If any other band were to release their third 27-disc extravaganza in as many years, the music contained within would be drowned out by anguished cries of “Enough already!”, but somehow the embarrassment of riches that King Crimson have been propelling towards us over the last few years seems both entirely appropriate and far from self-indulgent.
It’s testament to the endlessly fascinating nature of the band’s music, particularly from the mid-70s period from which the opulent 40th anniversary editions of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Red (The Road To Red) and now Starless And Bible Black have been drawn, that the prospect of wading through yet more alternate live versions of established classic songs seems every bit as exciting as the imminent arrival of new music from Robert Fripp’s latest Crim-inal ensemble.
It certainly helps that, as with its two weighty predecessors, Starless has been pieced together and presented with such attention to detail and aesthetic flair. These box sets are wonderful objects to hold, pore over and display, as much as they are treasure troves of sublime recorded sound. But, of course, it’s the music that matters most. Starless boasts 18 discs of live performances from King Crimson’s European tours in the autumn of ’73 and the spring of ’74. Seven of the discs have been plucked from pristine multi-track gig recordings, some of which ended up being incorporated into Starless And Bible Black itself.
Meanwhile, several of these live recordings have never been released before, so even the most rabid of Crimson diehards will have something fresh to froth over. The legendary Blue Tapes – soundboard recordings from the ’74 European run – appear here in their entirety for the first time ever. Whichever way you look at it, Starless is as definitive and comprehensive a trawl through this period in the band’s history as any Crimson fan could ever hope for.
And that’s before you have the time to consider the lavish booklet that bulges with rare and unseen photos, insightful sleeve notes by Prog’s very own Sid Smith, mind-bending technical details about the recordings by DGM overlord David Singleton and various exclusive artefacts and memorabilia from the Starless era. You may need to take a couple of weeks off work to truly digest this thing, not least because much of the music contained within is so utterly absorbing and thrilling.
As ever, Steven Wilson and Robert Fripp have presided over a brand new stereo mix of the original Starless album, and it’s every bit as dynamically potent and immersive as we have come to expect from these elegant re-workings.
Arguably the least celebrated of King Crimson’s mid-70s trilogy, Starless may be the least cohesive too, but it remains an album brimming with moments of startling invention. That said, it can hardly be said to dominate this box set, such is the live material’s abundance of jaw-dropping moments. Even within more meticulously structured songs, freewheeling improvisation was the order of the day for Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, drummer Bill Bruford and violinist/keyboard maestro David Cross.
With a mastery of light and shade that casually trounced their contemporaries, and a knack for blistering intensity that rivals any extreme metal you may care to mention, this line-up sounded possessed by some unearthly primal force and yet instinctively reined in at moments of potential chaos by an almost scientific precision.
Disc 10 of this set – a performance recorded at Palais Paul Videl in Avignon, France, on March 24, 1974 – will have you reaching for your safety belt and protective headgear: there are versions of Fracture and, in particular, a sparkling, pre-emptive Starless that are insanely brutal and exhilarating. At times, the crazed rush of dissonant riffing, clattering percussion and amorphous rhythms are redolent of Canadian prog thrashers Voivod in their late 80s pomp.
Of course, King Crimson aficionados do not need to be reminded that their favourite band were not just remorselessly ahead of the curve but also one of the few bands from the 70s that genuinely embraced the concept of untamed progress. Starless is not just a towering monument to limitless creativity: within its endlessly mutating squall and persistent showers of sonic sparks lies the true, unsullied essence of prog as an artform.