Oh, those wacky Crims. Each new lineup started practically from scratch, they built their way to the top, and inevitably seemed to split up right when they'd produced their most incredible work. So, come 1974 the group was ready to split up for good (or at least for the next seven years). As monstrous as their studio recordings were (and are), KC's ultimate energy always comes out onstage. So before the calm of the group's first hiatus, there was the storm.. and this one was a doozy. Wild guitar crunch; thunderous yet really tricky drum work. "Lament," full of easy groove and fierce energy. "21st Century Schizoid Man," a deranged composition complex enough to leave lesser musicians with their heads spinning. In the middle of it all was classically trained violinist David Cross, becoming more and more overwhelmed by the band's firepower every night (which partly contributed to the breakup). He adds some nice texture here and there, particularly the darkly sweet "Exiles," but he was quite out of place.
USA's song selection is essentially a normal setlist of the time, though shortened. The ubiquitous "Larks' Tongues in Aspic II" blazes and roars. The one improv included is seven minutes of the most visceral, dynamic improvising that's been released from this group. Robert Fripp's guitar sears with crazed metallic fury. John Wetton's bass thrums with a primal fuzzy distortion worthy of Hendrix. Bill Bruford propels everyone from behind the drumkit with an ease that's almost unnatural considering all the crazily-timed rhythmic work that goes into everything he plays.
This CD issue adds two tracks from the same concerts the original album came from; Fripp's evil instrumental "Fracture" and the ultimate KC song of the era, "Starless." This actually outdoes the version from the Red album, which I hadn't thought was possible - the quiet verses are even more haunting and bleak, the tension-building bridge is even more high-strung and unnerving than the later studio recording (no easy feat when you're jamming in 13/8), and the final mad-blowing assault is enough to make me forget whatever I'm doing and stand captivated by its sheer stunning grandiosity. It's a finish that's just about impossible to follow. That's probably why the obligatory "Schizoid Man," their traditional encore, wasn't placed at the end as it was on the original LP. Anything else would be anticlimactic. I leave off a star for a couple small snags: the small violin & piano overdubs which keep it from being strictly a live album, the obviously looped applause at the end, the inexplicable fadeout of "Easy Money" (it fades because they went directly into an improv they didn't have room to include on the LP). But all Crimson is good Crimson, and I can't focus on the negatives for long when there's so much richness to listen for.
USA is a powerful recording of this lineup at the top of their game, and the remastering treatment only makes everything sound fuller and crisper than ever. It's a worthy compilation for those new to the group, or anyone who likes Crimson at all and wants to experience how powerful they could really be. And if all other reasons fail.. there's still "Starless." I can't stress enough what a phenomenal performance that track is. KC disappeared for several years and sounded completely different once it came out of hiding, but they left behind some music in a league its own that hasn't been equalled. Give it a try and hear what you've been missing.