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Friday, January 10, 2020

King Crimson: The Great Deceiver


CD I: 1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two; 3) Lament; 4) Exiles; 5) Improv: A Voyage To The Centre Of The Cosmos; 6) Easy Money; 7) Improv: Providence; 8) Fracture; 9) Starless.
CD II: 1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) Walk Off From Providence/No Pussyfooting; 3) Sharksʼ Tongues In Lemsip; 4) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part One; 5) Book Of Saturday; 6) Easy Money; 7) Weʼll Let You Know; 8) The Night Watch; 9) Improv: Tight Scrummy; 10) Peace – A Theme; 11) Cat Food; 12) Easy Money; 13) It Is For You, But Not For Me.
CD III: 1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) The Great Deceiver; 3) Improv – Bartley Butsford; 4) Exiles; 5) Improv: Daniel Dust; 6) The Night Watch; 7) Doctor Diamond; 8) Starless; 9) Improv: Wilton Carpet; 10) The Talking Drum; 11) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two; 12) Applause & Announcement; 13) Improv: Is There Life Out There?
CD IV: 1) Improv: The Golden Walnut; 2) The Night Watch; 3) Fracture; 4) Improv: Clueless And Slightly Slack; 5) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 6) Improv: Some Pussyfooting; 7) Larksʼ Tongues In Aspic Part One; 8) Improv: The Law Of Maximum Distress Part One; 9) Improv: The Law Of Maximum Distress Part Two; 10) Easy Money; 11) Improv: Some More Pussyfooting; 12) The Talking Drum.

General verdict: A milestone in the history of boxed sets, but somewhat outdated now in terms of scope (too much for the beginner, too little for the completionist).

Back in 1992, the release of this sprawling, 4 CD-long archival boxset was nothing short of a minor sensation — the age of the Luxurious Boxset had only just begun, and although quite a few long-bearded bands had already invested in such items, the typical boxset was a compilation, something along the lines of «greatest hits and rarities». Here, by contrast, was a huge document specifically and thoroughly covering one single touring event in King Crimson history, namely, the Larksʼ Tongues and Red years, with several complete or near-complete shows joined together and, consequently, featuring plenty of overlaps (see no fewer than four different versions of ʽEasy Moneyʼ, for instance).

It was obvious from the start that this was a package only for the most dedicated fan, but it is somewhat symbolic that of all the progressive rock greats of the genreʼs golden era, it was Fripp who had chosen to initiate this trend, which, as far as King Crimson is concerned, is still going strong almost thirty years later. Live performance was an essential part of just about every prog rock act, but in King Crimsonʼs case, it was the stage where most of their music either began, as the result of a particularly lucky improvisation on a particularly inspired night, or became fleshed out in its most perfect, visceral, vivid form. For all the greatness of Yes or Genesis, it is hard to deny that their stage performances were essentially honest and efficient reproductions of their studio recordings (with the addition of impressive visuals, especially for Genesis), leaving little space to improvisation and not really following the «crank-it-up-to-eleven» law of a solid rock performance. Fripp took a completely different approach — yet up until the CD age proper audio documentation of King Crimson performances was severely limited by the LP format, at least when it came to the issue of officially releasing and promoting stuff.

Ironically, as we now move out of the CD age and into something completely different, boxsets like The Great Deceiver begin to look obsolete — a transitional state, if you wish, between the ages of «archival tapes rotting in the vaults» and «total availability at the wave of oneʼs finger». For the casual fan, this was overkill from the beginning; for the completionist and the historian, The Great Deceiver has largely been put out of business by even larger subsequent packages, such as Starless and The Road To Red, which in between them contain soundboard recordings of pretty much every show the band played in 1973 and 1974, making Deceiver now look like a puny sample of the goods in comparison.

I, personally, prefer my archival King Crimson in reasonably small doses, such as Epitaph or Absent Lovers, and for all my love and respect towards the band, think that setting oneself the challenge of listening to The Road To Red in its entirety requires a special level of fanaticism which I cannot afford. Even The Great Deceiver is a bit too much for me: I could easily live without more than half of the improvised pieces, and picking out the subtle performance nuances between so many different ʽExilesʼ and ʽFracturesʼ would be a cool task if you were paid to do this on the same level as they pay people to review bubblegum pop in Rolling Stone, but since this is obviously never going to happen, to hell with nuances.

Which is not to deny that 1973–74 was one of the finest moments in King Crimson history — these were, after all, the years during which most prog-rock acts had become to stagnate, repeat themselves, or lose direction, while King Crimson became the only act to have successfully reinvented and modernized their sound, and up until 1992, the only concert document of that reinvention which we had (not counting the studio-doctored live stuff on Starless And Bible Black) was the posthumously released USA: too brief, too non-representative, too quickly forgotten. In particular, we never got around to hear the Larksʼ Tongues incarnation of the band, with wild man Jamie Muir on percussion... oh, thatʼs right, we arenʼt going to hear it on here, either, since all the 1973 concerts included on Deceiver are post-Muir. Still, you do get to hear pretty much all the classic studio material from that epoch, interspersed with tons of improvs, a tiny bit of polite, gentlemanly stage banter, and even a rare live performance of ʽCat Foodʼ whose hysterical vocal melody suits Wetton just as fine as it suited Lake.

