Demos: King Crimson's The Road to Red

I never got to see the 1973-74 version of King Crimson. It played its final concert in New York's Central Park just over a year before I moved to the city. I always wished I could go back in time to attend one of those concerts. Well, be careful what you wish for.

The Road to Red gathers together every decent live recording of the math-rock quartet in 1974, during the months leading up to sessions for the Red album, a landmark of progressive rock. It does not include 1973 live material by the same lineup. Presumably that will become another box set in the fullness of time. I predict the title will be This Night Wounds Time (which Crim-heads will recognize as the album-art motto of Starless and Bible Black). The mostly bootleg material that documents the five-man lineup of 1972 is already collected in the Larks' Tongues in Aspic: The Complete Recordings.

The Road to Red is an ambitious undertaking for both producers and listeners. Twenty-four discs—including two Blu-rays, one DVD, and 21 CDs—cover ten soundboard recordings, five professional multi-tracks, and one bootleg to commemorate that final concert in the park, in addition to various versions of Red and the live album USA. They are packed into triptych sleeves, each containing three discs, which are securely embedded in a plastic tray at the bottom of the box. Atop the discs are a 38-page large-format booklet printed on thick stock containing excellent notes by Sid Smith, an explanatory note by heroic compiler David Singleton, and many pages of tour-diary excerpts by founding member and guitarist extraordinaire Robert Fripp. Other paper materials include full-size front-and-back reproductions of the Red and USA LP jackets, black & white postcards of the individual band members, facsimiles of goofy record-company press releases, a handbill, a typewritten itinerary, and both set lists and lyrical scrawls written on authentic crappy-motel stationery, just in case you were worried the guys were living too high on the hog. In fact, their management never shared touring revenue beyond a measly stipend of £30 per week, telling them instead that they were touring to promote albums, and their ultimate payment would be in royalties. Fripp's subsequent exertions to get his ex-managers and record companies to pay even the heavily chiseled royalties they originally agreed to pay have become the stuff of showbiz legend.

The 21 CDs include all of the soundboards and multi-tracks in addition to the 2013 remix of Red by Steven Wilson and Robert Fripp. Wilson, a prog-rock eminence in his own right as well as remixer of choice for the genre's founding fathers, also participated in the 2009 5.1-channel mix, first released in a DVD-Audio/CD set. But the heart and soul of the box are the two Blu-ray discs of high-res uncompressed PCM material, all in 24-bit with various sampling rates, mostly 24/192 or 24/96. They embrace the newest versions of Red in both stereo and surround, the older 30th anniversary mix, and even a needle-drop transfer of the U.K. vinyl release. The live USA (recorded in Asbury Park, New Jersey) is represented by both official album releases (another 30th anniversary mix and another needle-drop transfer) and less heavily edited versions of the underlying live recordings. So you get to hear how the 2013 mix by Wilson and Fripp compares to the 2005 mix by Ronan Chris Murphy. The newer mix is more natural sounding and dynamic. The older one, though compressed so heavily as to negate the distinction between soft and loud, does a great job of balancing the four instruments, making struggling violinist David Cross a full participant. Making his playing more audible allows it to seem stronger. Occupying the rest of the Blu-ray discs are the other four professional live recordings, by George Chkiantz, in full high-res glory, offering a finer-grained sound than the CDs (though they sound pretty good too). Some though not all of that material was first released on the Great Deceiver four-CD set from 1992; here you get the full concerts in brand-new high-res transfers from the original analog tape. For those who don't own Blu-ray players, the DVD features the 2013 high-res stereo mix of Red and the various USA-related recordings.

Just in case a few non-Crim fans have read this far, what would this music sound like to someone hearing it for the first time? Like the apocalypse. Imaging terrifying fuzz bass gripping you by the throat while a frenzied kick drum knocks the wind out of you and a chittering snare brings you to the edge of sanity. Throw in some ragged violin and keyboard parts from a player who was at the edge of his sanity. Then top it all off with soaring guitar solos in a beautify array of moods from pastoral to demonic, with the passionate and ingenious young player getting more tone color out of a Les Paul and various fuzzboxes and wah-wah pedals than the inventors of these analog devices ever dared to imagine. From time to time the guitarist or violinist moves to mellotron, an unearthly-sounding keyboard instrument that imitates massed violins, flutes, or choral vocals, producing each key-activated note by dragging a tiny length of analog tape across a playback head. Though the band has good nights and bad, it never really plays a song the same way twice, and astonishing extended improvs supplement the written material and instrumentals, sometimes flowing into or out of them. The end result is endlessly surprising and at times terrifying. Listening to all of it at once would induce a stupor, or maybe psychosis, but in small doses, especially after you figure out what gigs and mixes you prefer, it can also be richly rewarding.

This limited edition box set was briefly available from Amazon, though only affiliated retailers still list it there. Copies are also available at higher cost (with free T-shirt) from Burning Shed.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems.