In 1991, I was a 14-year-old kid who had become obsessed with progressive rock. I (regrettably) passed on seeing Yes on their massive Union tour, telling a friend I only knew “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” but not long after they came through Toronto I became a fan. They set me on the road to exploring the sounds of bands not willing to fit any sort of straight format.
Which brought me to King Crimson. Talking about a band that never fit a format – they couldn’t fit a mold, no matter how hard someone may have tried to fit them in to one. King Crimson’s 1969 debut album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, may be the definitive artifact of early progressive rock – esoteric lyrics, long suites, complex time changes – but the band never repeated that effort. Instead, they’d change line-ups and sounds, usually in whatever way guitarist/band mastermind Robert Fripp would choose. Following 1974’s Red (power-trio KC), the band went on hiatus until 1981’s Discipline, which would feature Fripp and returning drummer Bill Bruford working alongside bassist/stick player Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew in a new Crimson iteration.
Which brings us to On (and off) The Road, the glorious new King Crimson box set that captures the band in all its 1980s goodness.
Throughout its 19 discs (CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray), this massive collection from Panegyric Recordings (the company behind the outstanding Yes reissues from the last few years) compiles King Crimson’s three ’80s studio albums (Discipine, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair), alongside various live concerts from the tours in support of each. There are also 5.1 surround sound mixes and seen and previously unseen video footage that demonstrate what a beast of a band this particular line-up was.
Fripp and Belew were/are both guitar innovators, and their seemingly disparate styles actually wound up complementing one another in the studio and in a live setting. Levin, a noted session musician and Peter Gabriel sideman, pushed and pulled the boundaries of the bass guitar in the band, especially with funkified tracks such as “Sleepless” and “Elephant Talk.” Meanwhile, Bruford was experimenting with what he could do with an electric drum kit. His set would come to encompass nearly all electric drums by the end of the decade, but during this King Crimson period, he’s got a fine balance that suits the material.
Listening back to the various studio albums contained in this set, it continues to boggle my mind that none of the songs here ever hit a mass audience. Accessible is not a word anyone would ever associate with King Crimson, but with Belew’s slightly skewed pop sensibilities at the forefront across this line-up’s three studio albums, KC managed to craft more than a few songs that wouldn’t have stood out of place on college radio, or in a world where Talking Heads were having hit singles, even on the top 40. However, it wasn’t to be.
For novice fans, On (and off) The Road may be too much to handle – there is repetition, to be expected, and this is of course, just one era of a band on the cusp of its 50th anniversary. However, for long time fans, this set is an essential document of perhaps the most consistently strong version of King Crimson.
Highly recommended…and that’s not just talk, talk, talk.