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King Crimson - 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Vol. 2: 1981-2003

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Artist: King Crimson

Album: 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Vol. 2: 1981-2003

Label: DGM

Review date: Apr. 30, 2006

In last year’s assessment of the first box in this two-part collection, I made some disparaging comments about Fripp/Crimson’s more recent output. Yes, I’d already heard much of the material present in 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Vol. 2: 1981-2003, but I’d forgotten that Fripp’s manner of presentation is always enlightening. Superficially, these four discs are programmed similarly to their chronological predecessors – two studio, two live, one pair per era. However, given the large temporal scope of the package and the varying lengths of the periods of silence separating the Crim incarnations, the set’s layout is even more important in demonstrating modernistic unity in the face of an increase in apparent self-reference, even if strict chronology is sacrificed; Fripp accomplishes this beautifully, and I’m discovering that the set is even more of a triumph than Vol. 1. It presents the material in such a way as to render lineage, intent and execution simultaneously practical and philosophical.

My most important revelation came with the first disc, largely comprised of studio material from 1981-84, but with a section labeled “Bonus Tracks 1982-2004.” Already a weird juxtaposition, granted, but – if the precedents set by the “discipline” band are examined – a very insightful one. The disc shows the obvious, that the mighty Crim has been a band of reference and subreference from the outset. Classification of In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) remains a daunting task; similarly, describing the 1981-84 band as “post-punk” is sorely inadequate. The overview presented on the studio disc reveals this group to be a powerhouse of diversity, a fact that can get lost in the shuffle when listening to the three individual albums. The driving funk brought on by “Elephant Talk,” the metrically shifty but transcendently beautiful balladry of “Matte Kudesai” and the jazz-inflected majesty and power of “Requiem” speak to incredible diversity.

The bonus tracks seemed at first like a muddle, a mash of tidbits from EPs and outtakes, which is exactly what they are in the most pragmatic sense. Suddenly though, in the middle of the barrage, tearing a big hole in my preconceptions, is “Clouds”:

Just for a moment,
It seemed like
The clouds stopped moving

There it was! As the static haiku jumped headlong into the duel-guitar overdrive of “Potato Pie,” I realized that the capturing of moment-to-moment exploration, in macrocosm, has formed the thread that has held all versions of the band together. Certainly it’s Fripp’s vision, but it is fashioned of these moments, born of vast group experience and interplay. Having begun to listen to the more recent Crimson in this new context, a montage like “Einstein’s Relatives,” slicing up 2002 rehearsal fragments and audience-heavy renditions of older tunes, makes perfect sense. The crowd is all too ready to hear “In the Court” in an acoustic version; the listener to this box is now forced to take only a fragment of it. Metric and timbral elements have certainly unified the material since 1981, but Crimson’s history of ceaseless exploration is a stronger bond.

The studio material from 1995-2003, presented here in a kind of connected suite, reveals the 1972-74 group’s hard-edged improvs being assimilated into an increasingly technology-driven environment, due in large part to the Projekct off-shoots of 1997 that result from the double trio’s disillusion. The transition is laid bare as “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” segues, via a brief but poignant Fripp soundscape, into the opening moments of 2003’s The Power to Believe. Here again, the haiku serves as transition and as unifier, in instrumental and vocal versions. My own expectations concerning what Crimson should be, in light of what I brought to the music as it was released, are instructively negated.

I have isolated moments from these studio discs that resonated with me, but of course, each track presents formal challenges worthy of close scrutiny, and as with Vol. 1, Fripp has chosen to edit, substitute, omit; I won’t complain this time. The live versions chosen to complement the studio material are entirely first rate, and I was especially pleased to hear “The Sheltering Sky” in a beautifully executed concert version. Again though, presentation is the key, and as the final disc concludes with “Deception of the Thrush,” the Projekct piece being both Crimson and somehow existing apart, the sense of having journeyed with the group is palpable. Individual personnel issues become obscured, a King Crimson sound that continues coming to the fore. “Deception’s” aphoristic utterances – simultaneously mechanical and human, improvised and composed, rhythmic and spacious – sum up King Crimson’s achievements as well as any single composition is able to do. It’s a fitting conclusion to a massive compilation from a band whose continued importance I’d misjudged.

By Marc Medwin

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