Sometimes the best musicand some of the best bandsare those that come from the most difficult of births. When King Crimson co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp
had the idea for a new band after dissolving the last incarnation of the '70s-era Crimson lineups seven years prior, it was a completely new concept and, with the exception of returning drummer Bill Bruford
, a totally revised lineup.
Gone were the mellotrons and symphonic leanings of old. In their place: technological advancements including nascent guitar synthesizers, electronic drums and a strange-looking 10-or 11-stringed instrument called the Chapman Sticka tapped instrument that allowed its player to function more pianistically; not only holding down the all-important bottom end, but also becoming a simultaneous melodic and/or chordal foil.
Conceptually, Fripp's idea for this new groupinitially called Discipline and performing its first gigs under that monikerwas based on a burgeoning interest in combining Gamelan-informed concepts with minimalist tendencies and an innovative approach to interlocking guitar parts that virtually reinvented what was, by then, a most common instrumental configuration in rock music: two guitars, bass and a drums. But with Fripp and Bruford joined by Frank Zappa
, David Bowie
and Talking Heads alum guitarist/singer Adrian Belew
and bassist Tony Levin
whose résumé includes everyone from rock and pop stars like John Lennon
and Paul Simon
to jazz artists including Gary Burton
and, perhaps most significantly, ex-Genesis
singer Peter Gabriel
, who'd begun an increasingly successful solo career in 1977and it was immediately clear that this was no conventional rock lineup.
Beyond Fripp's extant reputation for technical mastery, stylistic breadth and musical innovation, and Bruford's intrinsic ability to build complex polyrhythmic underpinnings that often included mixed meters performed, miraculously and simultaneously with his various limbs, Belew brought his own inventive, boundary-stretching sonics, an idiosyncratic approach to soloing that stretched the limits of his instrument (not unlike Fripp...but, at the same time, totally different), and a fine voice; while Levin's bass work brought power, finesse and unshakable strength to the bottom end, with his use of Chapman Stick allowing him to maintain that important role while, at the same time, engaging with Fripp and Belew almost as a third guitarist. Add to that Levin's own singing abilities, which brought significantly more vocal harmonies to the groupprior Crimsons never had proper backup singers, with the minor exceptions of drummer Ian Wallace, who brought very occasional background vocals to the lineup responsible for King Crimson's 1971 album Islands
(reissued in an expanded and remixed 40th Anniversary
edition by Panegyric Records in 2010), and original group co-founder, Ian McDonald, who contributed similarly to the group's classic 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King
(reissued, in two double-disc editions and a six-disc box set, by Panegyric in 2009)and Discipline seemed to be a group truly overflowing with unlimited potential.
As Discipline's music developed, Fripp came to realize that whatever criteria that defined a group as King Crimsonin his words, "a way of doing things"were being met, and so, by October 1981, Discipline became a new incarnation of King Crimson for the '80s. Despite being thoroughly reinvented, utterly contemporary and, with its first-time transatlantic configuration of British (Fripp, Bruford) and American (Belew, Levin) musicians, sounding completely different from any of the previous Crimson lineupsresponsible for a series of studio and live albums that began with In the Court of the Crimson King
and ended with the 1975 live swan song, USA
(all reissued, since 2009, in expanded 40th Anniversary
editions by Panegyric that included new stereo and surround sound mixes put together by Fripp and ex-Porcupine Tree leader Steven Wilson
)this re-minted lineup still, somehow, managed to fit within the Crimson rubric.
It was the beginning of an impressive four-year, three studio LP run that commenced with 1981's Discipline
(already reissued in a 40th Anniversary
edition in 2011) and concluded with 1984's intentionally schizophrenic but nevertheless impressive Three of a Perfect Pair
There may have only been three studio albums from this incarnation, but in addition to a number of live audio recordings made at the time (facilitated by increasingly inexpensive recording technologies), the group also participated in an unusually large number of live video shoots. This was, after all, the beginning of the MTV era, and with shorter haircuts (or, in the case of Levin, no hair at all) and more stylish attire, this was a group that looked as contemporary as its music. Even the album covers reflected its minimalist tendencies, with broad expanses of single colors (red for Discipline
; blue for Beat
; and yellow for ToaPP
), along with relatively spartan designs including a knot-work relief (Discipline
); a simple, single musical note (Beat
) and a specially designed but still spare graphic ToaPP
Both 1982's Beat
and Three of a Perfect Pair
have been recently reissued in remixed and expanded two-disc formats, matching the rest of the 40th Anniversary
series that has typically consisted of a CD featuring Wilson and Fripp's new stereo mixes plus a few bonus tracks, and a DVD that contains high res surround and stereo remixes, the original mix in its 30th Anniversary
mastered form, even more bonus material where available, and, in some cases, video content. But for the true Crimhead, the 19-disc On (and Off) The Road
box set is, perhaps, the final word on Crimson's '80s incarnation. It may not present as many live performances as on previous box sets, but there are more then enough to provide the most comprehensive picture necessary to appreciate this Crimson incarnation, in the studio and in performance.