If I had to pick just a few exemplary rarities to promote the package for a randomly chosen poor sucker, I might have dwelled a bit on ʽDoctor Diamondʼ, not an improvisation but rather a fairly well-developed outtake from the Red sessions — perhaps its vocal melody was ultimately judged as too folk-bluesy to match the groundbreaking standards of Red, but it is quite a respectable representative of the bandʼs math-rock approach, alternating between jagged blues-rock and slow moving psychedelia with screechy hellish violin. Of the improvisational pieces, I gravitate more towards those with well-established, tight, relatively simplistic rhythms, such as ʽTight Scrummyʼ with its almost Latin percussion — Bruford keeps the tension high for about five minutes, making the entire band sound like «Santana meets Amon Düül II», before it all collapses and the rhythm disappears altogether, leaving the guitar and the violin duel each other to the death for another four minutes (spoiler: nobody wins). Most of the others blur into a homogeneous mass after a while, though my tolerance for large quantities of this mass steadily increases as I grow older and learn to perceive these soundscapes with a bit of cool-headed intellectualized detachment, rather than passionate amazement or equally passionate indignation.

In any case, it is hardly questionable that The Great Deceiver remains, first and foremost, a historical landmark in the story of King Crimson and progressive rock in general — a bold statement, in an era when prog-rock still remained one of rock criticsʼ easiest punching bags, that there was demand out there for more hidden treasures from the vaults, and that this demand was not at all limited to the likes of the Grateful Dead. One thing I cannot say about these recordings, though, is that owning them might be preferable to owning the studio records — if anything, King Crimsonʼs onstage powers only increased with age, whereas in the studio the standards set by Fripp in 1973–74 would arguably never be surpassed. Simply put, to my ears the Fripp / Wetton / Bruford (add or subtract Cross) lineup never gelled that good onstage as would the Discipline lineup — for one thing, Wetton was never that great a bass player, and for another, Brufordʼs love for complex polyrhythmics occasionally leads him to sloppiness: by the 1980s, heʼd actually tighten his act, but here itʼs as if he is still saddled way too much by staying in «Yes mode», which is a great mode for Yes, but not so great for King Crimson.

Of course, none of these criticisms are meant to be taken scientifically or even too seriously — and even if you agree with them, this slight element of sloppiness might seem preferable to some over the tightly run man-machine style of Discipline. But hoo boy, when you hear that tightly run man-machine style actually taken to its limits on stage... well, you can probably tell that The Great Deceiver ends up spending a lot less time in my player than Absent Lovers. 


  1. "Wetton was never that great a bass player" - have I really read that sentence ? Wetton is hands down one of the best bass players in the history, with a unique, distinct sound that inspired dozens of other bassists. Well, at least you spare him as a singer (which he is wonderful as well).

    1. I do not hear what exactly is so unique or distinct about Wetton. Obviously he's good, or he wouldn't be in King Crimson (then again, the existence of Boz Burrell sort of contradicts that statement), but I have a hard time remembering a particular Wetton bass line that would really "make" a KC classic, nor is he memorable through flashiness and jaw-dropping technique like a Chris Squire or, for that matter, a Tony Levin (and, come to think of it, this might be one of the main reasons why I was never so hot about all the KC improvs from '73-'74). Just one of the many solid bass players from the progressive rock era, may he rest in peace.

    2. Kinda agree. You probably underrate him a wee bit, he's very good overall. Not amazing, though, and definitely not 'one of the best bass players in history'.

    3. Wetton could play bass with his finger in his ass, that's how good he was. Much you understand.

  2. What about "Starless" bass line starting from 9'09? Isn't that a bass line to remember forever? Wetton in my opinion was a VERY melodic bass player, like John Deacon or Paul McCartney. Not only playing the notes highlighting the rhythm but playing independent melodies within the structure of a given composition. Of course I respect your opinion only respectfully expresing my own.

    1. Very melodic, indeed. Tasteful. Overall highly skilled, no doubt. But let's face it, technically he's no Tony Levin.

    2. Don't forget that FIERY bass run at 8:39-8:47 in "Fracture".

    3. addendum: the above time-stamp is for the SABB version.

    4. "Not only playing the notes highlighting the rhythm but playing independent melodies within the structure of a given composition."
      Granted, but every self-respecting bass player since 1966 did so. It didn't make Wetton unique or distinct; for instance a nobody like High Tide's Peter Pavli pulled it off too.
      Personally I think his play more interesting in UK several years later, but that band was already anachronistic. Simplification had become the norm in the second half of the 1970's.

    5. The problem with Wetton is two-fold - One, Wetton was lead by his wallet, which meant he was often disinclined to do anything too freaky. Two, much as Fripp was an old friend, another old friend was Chris Spedding - which meant that Wetton didn't always know what side of the fence he was on. But, and it's a big but, Wetton, even with his limitations, was undoubtedly the ultimate professional. We'll forgive him his later excresences because by that time he had a serious drink problem.

  3. Hoping that reviews of Live in Chicago and Meltdown Mexico will follow too. Those new live releases have been pretty impressive with a tight band and coverage of a very large part of the Crimson discography