Friday, December 11, 2009

King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King and Red 40th anniversary editions

King Crimson occupies an interesting place in rock history. They have no hits, very little legacy of mind-blowing live shows and little penetration of the general public’s consciousness, yet, like The Velvet Underground or The Thirteenth Floor Elevators they are shrouded in mystery and the reputation of being one of the great bands that people “in the know” know about. The truth is somewhat more complex than that. King Crimson was not and are still not a flash in the pan or part of some arcane drug-related movement. More similar to Frank Zappa, they have had a long, prolific career that has been marked by supreme musicianship and the unwavering professional seriousness of leader Robert Fripp. Fripp is one of the great auteur nuts of rock music. He is the only member who has been in every iteration of King Crimson and it has been his precision, psych, buzzsaw guitar playing and angular, heady compositional style that have been their consistent features. For the 40th anniversary of this important band, Fripp has enlisted Porcupine Tree mainman Steve Wilson and embarked upon creating the definitive versions of his landmark albums. Appropriately enough they have begun with the first, and most beloved Crimson album In The Court Of The Crimson King from 1969 and their 1974 masterpiece Red which marked the end of the first major era of King Crimson.

Aside from having one of the most recognizable and iconic album covers in rock history Court is possibly the quintessential “Art-Rock” statement. Jazzy, experimental and often startlingly noisy it is miles ahead of its time and sounds willfully avant by even today’s standards. It hearkens back to a time when musicians were trying to stretch the limits of popular music to include all their interests and emotions and move away from formulaic love songs. Unlike so many bands, King Crimson succeeded in creating a one-of-a-kind work of art that is as satisfying musically and conceptually now as it was then.

Red represents a much different King Crimson and a much different musical approach. The original Crimson line-up with Greg Lake, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles had been replaced by extraordinary drummer Bill Bruford and prog-rock legend to be John Wetton on bass and vocals and the album shines with intricate songwriting and powerful musical arrangements that bring together the best of jazz and rock. This is what FM radio was all about in the early 70’s and songs like “Fallen Angel,” “One More Red Nightmare” and “Starless” are the kind of onanistic science fiction fodder that completely lit my imagination at 15.

The real point of this review however, is not how great these two albums are, but how amazing these new editions of the albums sound. Each one is housed in a slipcase that holds a CD with the original album remixed in a definitive fashion and then a handful of bonus tracks. The second disc is a DVD that contains multiple versions of each album in all kinds of souped up audio quality with surround versions and alternate takes galore. They also each contain pieces of video that show the band at the appropriate time. I have been following the progress of sound and especially 5.1 and high-fidelity versions and I must proclaim these releases the ultimate in audiophile satisfaction. The clarity and detail is breathtaking and to hear the delicacy of “I Talk To The Wind” or the crushing finale of “Fallen Angel” in full surround, ear-bleeding mode was pretty damn exciting. In direct opposition to the movement toward more and more condensed music and storage capability trumping sound quality, these releases stick a finger in the face of the iPod and say “you wanna hear what music can really sound like?”

For those who are completely mad there is the awe-inspiring import version of In The Court Of The Crimson King which stretches the package to 5 CDs and a DVD and adds rare promo versions, alternates, different mixes of the album and two live shows from 1969. It might seem like overkill, but I can’t say I was less than riveted the entire time I listened to it. It is one of the most original and haunting albums in rock history and actually deserves this kind of treatment.
Paul Epstein

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul for your excellent reviews of "In the Court..." and "Red". King Crimson is no doubt one of quintessential enigmatic bands in rock history and your review gives them the credit they deserve. No hits, no fluff, just unbelievable originality and guts. Thanks for taking the time to review 2 great albums from one of my favorite bands. Brian Glover