Emerging amid whispers that quite a few devoted King Crimson fans are still painstakingly wading through the last few embarrassments of riches unearthed by Robert Fripp, this 20th anniversary return to the band’s explosive mid-90s incarnation may appear to be a slightly less momentous event than the boxed treasures of Red, Starless And Bible Black and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic.
And in the sense that Thrak was not quite the boundary-shattering tangential leap that those classics represented, these 16 discs and many, many hours of rare and previously unheard material can hardly deign to rival their archival predecessors.
But with now customary zeal and attention to detail, this is perhaps the most imaginative and subtly substantial of all the recent Crimson follies. The two guitars, two basses, two drummers line-up that is placed firmly under Fripp’s forensic microscope herein brilliantly wove the angular braggadocio of Red and Larks’ together with the clean, crisp and clear art‑funk of the Discipline era, resulting in what is arguably the most fun King Crimson album, not to mention one that contains some of the band’s most affecting tunes.
The album itself appears here twice: in its shiny 2002 remastered form, and in a brand new 2015 stereo “re-imagining” by Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk. As familiar and engaging as it is, the former is entirely overshadowed by the latter, wherein the benefits of state-of-the-art studio technology are made abundantly plain.
This box gives you the chance to bask in the scorching glow of musical progress.
Thrak was always a very stark and precise record, bereft of murky shadows and delivered with almost mathematical oomph. The new stereo mix retains that clarity and pristine zinginess, but this is an all-singing, all-dancing, high-octane upgrade. The band’s complex, polyrhythmic riots erupt from all angles, with an underlying muscularity that shines an elucidatory light on that stylistic leap towards The ConstruKction Of Light’s quasi-metallic clangour five years later. This is primarily tough, punchy, anxious music that revels in its own atonal conceits and intrinsic sense of menace. Even lighter, more melodic fare like Dinosaur, Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream and the exquisite One Time seem underpinned by curiosity and disquiet.
The rest of the discs veer from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous. Producer David Singleton’s ATTAKcATHRAK collage, a sequel to the earlier THRaKaTTaK, is pieced together from various Crimson improvisations during the Thrak period. It’s a truly astonishing affair, the raw essence of Crimson’s dark side whipped into smooth but volatile waves of multi-limbed dissonance.
Meanwhile, JurassiKc THRAK offers fans the chance to jump back in time to the studio where the music for Thrak was originally moulded and refined. No fewer than seven pieces of unheard and, presumably, discarded Crim-inality can be found within this hour-long trip into Fripp’s creative process, which comes replete with revealing interjections and asides from the control room. It’s not the most relaxing listen, not least because the interruptions come thick and fast, but it’s an audaciously original way to enable devotees to access archives presumed off limits.
Similarly, an expanded version of 1994’s VROOOM EP (entitled MAX VROOOM) and disc six’s collection of single edits, live tracks and rehearsal cuts both add to the feeling that this collection is as comprehensive as anyone could reasonably expect.
The final discs document live performances in London, New York and Mexico City in 1995 and 1996. The sound is exceptional throughout, again emphasising the startling precision underpinning this line-up’s momentum. However, audio junkies will be drawn immediately to the surround sound version of the London gig that, while unlikely to rival the experience of actually being there, will definitely take the top of your skull off if you don’t go easy on the volume.
In keeping with previous box sets, this is far more than just a tarted-up ‘classic album with a few bonus gifts in 5.1’. King Crimson’s music remains sacred to so many people partly because it’s so gleefully and joyously unknowable, an ever-mutating sonic quest that cannot be reduced to succinct snapshots or definitive statements. Instead, diving into another Crimson box represents a chance to bask in the scorching glow of real musical progress.
Just set aside a couple of weeks to plough through it all, won’t you?