1991’s deluxe 4CD Frame By Frame boxset offered a classy synopsis of what KC had achieved from 1969 to 1984. However, subsequent remastered reissues and archival releases in the later ‘90s pretty much rendered Frame By Frame out of date (although its engrossing, typo-colony booklet has never been matched). In 2004 and 2005, the two boxes below provided a much more expansive, balanced history of Crimson.
The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, Volume One
This four-disc set breaks down into one studio and live disc each for the 1969-72 and 1973-4 periods. This is the “golden age” of Crimson, an uninterrupted stretch from In the Court’s dark majesty to Red’s majestic darkness. (These two best studio albums are included almost in their entirety.) The story is like a three-act play: the heroes start out on top, suffer second-act troubles (the iffy transition period of ’70-2), and then emerge triumphant.
As mentioned, all of ItCotCK is here, minus the “Moonchild” improv, which I don’t detest as much as everyone else, but one can live without it. Selections from the interim post-Court period are more judicious. Honorees from In the Wake of Poseidon include “Cat Food”, “Cadence and Cascade”, and an instrumental edit of “Poseidon” that bite-sizes the song’s grandeur. Also from the Wake days is “Groon”, a neo-bop jam with Fripp and the Giles brothers. No one would need to own Islands after getting its best excerpts here, including an instrumental edit of the title track where they dumped the vocals and saved the pretty part. Poor Lizard coughs up only the classical/jazz hybrid “Bolero”. As for the early live tracks, KC69 tears through the Fillmore East versions of “Schizoid Man” and “A Man A City”, while “Mars” from Fillmore West dismantles the planet. The improv-heavy “Get Thy Bearings” from Chesterfield Jazz Club is another great sample of the original Crimson. The Islands band is represented by the groovy “Pictures of a City” from Summit Studios, “The Letters” (why?) from who cares, and also three tracks from the execrable Earthbound live album, where powerful playing was hindered by awful sound.
1973 began again on almost every level, and all the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic material is present in either studio or live versions. Starless and Bible Black, given its hybrid nature, is also split between studio and live discs, although they went with the USA live version of “Lament” instead of the superior studio rendition. The listener gets everything from Red (“Providence” is on the live disc) except the instrumental portion of “Starless” - a damn shame. Better to have left off “Fallen Angel” so that “Starless” may have spread its full glory.
The Starless quartet’s live disc captures their art of power and variation. Some of these free improvs are like “greatest hits” in that they’ve previously appeared two or three times on different albums and/or compilations: the riproaring “Asbury Park”, “Trio”, “We’ll Let You Know”, “Starless and Bible Black”. I’m glad they chose the Pittsburgh “Talking Drum”, as it contains perhaps David Cross’ best solo with the group. Core material includes “Exiles” (abridged), “Schizoid Man” (the blazing Providence take), and a melded “Easy Money”. This is a fine summary for the casual listener, but there’s so much more (via the Great Deceiver box, etc) from the ’73-4 lineup worth considering.
Speaking of casual listeners, I think the whole package verses one fairly well in classic Crimson. It leaves out some live tangents, but it gives a strong sense of each phase KC went through, and I think it contains all of the essential studio tracks, except of course for the truncated “Starless”. The booklet is well annotated and has some of the excerpted press reactions that Fripp likes reprinting for posterity’s chuckles. I mean, who cares what some fuckbag wrote in clever dismissal of a particular album? Anyway, nice package, good photos, etc.
This 4CD set features the same high-quality presentation as Volume 1. The first two discs document 1980s Crimson, from Discipline through most of Beat and not so much of 3oaPP. A few tunes are presented both studio and live, not a bad thing. The live disc draws mostly from the outstanding Absent Lovers, with some 1982 performances blended in, like the extra-spicy “Elephant Talk” from Cap d’Agde, and “Sheltering Sky” from Frejus. I’m not surprised that a couple of my personal favorites (“The Howler” and “Dig Me”) are absent, but overall, these two CDs hammer home how special the Discipline-era Crimson was.
Discs 3 and 4 co-mingle the Double Trio and Double Duo. The former is featured in several THRAK tracks and (only?) four live tracks, including the flailing “Neurotica” from Mexico City. There’s also a unique version of “One Time” from the group’s earliest ‘test-run’ performances in Argentina. I don’t know if it was remixed, or if this was just how it was performed pre-THRAK, but it’s awash in Fripp’s soundscapes, and the vocal sounds different. A nice rarity. Then there’s the Double Duo material (Ade, Bobby, Trey, and Pat), coming mostly from The Power to Believe (2003) and various live sources. Since I didn’t review this stuff elsewhere, I won’t start now, but the only tracks I really like are “Eyes Wide Open” and “The Power to Believe II”. One absentee is the instrumental “Dangerous Curves”, another rare favorite of mine from this phase, but I guess they had to go with the puerile “Facts of Life” and “Happy With What You Have” instead. Gosh, mix in the linebacker brunt of “Level Five”, and this sounds like a band that aspired to tour with Tool or something.
The final disc also touches on ProjeKcts Two (“Sus-tayn-Z” - yes, “X-chayn-jiZ” - no thanks) and One (the drumless “2 ii 3”, a lovely, soul-stirring “Trio” from another time). And for shits and grins, some bonus tracks are appended to Disc 1, including the Double Duo toss-off “Potato Pie” and a boogie doodle entitled “Form No.1” from the provisional quartet of Belew, Fripp, Levin, and Mastelotto. Marginalia.
Perhaps this box could be subtitled The Fripp-Belew years, or maybe The Grim Incline of the Closeted Shredder. The diverse story of the Crimson King continues.
As far as overviews go, there aren’t many adjustments I’d make to either of the above collections. But for single titles, now I’ve finally reached the fun part: the perennial “best of” or “most essential” lists, with or without pretensions to objectivity. For me, Crimson’s best recordings are usually the live ones, since KC is a performance oriented group, and the main archival live releases (Night Watch, Absent Lovers, etc) document a high-water Crimson history by themselves. On top of these, certain studio albums are of a special quality. So, with that as my perspective:
In the Court of the Crimson King
Epitaph is such a specialty item (variable sound, some repetition) that I have to choose the crystallized studio album instead, even if it doesn’t represent the broader range of KC69 as Epitaph does. The Islands-era live sampler Ladies of the Road is absent because I frankly feel that band was a replacement Crim rather than a necessary one. Yes, Absent Lovers doubles most of Discipline, but from a different vantage point.
Poseidon isn’t much more than a reiteration of 1969, but I like it. The breadth and honesty of the Great Deceiver box ought to put it in the first tier - maybe I wimped out because it costs a few more bucks to acquire. I push Beat without much apology, thanks to “Requiem” and a subjective fondness. THRAK is tough to rate, but I can’t identify anything bad about it.
Third Tier - minor reservations:
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (lesser sound and performance issues)
So chilly it’s attractive: Three of a Perfect Pair
Outhouse of Horrors and Curiosities: Lizard
Alternate futures: The VROOOM Sessions, Champaign Urbana Sessions, and Nashville Sessions - all Collectors Club
I’ll plug it again: ProjeKct One’s Jazz Cafe Suite (CC)