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Prog Review 423 – King Crimson Songbook 1 – Crimson Jazz Trio

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Album Review: Islands by King Crimson – 40th Anniversary Remaster Series

islands.jpgThis review looks at the 5.1 DVD portion of the recent King Crimson release of “Islands”. As with previous albums in the 40th Anniversary series, Islands follows the same style of packaging with two CDs in a double-faceted cardboard sleeve inside a further cardboard slipcase, making the package difficult to access before but they’ve now improved the design since the last batch, making the slipcase less of a snug fit, so us old codgers can liberate the discs with our arthritic fingers.

The separate inner booklet contains a very brief commentary from Robert Fripp, which doesn’t actually talk about the album per se or his departed co-workers on this collection, but alludes to him missing out the details and not really appreciating the time and place of this recording. Delivered in his cod, pseudo-intellectual style, it is probably the least interesting of his narratives on the period and in these discs. Why bother?

Leave the meat and potatoes to professional King Crimson word Smith, Sid – who extrapolates material from his original book on the band and adds to it, giving you a distinct flavour of the period, something Fripp failed to do in his commentary. The pictures are nice, but these have been replicated before – probably because of the scarcity of new material from the time.

On to the disc itself and my initial impression was that the limitations of the original recording sessions tend to shine through more with this new mix. Steven Wilson had done another sterling job, but in places there’s a distinct lack of top-end frequencies and some roundness of the bottom, rendering some of the material (particularly “Formentera Lady”) sounding rather boxy. Again, because of the clarity of this mix, you can hear the roughness of some of the other recordings, one of the trumpets from the end of Islands sounds as if it was recorded on a knackered microphone, for example.

And this is the problem when you clean up an album that was poorly recorded in the first place – you can really sense that the original was put together in a rush – and this comes across in this mix. Whereas the original mix masked these imperfections under the inferior and limited stereo process, the 5.1 surround sound edition presents them in all their glory – and I think this is a pretty brave move.

For while the original recording sessions weren’t perfect, Wilson’s work on these mixes thrive on the strength of the music. While “Formentera Lady” sounds boxy, if you close your eyes you are transported to the Greek Isles with that coda section leading into “The Sailor’s Tale”, which starts off sounding lessened by the 5.1 mix but soon steps up to grab you by the scruff of the neck when the mellotrons crash in at the end. I found the journey a truly exhilarating 17 minutes on those two tracks.

“The Letters” with its cod three-penny opera melodrama was never a fan favourite, being spawned musically from “Drop In” via the 1969 band, I’ve always enjoyed it and for those of you who also enjoy this track, you are in for a treat. For when the big crash of saxes and guitars come into the fray, Wilson has opened up the sound field so much that it sounds like a completely different record – again, making the track a much more dynamic and interesting prospect – though it still suffers from being something of a slight composition, being an operation of style over substance.

“Islands” was always a record of two sides and the CD (or DVD) format doesn’t change matters. I’ve always viewed the first side as almost a suite of songs and the album becomes a bit derailed by “Ladies of the Road”, which musically sounds a universe away from the previous three tracks and the world of King Crimson too. The new mix is good, it is open, everything is there – it is dynamic and full of life, but for me it is still a clunker. Sorry, I’ve never really liked it.

“Prelude – Song of the Gulls” has always been a strange beast – on the original album and later CD editions it sounds like a cod parlour music, but in this incarnation there is space for the instrumentation to breathe and it is nice to be sitting in the centre of it all. But it doesn’t belong on this album and can almost be considered as filler.

The final track is transformed by the new mix – again there are some rough patches where badly recorded instruments leap out and shout “Here I am!” – but the funereal appeal of this track grips me once again and Boz’s plaintive vocals sound so wrong for a King Crimson record, but so right for this song, and you can feel yourself drifting off into space looking down on the island. My co-reviewer (Verity, my three-year-old daughter) said this song was sad, but very good music and told me that the album was going to end soon – even though this was her very first experience of “Islands”.

In terms of extras, the DVD is packed with lots of live material and run-throughs by the band, which will make interesting listening to those not well versed in the King Crimson Collector’s Club releases or the snippets released via the DGM website. The money shot amongst these audio nuggets is the track “A Peace Making Stint Unrolls” which features motifs later used on “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” and “Lament” but sound in this instance as if their genetic material has been spliced together with “Groon” to create some weird mutant jazz baby.

When I think of this album, I always think back to how over the years Fripp and Co have done a great job of restoring it. It is almost like with every edition, a further layer of grim is removed from the canvas. The original was lacking some sparkle (though I must admit there is something special about listening to the 1971 vinyl now and again), the 30th Anniversary remaster was a revelation when I first heard it, with everything being sparkly and given new resonance. With this 40th edition, the restoration is complete for I don’t think they can get it any better than this.

It is a flawed recording, a flawed album even, but if you want the ultimate edition: this is it.