Often credited with kickstarting Steven Wilson’s incredibly-successful secondary career of remixing classic albums and renewing interest in 5.1 surround music at a time when the format had been largely abandoned by the major record labels, King Crimson’s 40th anniversary series undoubtedly ranks among the most celebrated back-catalog reissue campaigns of the past decade.
The series' success likely spurred a number of Crimson's '70s-era progressive rock contemporaries–including Jethro Tull, Yes, and Van Der Graaf Generator–into moving ahead with similar anniversary releases containing new stereo & surround mixes of their most well-known titles.
As I imagine is the case with many newer fans of the band, it was the initial round of CD/DVD-Audio releases from 2009 (1969’s In The Court Of The Crimson King, 1970’s Lizard, and 1974’s Red) that led me to begin exploring King Crimson’s vast catalog.
Though it certainly took time to become accustomed to the avant-garde nature of this music, I quickly became intrigued by the band’s long history and constantly-rotating cast of incredible musicians–all centered around the creative nucleus of innovative guitarist and founding member Robert Fripp. Outside of his work with King Crimson, Fripp has performed alongside legendary musicians such as Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Daryl Hall, and Brian Eno.
The band is perhaps best remembered for their 1969 debut, featuring Greg Lake’s powerful vocals and Peter Sinfield’s fantastical lyrics. Successive lineups would gradually begin to abandon the more-overtly ‘prog’ elements of that record–such as the flute, sax, and mellotron–in favor of jazz, new wave, world music, and even classical leanings.
Fans typically divide King Crimson’s storied career (the band recorded thirteen studio albums between 1969 and 2003) into several distinct periods, each headlined by a new frontman and change in musical direction. 1973’s Larks Tongues In Aspic falls on the eve of one such stylistic reinvention, as it saw Fripp joined by an entirely new band: singing bassist John Wetton, former Yes drummer Bill Bruford, percussionist Jamie Muir, and keyboardist/violinist David Cross.
John Wetton would stay on as frontman for another two albums–March 1974’s Starless and Bible Black and October 1974’s Red–before moving on to short-lived stints in Roxy Music, Uriah Heap, and eventually reuniting with Bill Bruford for U.K.’s 1978 self-titled debut album.
For me, Larks ranks among the most experimental and difficult-to-absorb entries in the Crimson canon. The album takes its name from an unusual cuisine (bird tongues suspended in a heavy, gelatinous mass), and it's also a metaphor for the kind of music this iteration of King Crimson would perform.
The opening and closing tracks spotlight the chaotic interplay between Fripp's proto-metal guitars and Muir's cacophonous percussion, whereas the middle portion of the album (specifically "Book Of Saturday" and "Exiles") focuses on Wetton's delicate voice and the band's more-acoustic, folk-oriented sensibilities.
Perhaps its most notable feature is the absolutely insane dynamic range, no doubt due to this iteration’s classical influences. Steven Wilson describes it best in the liner notes of the 2012 reissue:
“I was in my mid-teens and I’d borrowed it from a friend. My first reaction was that it was one of the most dynamic records you could ever hear. Within the first five minutes you've been through every extreme of volume.”
Some may recall that Wilson previously remixed this album in stereo & 5.1 for the 2012 CD/DVD-A release, but–as part of the process for creating the Dolby Atmos version included in this new four-disc 50th anniversary edition–he’s additionally gone back and created new stereo & 5.1 mixes from scratch. So don’t sell off your old 2012 copy just yet, as there are a number of interesting differences between the two sets of remixes.
The 2012 remix in both stereo & 5.1 surround interestingly took some liberties with the source material, adding back in elements that were either buried or entirely left off the original. Examples include some scorching guitar work in the heavier portions of the title track and Wetton’s double-tracked vocals at the beginning of “Easy Money.” The overall balance is a bit different as well, placing greater emphasis on the rhythm section and giving a bit more prominence to the lead vocal.
While comparing the two 5.1 mixes, I found that the spatial positioning of some elements in the surround field has changed drastically. For example: all of Fripp’s guitar solos during the second half of “Easy Money” were centered in the rear speakers on the 2012 mix, but here they’re slowly traveling left, center, and right across the front stage as in the original 1973 version. There was also a fun moment at around five minutes into the first track where Fripp's guitar swirls clockwise around-the-room '70s quad style, which is rendered static in the new version.
