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King Crimson On (and Off) The Road Box Set (Part 2: The Middle)

Mark Smotroff turns the Beat around…


When King Crimson released Beat in 1982, I admit I was a little disappointed. Not because any of the playing was less than stellar or that the music was bad or anything like that. No, Beat is a wonderful and ultimately incredible album.

But… at the time, it just felt a little… well…  incomplete, if you will, as a statement from the band. 

AR-KingCrimsonBeatEraBluRayCover225.jpgOf course, considering this then-new incarnation of King Crimson as a new band — which it very much was, far removed from the Crims of the prior decade — the so-called “sophomore slump” might well be an inevitability, especially after the band delivered an album of such magnificence as Discipline in 1981.  

How do you follow up an album like that??

Well, Beat was always far from being a sophomore slump album.

Perhaps it felt somewhat short to me as a listening experience, clocking in at just over 35 minutes.  Did I felt a bit cheated as a fan wanting more of this incredible sound? 

If so, this was a stupid thing to feel considering the band essentially just added about 35 minutes of NEW music to its live repertoire. It was also kinda a stupid thing to be even thinking —  in retrospect — as Discipline was only 38 minutes long.  

What was I thinking?

Well, it is high time for me (and perhaps you, Dear Readers who may have overlooked this album in the past) to revisit Beat anew with fresh ears and a more mindful perspective. And there is no better way than in the new King Crimson deluxe box set called On (and off) The Road.  

Not only is this a great time to revisit this music, I must say they have made up for any “holes” in our fan hearts with a new “Alternate Album” version, new Steven Wilson-produced 2016 mixes in high resolution 24-bit. 96 kHz Stereo and 5.1 surround sound, plus a promo video for the song “Heartbeat” and a German TV broadcast (Rochaus dem Alabamahalle) from the period presented in 24-bit, 48 kHz fidelity.

AR-KingCrimsonBoxSetLiveAlabamahalle225.jpgMust say, there is much joy watching this TV concert, seeing the band presenting its new material opening the show with “Waiting Man” from the then new album.  The sound on this video is pretty incredible. When Bill Bruford plays the idiophonic “xylo-slit box” (note: that is what he calls it in the 40 page book included with the set) to create the feel of African log drum sounds, you can feel the resonance of the concert hall and the woody tone of the instrument. 

There was also something I found somewhat subdued about the 1982 US vinyl mix of Beat (so I eventually picked up a UK pressing which sounded a lot better!). To that, Steven Wilson’s new 2016 Stereo remix goes a long way to rectify any issues which might have existed in mastering back in the day, finding a balance between the somewhat brighter 30th anniversary remaster and the original LP mix. The new mix offers bigger, richer bass presence, a wider soundstage presentation and cleaner highs and mid ranges. Tracks like “Sartori in Tangier” really benefit from his new remix which brings out much more of its Frippertronic-flair — all those loopy sounding ambient layers of haunting, ethereal sound-scaping done by Robert Fripp on his guitar, for those readers not in the know.

Now, lets move on to the 5.1 surround sound mix (in DTS HD Master Audio or PCM), which is what I suspect a bunch of you reading this article are probably here for.  

I think the best word to describe Steven Wilson’s remix of Beat is: “transformative.”  

AR-KingCrimsonBeatEraSetlist225.jpgFor the most part, he keeps true to the intent and purpose of the original album — which is pretty much his calling card when it comes to surround sound remixes, a good thing in most instances — yet brings new light and focus to the music through creative use of the surround fields.  

This was never more apparent in a track like — again — “Sartori in Tangier” in which the aforementioned enhanced Frippery now wraps the listener, like a friend lending you a warm sweater on a chilly Fall evening.  Its really lovely.  

And if that friend could only give you a sweater, another friend showing up to hang with you during “Requiem” now wraps you in a virtual blanket of Frippertronics with its lush, hypnotic, soaring, sheets of sound washing over and, taking you to that special Zen-like zone as only the most magical of music productions can. 

Side note: I can’t wait until Mr. Wilson gets the green light to remix some of Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics albums into surround sound! 

But I digress…

Back to Beat 5.1, the more rock / pop tracks like “Neal and Jack and Me,” “Heartbeat” and the gorgeous “Two Hands” especially benefit greatly from the surround sound mix, as Mr. Wilson generally keeps the core band and lead vocal in the front channels, saving the rear channels for harmonies, special effects and other signature sonics to percolate around the listener. 

Coupled with a wild alternate instrumental version of “Neal and Jack and Me” called “Absent Lovers,” Beat now feels somehow a fuller listening experience, at least to this long time Crim head.

But wait, there is more!

]]>On the Blu-ray you also get a fantastic live concert from Munich, Germany circa 1982 ( “Rock aus dem Alabama” aka “Live at Alabamahalle”). Presented in 24-bit, 48-kHz fidelity, the concert footage has not been seen since its original broadcast and what a gem it is, capturing much of joie de vivre that one tends to experience at a live King Crimson show.  How wonderful seeing Adrian Belew dancing around on stage in his pretty pink pastel suit while the band churns on the mesmerizing “Indiscipline.”  Then watch them switch gears to deliver a simply gorgeous version of “Matte Kudasai” (from their first album called Discipline, to be reviewed in part three of this series).  

AR-KingCrimsonBoxSetBonusLiveCD225.jpgWhile the video is good quality — hey, its amazing that video from 1982 in Germany exists at all! — there are some artifacts you’ll see on screen, especially if you are watching on a big screen TV.  Your experience may vary, but it may look even better in the original 4:3 standard definition format included on one of the bonus disc DVDs.  Either way, don’t fret: you’ll still be able to make out Robert Fripp’s incredibly thin fast fingers flying around his fretboard… you’ll see the sweat pouring off Adrian Belew’s face as he manhandles his Stratocaster …. you’ll even see the stubble on Tony Levin’s shaved head bobbing up and down as he wrenches amazing tones and rhythms from his Chapman Stick. Its a great video, even if it is only six songs long (hey, it was from a TV broadcast).  

Fear not: you also get a CD of the soundtrack to the Alabamahalle show — which was apparently the last show of the tour that year, September 29th, 1982 — which includes other songs from the set which had been previously released as part of the King Crimson Collector’s Club special release series. 

There is also a bonus CD in this box set of an aborted mix for a considered vinyl release from the August 27th show in Frejus, France (the previously released video is also included on one of the DVDs).

Golly gee wiz, kids!  There is just so much Crimsonly goodness here! It is overwhelming and wonderful for the hardcore King Crimson fan, which if you are still reading this far into the review I assume you are one. 

There is way too much to go into even in this review. If you want a complete listing of everything on the set, please visit the Burning Shed website (European distributors for all things progressive rock these days) which has a more complete rundown of the set’s contents than the link at Amazon above ( https://www.burningshed.com/store/kingcrimson/product/563/7898/ )

So in closing, thanks to On (and off) The Road I have come full circle toward more fully appreciating 1982’s Beat album as an important continuum link in the renaissance of King Crimson in the 1980s.   

Next up, we go back to the beginning of the “Incline to 1984” as we look deeply into the album that started this all in 1981, Discipline

Stay tuned…

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