Critic's pick: King Crimson, 'USA'

Contributing Music WriterJanuary 6, 2014 

When the concert document USA was released in 1975, King Crimson had already dethroned itself.

One of the more innovative and uncompromising of the British prog rock troupes, with roots extending back to late-'60s psychedelia, the band had already reinvented itself with multiple new lineups, retaining guitarist Robert Fripp as its only constant.

With each new roster came what amounted to an almost exclusively new repertoire. Thus, the music captured on a New Jersey evening in June 1974 for USA was the product of a dynamic quartet consisting of Fripp, ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford, bassist John Wetton (who would attain mainstream stardom a decade later with Asia) and violinist David Cross.

Their material would come from the two previous Crimson studio records and one that would be completed after the tour but before the band's subsequent breakup. And, yes, one relic from the '60s Crimson, 21st Century Schizoid Man, would round out the set with a bristling urgency that could hardly be termed nostalgic.

This new USA edition comes to us as the most recent entry in an extensive, multi-year reissue campaign of Crimson recordings. It's a beautiful-sounding work, too, that sharpens greatly Fripp's winding runs that whip like lightning during Schizoid Man but cool to a meditative ambience to orchestrate Exiles. The new mix (by Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton) also enhances the freight-train rumble of Wetton's bass work when the band goes hunting on the improvisatory Asbury Park, and Cross' keen violin turns that continually prove an able foil for Fripp but guide the elegiac Starless from a plaintive lament to a bolero-like dirge.

But if any performer benefits most from this new mix, it's the mighty Bruford. From the alarm-clock clarity that, along Fripp's power chords, announces Crimson's arrival on Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part II) to the chiming variations on the percussive theme of Fracture, the playful but exact tone of Bruford's playing drives USA. It also provides a solid case for calling this the most improvisatory savvy lineup in Crimson's history.

Of course, the band didn't die with USA. It reformed with a new purpose and new lineup (with Kentuckian Adrian Belew) seven years later. There is even word that Fripp is preparing yet another Crimson for active duty later in 2014. For now, though, we have this artfully enhanced parting shot from a band that, thankfully, has never been able to fully call it quits.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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