At long last these classic King Crimson live albums from the early 70's are available on CD, and the wait was worth it. Earthbound was recorded on the Islands tour in 1972, and contains probably the bands jazziest line-up, including Robert Fripp, Mel Collins on woodwinds & Mellotron, Boz Burrell on bass & vocals, and Ian Wallace on drums. USA on the other hand features the band's heaviest and most explosive period, when Bill Bruford, John Wetton, and David Cross helped make Crimson one of the most lethal and menacing of all the top progressive rock acts of the day.
The music on Earthbound is simply stunning, perhaps because it is so rare to hear this particular line-up in a live fashion. The haunting "Sailors Tale", with Collins and his ominous Mellotron providing the backing for Fripp's tortured guitar wailings, is a thing of beauty. A rock solid rendition of "21st Century Schizoid Man" is also included, and while Burrell is no Greg Lake, he more than admirably fills the vocal slot. "Peoria" is kind of a bluesy/R&B improvisation, and the albums weakest moment. The title track though is a neat jazzy rave-up, with some nasty sax work from Collins and meaty wah-wah guitar licks from Fripp. Burrell's take on the Joe Cocker style of vocals is a bit distracting, but the music is top notch. What really surprises, and in a bad way, is the abrupt edits and fade-outs at the end of some songs here. During a ripping Fripp guitar solo during the previously mentioned "Earthbound", the tune just cuts, and you are then transported into the Miles Davis-meets Weather Report jazz fusion of "Groon", which is a fine track, but what happened to the end of the other song? While these strange edits are quite bizarre and annoying, there is no denying the sheer improvisational nature of the material here, from one of King Crimson's more jazzy periods.
USA is like a runaway freight train, which is a much described characteristic of the band during this period. While the album is similar to the Night Watch set also from 1974, this is no less inspiring. Classics like the thunderous "Lark's Tongues in Aspic-Part II", the atmospheric and ominous "Lament", the sheer beauty of "Exiles", with its massive Mellotron sounds, as well as the pure genius of "Fracture" and "Starless" are all represented. An interesting inclusion of "21st Century Schizoid Man" is here as well, as by then the band was trying to move away from material from the earlier albums. Wetton's bass sound is huge, and while he had yet to develop the gentle voice that would later make him famous in Asia, he fits Crimson perfectly. During this period Fripp's guitar work really started to hit its peak. His razor sharp, distorted lines are in abundance throughout these tunes. And Bill Bruford…what can you say, the man can play. A real treat is the track "Asbury Park", a never before released instrumental that is a real fusion workout for the band, with speedy guitar solos, furious bass and drums, and creepy Mellotron. Some interesting tidbits in the liner notes revealed that Eddie Jobson actually re-recorded some of David Cross' violin and keyboard parts that they later dubbed in. Considering that Cross was asked to leave the band during the sessions for Red, which the band was working on at the time, it's no surprise that Fripp made that decision.
In summary, these are two must-haves for any King Crimson fans. "Nuff said!