KING CRIMSON The Power To Believe (Sanctuary)

Jim Sutherland, Feedback's resident King Crimson expert, has already written far more eloquently and knowledgeably about this album than I'm about to, but having received a promo copy I'm pretty much contractually bound to offer my two-pennorth. Having only ever heard one other King Crimson album - which, as if you couldn't guess, is "In The Court Of The Crimson King" - the first thing that strikes me about "The Power To Believe" is that it finds the band performing almost exactly the kind of uncompromising music you might hope they would be more than three decades after their inception. Consider how soft and flabby the Floyd have become, for example, between "Ummagumma" and "The Division Bell" and it makes King Crimson's continuing hardline stance almost heartening.

The album opens with "The Power To Believe I: A Cappella", a vocoderised piece that could almost have come from My Computer's recent debut, suggesting that King Crimson have some vampyric ability to keep themselves taut and fresh via regular infusions of young blood - certainly the press release's tales of tours with Tool, Radio One airplay and praise from Metal Hammer suggests a band apart from the hulking behemoth the name might conjure up for some. And then "Level Five" smacks in, smothered with scary, stalking guitars and manic programmed beats, sounding like Aphex Twin reborn as a power-prog-jazz-rock ensemble

"Eyes Wide Open" is what most people might recognise as a 'proper song', and it puts me in mind of Peter Gabriel's latest album: restless, questing 'new prog' (if I can say that without instantly suggesting it sounds like Radiohead, and I'm not convinced I can), sophisticated and intelligent. "Elektrik" amply demonstrates that they can do heavy and intricate at the same time, whilst "The Power To Believe II" switchbacks from Middle Eastern keening through a chiming, oriental moss garden middle section before the album's opening vocoder vamp returns, not for the last time. "Dangerous Curves" is quietly insistent, overlaid with what sounds like the distant clatter of underground trains, it spends over five minutes fading up before being abruptly drowned by a cataclysmic, discordant chord. "Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With" is a deconstruction of and commentary on the modern popular song, which loses some of its power for me due to its almost certainly unintentional similarity to the works of risible Mancunian rap group Stupid.

However, despite all the dazzling technical competency on display, there's not a fragment of heart or soul to be found anywhere during these 53 minutes. This is music of immaculate, complex surfaces which might as well have been played by machines for all the sense of human involvement it generates. The album has a kind of anaesthetised feel to it that renders the whole experience a little off-putting and faintly nauseating to me. It could be argued that 'twas ever thus with King Crimson, but at least "In The Court Of The Crimson King" has retrospectively acquired a kind of fuzzy, analogue warmth and olde worlde charm - heck, even Doves covered one of its songs, something that I would be hard pressed to envisage with "The Power To Believe".

KING CRIMSON The 21st Century Guide To King Crimson Volume One 1969-1974 (Discipline Global Mobile)

“The 21st Century Guide To King Crimson Volume One 1969-1974” is the first of two 4 CD box sets that aim to retell the band’s story in sufficient detail for all but the most committed Crimsonite. Packaged in the currently fashionable and eminently shelf-friendly hardback book style, which itself lives in a hardboard outer case, the words include a band chronology curated by Robert Fripp, which takes in tour dates, review snippets (no Stalinist revisionism here, as even the scathing and indifferent ones are included), press releases and vintage Radio Times snippets. The four discs are divided into alternating, almost chronological live and studio sets. On the one hand, this approach allows the compilers to cut a rich, representative swathe through the vast range of live Crimso releases that are available to the public (the booklet references 19 such albums), but it also means that this set includes four “21st Century Schizoid Men”, perhaps an accurate description of the band at times.

The original opens disc one, its ominous steam-powered introduction possibly the sound of flower power withering and dying, before the band burst forth like Black Sabbath with A-levels. Admittedly, only so much can be wrung from 35 year-old master tapes, but I’ve not heard this song replayed with such intensity before, its distorted, fuzzy guitars and wailing saxes policing a district so much the stuff of music’s worst nightmares – the most harrowing moments of “The Beatles” turned up way beyond 11 – it’s a wonder Public Enemy never sampled them. Enough of the remainder of their 1969 debut album, “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, follows to negate interest in its simultaneous separate reissue. All that appears to be missing is the bulk of “Moonchild”, a song that even contemporary commentators generally agreed was in need of some pruning. “I Talk To The Wind” is sublime, Zombies-esque baroque pop: play the last ten seconds of that opener and the first ten seconds of this track and you’re instantly confronted with the dichotomy that powers the band, their back catalogue and this box, that they could switch instantly from sheets of blasting noise (the first industrial band, anyone?) to inspired melodic melancholy. “Epitaph” is a widescreen lament – difficult, maybe, but certainly not depressing – in which Ian McDonald’s mournful woodwind presages Andy Mackay’s work with Roxy Music. The returning apocalypse of “In The Court Of The Crimson King” reassures the listener that the revolution will be loud, big on heaviosity and virtuosity, and accompanied by armoured battalions of Mellotrons.