Along with the three studio albums' CDs and DVDs, this mammoth box set also includes the three recordings' DVD content on Blu Ray discs (in even higher resolution), which also include a bevy of additional audio and video content.
The initial nine CDs provide a chronological view of the group's studio output: Wilson and Fripp's new stereo mixes (and as much bonus material that can fit), each followed by another CD (or, in the case of ToaPP
, two) that features the final live performance from each album's tour: for Discipline
, a cleaned up audience recording from Japan, December 1981; with Beat
, the professionally recorded Live at Alabamahalle
, a September 1982 Munich, Germany performance originally recorded for television, with six of its ten tracks culled from new audio sources; and, in the case of ToaPP
, a sonically upgraded version of Absent Lovers
, the double-disc live album from the group's final performance at Montréal, Canada's Spectrum, originally released in 1998 by DGM.
Add a slightly expanded version of the original "lost" third album explorations from 1983, retitled and retooled as Fragmented
all but two bonus tracks first released in 2002 as Champaign-Urbana Sessions
by DGM as part of the King Crimson Collector's Cluband the "cutting room floor" disc, Are you recording, Gary?
, which collects portions of session reels from all three albums, and just the On (and Off) The Road
's CD content stands alone as a concise look at King Crimson's '80s output.
But, in in addition to the bonus material on the DVDs that go along with the three studio CDs, there's so much more to discover. Along with full frame versions of live video content that has, with the exception of Live at Alabamahalle
(appearing for the first time), largely been available previously on VHS tape and DVD but has been given both audio and video upgrades for On (and Off> The Road
, the box set's three additional Blu Rays are loaded with even more audio and video content, rendering On (and Off) The Road
the most comprehensive (and best-looking/sounding) video document of any Crimson box released in the past several years2012's Larks' Tongues in Aspic 40th Anniversary Edition Box Set,
2013's The Road to Red
, 2014's Starless
and 2015's THRAK BOX: Live and Studio Recordings 1994-1997
(the latter featuring new stereo and surround sound remixes by current Crimson guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk
And there's still more, with additional live audio shows including a new LP-length, reordered Live in Europe
, which crosses over with six of the previously released seven-track The NoiseLive in Frejus
, but culled from a previously unreleased live album master. An audio version of the entire Frejus concert is also presented, with three additional tracks. Absent Lovers
has also been upgraded, with Fripp and longtime DGM partner David Singleton remixing and slightly expanding the original two-CD recording in surround sound and stereo.
And that's still
not all. In addition to presenting Live at Alabamahalle
, The NoiseLive at Frejus
and Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan
(the latter two subsequently reissued on the New and Jack and Me
DVD, following their original VHS issues) in their original 4:3 aspect ratio, they have also been reconfigured in previously unreleased widescreen format on the Blu Ray discs, along with partial show, single camera shoots from the same shows used for Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan
from Tokyo, 1984. While there does not appear to be anything nothing new in the music, these three partial show shoots provide revealing alternate angles.
Add two bonus DVDs with video content and 24/48 resolution audio versions of Philadelphia 1982
, Asbury Park 1982
, Cap D'Agde 1982
, as well as two bonus CDs (some of the above material comes on a separate tray card as bonus discs)including the group's very first performance at Mole's Club in Bath, UK (at the time, still as Discipline) and the full Europe 1982
recordingand On (and Off) The Road
truly becomes the most comprehensive look at Crimson's popular '80s incarnation.
It's true that much of this music has been released previously, but with the audio and video reworks, even fans who own much of this material will find a good reason to consider upgrading...and the previously unreleased material is more than enough to justify the creation of this box set. Certainly, those who want all three studio recordings aloneincluding, in addition to a certain amount of bonus material, both the new surround and stereo mixes and the original mixes from the 30th Anniversary Editions
can simply go with the two-disc editions, but for those who are looking for the bigger picture and higher resolutions, in addition to the full array of additional audio and video contentincluding, with all three studio releases, even more bonus session material on the DVDs and even more on the three Blu Ray discs, and On (and Off) The Road
is, indeed, the last word.
While the '80s incarnation has long held a reputation for being King Crimson's least improvisationally heavy incarnation, absorbing On (and Off) The Road
reveals that, while this lineup didn't engage in as many completely free improvs as, say, the Larks' Tongues in Aspic
group, there is far more extemporization and extrapolation going on than for which the group has long been credited. Just listening to the multiple versions of Beat
's percussion-rich "Waiting Man" reveals a group that may not have engaged in much complete free play, but interpreted its material far more liberally in performance, with the four-minute studio version expanded to live versions ranging from six to ten minutes, with both Bruford and Belew engaging in some remarkable interplay on electronic drums brought from and center stage, and Levin's stick injecting additional polyrhythmic, melodic and chordal unpredictability over Fripp's persistent cross-picked throughout underpinnings.
