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Thursday, February 15, 2018

King Crimson: Earthbound

KING CRIMSON: EARTHBOUND (1972)

1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) Peoria; 3) The Sailor's Tale; 4) Earthbound; 5) Groon.

General verdict: Awful sound quality, odd selection of material, and head-scratching historical importance.

Clearly, this is one of rock music's most historical ironies — that the gloriously gargantuan live biography of King Crimson (as of 2017, counting so many hours of officially released material that listening to King Crimson should be added to the list of best-paying, and also most dangerous, jobs in the world) should begin with a record captured on cassette tape, in such lo-fi quality that it would rank dishonorably even on any given list of contemporary bootlegs. As we all know, the early Seventies were a period of great excess, with classic double and triple live albums from all the best and worst progressive rock outfits of the time — and with both the old and the new lineups of King Crimson enjoying a pretty solid onstage reputation, one could certainly hope to get a package that would put Yessongs, or at least Genesis Live, to shame.

Unfortunately, Yessongs had not yet been released at the time, and many bands were still heavily restricted by limited budgets and technological deficiencies. This did not apply to King Crimson all the time, and, frankly, now that we have many more documents from the 1971-72 tour coming up (such as the ones represented on the Ladies Of The Road package, for instance), it is unclear to me why, of all things, it had to be these tapes, handpicked from a selection of US shows in February / March '72, to be approved for official release, with Fripp granting his consent. Actual­ly, even Atlantic Records declined to distribute the album on the American market at the time; and Fripp himself has allegedly strived since then to delete it from the catalog — to no avail, because Crimsonians may allow themselves to forgive, but never to forget.

Anyway, here it is. The band only allowed itself a single album, with emphasis on improvisation and experimentation — only ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ got permission to participate in this as a proper representative of KC's studio catalog, plus a faded-in snippet from ʽThe Sailor's Taleʼ that is fairly indistinguishable from the band's improvisational pattern anyway. ʽGroonʼ had also been released previously as the obscure B-side to ʽCat Foodʼ, but this particular 15-minute version has more to do with drum solos and instrumental ruckus than the studio original. The one thing that tied together all of King Crimson's lineups — namely, that the band's life on stage must be a dynamically evolving event, quite separate from its studio creation — is firmly in place here; on the other hand, the minimalistic packaging of the record, in stark contrast with the colorful album sleeves from the previous years, indicates a move to a more austere aesthetics — not sur­prisingly, coinciding with Fripp's decisive break-up with Sinfield over the artistic direction of the band. From now on, Spartan style would be typical of most, if not all, KC sleeves.

On the whole, the Burrell / Collins / Wallace line-up of King Crimson, while probably the weakest in terms of internal cohesion and energy in the band's entire history, still managed to kick plenty of ass on the stage. Problem is, even if we manage to get over the cardboard-ish sound quality (which no modern-age remaster can properly overcome), the «new» music here is simply not all that interesting. In particular, ʽPeoriaʼ and ʽEarthboundʼ are little more than decent, mid-tempo, chuggy, abrasive funk jams (sometimes with Boz rather comically scatting across the melody) that could have been generated by at least a couple dozen heavy rock acts at the time — you certainly do not need to have Robert Fripp in your band to play that kind of stuff. More than anything else, it shows the technical and visionary limitations of Fripp's colleagues: Boz could hold that groove, but not run with it, Collins was a fairly traditional sax blower, and Ian Wallace was... well, no Bill Bruford when it came to putting a mathematical spin on the art of drumming.

That said, this incarnation worked pretty damn well for ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ: Burrell added a gargly roar to Lake's end-of-the-world vocal bravado, Wallace added power and volume to Michael Giles' fussy drumming (though I'd call him a somewhat sloppier drummer than Michael on the whole), and Fripp's dueling with Collins reached a whole new level of hystrionics. Even the lo-fi production somehow adds to the charm of this particular performance — raw, dirty, mucky, probably just the way that the Schizoid Man would love it himself. As great as the next version of King Crimson would turn out to be, their variant of the song would end up somewhat more stiff and sterile than the glorious chaotic nightmare captured on Earthbound.

And yet, this does not even begin to explain why 15 minutes of this short record is given over to ʽGroonʼ, more than half of which consists of a drum solo — and a drum solo that simply shows Ian Wallace to be a disciple of Ginger Baker, except for the very end when he complements the drumming with psychedelic electronic effects (that sound like crap anyway). In the future, Fripp would either eliminate the need for drum solos completely or at least approach it far more crea­tively (three drummers!), but this particular performance almost seems imposed on the band by the average requirements of the epoch. As, for that matter, is some of the full-band instrumental jamming, as well. Just not the kind of stuff that would make them stand out from the rest of the pack, guns blazing and all.

