The question I’ve been asking myself for some time now is “Do I need yet another live album by King Crimson?” I mean, the band has been pretty amazing to its fans over the past 10-plus years, opening up its archives with a steady stream of incredibly rare live and studio alternate recordings dating back to the band’s beginnings. If you are a Fripp-o-phile (aka hardcore fan of King Crimson founder and ongoing inspiration, Robert Fripp), you know that these recordings are at minimum fascinating, often engaging and eye-opening and many times downright revelatory. As a relatively early member of the King Crimson Collectors Club I have heartily embraced the riches Mr. Fripp and his mates at Discipline Global Mobile have offered up over the years.
I recently purchased the two latest live collections documenting the current arc of the band, vital contributions to an ever-evolving group portrait begun in 2015 (as documented with the 2016 release of Radical Action To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind which I reviewed here on Audiophilereview in February 2017, now streaming up on Tidal).
“This is King Crimson… re-imagined,” said Robert Fripp at the time…
After seeing this mutating multi-drummer incarnation of the band twice so far, I have to say I haven’t been this smitten with the group’s efforts since the mid 1990s (during the so-called double trio period which produced the album called Thrak). This latest version features three drummers, keyboard, saxophone, flute, guitars and of course the ever-wonderful Tony Levin on bass locking down the rhythm for Mr. Fripp and company to weave their musical tales above, below, betwixt and between. The show I saw last year was nothing short of breathtaking, yet it was also extremely fun.
What is the difference with this version of the group? Well, from my vantage point it seems that the band has fully coalesced in a way it hasn’t since the Thrak period. King Crimson is swinging again, something it seemed to lose a handle on in the later 90s and early 00s. Now playing more like an jazz fusion-fueled progressive rock orchestra, the songs are again flowing, bursting with joy and life. Old songs have taken on new perspectives while new creations are emerging. For an example of the former, the spoken word segments on “Indiscipline” are now sung while works from the transitional early 00s era (“The Construction of Light,” “Level Five,”) now sparkle with hope as Mel Collins’ lovely flute parts counter and complement the dark matter. Yin to Yang; Darkness to light.
Both of these most recent live King Crimson releases are somewhat interconnected. The Vienna concert was slated for release first but then the Chicago concert happened and the band rethought its schedule as it considered the latter to be one of its best performances of the current configuration. So with that, lets look back briefly to 2016 and then move on to 2017.
On Live In Vienna, December 1st, 2016 we hear the band stretching out, seamlessly blending its past and present to form a new whole. There are unique tracks on this collection such as the soundscapes used to open the shows (which were composed newly every night of the tour, evolving significantly over time). Bearing titles such as “Schoenberg Softened His Hat” and “Ahriman’s Ceaseless Corruptions,” some of you out there in audiophile land might enjoy these as demo discs as there is a lot of interesting stereo going on there. “Spenta’s Counter Claim” is a beautiful coda to this (if you will) “reinvention” suite. According to the liner notes by producer David Singleton, in the spirit of King Crimson’s mid-1990s tour remix reconstruction album Thrakattak, those tracks were “drawn from nine shows in the second half of the tour.” Its also worth calling attention to the fact that in this Vienna package you also get one of first live performances of “Fracture” since 1974!
The Vienna CDs sound remarkably warm and appealing, crisp yet not cutting. It also sounds really quite good even in standard CD-quality Tidal streaming (click here for a link to it there) although I prefer the sound processing of the music via my trusty old Oppo Blu-ray Player (BDP-83). Your experience may vary dependent upon your ISP connectivity and DAC. In addition to learning about the music within, another reason to get the three CD set is for the lovely tri-folded, slipcased packaging with wonderful photos of the band on the tour and a nice booklet inside.
The class factor is stepped up even more so in the sophisticated hardbound-book housing for King Crimson’s Official Bootleg: Live In Chicago, June 28th, 2017 . Inside we get a front-lines report from band leader, founder and visionary Robert Fripp in the form of a self-professed “roughly-scribed love letter.” In it he basically spells out the history of the band, his view on its significant milestones and why — as represented on this current incarnation of the band’s evolution which he terms “King Crimson 9.1” — he now considers this band to be the “fourth definitive formation” of the band.
This band is a special assemblage and this live-from-the-soundboard snapshot from Chicago preserves a powerful performance from the band. I won’t spoil it all so you should go ahead buy the CD to hear knocked out versions of “Cirkus” and the heavy-metal-meets-near-jazz of “Pictures of a City.” Listen for the insanely fast kick-drum detailing percolating beneath the opening sequence of “The Construkction of Light.” This is no doubt one finely tuned beastie, for sure. Yet despite all this progressive precision, the band swings madly.
Sonics wise, the recording on Chicago is a bit on the brighter side of things than Vienna. I am guessing that there-in lies the difference between a snapshot document of a brilliant moment on the tour vs. a more detailed production effort (according to liner notes for the Chicago album they spent several weeks mixing the Vienna concert but opted to delay its release because of this superior performance).
It is worth noting that even in the streaming world, someone in the King Crimson production food chain is paying close attention to little details that matter: in the liner notes to Official Bootleg: Live In Chicago, June 28th, 2017 we learn that the first set ended with “Islands” and the second set began with “Pictures of a City.” On the CD that song ends the first disc due to time limitations of the disc format. But… on the Tidal stream (which you can hear if you have a subscription and click here) the sets are broken out in their original sequence. An advantage of the playlist type format is that the artist is not limited by the time constraints of physical media.
Either way you listen, the underlying performance is what matters and this one captures our beloved eight-headed beastie in full flight, wings spread, soaring, gliding, swooping and diving all the while scoping out even greater vistas ahead.
Circling back to my opening question, the answer is a resounding “yes” that I needed these releases. And if you are a fan of the band, you probably need them as well.