KING CRIMSON -- Epitaph (Discipline Global Mobile)

When you think about progressive rock, one of the first groups that come to mind is King Crimson. Considered one of the genre's most influential artists; their 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, is one of rock's true landmark albums. Discipline Global Mobile recently released Epitaph; a beautifully packaged, 4CD box set from the band's debut tour. Culled from various sources; the sound quality is not what you would expect in a commercial release, but the performances speak for themselves.

At the time, King Crimson consisted of Robert Fripp on guitar, Greg Lake on bass and lead vocals, Ian McDonald on backing vocals and just about anything that happened to be lying around the studio, Michael Giles on drums and vocals, and Peter Sinfield on 'words, illumination, and other things.' Greg Lake once called King Crimson "a band without fear." Improvisation has always been the group's focal point, and the material in this box set is a prime example.

Disc One contains vintage BBC tracks, and excerpts from shows at the Fillmore East and the Fillmore West. The quality varies from track to track on the BBC sessions. "21st Century Schizoid Man" was the first thing the band ever committed to tape. This version comes from an Italian bootleg. Taken from the BBC masters; the lyrics on "In the Court of the Crimson King" are slightly different and the sound quality is much better. The sound on "Get Thy Bearings" is shoddy at best. On a positive note, this is the only studio version of the song known to exist. Like "Schizoid," the master tapes for this track have long since disappeared.

The Fillmore East concerts are significant in that they mark the first meeting of Greg Lake and Keith Emerson. Emerson was still a member of The Nice, who, along with King Crimson, were opening for The Chambers Brothers. The Fillmore East tracks (considered the Holy Grail to Crimson collectors) are from Michael Giles' personal cassettes. He was under the impression that these shows were widely bootlegged, but as it turned out, his was the only existing copy. The embryonic "A Man, A City" features a blistering sax improv by McDonald, but is minus the vocals on the last verse. Lake's vocal performance on "Schizoid" is much stronger than the BBC version, and features exemplary jamming by everyone.

Disc Two comes from the second night at the Fillmore West, and was the band's last US appearance with this lineup. Out of the four CDs, this one has the best overall sound quality. "Drop In," gives McDonald the chance to stretch out a bit. "A Man, A City" is noticeably heavier than the version on disc one. It's a looser performance, and features another excellent solo by McDonald. The version of "Schizoid" on disc two is another highlight, featuring a killer vocal performance by Lake, and outstanding guitar work by Fripp. Gustav Holst' "Mars" builds to a feverish crescendo to close the show.

Disc Three has the worst sound quality of the four CDs. Five different sources were pieced together to form what they believe to be the complete (if uneven) set from the Plumpton Festival. "Schizoid" has a cool mid-section, but is fairly lackluster otherwise. After a choppy edit, an excellent version of "Get Thy Bearings" follows. Fripp's guitar work here is stellar. The rendition of "In the Court of the Crimson King" is sloppy. Giles misses his cue on the second chorus, and aside from the flute solo (which is better than any other version here), this performance of the song sounds like they phoned it in. The cleverly titled "Improv" finds Fripp teasing part of The Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon," and a rarely played drum solo from Giles.

The fourth disc (from the Chesterfield Jazz Club) also has rough sound quality by today's standards, but includes some of the best performances of the entire collection. "Schizoid" is definitely a highlight. Fripp's solo starts out faithful to the studio version, then goes into a killer improvisation. This was one of the few shows where they played the song's final flourish of notes. Up next is the longest track in the box, an 18:10 version of "Get Thy Bearings." It's also one of the best. Fripp's solo builds into a climactic frenzy, then gives way to McDonald's (initially) jazzy flute solo. While this version of "Mars" is shorter than the other versions, it's noticeably heavier and features vocals.

What Epitaph lacks in sound quality is made up for in the packaging. Epitaph is one of the nicest box sets released in a long time. The artwork is beautiful, the liner notes are interesting and informative, and it's printed on high quality paper. In an unusual marketing move, the first two CDs (as well as the box to keep them in) are available at your local record store. The second two discs are available exclusively through Discipline mail order at 213-937-3194. The box has room for the third and fourth discs. Epitaph is not a collection for those just discovering King Crimson; but for the seasoned fans, this is a must-have release.

© 1997 Steve Marshall