“Although the music itself is extraordinary I approached things slightly differently than say the way I’ve done with previous Crimson records. I was a little bit less faithful to the original recording in the sense that I knew there were some things we could do to toughen the sound up a bit to give the album a bit more balls if you like”Steven Wilson, 2012
The new 2023 remixes generally seem to stick more closely to the original template, with all the old panning moves restored and the vocals sometimes set back a bit. I had become accustomed to the greater clarity in John Wetton’s voice throughout “Book Of Saturday” on the 2012 mix, so having his presence slightly reduced took some getting used to. I also missed having Cross’ violin hard-panned to the right rear speaker throughout that same song–it’s now centered, as in the original stereo version.
With more than a decade of additional remixing experience under his belt, Steven Wilson clearly felt he could improve upon his prior work on this album and the results speak for themselves. The first 5.1 mix was generally a bit showy in its deployment of the back speakers–Fripp's guitar leads were often panned 100% back there, which in retrospect gives the overall presentation a disjointed quality–while the new version offers a more seamless three-dimensional immersive soundstage.
The most exciting aspect of this new release would have to be the Dolby Atmos mix, which will certainly become my go-to version of this album from now on. The Atmos mix builds upon the strong foundation of the new 5.1, spreading the instrumentation onto an even larger canvas to absolutely stunning effect. The height speakers are active participants throughout the album, spotlighting key musical elements such as Muir’s percussion, Cross’ violin, Wetton’s backing vocals, and even Fripp’s guitar at times.
Part one of the title track opens with Muir’s percussion spread all around the listening space, including thumb piano(?) in the center channel and chimes circling overhead. The mellow introduction lures the listener into a false sense of security, as the power cuts in at around 3:40 with Fripp’s crunchy guitar and Bruford's drums filling up all channels at full force. Whereas the interplay between Bruford and Muir happened front-to-back in the 5.1 mix, here they’re largely separated between the floor and height speakers.
Surprisingly, one of the best moments in the Atmos mix for me occurs in the sparse “Book Of Saturday.” The height speakers are used primarily for light reverberation until the very end of the song, when the clouds part and John Wetton’s angelic backing vocals rain down from above.
Ambient sound pours in from all four corners for “Exiles,” which then transforms into more of a folk tune at around the two-minute mark. Wetton’s voice again stays locked to the center, while Fripp (now on acoustic guitar) and Cross trade licks between the side speakers. Fripp’s short electric guitar solo towards the end pops out of the front heights, along with some additional elevated backing vocal lines from Wetton.
Muir dominates the height channels again for “Easy Money,” opening with the sound of the 'squishy boots' trudging across the top array. The ending is particularly fun, with maniacal laughter starting in the rear heights and slowly panning to the fronts. Another notable aspect of this song are Wetton’s thunderous, muscular basslines arrayed across the front stage.
“The Talking Drum” slowly builds up to a panic-inducing conclusion, with each band member largely confined to a different location in the 3D space. The rhythm section of Bruford & Wetton stays upfront, while Cross’ violin takes the left back corner, Fripp’s guitar owns the right back corner, and Muir’s bongos hover directly overhead.
The album finally concludes with part two of the title track, announced by Fripp’s distorted rhythm guitar blasting out of the front left speaker. Cross’ violin moves to the rears, while Muir’s raucous percussion again appears mostly above the main listening position.
This may be a difficult purchase to justify for fans who already own the 30th and 40th anniversary editions, but I’d argue that it's definitive Larks release and the only one you need for your collection. The only thing missing from the set are the 2012 remixes, which have been rendered obsolete by the new 2023 versions.
It’ll be interesting to watch and see which other King Crimson titles end up being revisited for the Dolby Atmos treatment. In The Wake Of Poseidon and Lizard are already scheduled to receive similar 2CD/2Blu-Ray “Complete Recordings” 50th anniversary editions with new remixes, but 1981’s Discipline–the first Crimson record to feature Adrian Belew on lead vocals & guitar–is the one I’d most like to see get the immersive upgrade. Can you imagine the controlled chaos of “Elephant Talk” and "Thela Hun Ginjeet" spread over 12 speakers? Hopefully we won't have to wait too long to find out!