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King Crimson - The Night Watch  CD (album) cover


King Crimson


Eclectic Prog

4.46 | 308 ratings

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4 stars Despite the legendary reputation of the concert that this live album captures, it took me a long time to come around to this album as much as I did. The odd thing is, though, that while my initial rating for this album was lower than it is now, I nonetheless don't entirely disagree with my original reasoning for rating it how I did. The biggest potential knock on the album comes from the redundancy of its contents. Three tracks from Starless and Bible Black are taken straight from this concert: the improvs "Starless and Bible Black" and "Trio," and the version of "Fracture" that would ultimately close that album (the opening of the SABB version of "The Night Watch" also comes from here, though some recording difficulties forced the band to record the bulk of it as a proper studio track). The album also contains five of the six tracks from Larks (leaving off "Larks 1"), and while three of them ("Easy Money," "Exiles," "Talking Drum") clearly match or exceed their studio counterparts, the other two are just about on par with their studio versions. Add in a version of "Lament" that sounds like basically every other version of "Lament" out there, and the way that the closing "21st Century Schizoid Man" sounds pretty average as far as live versions of this go (as with "Larks 2," the version found on USA seems closer to a definitive live version, if such a thing exists, than the version here), and the way that the one remaining improv ("The Fright Watch") is a disorienting directionless mess if considered on its own, and the case for giving this album a middling grade seemed pretty solid to me for years and years.

All of these considerations still strike me as accurate, more or less; the key factor in prompting me to bump up the rating, though, is that most of the negative points no longer strike me as especially pertinent. Regarding the "redundancy" issue of the material that ended up on SABB: rather than whine about having identical versions of these tracks in two different contexts, I instead find it better for me to admire the sheer balls and musicianship needed to walk out on stage, declare that you are going to use recordings from this show on your next album, make up fifteen minutes of it on the spot, use another twelve minutes for one of the gnarliest and most precise pieces in all of prog rock ("Fracture"), absolutely nail all of it in one take and not require overdubs. Furthermore, even if I may not love every minute of "Starless and Bible Black," the fact that the band could immediately switch gears from the hellish noise of that improvised piece into the delicate improvised beauty of "Trio" (so named because Bill Bruford was able to restrain himself from joining in on drums and possibly ruining it) shows that it had a command of its collective abilities that borders on terrifying. If there's any redundancy to be found in regards to these tracks, then it's ultimately SABB that's the redundant case (and I'm not saying that it is, just that a better case can be made in that direction); hearing these tracks in context cannot help but increase my admiration for this incarnation of the band and its general approach considerably.

The Larks material contributes a lot of greatness to this album as well. Ok, so "Book of Saturday" isn't really the kind of track that has the potential to explode into something greater in a live setting, but it still sounds nice in this context, and along with the softer beginning part of "Lament" and the bulk of "The Night Watch," it helps give an effective gentler balance to some of the set's rougher material. This rougher material includes the opening "Easy Money," which practically explodes through the speakers in the beginning, and where Wetton's slurred wordless singing has much more intensity than before, and the mid-song instrumental passages make it clear that the band is in a special place that night. Later, near the end of the set, is a terrific rendition of "Exiles," where Wetton's vocals provide a ton of emotional resonance, and where Fripp's noisy meanderings have more of an impact than in the original (where it seemed like a noisy piece was in active battle with a more conventional one). And finally, there's the band's performance of "Talking Drum" and "Larks 2," immediately preceeded by a noisy improvisation in "The Fright Watch." Originally, I couldn't stand "The Fright Watch," and I considered it a nusiance of bass *thwonks* and guitar *squals* and improvisatory "spooky" mellotron that had to be endured in order to get to a great version of "Talking Drum" that was followed by a so-so version of "Larks 2." Now, though, I consider the three performances inseparable, and that's probably the way it should be: maybe "The Fright Watch" is fundamentally just a way to rev up the band for "The Talking Drum," but it absolutely succeeds in that regard (the sound of the bass and drum parts coming out of the mellotron is one of the great moments on the album), and the band is able to go from *TENSION* to *UNBEARABLY IMPOSSIBLE TENSION* by the time "Talking Drum" goes into "Larks 2" (in contrast, the studio version was the band just going from *nothing* to *TENSION*). As for "Larks 2," I've come to realize that there isn't really anything wrong with it here; it's a typical "Larks 2" performance (which means it's great) that sounds a little sub-par just because it followed such a great version of "Talking Drum." Anyway, do yourself a favor and don't try to think of this as three separate tracks, even if that's how it's listed: these absolutely need to be listened together, and together they make for one of the great wacky adventures of the King Crimson catalogue.

Finally, "21st Century Schizoid Man" may not be one of the all-time great versions of the track, but then again this wasn't a regular part of the band's setlist at the time, so a little bit of leeway is in order here. As with "Larks 2," it's good to take a step back and recognize that "Schizoid Man" is just the kind of track whose very nature is such that, unless something goes horribly wrong, there's going to probably be enough good stuff in there so it can be terrific even if it's not one of the very best renditions out there. Fripp is the clear star of the show here, with a little bit of solo time given to Wetton and little to Cross, but Fripp does plenty of noisy stuff that will please most fans of the band. I guess it would be better if Wetton's vocals were distored a la USA or the original, but that's just a small nit-pick.

Overall, while this album may have enough small issues to keep me from wanting to rate it as an all-time great live album, it nonetheless strikes me as an essential purchase for anybody who considers themselves a King Crimson fan. Yes, this album puts the more "difficult" aspects of the band, the aspects that found their basis in free-form jazz and related musical styles, in close proximity to the more "conventional" music of people who want their King Crimson a little more structured and math-rock-ish, but that should be considered a point in favor of the album, not one against it. Even if I don't love every individual aspect of the album, I still can't help but appreciate this as a great performance from a clearly great band.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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