Studio. The cover depicts an organic, biological object, possibly a grain of pollen or even a brain. The sickly green hue is, to be honest, a little icky, and reminds me now of the stem cell photography that appears on Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back (read The Dork Report review) and Live Blood albums. Unlike Dinosaur, I believe the Sex single CD is worth seeking out for the positively sublime live recording of “Walking on Air”, superior even to the studio version (I’m not sure if it’s been released elsewhere, but it’s definitely not on B’BOOM). (update 12/28/12: this “Walking on Air” appears to have also been released on the mail-order-only live album Live at the Wiltern. Thanks to commenter TK for helping me track it down)
The second of three live albums documenting the THRAK tours was released on CD in June 1996. THRaKaTTaK is the only non-archival King Crimson live album to actually feature a photograph of the band playing live — on the front cover, no less. It’s rather amazing that they avoided the cliché nearly every other band in the world readily employs for their live discs, even the most design-conscious ones like Peter Gabriel. Unfortunately, an ugly yellow sticker is permanently affixed to the front of my copy (but to be fair, its message is rather dryly funny: “Warning! This recoding contains explicit live instrumental improvisation and a poster”). The interior artwork includes several contributions from Tony Levin: photographs of charred basses (casualties of a fire in his home studio) and schematics for his Café Crim Valet Road Case, including space for wine bottles and an espresso machine.
“When Crimson made plans to come out with the CD THRaKaTTaK, I ruminated on how I could come up with a photo for the package that was as radical as the music. I considered projecting a slide of the band onto one of the burnt basses, but there was too much black in the charcoal body for good contrast. […] I tossed the basses into the snow in front of it [his burned-down home studio], fished them out enough so that they showed, photographed them with the barn remains behind them, and onto the finished print I painted a fire rising into the sky. The final work became the inside cover of the THRaKaTTaK CD and served a therapeutic need for me to create something positive out of the ashes.“
– Tony Levin, Beyond the Bass Clef, pages 63–64
In my opinion, the THRaKaTTaK sleeve is a casualty of the 90s “grunge” design trend (its coinciding with a musical genre also called grunge is coincidence) of distressed fonts and textures.
Performances during the tour of Japan were filmed and released on VHS as Live in Japan in 1996. The yellow sleeve with collage of band photographs recalls the original laserdisc sleeve for Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan. The same footage was repurposed for the DVD Deja VROOOM, first released in 1999 and tweaked for reissue in 2007. The Deja VROOOM sleeve is far more characteristic of the band than the VHS case, sporting a P.J. Crook cover that is well-suited for the wraparound DVD case format. Unfortunately, I have the original version of the DVD and the menu navigation is so appallingly designed as to be very nearly unusable (supposedly the 2007 edition included a redesigned navigation scheme, but I can’t confirm). Interactive design is what I do for a living, and I’d love to critique it more here, but I’m afraid I’d lose too many readers, so, moving on…
The third and final live album dating from the THRAK tours was VROOOM VROOOM, containing excerpts of two very different shows in November 1995 and August 1996, but belatedly released in November 2001. Perhaps the series was halted when they ran out of onomatopoetic track names? The cover art features two paintings by P.J. Crook: two street views, painted in one-point perspective, a stylization often employed in film by Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson. The two opposing street views reflect the fact that each disc of the double album depicts the band at two points in its existence: the first relatively new, with the second disc showing them much later, with the material nailed down and played at a blistering pace.
VROOOM ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- Graphic Design 1994 Bill Smith Studio
- Photography 1994 The Douglas Brothers
THRAK ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- Design and Computer Images 1994 Bill Smith Studio, London
- Photography 1994 Lewis Mulatero, except cowboy and boxer
B’BOOM ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- Design: Bill Smith Studio, London
THRAKATTAK ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- Sleeve Design: Bill Smith Studio, London
- Cover Photography: Steve Jennings
- Burning House and Guitar Photography: Tony Levin
VROOOM VROOOM ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- Cover Artwork: from paintings by P.J. Crook
- Design: Hugh O’Donnell
- Photos: Steve Jennings, Robert Leslie, Tony Levin
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