After seeing the "Seven-Headed Beast of Crim"words used by the group's co-founder and only remaining original member, guitarist/keyboardist Robert Fripp
, to describe the 2014 incarnation of King Crimson that just wrapped up a 20-date, 10-city American tour including two exhilarating nights
at San Francisco's Warfield Theatrenow is the perfect time for a detailed look at Starless: Live in Europe
, the third box released in as many years by the band celebrating its 45th year in 2014. While King Crimson 2014 may well have given it a run for its money, the four-piece incarnation that emerged from the quintet which released Larks' Tongues in Aspic
(DGM Live) when percussionist Jamie Muir left the band, shortly before the album was released in March, 1973, has long been considered a fan favorite, and for good reason: King Crimson 1972- 74 was as powerful and progressive
a group as you could find at the time (and, many would argue, since), made all the more so by its heavily improvisational nature.
One thing is certain, however: the quartet that continued after Muir's departurealongside Fripp, violinist/keyboardist/occasional flautist David Cross, bassist/vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford
, who also took over some of Muir's role following the percussionist's departurewas Crimson's most free-wheeling, improv-heavy incarnation...and almost certainly its loudest
, too. But with the fifteen-disc Larks' Tongues in Aspic (40th Anniversary Series Box)
, released in 2012 and includingalong with new stereo and surround sound remixes of the studio album by Steven Wilson
every live recording of the five-piece version that Fripp could find (most sourced from lo-fi audience cassette recordings cleaned up as much as possible)and the even heftier and largely better-sounding 24-disc The Road to Red
(DGM Live, 2013), which collected shows from the group's final US tour from late April to early July, 1974, in addition to the 2011 surround mix and a new stereo mix (again, by Steven Wilson) of 1975's Red
, the question is again begged: do we really
need yet another live box from this groupin particular one that even outweighs The Road to Red
's 21 CDs, single DVD and two Blu-Ray discs by collecting together 24 CDs (including three bonus discs of "restored soundboard/bootlegs and audio curios"), two DVD-As, two Blu-Ray discs and a bonus download (bootleg quality)?
The answer? An unequivocal, whopping yes
. As Wetton himself wrote, in a recent Facebook post: "It's the stepping stone from the naive Larks' Tongues
to the consumate Red
." It's as perfect and concise a reason as any to explore this transitional period, as Crimson prepared for and released its second album featuring the same quartet, 1974's Starless and Bible Black
(DGM Live), and wound its way towards a final American tour and the recording of its swan song, the vastly influential Red
(DGM Live, 1975).
Before exploring the contents of the set, to examine why such a positive response in more detail, Starless
may actually be the most easily justifiable of the three box sets, for broader reasons alone. First, while only four of the eighteen shows have never before been released in some form or another, those that have either as downloads from DGM Live, as part of the King Crimson Collector's Club, the commercially Collectable King Crimson
series, The Great Deceiver
(DGM Live, 1992) box or, in the case of the November 23, 1973 Amsterdam performance issued as The Night Watch
by the label in 1997have all received significant sonic upgrades through remastering and, in some cases, remixing. With only three audience-sourced bootlegs alongside eleven soundboard sources and another three professional multi-track recordings, as fine as The Road to Red
was, and as historically important as Larks' Tongues in Aspic (40th Anniversary Series Box)
will always be, Starless: Live in Europe
is far and away the best-sounding box of the three.
Second and, perhaps, even more important than the sonic upgrades and overdue release of as many of the now-legendary "Blue Tapes" as could be locatedso named for the color of the boxes that housed the quarter inch reel-to-reel soundboard tapesto expand upon Wetton's comment, Starless: Live in Europe
acts as the connecting thread between the Larks' Tongues
and Road to Red
boxes. On the Larks' Tongues Box
, a nascent quintet was still finding its way with a largely new book of music; by the time of The Road to Red
, the remaining quartet had become a well-oiled, thundering machine, and one that took risks night after night, to be sureits pure improvisational forays a characteristic that differentiated it from so many of its peers at the timebut which had also, by then, found what Fripp has often described as "a way of doing things." Starless: Live in Europe
provides the opportunity to hear how the group got there, from early versions of tunes that were significantly longer to germinal performances of songs where the lyrics were continually being fine-tuned and arrangements adjusted.