So far, so familiar, to me at least. The journey into uncharted waters begins with the gentle, slightly Spanish acoustic guitar picking of “Peace – A Theme”, and the diseased pop of “Cat Food”, the non-hit single that won them a slightly incongruous “Top Of The Pops” appearance – maybe it was down to that mutated “Come Together” bassline. The elastic improvisation of “Groon” leaves the Sabbath-spawning sound of old trailing before its offspring barely had time to hatch. (Consider that Ozzy covers “21st Century Schizoid Man” on his new “Prince Of Darkness” box set.) “Cadence And Cascade” is just lovely, and for a moment quiet is the new eardrum-bleedingly loud. Gentle, pastoral and restrained, it could have ambled over from the Floyd’s “More” soundtrack. Even when harkening back to the epic territory of yore, as on an instrumental edit of “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, there’s a new delicacy to the results. Not that the Crim don’t occasionally derail themselves in this brave new world: “Ladies Of The Road” is reptilian and sexist, Led Zeppelin for folk who’d normally consider themselves above that sort of thing, and an abridged “Sailor’s Tale” is a little too jazzily diffuse, a smouldering volcano of sound that fails to erupt. And then, on an instrumental edit of “Islands”, they emote with such eloquence that you’re knocked back breathless. The sound made by what I presume is Mark Charig’s cornet has to be one of the most sorrowful and keening in rock. (Did the Crim invent Godspeed You Black Emperor! as well as Black Sabbath? Seems so, and the slivers of audio verite that constitute “Tuning Up” seem to verify this.) On “Bolero” Miles Davis’ “Sketches Of Spain”, the eponymous Ravel piece and Dixieland jazz circle each other, giving the lie to those who’d label King Crimson prog and have done with it. They’re music, in all its coursing, sprawling, soothing and frightening forms.

The second disc finds various versions of the band displaying on stage between 1969 and 1972. The “In The Court Of The Crimson King” material is played as an uncompromising wall of sound, flattening all before it (sometimes even the band’s own harmonies, it has to be said). “A Man, A City” is bookended with eye-gouging shards of noise, at which point the suspicion begins to coalesce that the band’s live output is for the more, er, discerning listener, who would rather be bludgeoned by sound rather than, say, massaged or tickled by it. As a guide to what was terrorising student unions up and down the land during the late 1960s, though, it’s as invaluable as the first disc of “Ummagumma”, the band scratching, ripping, slashing and tearing through the rather occluded sonics of these recordings. As was often fashionable at the time, “Get Thy Bearings” uses a Donovan composition as a launchpad for telepathic exploration. Fripp sneaks in a Spanish guitar moment by slathering it with distortion and dissonance. You can almost hear the seeds of possibility being sown through collective improvisation; KC are still dazzlingly creative and sparking with ideas even when the results verge on the unlistenable. The disc closes with a few excerpts from the contemporaneous live album “Earthbound”, from which it rapidly becomes apparent why the band’s American label, Atlantic, refused to issue the record on grounds of poor sound quality. Nevertheless, an instrumental edit of “21st Century Schizoid Man” is the end of something, like the Death Star exploding in very, very slow motion, distorted and desperate.

Disc three finds the band in the studio again, recording “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic”. An abridged version of part 1 of the title track is all tinkling, twinkling organic found melody, random clatter ahead of the riff storm. There’s so much going on, but rather less that makes some kind of collective sense. The chattering voices suggest a Floyd influence, although it was recorded minutes before the release of “Dark Side Of The Moon”. The old mellow mellifluousness returns with “Book Of Saturday”, spooked, unsettling but gorgeously liquid. It’s around this time that the now-familiar trademark Fripp guitar sound begins to establish itself, a timbral reflection of David Cross’ violin. The clumping, blaring “Easy Money” harks unpleasantly back to “Ladies Of The Road”, albeit without the questionable attitude to sexual politics. It’s one of those, thankfully rare, moments when the band seem to be playing with (hawk, spit) songs, rather than thundering towards new, distant sonic horizons. (Note as well the cackling fairground close, later to be perhaps unintentionally reprised on David Essex’ “All The Fun Of The Fair”!) “The Night Watch” opens with more pseudo-Oriental percussive jangling, but morphs into the most harmelodious sound like a creature rising from swampy depths. Restful, mysterious and keening, covered with lashings of that Fripp guitar sound, they reclaim a peak here. “The Great Deceiver” is more full-throttle abandon, but tempered with a sense of impish mischievousness not previously heard in the band’s work. Emphasizing again the schizoid (ha!) nature of Crimson, we swing like a pendulum do between “Fracture” (lengthy, angular, ambitious and aimless) and “Starless” (simultaneously unsettling and calming, housing some of Fripp’s most deliciously tactile, textured work), “Red” (more jagged peaks of diamond-hard übermelody, all very impressive if not quite so enjoyable) and “Fallen Angel” (the zag to the zig, again: something about John Wetton’s voice makes his contributions the most fireside-friendly music heard since the first side of Cream’s “Wheels Of Fire”).

