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King Crimson On (and off) The Road (Part 1: The End)

Mark Smotroff begins at the end by tapping his foot in 21…


I decided to begin my trio of reviews about the spectacular new boxed set from King Crimson called On (and off) The Road, tracking the 1981-84 era of the band, with the last of the albums issued during that period.  

AR-KingCrimsonBoxSetBluray225.jpgThree of a Perfect Pair is often overlooked, seen by some as a somehow lesser affair than its predecessors, Discipline and Beat.  I disagree and make an argument that — despite is difficult birth, as detailed in the set’s detailed LP-sized book — it is a natural conclusion to the band’s noble attempt to bring intelligence and sophistication to the popular music marketplace.  

To my ear, Three of a Perfect Pair felt more complete a statement than its predecessor, playing longer and arguably sounding richer, more forward seeking and even a bit more complex. That factor may have thrown some listeners, what with its split “left” and “right” approach, placing the more “pop” oriented songs onto one side while the more experimental musics graced the other. Together, they present two faces of the King Crimson experience, all neatly wrapped into a 40 minute listening experience.  

All this new music on the Blu-ray disc (and in general the whole boxed set) sounds fantastic! The albums are in wonderful 96 kHz, 24-bit high fidelity. 

Steven Wilson’s fine new 2016 remix finds happy mid-ground between the original vinyl and the 30th anniversary remastered mixes (the latter of which is also included) 

Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew’s interlocking guitar lines are warmer and richer here, with rhythm parts popping out of the mix more audibly.  Adrian’s vocals are big as ever but fuller sounding.  

More prominent bass and rhythm guitar parts on “Model Man” benefit that track a great deal.  Master of all things musically tasteful and remarkable, bassist Tony Levin is also a master of understatement — this was never more apparent in his playing across the choruses to this song which make it soar in ways it only hinted at in the past.

AR-KingCrimsonBelewBruford225.jpgSteven Wilson’s approach to “Sleepless” is quite remarkable, bringing out the song’s inherent Crimsonocity (if you will) than any version I’ve ever heard.  This arrangement allows the song to grow and explode from a funky meditation to a full on rockin’ jam.  I might even use the word “revelatory” to describe it. You also get multiple versions of that tune — their last single from the period. More than just tossed off remixes, these are compelling reinventions.

“Dig Me,” arguably one of the weirdest and most challenging tracks on the record — and easily my favorite because it contains one of Adrian Belew’s catchiest choruses placed in the midst of a falling apart industrial wasteland — also benefits from the remix.  Clearer, less effects-laded vocally, the more direct use of one of Bill Bruford’s slamming snare drum hits as a rhythmic pulse, helps to propel the track forward without losing that on-the-edge sensation. The track seems to lock in more directly with Tony’s bass, making for easier transitions to the chorus.  The song is still quirky no doubt, but it no longer feels like it is about to come unglued.  

You also get a bunch of outtakes from the sessions, a full recording of the 1984 Canadian concert which was broadcast on radio back in the day and eventually released on CD (as Absent Lovers) presented here in 24-bit, 48 kHz resolution. 

And now we continue with the surround sound portion of our show…

Exploring the 5.1 mix of the title track we find Arian Belew and Tony Levin’s harmonies popping up in the surrounds.  Rhythm guitars again beef up the rock sensibility of this song, in keeping with the  more muscular Stereo mix.  Producer Steven Wilson put the solos in front, resisting the temptation to get too swirly and psychedelic.

Overall, there is a wonderful warm, non digital feel which doesn’t always happen in surround sound mixes because, well, the underlying technology that makes 5.1 happen is digital.

In general, Mr. Wilson serves the music…

AR-KingCrimsonFripp225.jpg“Model Man” seems to place Bill Bruford’s drums more the middle of the room.  “Sleepless” rocks in a ways I never imagined it might.  “Nuages” benefits greatly from the 5.1 mix — a track that often suffered on the vinyl pressings due to it being stuck at the end of a side and thus always sounded a bit more compressed. It needed to be as open and airy as possible and on the 5.1 mix it comes alive.

“Dig Me” is so much more focused now, you can easily tap your foot along in time — I am guessing here, but I think it might be in a weird drunken, slightly off 6/8 waltz time with 4/4 overlays dancing around it!  The layered phase-y rhythm guitars fill up the surrounds.

“Larks Tongues in Aspic Pt. III” is another track that was just crying for a surround mix to open up all its many rhythmic textures. Bill Bruford’s drums — not just his drumming — sound amazing, with a very natural acoustic tone. His playing is, of course, otherworldly. 

]]>The bonus track “Robert’s Ballad” (also on the Stereo mix) is a gorgeous piece akin to his Exposure solo album tracks like “Mary” and “North Star.”  I really wish this track had been on the original album back in the day — what a nice way to end the album and the era! It is a bittersweet closure to a beloved group, so closed it would remain shut until about 10 years later when the band reconvened for the double power trio incarnation monster known as Thrak (which, by the way, I reviewed here.)  

AR-KingCrimsonBelewGuitar225.jpgI will admit being somewhat biased toward this album as the tour behind Three of a Perfect Pair was my introduction to seeing the boys live.  On stage, this group fired with all cylinders on and there are many recordings including in On (and off) The Road confirming this.

Apparently, there was so much material that producer David Singleton had to make compromises as to what got included. For example, the Live in Japan 1984 concert video on the jam packed Blu-ray appears in widescreen format, ideal for big screen TVs, but in stereo only.  On the included DVD video version (which is subtitled More Neil and Jack and Me, referencing the original two DVD release), they include Live in Japan 1984 in its original letter-boxed format but with a DTS surround sound mix.  

Both sound great relative to the format, but are different experiences. This is a good thing, I think.

There are many goodies tucked away in this value packed set… You just have to dig around a bit. 

There are also neat video out takes from a single camera master feed from the Japan show, allowing you to see just how great the footage looked before it was edited into a final concert release (the one generation less of visual degradation is very apparent — this was before the days of lossless digital video). Be sure to check out the incredible single camera unedited master of “Sleepless” from 8/28/84 which goes into a mad jam finding Belew sitting in on drums alongside Bruford. It is really so cool. 

Speaking of…. you also get the original promo music video for “Sleepless” which if it ever aired on MTV, frankly I certainly never saw back on the day!

AR-KingCrimsonTonyLevin225.jpgGosh, there’s so much more to talk about: concert posters, the Japanese tour book, new photos, behind the scenes details, and more. But, I really can’t go into all that right now so you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s a pretty awesome box set and worth every penny.   

In my next two upcoming reviews in this series I will be going into detail on the Blu-ray discs of Beat and Discipline contained within this boxed set, so stay tuned! 

Much more to come. Or, to quote the bonus track “The King Crimson Barbershop” :  

“Settle back to have some fun and tap your foot in 21!”

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