In a nutshell, Starless: Live in Europe
completes the story of Crimson's until-now most heralded incarnation, bridging the gap between Larks' Tongues in Aspic
and The Road to Red
with the performances that led up to and then followed the release of Starless and Bible Black
(DGM Live) on March 29, 1974. For those interested in this King Crimson incarnation, it's an essential piece of the puzzle that is all the better for it by also sporting the most consistently excellent sound of any live Crimson box to date. Starless: Live in Europe
also ups the ante by introducing something neither of the previous box sets had. In addition to the new stereo and surround sound mixes by Steven Wilson of the core album on which the box is predicated, Starless and Bible Black
already released in a two-disc edition in 2011there are additional surround sound mixes of shows that were recorded in multi- trackspecifically the Mainz, Pittsburgh (remixed by David Singleton) and Amsterdam (remixed by Wilson) sets. There are also high resolution masters of shows, including not just Mainz, Pittsburgh and Amsterdam, but Glasgow as well, which is an important show in the set, along with one of the shows included in the three "bonus discs," from an October 6, 1973 performance in Arlington, Texas, because they reveal a 14- minute version of "Fracture," containing a three-minute mid-section passage which, in Arlington, is largely a mellotron-driven, 13/8 jam but, 16 days later in Glasgow, becomes a more gradually building (and, largely, mellotron-less) solo feature for Fripp.
They key thing to take away here is that Crimson was not a band tied to arrangements; instead, it was constantly trying new ideas on the road night after night, and sometimes they worked...and sometimes they didn't. Just 11 days later, at the November 3, 1973 Frankfurt, Germany showthe audience recording included as a bonus MP3 downloadthat three-minute segment has been excised and the 11-minute arrangement of "Fracture" that Crimheads would come to know and love was now fixed, and would remain so until the group disbanded, though that didn't mean how it was played
was cast in concrete.
That's because, for King Crimson, nothing
was everor, for that matter, has ever since beencast in concrete. The epic "Starless," which would ultimately become Crimson '72-74's swan song on Red
, epitomizes almost everything that was Crimson at that time, from its almost painfully beautiful, melancholic and mellotron-driven vocal sectionwith some of Wetton's most emotive vocal momentsto a lengthy instrumental passage that evolves from a whisper to a roar and more than one climactic peak. It might appear to have possessed a fixed arrangement, with Fripp's by now iconic single-note solo slowly, relentlessly, building to a climax bolstered by Wetton and Bruford's gradually building, galvanizing support. Here,however, over the 12 versions that begin with the song's first live performance in Udine, Italy on March 19, 1974 (sadly, due to a missing Blue Tape, a cleaned up audience bootleg recording) and appearing in literally every subsequent set until the box's last show in Gottingen, Germany two weeks later (with only Dieburg, Germany containing an incomplete version because of tape running out and a less-than-diligent engineer), it's possible to hear the lyrics adjustedthe finished form still not reached in this box.
Beyond that, however, it's also possible to hear Fripp hone the song's ascending, single-note solo, shifting the way it's rhythmically articulated from night to nightwith Bruford's tuned percussion often acting as a contrapuntal partneruntil the pulse upon which the guitarist would ultimately settle is finally achieved, just three weeks before the group would cross the Atlantic for its final North American tour...and, as it would turn out, its final live appearances with this lineup, period.
As Crimson just demonstrated with its relatively brief US tour, altering the running order of a set can drastically change the experienceboth for the musicians and
those in the audience. While the fall, 1973 performancesrepresented here by Glasgow, Zurich and Amsterdam in multi-track form, as well as a performance in Arlington Texas (from a soundboard cassette) seventeen days before the group commenced its European tour in Scotlandpossessed certain consistencies at the beginning and end of the performancesstarting the set with "Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part I)" and ending with the one-two punch of the relentlessly intensifying "The Talking Drum" and gut- punching "Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part II)"the rest of the set was truly up for grabs.
But by 1974, with the addition of "The Great Deceiver" and "Doctor Diamond"the latter squeezing more music (and words) into five minutes than many bands do in twice that timeinto the repertoire, it gave the band a lot more freedom to mix things up. The group also took advantage of, most often, twoand only sometimes one or threefree improvs to further delineate and differentiate each and every performance, running the the gamut from Augsburg, Germany's lovely chamber miniature "Improv: Augsburg" and Dieburg's tuned percussion- driven "Improv I"which ultimately turns into a hard-rocking, mellotron-drenched excursion for the seemingly infinite sustain of Fripp's soloto the gradually constructed but ultimately propulsive "Improv I," from Besancon, France and an angular and unfettered "Improv II," from Brescia, Italy, that still somehow manages to find its way to "Starless."
