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21st Century Guide to King Crimson - Volume I: 1969-1974

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Resident King Crimson expert Marc Medwin takes a look at the latest King Crimson anthology.

21st Century Guide to King Crimson - Volume I: 1969-1974

Since I first heard them in the mid 1980’s, that ever evolving entity known as King Crimson has influenced my perceptions of music more than any other group. To me, their best work represents the facile merging of rock, jazz, classical and folk in their most innovative guises and all under the compositional supervision of KC’s only constant, guitarist Robert Fripp.

My faith in Fripp’s abilities has dimmed of late, as Crimson now attempts to place theory and research above and before compositional craft; in this light, I am proud to admit a bias for the 1969-74 material. Part of the problem with latter-day Crimson is that Fripp’s sense of history has gone some way toward overtaking the impulses that made his early work so eclectically successful. This tendency first reared its head upon the group’s re-emergence in 1995, increasingly typified and exacerbated by a fair bit of historical revisionism, tasteful and otherwise. The seeds for this trend were planted in the mid 1970’s, after the demise of the Bruford/Wetton incarnation of the mighty Crim, when A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson was released sporting a demo of “I Talk to the Wind.” The 80’s and 90’s saw more and more important archival releases – box sets such as the career retrospective Frame by Frame and a live set, The Great Deceiver, paving the way for the King Crimson Collector’s Club in 1998, now on its 28th volume. Similar to the Grateful Dead’s Dick’s Picks series in aim and scope, The Club is worth noting because, while its merch is only available domestically through DGM, Crim’s own label, several live compilations have become more widely available; often, these are carefully edited thematic arrangements of club material. Ladies of the Road, for example, presents the most comprehensive document of the 1971-72 group generally available, and it is meant to simulate the continuous concert experience, applause being inserted throughout where there was none on the club releases.

Fripp’s evident fascination with historical documentation also spilled over into the newly reformed band’s concerns, 1995’s Thrak being preceded by several EPs of early versions, demos and otherwise unreleased tracks from the upcoming disc. Similar modes of production have signaled and supported every Crimson release since, and the entire catalog was remastered in 1999 for Crimson’s 30th birthday.

With so much archived and newly remastered material readily available, the time was right for a re-appraisal. This four-disc box and its eventual companion are meant by Fripp to replace the Frame by Frame comp, and indeed, Volume I eclipses any earlier retrospectives of the 1969-74 vintage. Here again, this generally well-planned set is meant to give a comprehensive overview of studio material and to plunge the listener headlong into the live Crimson experience, legendary in its time and still revered today. Disc One and Two showcase the 1969-72 bands, Three and Four focusing, with good reason, on the powerhouse 73-74 lineup. Each dyadic subset consists of a studio disc and a live disc, the symmetrical structure of the set being practical and remaining engaging after repeated listening.

It was a wise decision to include the seminal 1969 Crim debut In the Court of the Crimson King in its entirety. Hearing people speak in addled but subdued whispers about how nobody was ready for that album when it was released can be a bit tiring, but it’s all probably true. It isn’t just rock, or jazz, or jazz-rock, tinges of classical, hippy folk and powerhouse psychedelia all mesh to create a series of epic and well-proportioned juxtapositions, alternatively aggressive and austere, that still cohere well thirty-five years later. Only the “free jazz” noodling of “Moon Child” has been edited out for this set, and it really doesn’t matter much, as this might have been the weakest part of the album. Worth noting is that Fripp now has access to the original master tapes of Court, making this release sonically superior to any previous CD edition (It’s available separately now, presumably complete.)

The period from KC’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon through Islands is less convincingly represented in terms of studio picks. Admittedly, decisions must have been difficult, as each album is more a suite than a collection. It is refreshing to hear “Peace’s instrumental version segueing into “Cat food” as on the album, and the addition of the B-side “Groon” is a nice treat. However, was it really necessary to include nothing but “Bolero” from Lizzard? It flows well from the more orchestral textures of the Islands contributions here, but it says almost nothing about the breadth and scope of the album it represents.

The live disc is itself a bisected affair; the first five tracks are taken from the Epitaph box, which chronicles the 1969 band, and 6-10 show the 71-72 group in full jazz/funk effect. Contrast the two versions of “Pictures of a City” to hear how much the change in personnel effected the group’s aesthetics. Earthbound was really the only documentation of the live 71-72 band for quite some time, and it’s still nice to hear its versions of “Groon” and “Schizoid Man” (in instrumental edit), but I’m certainly pleased that the wealth of newly released material from that period is also given a place on disc 2.

The 1973-74 lineup, predominantly featuring Fripp, Bill Bruford on drums, John Wetton on bass and vocals and David Cross on violin (most doubled on other instruments) is many fans’ favorite, so it occupies two full discs. The newly released live recordings from the brief period including free-jazz percussionist Jamie Muir are not included, but all three studio albums of the period – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red – and are well represented on disc 3, leaving disc 4 to concentrate on the diversely dynamic and forceful improvisational nature of the band. The only major problem with disc 3, and with the set in general, is that “Starless” is severely and needlessly edited. Abridging is one thing, but cutting out more than half of that track means that the slow excruciating build to the recapitulation is missing, misrepresenting the composition and its formal/emotional impact. It is a grievous misstep in an otherwise well-chosen program of highlights from a consistently interesting and innovative period in KC’s history.

Disc 4 may be the strongest in the set. It demonstrates convincingly the fluid mixture of improv and transmogrified Crim classics that comprised a show of the period, both extremes typified by a bone-crushingly brutal rendition of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, pt. 2.” The disc might even have stood well on its own, being a prime example of Fripp’s expert programming and editing supervision.

The packaging is typically first rate with the customarily witty and dry Fripp liners. The set is a bit pricy, but unless the novitiate is ready to purchase individual albums, it’s hard to imagine a better introduction to KC’s most fertile and ground-breaking period. Watch for the second four-disc installment later this year.

By Marc Medwin

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