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Song You Need to Know: King Crimson, ‘The Mincer / Law of Maximum Distress’

An intense, exploratory 1973 live track, restored to its complete length for a 2014 box set, is now streaming as part of the band’s ongoing 50th-anniversary celebration

For most of their existence, King Crimson have been one of rock’s least nostalgic bands. Through frequent lineup changes and a staunch commitment to starting from scratch with each new phase, bandleader Robert Fripp has preserved the sense of risk and experimentation that marked their landmark 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King.

But in honor of their 50th birthday this year, Fripp & Co. are allowing themselves the luxury of looking backward. In addition to a worldwide tour, the group’s KC 50 campaign — unveiled five decades to the day after their very first rehearsal — also includes an upcoming documentary, a deluxe reissue of Crimson King and a yearlong series of “rare or unusual” selections from the band’s massive back catalog. Each week in 2019, the band is releasing a new track for download or streaming, with bonus commentary from King Crimson manager and producer David Singleton.

So far, they’ve put out everything from a single edit of the group’s signature early anthem “In the Court of the Crimson King” and a complete version of the piece “Inner Garden,” which was divided into two separate tracks on 1995’s Thrak. One of the coolest posts to date involves a lengthy 1973 live recording that was excerpted briefly as “The Mincer” on the band’s 1974 album Starless and Bible Black. As Singleton explains before the music begins, when he and Fripp were prepping the full show the piece came from for a separate release, they realized that one improvised section had a sizable chunk missing, leading them to title the incomplete fragments “The Law of Maximum Distress,” parts I and II. But later they realized that “The Mincer” itself was actually the missing piece and had been cut out of the original tape for use on Starless. They eventually rejoined the various bits for a deluxe 2014 Starless box set, and here you can hear the entire performance.

Mostly instrumental, the track shows just how adventurous the prog rock group’s early-to-mid–Seventies lineup was. Though that quartet, with Fripp, violinist David Cross, bassist-vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford, rocked as hard as any Crimson lineup to date, they were also a phenomenal improvising unit. In this piece, we hear the band move gradually from abstract, textural playing to wild avant-rock — with Bruford bashing away and Cross soloing madly — and back into eerie ambience. Later, Fripp and Wetton kick into a dubby groove, providing a platform for Fripp’s brilliant noise-meets-melody soloing. Wetton’s voice finally enters late in the piece, adding a dose of soulful emotion, but just minutes later, this more “song-like” section of the piece gives way to clattering sonic overload.

Taken together, the ongoing KC50 tracks serve as a reminder that no one glimpse of King Crimson is definitive. By late ’74, the lineup heard here was done, and the group was headed for a five-year break. Though both Fripp and Bruford would return, the group that surfaced on 1981’s Discipline was, as ever, an entirely different animal.

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