The first King Crimson album I ever heard was Discipline, in 1982, which made me late to the party. Later than you think, actually—though I loved that album and enjoyed the two that followed, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair, albums such as In the Court of the Crimson King that are considered classics never held my attention. I’m a prog-rock fan in a funny way, in that I love Yes, but could never grasp the appeal of Robert Fripp’s band. What they were doing was good, but it never seemed to venture far from, say, Led Zeppelin. Apostasy, I know, but what I heard was rock songs, just longer than the usual rock song.
But earlier this century KC started rereleasing their albums in 40th Anniversary Editions, and when in 2012 the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic deluxe box set was released, I was flush, and took a chance. That was money extremely well spent, as it turned me on to the band.
The 40th Anniversary boxes are each based around the album in question (i.e. Starless for Starless and Bible Black, The Road to Red for Red), remastered and with additional (and excellent) remixing from Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree, with additional studio material added. But the meat of these multi-disc sets are live recordings from the tours associated with the original albums.
The live music, especially when heard as a series of concerts, is magnificent and gets at the essence of the band, which Fripp famously said was not really a band but a process. That process is playing together in a way that combines heavy rock, psychedelia, and idiomatic and free improvisation (there are other details, but they are ornamentation). Hearing the music reshaped on different nights in a way that is not jazz and is also not jam-band, is a powerful and deep experience. From set to set, the band is trying to make everything better, go deeper, and they aim for—and often achieve—transcendence. It is a unique listening experience—in the context of years of listening to Mahler, Cecil Taylor, Beethoven, Astor Piazzolla, Miles Davis, Blind Willie Johnson—one of the most magical I’ve had.
Now (UPDATED: middle of June)
at the end of May comes the biggest one yet, Heaven & Earth, an 18 CD/4 Blu-Ray/2 DVDA box that collects music from 1997 through 2008, meaning the albums The ReconstruKction of Light and the excellent The Power To Believe, plus the usual ton of associated live recordings. The King Crimson site DGMLIVE calls this the “most comprehensive boxed set in the series,” and is the final installment in the 40th Anniversary releases.
The details of this set are intriguing:
- 4 CDs of small group live recordings, with King Crimson experimenting with new material, a series the band calls the “Unknown Crimson.”
- 11 CDs of concert performances.
- 3 CDs called a “Reimagining” of The ConstruKction of Light—the drum tracks of the original recording were lost, and so Pat Mastelotto re-recorded them. Here’a video that describes the process:
King Crimson had their own film crew with them when touring during this era, and they are the ones who captured the included concert videos, and there’s 3 CDs that, in the band’s words,
interweave improvs & the London concert to produce a very different, very powerful imaginary KC setlist.
As a whole, the series is not just a ton of great music, but an invaluable document of rock as art music, made with such powerful music thinking that it expands rock into high art. These are all invaluable, but if you must pick and choose, Starless and The Road to Red are particularly magnificent. And be patient—though the initial opening run of these limited editions is sold out and after-market prices can be exorbitant, they are all going to be reprinted (in limited runs) by mid-June. And coming up, the studio albums will, for the first time, be available via streaming services, first Apple Music then Spotify.
- This is available at Amazon and ImportCDs at essentially the same price, around $208 give or take shipping costs
- For a deep discount—though you’ll have to wait a little longer for it to arrive—order from Amazon UK, where price + cheapest shipping is around $145, depending on the exchange rate.
In the meantime, here’s something to tide you over:
“Anyone who can write with insight and authority about Alas No Axis, Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello…Missy Mazzoli and William Britelle, and…Mahler…is okay in my book.”
“George Grella understood exactly.”
I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.