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King Crimson - USA CD (album) cover

USA

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

4.00 | 352 ratings

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Frankingsteins
3 stars It's bizarre that King Crimson hold a place as one of my favourite progressive rock bands, as the constant shifting of band members and musical styles between every album signify more than a little instability. Guitarist Robert Fripp became the only original member of the line-up a mere one year after the band's debut album, and this trend continued throughout the seventies, with a brief spell of stability recorded here.

The drably titled 'USA' is the band's second live album after the disappointing 'Earthbound' in 1972. King Crimson's continuing process of rebirth inevitably leads to each significant 'era' of the band playing many of its more recent songs (as opposed to old favourites written by an almost entirely different group of musicians), however from time to time the band would hit upon a timeless classic that would hold a place in the live repertoire thereafter. 'USA,' a chronicle of the 1974 tour, features the most effective and creative King Crimson incarnation to date: the line-up of Fripp, John Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums) remained consistent for a staggering three studio albums, all released within a year and a half.

Released shortly after the band's excellent 'Red' album, but sadly before any of those songs had been performed live, this live album focuses predominantly on songs taken from the 'Larks' Tongues in Aspic' album, but features a song each from 'Starless and Bible Black' and 'In the Court of the Crimson King' (sadly not the title track) as well as an impressive free-form improvisation. With the exception of the final track, all songs were recorded at the Casino in Asbury Park, New Jersey on June 28th 1974, and all sound far better in their raw and fuzzy live heaviness than the thinner sound of the originals. For some reason, the band's most famous number '21st Century Schizoid Man' was taken from a different show in Providence two days later, and is tethered to the rest of the album by a rather shoddy fade-in-and-out.

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The two parts of the 'Larks' Tongues in Aspic' suite that bookend their namesake studio album are the most distressingly ear-piercingly heavy songs in the King Crimson discography, contributing taking their cues from the burgeoning heavy metal genre. While the severely overlong and repetitive 'Part I' took a lifetime to begin and ran out of steam four minutes in, the band made the right decision in performing the much improved 'Part II' as their live opener. Based on several of Fripp's heaviest guitar riffs, and featuring the best bass and drum performances of the album, this six-minute instrumental employs David Cross' violins better than anywhere else, and features enough shifts and reprises to keep things interested for the enthusiastic (if tinny) crowd.

Both 'Lament' and 'Exiles' are more laid-back pieces, and the latter is especially improved over the studio version. 'Lament' is a little disappointing and bland, especially as the band had accumulated several much better songs in a similar style by this point, but features some rare and inoffensive piano. 'Exiles' is one of the show's highlights. Carefully modified, this is a great relaxed and proggy song that leads seamlessly into the band's jazzy improvisation, simply labelled 'Asbury Park.' Without much in the way of focus, this is the album's main selling point to fans of either the band itself or improvisation in general: Fripp is astounding as always, and Cross' keyboards particularly shine, although personally I could have done without Bruford's rather long and showy drum intro. The ditty's unrestrained nature may be off-putting to newcomers, but certainly won't be anything new to those familiar with the band's work, especially the afore-mentioned 'Larks' Tongues' pieces and the jazz epic 'Lizard.'

Next, starting impressively but soon resigned to repetition, 'Easy Money' is led by a very nice Mediterranean-sounding electric riff from Fripp, before attention turns to his backing mellotron. Bruford plays around with the drum timing somewhat, which proves more distracting than entertaining. Overall, this is the album's weakest point, but the band's preference for playing newer material means there aren't many realistic alternatives (though 'The Night Watch' would have been nice). As zany and unpredictable as a King Crimson live show may be, the compiler of this album nevertheless couldn't resist ending things with '21st Century Schizoid Man,' the band's most well-known song. As I'm much more familiar with the original, this live version is pretty interesting: Wetton's muffled vocals aren't anywhere near as good as Greg Lake's, and although the improved heavy sound of the instruments suits this 'Larks' Tongues' era fine, this leads to a much reduced focus on Ian McDonald's crazy sax. It's a really good live version, and a fine alternative to the classic.

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The re-release of this CD (which I don't have) adds the extra tracks 'Fracture' and 'Starless,' the latter of which should be particularly interesting, and a brief introduction called 'No Pussyfooting' which lasts for about thirty seconds. As the main chronicle of the second major era of King Crimson, the main problem of 'USA' is historical, as it features none of the excellent songs from 'Red' which number among the band's best (although it's hardly this album's fault is it?) These songs appear later in the live discography, which seems to be growing rapidly each year as more and more bootlegs are given official releases.

As Red's rushed predecessor 'Starless and Bible Black' was primarily a live album itself, with the crowd noise removed from performances of new songs presumably to save on studio time, only one measly song is included here (and it is a very measly one). This leaves the bulk of 'USA' to be filled with the best half of 'Larks' Tongues in Aspic,' which it thankfully improves upon. With the exception once again of the timeless 'Schizoid Man,' King Crimson's first three albums are deliberately completely ignored.

As can be expected from a live album recorded in the early seventies, the sound quality is noticeably inferior to today's standards, but the clear sound and fairly even mix of all the instruments puts it far above the realms of a bootleg. Fripp's deep guitar is given a kick in a heavy metal direction that wasn't always present on the original songs, but the performances and structures are quintessentially prog rock. I'm not sure whether I prefer the flat sound of this crowd to the roaring Dolby 5.1 audiences audible on more recent releases, but like Iron Maiden's 'Live After Death' and Judas Priest's 'Unleashed in the East,' the energy and amplifier set-up of these live shows far outshines the more measured work in the studio. The set-list is disappointingly short by modern standards at six songs and forty minutes, but a double LP release would only have introduced a large amount of filler, without remedying any of the issues with the standard album.

I hesitate to recommend 'USA' for the reason I'd worry about recommending any King Crimson album, even to those familiar with some of their work. This is entirely a live album of the hard rocking Fripp/Wetton/Bruford incarnation of the band, and as such won't necessarily appeal to those who enjoyed the mellotron-soaked tranquillity of the famous debut, or Fripp's strange new-wave offerings of the eighties. Music aficionados may find the 'Asbury Park' improv to be of particular interest, but such leanings could alienate those who prefer the simpler, softer side of things with 'Lament' and 'Exiles.' It's a nice mix, but clearly there really isn't any way to win, unless you're a King Crimson fanatic. And if you're going to be fanatic about anything, why not this fascinating and temperamental bunch of skilled musicians?

There are plenty of other King Crimson live albums and box-sets out there with all numbers of discs, so fans are given a wide smorgasbord to choose from. 'USA' isn't the best, but it's historically one of the most important.

Frankingsteins | 3/5 |

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