Over the years, prog rock has taken its lumps — and not without cause. Even with an audience more concerned about 401(k)s than SATs, the genre is still redolent of high school science labs, or basements where Dungeons and Dragons is a worthy topic of serious discussion. The sight of grown men intoning sub Middle Earth lyrics only adds to the impression of a genre whose time has past. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp is out to debunk that notion. Even though Fripp (the only constant in Crimson’s ever-shifting lineups) has a catalog dating back to 1969, and his mid-’70s albums, such as “Red,” are a major influence on modern art rock bands such as Tortoise and Tool, the cantankerous guitarist refuses to wallow in nostalgia. With a set list that didn’t look further back than 1995 and concentrated on current release “The Power to Believe” (Sanctuary/DGM), Crimson’s impressive 90-minute show made the case that the band remains a creatively active concern.
Which is not to say that Crimson doesn’t possess a healthy amount of prog DNA. This is still music that has an almost religious faith in complexity, favoring lumbering tempi, torturous time signatures and precipitously shifting dynamics. But led by Fripp’s precise, intelligent yet modest playing, Crimson can be rigorously brutal. In tunes such as “Larks Tongues, Pt. 4,” Fripp, Adrian Belew and Trey Gunn’s guitars lock together to form abstract sound sculptures, as drummer Pat Mastelotto vigorously pounds his way around them.
Fripp’s a professorial, almost empyrean figure; sitting stage left, he was bathed in blue by a lighting plan designed to keep him out of the spotlight. His preshow “soundscapes” were gorgeously shaped waves of guitars, both dreamlike and controlled.
But they are not immune from prog’s excesses. Halfway through the show, a quartet of what looked like pastry bags were inflated, looking like arches or two pair of giant mastodon tusks; either way, too close to Spinal Tap for comfort. And Belew’s lyrics are often cringe-inducing: When looking for a metaphor to describe insignificance, you’d think he’d be able to come up with something better than feeling like “a speck of dust on the penis of an alien.”