The final disc documents the last live hurrahs of the original band’s incarnation(s), covering the years 1973 and 1974. They get delicately, distortedly 4/4 funky on “Asbury Park”, and subtly amass a howling dervish force during “The Talking Drum”. On this CD the monstrous riff has been well and truly vanquished; these tracks are all about build, clatter and subside. Here “Easy Money” is even more exploratory than the studio version, disciplined and desperate at the same time. The set’s final “21st Century Schizoid Man” has all the power of olden times but seems somewhat more ornate and bejewelled, like having your head pummelled by a Rolex pneumatic drill. There’s a final few moments of palate-cleansing tranquillity in “Trio”, possibly what violinist David Cross was referring to when he said “We’ve only had one moment of true peace in improvisation in this band…Most of the time our improvisation comes out of horror and panic”.

There is a great deal of horror and panic within “The 21st Century Guide To King Crimson Volume One 1969-1974”. There’s an amount of peace and serenity as well. I don’t know whether its half-studio, half-live format represents the best introduction to the band’s work. The 75/25 split of the earlier “Frame By Frame” box set seems intuitively more attractive to me. Nevertheless, there’s a large body of astonishing and frustrating sound sculpture contained within these pits and flats. Despite its uneven nature the high points are legion, and for those you’ll happily forgive it a great deal.

KING CRIMSON In The Wake Of Poseidon (Discipline Global Mobile)

Originally released in 1970, Crimso’s second album takes the monolithic template from which “In The Court Of The Crimson King” was fashioned and batters even more extreme measures of light and shade out of it. The gently reverberant vocal opening of “Peace – A Beginning” succeeds in opening the ears right up for the malevolent syringing they receive at the hands of “Pictures Of A City”, a prog-jazz battering ram of distorted guitar and burping brass. It’s followed by the utter loveliness of “Cadence And Cascade”, which rather loses some of its lustre on reading that it was written about two groupies. The title track is all shuddering Mellotron sheer cliff faces, before the palate is cleansed by “Peace – A Theme”, reappearing as an acoustic guitar instrumental.

The album’s big single, “Cat Food” is monstrous: imagine the lyrics of The Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” and Genesis’ “Aisle Of Plenty” and the tune from The Beatles’ “Come Together” all put through the jazz rock blender by The Bonzo Dog Band, its lack of commercial success a complete mystery. “The Devil’s Triangle” takes the same kind of liberties with Holst as Led Zeppelin were with the works of impoverished blues singers round about that time, a fragment of “In The Court Of The Crimson King” briefly surfacing from the chaos.

“In The Wake Of Poseidon” is an interesting but uneven work, its flaws possibly rooted in the fractured state of the band at the time. The ever-present Robert Fripp, finding the group decimated after an American tour, drew on a pool of past and future members, creating a fluid line-up that included Greg Lake, jazz pianist Keith Tippett, saxophonist/flautist Mel Collins and future fleeting household name Gordon Haskell.

This sparklingly remastered 30th Anniversary Edition adds two extra tracks, the truncated single version of “Cat Food” and its b-side, “Groon”, warped, rubbery, cracked and almost commercial. The packaging is a delight, retelling the album’s genesis through contemporary press cuttings from revered rock chronicles such as the Wednesbury Borough News (“The whole concept of this record is all wrong”) and the Worksop Guardian (“This album should, in my opinion, make an impression”).

KING CRIMSON In The Court Of The Crimson King: An Observation By King Crimson (Discipline Global Mobile)

The King Crimson catalogue has been out of print on vinyl for so long that I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in factory fresh form in a record shop before, but this, apparently the first of many, is a delight. Hewn from “200-gram super-heavyweight vinyl” and “newly cut from masters approved by Robert Fripp”, it’s been carefully pressed and well packaged (that tonsil-tickling cover art is restored to its gatefold glory) and sounds very fine indeed, which is something that doesn’t happen quite as often as it should at this stage of mankind’s evolution. Inevitably sceptics will whinge that it can’t possibly sound as good as a 1969 pink Island label original pressing; well, yah boo sucks to them, ‘cos it arrives with a download code for a high-bitrate rip of exactly that, allowing the listener to compare and contrast without turning their PayPal account, uh, crimson.

The music’s arguably too well-known to discuss, but here I go. “21st Century Schizoid Man” out-heavies early Sabbath with its flower-torching power, making “Iron Man” look a bit rusty. Almost as remarkable is the abrupt about-turn into psych-prog balladry that follows with the lush and intricate “I Talk To The Wind”. “Moonchild” manages to encompass both the album’s most and least approachable moments: its melodic substance was later appropriated by Doves for their “M62 Song”, yet here it’s soon abandoned in favour of a meandering, formless jazz odyssey that scatters a few gentle, delicate ideas amidst much aimless noodling. At least it sensitises the ears ahead of the battering delivered by the monumental title(ish) track. This Sabbath isn’t just Black, it’s purple, red and blue as well, culminating in what sounds like death by a thousand mellotrons.

“An uncanny masterpiece”, Pete Townshend called it, and he was right on the money. There are very few albums in rock history that emphatically reject everything that’s gone before to build an artistic vision entirely on their own terms, but “In The Court Of The Crimson King” is surely one of them. Its cerebral kick is undiminished even forty years after the fact. Now, bring forth vinyl reissues of the rest of the Crimso catalogue, please!