King Crimson: the Larks Tongues Boxed Set

The 40th anniversary 13-disc megalithic boxed set. In which the classic album “Larks Tongues In Aspic” is only a small part of the story.

The history behind the album itself has been told many times. Determined to develop his more progressive musical ideas, and develop the compositional fragments which had gone unused or been abandoned by the R’n’B-influenced “Islands/Earthbound” edition of King Crimson, Mr Fripp teams up with free improviser/homemade instrument wielder Jamie Muir, and draws together a small group of suitable rock musicians: Bruford, Wetton and Cross in descending order of fame). Apparently submitting to Muir’s leadership, adopting him as their guru/emperor, they assemble their assorted compositional fragments, jam a lot, and eventually emerge with…Three songs, two rock instrumentals (one through-composed, the other very loose) and one unclassifiable instrumental suite (which would continue to develop in the next phase). Then they tour – playing the new compositions…and jamming a whole lot more.

And that’s what’s different about this edition of this album – besides the songs, you get to hear the jamming. Almost every surviving live recording of the Fripp/Bruford/Cross/Wetton/Muir lineup is includded. But of course, you have to be a King Crimson fanatic to even consider buying this album: the kind of fanatic who’s already heard most of the aforementioned live material on bootlegs/”collectors club” releases, and knows full well that the audio quality of most of these bootlegs/ccrs is “difficult” – but is attracted by the prospect of a very slight audio upgrade, and the sheer fact of this material being, at long last, easily accessible to the general public (those who can afford the “£80+ and that’s if you’re lucky” package).

So – the live material is the point of interest here.

Taking as a given the compressed, distant and/or surface-noisey audio – the potential disappointment that lies in wait here is the revelation that the Muir lineup doesn’t quite live up to the myth surrounding it. You may have heard that this band was not only superior to the four-man, Muir-less, line-up that immediately followed, but was actually a collective-improvisational phenomenon that had to be heard to be believed. It wasn’t.

Both the five-man and four-man Crimsons of the David Cross era (and let’s face it, he’s the defining musical ingredient, not Muir) improvised around pre-planned and/or predictable “structures” and unnamed riffs, only occasionally managing to freely improvise after the fashion of Derek Bailey’s “companies” or John Stevens’s “spontaneous musical ensembles” (both of which Muir had experience of). When they were able to freely improvise, the results were quite terrific. The disappointment is that the Muir line-up not only generated so few improvisations in the “free” category, but actually had a more limited repertoire of stock riffs, structures and mannerisms than the four-man line-up that followed. Compare this set with the “Great Deceiver” series of live albums from the four-man era, or the relevant collectors-club releases. There are almost no passages of “outside” improvisation in this set that can rank with “Clueless And Slightly Slack”, “Providence”, the second half of “Centre Of The Cosmos”, the first half of “The Law of Maximum Distress”. And what’s more: the structured, rock-orientated improvisations seldom hit the dramatic heights of “Starless And Bible Black”, “Is There Life Out There”, “Asbury Park” or those famous fifteen-ish-minute affairs from the Spring/Summer 1973 tour.

We should moderate this criticism by reminding ourselves that even a run-of-the-mill Crimson jam is better than most 1970s rock groups best. It’s stating the obvious to say that even the “dullest” (sic) of these jams succeed in making your Led Zeppelins and Deep Purples (not to mention your post-1971 Tangerine Dreams and post-1972 Cans) look childishly inept and un-musical in comparison…In fact they even make Pink Floyd and Soft Machine seem a bit embarrassingly limited in comparison. It’s just…we were expecting more.

The Frankfurt gig is in some ways the most interesting as it contains some different ingredients. The “Z’Zoom” track is in two parts: the first being a quite lively and infectious composed instrumental which includes the “Lament” chord progression as its middle-eight. The second is a blues-rock number with probably ad-libbed lyrics and scat vocals. Until Fripp and Cross take their gut-spilling solos, it sounds nothing like Crimson – more like Ten Years After, if Alvin Lee had been a bass player. We also get a fragment based around the “Fallen Angel” riff, serving as the bridge between “Easy Money” (itself sounding rather different, sprightlier in tone, with a major key instrumental middle eight) and “Exiles”. (They spend a long time contemplating the intros to both “Exiles” and “Talking Drum”).

The rest of the gigs are less “diverse”, they all follow a familiar pattern.

There are three kinds of 20-30 minute improvisation in this boxed set:
(a) the one heard in Bremen, Hull and Guildford. A big blasting intro followed by the establishment of a groove (think of either “Speed King” or “Kohntarkosz”!). Fripp and Cross alternately soloing and duetting on all their instruments, adding varying degrees of dissonance/harmonic complexity to the one or two chord groove behind them. The groove occasionally slows down/quietens, and occasionally breaks down, teasing us with a promise of atonality to come, as the three-man rhythm section talk amongst themselves. But soon the groove returns. In the second half Muir and his noisemakers will become a welcome disurptive element. Eventually when they get tired of it, Fripp will nudge them towards “Exiles”.
(b) the one heard in Oxford, Portsmouth and Glasgow. Fripp or Cross begin it in understated/folksy mode (Cross may even offer a hint of that fabled Fripp-penned “jig” that never made it out of the rehearsal studio), eventually another, slower one/two-chord groove emerges and they begin to jam, this time with more impetus coming from the keyboards and violin. Eventually things will intensify with Muir’s noisemakers and/or Fripp’s guitar bringing on the madness. Usually it’s not long after that that the improvisation dissolves into “Exiles”, though maybe Cross will try to get them all tinkering with another rehearsal room riff before the energy slackens and the segue into “Exiles” takes place.
(c) the very long one heard in Frankfurt which is really a hybrid of the above two. Still disappointingly short on abstraction (though definitely not boring!)

So what are the other improvisations like?

We only get to hear tiny snippets of the second improvisations from Guildford (still rocking out, but slower and with more space in the music) and Glasgow (lots of space, a promise of atonality to come…once Muir has finished goading the audience!)

Portsmouth Part Two is an interesting one – in between the rocking-out sections, the ingredients include Bailey-esque atonal guitar scrapes, Muir’s garden-hose-trumpet, Cross’s flute (I think). And when the rocking-out comes, Fripp shreds like crazy.
Hull Part Two includes the “Fallen Angel” tease and though similar to the first has some more abstraction in it, more empty space. Fripp’s holocaustic guitar work is still the highlight.

Disappointingly the most revelatory live recording of the post-Frankfurt, pre-quartet era is not actually included in the boxed set because the sound quality has been judged (by Fripp and Singleton) to be exceptionally poor. It’s available only as a free limited-edition download, so I suggest you go to king-crimson.com/rainbow immediately!

The audio for this London gig is a challenge – evem more distant/compressed than the Oxford and Frankfurt tapes. (When an unusually talkative Fripp reprimands both a heckler and some critics, most of what he has to say is indecipherable). But if you can adjust to it you’ll be rewarded with, in a way, the best improvisation of the lot. The first is in the vein of most post-“Book of Saturday” improvisations – it’s good, but it’s the second improvisation that’s the real talking point. Whereas most post-“Easy-Money” improvisations start out in abstraction and eventually acquire a groove and a tonality – this doesn’t! Instead…lots of space, lots of percussion and noisemakers – in fact it’s the only time in these sessions that we really get to contemplate Muir, obeying his natural inclinations, in what is musically his natural habitat. We get small doses of Cross and Fripp but they’re not the focal point – it’s the (a)rhythm(ia) section’s piece de resistance.

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4 thoughts on “King Crimson: the Larks Tongues Boxed Set

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