Something deep down in my heart even tells me that this might have been Robert's intentionally sour put-down of his own band — that the release of Earthbound somehow gave him a docu­mental justification for letting everybody go home and taking some time to refresh, renew, and reboot. With time healing the usual wounds, subsequent archival releases of material from the same tour eventually restored a bit of justice, and the 1971-72 KC is still an unerasable and integral part of history, but I do agree with Fripp that it had to go, if ever King Crimson was to ever rise up to the challenge of making another album as mind-blowing and revolutionary as In The Court. If ever, in fact, King Crimson were to save the face of the entire progressive rock genre, still going reasonably strong in 1972 but already on the verge of sinking into its own quicksand. One thing is for certain — there's no way they'd do it with Boz and Mel.

13 comments:

  1. Eagerly awaiting reviews of Beck's and Arcade Fire's recent albums, George!

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  2. Me too, and it would be great to read George's reviews of interesting contemporary bands such as Fleet Foxes, War on drugs, Tame Impala etc. Gabriel

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    1. Some Brazilian rock/pop would be nice (Mutantes, Secos e Molhados, Novos Baianos). Gabriel

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  3. I think George had some kind of crisis of faith last year, which is why he missed so many days after a perfect record for years. Since his return, he has mostly stuck to old records he has heard a thousand times (solo Beatles, Pink Floyd, British Invasion in general), and has dropped the TU/TD ratings (I hate to rate records too, because music isn't numerical, but the TU/TD worked better than his new blurb at the top)

    I hope George sticks to it, but he needs to re-examine the orthodoxy of the canon and expand its reach beyond what is mostly 60's-80's music. The world has enough conventional regurgitations of Pink Floyd and the solo Beatles' catalogs. If George would embrace more newer music, and consider how newer music has created a new context for older music, he might discover something fresh about music overall. That would cure his writer's block.

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    1. Maybe he's revisiting the classics because he's had enough of giving new pop music more effort than it deserves for a while.

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    2. I mean, seriously, that comment is mostly indistinguishable from what people posted on his old site back in the '90s. If after, what, a decade of Beach House & Andrew Bird reviews (not to mention he just served up Sufjan Stevens on a platter), he still doesn't like new pop enough to make you happy, maybe at least find a new way of PHRASING the complaint?

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    3. I personaly think it's for the best. After all, one can only review music that he or she "gets" and is theorically able to like, if it's good. I'd rather have George rewrite the same Beatles reviews a thousand times than get another fiasco like his Miles Davis and Wu Tang Clan reviews.
      That being said with a lot of respect for the man's work, of course.

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    4. Those reviews are great. The only requirement for what a talented critic should review - if there's any requirement - is that they should be interested in reviewing it.

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  4. So he reviewed Sufjan Stevens, big deal. Overall, he's a lot more knowledgeable about old music than newer music. I wasn't complaining, I was offering a critique (which is what he does: offer critiques). I also was not talking about "pop music", I was talking about rock music, although I did not make that explicit.

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    1. Rock music is popular music.

      Yeah, you were offering a critique, a bad one.

      Even the old stuff isn't just his comfort zone - he's doing the Marvin Gaye discography for the first time, which if anything is more cosmopolitan than asking for Fleet Foxes AND Tame Impala.

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    2. Graham, don't get so nervous, I am not criticizing George, just making some suggestions. As a Brazilian, I would love to see George reviewing good Brazilian bands. Also, don't get me wrong, the old stuff is what I like the most. I just think that there are a few good bands in the 2000s - besides Arcade Fire and Beach house, already reviewed, fleet foxes, war on drugs and tame Impala - all of them better than Sufjan Stevens, for example, even if quite or totally derivative - probably the reason why I like them in the first place.

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  5. Gentlemen, I respect your opinions and criticisms, but why should they be voiced in the comment section to King Crimson's "Earthbound"? It's not as if my soul has any particular bond to that album.

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  6. Nothing wrong with the old stuff but I definitely would be interested in George's take on the bands he never completely reviewed back in the old site. Elvis Costello and Oingo boingo would be fun to hear about (not to mention other old New wavers like Joe Jackson, squeeze, Graham Parker, etc).

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