There's plenty of compelling soloing throughout (and from everyone in the band, even when it's collective rather than individual); but, while every member of the band shines, Belew stands out as the most charismatic front man Crimson had ever had. Watching the video content, it's hard to take your eyes off him, whether he's smiling joyously as he delivers the alphabetically alliterative lyrics to Discipline
's groove-heavy "Elephant Talk," bouncing around the stage as he solos with reckless, whammy bar and feedback-infused abandon on the various live versions of the same track, or using hand gestures and body movement to inject even more life into the oblique lyrics to the same album's "Indiscipline."
Levin's presence is almost as captivating, his legs spread wide as his upper body moves in motion with his stick work on the similarly pulse-driven middle section of "Waiting Man," his right hand thumbing and popping his bass strings so rapidly as to be nearly invisible on live versions of ToaPP
's surprisingly radio-friendly "Sleepless." And whether he's at his hybrid electro-acoustic kit or standing and playing the wall of electronic drums behind his kit, Bruford's engagement is similarly captivating.
Even the as-ever seated Fripp is more physically active than ever before...or after...his face reflecting the raw emotion of his solo during Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan
's potent reading of ToaPP
's instrumental, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III," his body gyrating around his chair so much that it actually looks as though he just might stand up (but doesn't).
The result was a group capable of performing complex music like Discipline
's title track, Beat
's "Neurotica" and "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III" with effortless aplomb, while delivering more song-driven tunes like ToaPP
's title track, "Model Man" and "Man With an Open Heart"along with "Heartbeat," some of Crimson's most accessible music that nevertheless reveals plenty to absorb under the covers.
That said, as the liner notes reveala combination of excerpts from Fripp's personal diary from the time, Sid Smith's as-ever astute and comprehensive essay, and David Singleton's shorter but nevertheless revealing "The Tale of the Tapes"while this was a lineup that initially excited Fripp, the birth and ongoing progression of this lineup was far from easy. Fripp's idea of what he was looking for from Bruford, for example, was almost antithetical to the drummer's normal modus operandi
as imaginative and forward-reaching as it ever was. Discipline
, in particular, pushed Bruford in ways he'd not previously been driven and, while there was no shortage of resistance, the ultimate result provided the drummer with, as Fripp's diary during the group's formation ascribe, "the next two or three years giving him enough ideas for the following five or six."
Still, it was a difficult birthing, with Fripp sometimes moving from elation to depression, numerous fallouts with Bruford and, as he gained confidence as a front man, issues with Belew as well. Belew contributed many of the song ideas to the groupincluding one, Beat
's 4/4 pop tune "Heartbeat"about as atypical a Crimson tune as was apt to be heard at the time...and in the many years leading up to it. The recording of Beat
, in fact, was so difficult that, at one point, Belew literally kicked Fripp out of the studio during overdub sessions, and the erstwhile Crimson leader left...hurt, and refusing to return to the studio, leaving the rest of the group and its producer to finish the record.
There have been a number of fallacies about the '80s-era Crimson, most notably the comparison of Belew's vocals with his previous band's lead singer, Talking Heads' David Byrne. But if such a comparison seemed ridiculous, even at the time, listening to his work on On (and Off) The Road
deserves to finally put that particular fallacy to rest. Yes, there is something similar in the timbre of Belew and Byrne's respective voices; but lyrically and, most notably, in Belew's delivery, it becomes clear that any such comparisons are, at best, superficial. Sure, there's little doubt that he walked away from his time with Talking Heads with a number of lessons that would inform his own songwriting and singing, but compare any Crimson track from the era with the Talking Heads' catalogue and it becomes clear just how rapidly Belew was evolving into a songwriter and singer with his own touchstones and definers.
Levin has always been even-keeled, and it's likely, during any of the conflicts that erupted during sessions and tours with the '80s Crimson, that if he wasn't a voice of reason then, at the very least, he remained distanced from them. With so many years of session work under his belt by the time he joined Crimsonand with mega stars including ex-Beatles and othersLevin had developed into the consummate sideman. But with the freedom afforded him in Crimson, Levin was able to evolve in ways that even his longstanding tenure with Peter Gabriel could not afford.
Just listening to Levin's work on Discipline
's knotty title track, Beat
's instantly captivating opener "Neal and Jack and Me" and ToaPP
's more obscure tracks like the instrumental "Industry," "Dig Me" (with its combination of abstract "verses" and singable "choruses") and the more soothing "Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)"not to mention his thundering work on "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III"and his ability to supply both a firm anchor and the kind of groundbreaking bass and stick work that would influence generations of bassists before, during and after this group's run is hard to deny.