Both Fripp and Steven Wilson are on record as being generally disinterested in doing surround mixes of live recordingsperhaps the most obvious reason being that live performances are not, for the most part, surround sound experiences (beyond, perhaps, sound reflecting back from hard surfaces behind the crowd); they are, indeed, largely stereo experiences where the music comes at the audience from in front. With studio recordings, however, creating surround sound mixes is yet another part of the creative process of making albums, leveraging the the studio itself as another instrument that can be used to make sound worlds that place the listener in the center of the music.
And so, for example, Wilson's surround mix of The Night Watch
is incomplete, and intentionally so, while his new stereo mix of the same show, recorded on November 23, 1973, contains the Amsterdam performance in its entiretyor at least, what was documented on The Night Watch
since David Singleton, in his short article that's part of the accompanying 40-page booklet, suggests that, while the recording begins with a visceral version of "Easy Money," it is most likely that, as was the group's custom at the time, there was a version of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part I)" that has been lost. According to Panegyric's Declan Colgan, only songs that were felt to have benefitted from surround sound are included in the box, and the same applies to the high resolution versions. Higher resolution inherently reveals more about the performances at hand, and sometimesin particular in the context of live recordings and even more so archival ones the music simply doesn't bear finer, more detailed scrutiny. That's not to say that tracks not included in either surround or high res are bad, far from it; only that they do not benefit additionally from being heard in anything beyond the 16-bit/44.1KHz resolution and stereo landscape of CD-quality sound.
Wilson's stereo remix of the Amsterdam performance that ultimately led both to The Nightwatch
and parts of Starless and Bible Black
(later edited and augmented in the studio) is, as has come to be expected, a cleaner, more transparent mix where hitherto difficult or impossible to hear tracks are suddenly revealed with pristine clarity. One of the most dramatic instances is during Fripp's deeply lyrical and wonderfully constructed soloall the more impressive, upon hearing the unadulterated live recording, to find that it was a solo of spontaneous perfection during "The Night Watch," where Cross' electric piano takes on a more dominant supporting role.
Speaking of Cross, Starless: Live in Europe
once again demonstrates that time should, by all rights, treat him better than he was back in the day. Ultimately let go by Fripp before the recording of Red
, and the review of The Road to Red
discusses how technology of the time (in particular onstage monitors) must have played at least some part in both Cross and
, to a lesser extent Fripp, being pushed out by the thundering juggernaut that Wetton and Bruford became, these recent box sets have revealed him to be a more essential member than was thought of back in the day, in particular after Muir's departure (Fripp viewing Cross and the percussionist as softer contrasts to Bruford and Wetton). With better monitoring and amplification for acoustic instruments, it's unlikely that such a thing would happen today, but another byproduct of working in such a high volume situation with an instrument as delicate as violin meant that Cross' intonation was not always perfect. Still, it's easy to excuse given the circumstances, and if he was gradually becoming more a keyboardist than a violinist by the time 1974 rolled around, he was still more than capable of holding his own with the band, in particular during some of the quieter improvs.
And if previous writing about this band has been somewhat critical of Wetton, suggesting that his harmonic language was not as sophisticated as either Cross' or Fripp's, it may well be that it has something to do with where the band was by the time the Road to Red
dates were taking place, as some of the improvisations here on Starless: Live in Europe
suggest an opinion worthy of reconsideration. And though he seemed, almost without fail, to struggle to reach the upper notes during the intro to "Easy Money" night after night, his singingelsewhere but in particular throughout this set of showsrepresents some of his best on record. Beyond the aforementioned "Starless," his delivery of the balladic "The Night Watch," more symphonic "Exiles," harder-edged "The Great Deceiver" and juxtaposing "Lament" are all noteworthy, both in his subtle interpretations each night, and the rich quality of his voice in its core range, brought out by both the remixing and remastering work done for this box.
By the time of Starless: Live in Europe
's first showhaving clocked approximately 80 performances after Muir's departure, touring Europe and then criss-crossing North America more than onceBruford had already adapted to being both drummer and percussionist, and so his work here is no less exceptional than that on The Road to Red
. From tuned percussion and metal sheets that sounded like thunder to gongs, bells and just about anything that could be struck with a stick, his playing is consistently outstanding, from delicate elegance to unfettered nuclear energyas, of course, is Fripp's.
