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Worth Paying for the Remastering
on November 27, 2002
For those without easy money to spend, the now rampant tendency of the music industry to re-release old music in remastered form with bonus tracks presents a dilemma--is it really worth buying? For the King Crimson fan, who has been subjected lately to Fripp's mania for releasing archival live material anyway, the question is doubled--because much of the material on USA is already copiously documented elsewhere.
Remastering doesn't necessarily mean better, but in the case of USA it is not just better, it is phenomenally better. A side-by-side comparison of the original and the remastered version instantly makes one realize that it was money very well spent. The reason largely has to do with the music on the album in the first place. It is dense, heavy music mostly, super thick with distorted bass, and benefits grandly by having the original "muddiness" of the recording sharpened, made crisper and clearer.
Moreover, the sequence of music on this remastered disk makes for a marvelous progression of songs. Don't be fooled, however. The statement that "Walk On - No Pussyfooting" is a bonus track is not true. It is simply an ambient hum that King Crimson had running on tape while they walked on; it is included on the original vinyl already and leads directly into the first song. Nothing new (or bonus) about it at all.
"Larks' Tongues in Aspic II" would seem to be the piece Fripp would like to see replace "21st Schizoid Man" as a definitive King Crimson statement. In any case, the version here is without question my favorite--the heaviest, most thundering, most driving live edition ever (and totally superior to the album version). What most makes it for me is the explosively powerful violin solo, which has never been matched in quality or intensity before or since. It alone would make me own USA if I didn't already. And, needless to say, remastered it is even more powerful.
USA also features a performance of "Lament", one of Fripp's better compositions inexplicably not showcased regularly on other live albums. The ending riff, tragically short, is here far superior to the album's original in sheer power, once again deepened all the more by the remastering.
"Exiles" and "Easy Money" are both concert staples from the era, and are amply documented elsewhere. There are probably "better" versions as well, but they contribute very well to the overall flow of the album here nevertheless. "Exiles" in particular, is a comparatively mellow decompression after the intensity of the first two songs.
Nestled between "Exiles" and "Easy Money" is the improvisation, unique to USA, called "Asbury Park". Collecting concert improvisations is, of course, a prime task for the King Crimson fan, and this is USA's offering. Heavy, driving, percussive, it continues to be one of my favorite band improvisations, improved spectacularly by the remastering, and so readily makes a "buy" recommendation for this disc.
"21st Century Schizoid Man" ended the original album. Like Tull's "Aqualung", it's a concert obligatory, though more refined fans wouldn't mind a concert release without this fossil. With so many other live versions to listen to, there are certainly better ones out there. There is not anything wrong with the version here, however--the band gets through it with power and aplomb; its only fault is in its conventionality, relative to some of the other more daring versions other performances reflect.
Unlike many bonus tracks, which are novelties, demos or dubious remixes, here we get instead two more archival releases (from the same day of performance as most of the rest of the original).
The first, "Fracture", may well be the best piece ever written by Fripp. The first time I heard this version, I didn't like it--it seemed cluttered and at one point, while segueing back into the opening theme, it sounded like the band actually miscued. With subsequent listenings, I came to accept these differences as at least interesting, if not intentional. In any case, another live version of "Fracture" is always a welcome thing, and there is one wrenching guitar note by Fripp toward the end of the finale that makes the whole effort worth it.
"Starless", another of Fripp's finest compositions, always benefits from a live performance because it excludes the dreadful saxophone blatting found on the studio version. The song features Wetton at his most vocally soulful (close listeners can appreciate the lyrics that are here different than on the album "Red"), and has one of the all-time great guitar riffs (in 13) in the slow, methodical, delicious middle section. Wetton's bass in this version is especially monstrous, rumbling with vibrato. As with "Fracture", it is always a treat to get another live version of "Starless", which achieves the kind of epic Fripp could only strive for "In the Court of the Crimson King".
The only complaint here is that Fripp allows 2 minutes of applause at the end of the disc to go on and on and on, as if the music were not enough to convince us of its majesty so that we need to hear others clapping about it. Purists might also object to the violin overdubs (on "Larks'" and "21st Century Schizoid Man"), the piano overdubs (on "Lament")--both by Eddie Jobson--and that "21st Century Schizoid Man" is not from the same evening of performance. All of these "defects" are features of the original album, though, and are geared not toward deceiving the listener into thinking this is a pure live document, but rather toward making the music as effective as possible.
The effort was well worth it. King Crimson succeeds magnificently here--something that can be appreciated all the more because of the remastering. In fact, I think this is a better introduction to King Crimson live than "Cirkus" (a double-CD set that showcases the 74 band on Disc 2).