After the disaster that still resulted in a fine album that has, perhaps, been undervalued in the years since Beat
's release, Crimson regrouped for the Champaign-Urbana sessions that ultimately came largely to nought. Still, while the ideas that came from sessions documented on the Fragmented
disc were largely abandoned, there were nevertheless ideas that would later come to fruition on TaoPP
, with "Fragmented" providing the seed for "Industry" and the duo "Robert and Bill" a germinal "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part III."
And the Are you recording, Gary?
, in addition to alternative looks at work-in-progress for the three albums ("Discipline Redux," "Beat Redux" and "Three of a Perfect Pair Redux") also demonstrates how ideas generated as much as a decade or more in advance are ultimately used, with a passage during the disc's title track containing a passage where Levin's bass line presages the middle section of Thrak
's "VROOOM VROOOM."
As was the case with Discipline
contains an "Alternate Album" with alternate takes, works in progress and more of material from the recording shedding more light into Crimson's way of doing things," while ToaPP
includes even more bonus tracks than on the 30th Anniversary Edition
, including even more improvisations and aborted ideas, along with an additional "Industrial Zone C," the gentle "Robert's Ballad" and the frenetically otherworldly "Shidare Zakura."
While some might argue that it should have been included as a bonus track, Wilson and Fripp chose to include an expanded version for Beat
's closer, the in parts calming and in others aggressively outside "Requiem," that is nearly twice the length of the original album take. Not unlike Fripp's decision to use a slightly abbreviated version of "Moonchild" on the 40th Anniversary
edition of In the Court of the Crimson King
, there may be those who object to his rewriting of history...but, then again, there are those who object to the idea of remixing these albums, period.
But, as ever, Wilson, with Fripp's involvement and approval, has done a tremendous job at respecting the original mixes while, at the same time, creating much greater clarity between the instrumental layers, revealing elements that were previously barely audible because they were buried within the density of the rest of the music. That On (and Off) The Road
includes, as always, the original mixes should render such objections moot, as is also true of the individual 40th Anniversary
album releases. At the end of the day, Wilson and Fripp's remixes make all three albums included here definitive, and for those who disagree, there's always the original mix...in high resolution, to boot.
What also comes through loud and clear on On (and Off) The Road
and more so, with the new mixesis, indeed, just how far this Crimson lineup was stretching the exploration of sound. Between two guitarists using the Roland guitar synth that few, if any, guitarists utilized to the same extent (even Pat Metheny
would ultimately settle on using it for a single, definitive sound), Levin's percussive stick and Bruford's expansive electronic drum kit, this was a band that sounded like nothing that came before...or, for that matter, after. King Crimson has always been about progressionprogression in technology, progression in songwriting, progression in individual roles and progression in interaction.
Even though he would largely desert the silkily sustaining tone that was a touchstone for virtually every Crimson from '69-'74, Fripp's use of guitar synthesizer technology broke new ground in terms of what a guitar could do. Belew, too, expanded the possibilities of his instrument, both with the guitar synth and with his remarkable control over an array of effects, whammy bar and feedback...and literally holding onto the neck of his instrument and pushing the body to create a pitch bending effect that is similar but not quite the same as a whammy bar.
The live performanceswhether audio or video, though the amount of video content is truly a revelationare indicative of Fripp's ongoing description of studio albums as "love letters" and live performances "hot dates." Crimson may have been experiencing its fair share of conflict throughout its four-year run, but the live performances reveal that once the band hit the stage, such conflicts were largely forgotten.
Yes, it was during this time that Fripp's exception to audience recording/photography began to surface more visibly, and yes, there are times, during the video performances, where it seems that not everyone is completely happy being there. But none of these things impacted the performances themselves, with the retooled Absent Lovers
, the newly minted Europe 1982
and the upgraded videos of Frejus
, Live in Japan
and Live at Alabamahalle
all particularly potent examples of just what a powerhouse group this incarnation of Crimson was. On (and Off) The Road
may not include every note that this lineup ever played, but it's as comprehensive a look at this band's four-year run as is necessary to demonstrate just how innovative, forward-thinking and envelope-pushing it was. As easily recommended as the other Crimson box sets released over the past few years, On (and Off) The Road
is the all-embracing document of King Crimson's '80s lineup that Crimheads have been waiting for since the 40th Anniversary
edition of Discipline
was released five years ago.
With its release, however, King Crimson 1969-1997 is now fully documented, leaving just one question: will Fripp change his mind about 2000's The ConstruKction
of Light and 2003's The Power to Believe
, and give the "double duo" its chance for an historical revisitation?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, between On (and Off) The Road
and the recently released live box from the current "Seven-Headed Beast of Crim," Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)
(Panegyric, 2016), will be more than enough to keep any ardent (or casual) Crimson fan busy for a long, long time.