There are those who have unfairly accused Fripp of being a robotic, emotionless player. Yes, the mathematics of a song like "Fracture" would, indeed, place some very specific demands when it comes to precise articulation, but there's absolutely nothing about his focused, melodic work on songs like "Exiles," the early part of "Starless" and "The Night Watch" that could be considered clinical...or anything, for that matter, but emotive and deeply moving. On tracks like "Easy Money," "The Great Deceiver," "Lament" and, indeed, "Fracture" (along with both parts of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic"), Fripp's playing is in turns threatening, vicious, muscular and unassailably powerful.
Despite Starless: Live in Europe
being chockablock with great music, there are incomplete performances, in many cases because either the tape operator forgot to turn the machine on at the start of a performance, or forgot to switch tapes at a more appropriate opportunity. Yes, it's annoying that in the four consecutive nights of Heidelberg through Kassel, Germany, the seemingly perfect set-closing segue of "Easy Money" into "Fracture"in particular with "Kassel," where Wetton sings with extra ferocityis spoiled by "Fracture" cutting off mid-stream. Still, on one of the bonus discs it's possible to hear, from a restored audience bootleg, how the Mainz show closes, with full versions of "Fracture" and a particularly blistering encore of "Larks Tongues in Aspic (Part II)" that truly makes one wish that either the Blue Tapes had more capacity, that the tape operator had flipped tapes at the right time...or that digital recording had already been invented.
The three bonus discs may be of lower sound qualityother than Arlington, Texas, the rest sourced from audience recordingsbut they provide an opportunity to hear some small nuggets. "The Mincer," extracted and augmented in the studio for Starless and Bible Black
from a lengthy improv in Zurich is reinstated, without the studio overdubs, though because the multi-tracks for the full improv have been lost, just as on the Starless on Bible Black
two-disc edition, it's sandwiched between lower quality versions of the surrounding "Improv: Law of Maximum Distress." Ditto, the only known performance of another new Crimson song ("Guts on My Side") from Udine, Italy that, like "Doctor Diamond," never made it onto a studio (or partly studio) release, is included here as part of the complete show also sourced from an audience recording because only the second of the two Blue Tapes for that eveningcontaining "Exiles," "Fracture" and "Larks Tongues in Aspic (Part II)" could be found.
In fact, if there's any single complaint about the Starless: Live in Europe
box, it's that there is not a single show from the Blue Tape series that exists in its entirety. Even Mainz, Germany, where Singleton has created a new stereo mix by combining the Blue Tape with audience sources, as well as a surround mix placing the listener, as he writes, "in a prime seat about ten rows back at one of the best shows this band has ever played"is incomplete, though the audience recording of the full ending of "Easy Money," "Fracture" and the encore "Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part II)" is included on one of the bonus discs.
Is Mainz the best show this band ever played? That's a tough call. That said, the band's opening salvo which leads into "Doctor Diamond" is certainly a contender for most appropriately titled improv of the box ("Improv: The Savage"), while the entire group is frighteningly synchronized during Fripp's acutely building chordal solo on "Easy Money." Fripp's one-note solo on "Starless" is supported hellaciously by Wetton (has there ever been a bassist with a tone this huge
) and Bruford, whose playing is so powerful that his bass drum actually clips. And if Cross delivers one of his fieriest solos ever, Fripp ratchets things up even further, leading to a finale as epic as Crimson '72-'74 may well have ever been. Starless: Live in Europe
does render the two-disc Starless and Bible Black (40th Anniversary Series)
redundant except for the liner, even adding a needle drop of the original UK vinyl issue to the mix. But given the relatively low cost of the two- disc editions, it's a small price to pay for seventeen live performances of largely excellent sound quality, with a number of surround and high res versions of specific performances, a bit of video content and some odds and ends thrown in for the sake of completion. Starless: Live in Europe
may close the book on documenting 1972-74 Crimson, and in the best possible way, but there's still more Crimson to receive the 40th Anniversary treatment; the possibility of still other boxes to come from other Crimsons, including the mid-'90s double trio...and, of course, KC2014, which looks like it will be extending into 2015/16.
It is, indeed, a great time to be a King Crimson fan.
Robert Fripp: guitar, mellotron; David Cross: violin, viola, keyboards;
John Wetton: bass, vocals; Bill Bruford: drums, percussion.