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Thursday, March 8, 2018

King Crimson: Red


1) Red; 2) Fallen Angel; 3) One More Red Nightmare; 4) Providence; 5) Starless.

General verdict: Red.

The sheer fact that Red even exists is a bit of a miracle — much less the slightly more arguable fact that Red is not only the best of the three albums that the Wetton-Bruford lineup of KC pro­duced in between 1973 and 1974, but one of the two or three best KC albums, period. By mid-'74, prog rock itself was in heavy trouble, quickly losing its commercial and critical appeal; and so was King Crimson, whose members had once again begun to fall off one by one — Jamie Muir leading the way, and David Cross eventually following suit (his playing is still featured on the live take of ʽProvidenceʼ captured here). Eventually, even Fripp caught the bug, and, just a few days before the sessions took off, got entangled in the mystical teachings of John G. Bennett and George Gurdjieff... anything goes, I guess, when you want to find yourself an excuse not to go and do your duties with your own band.

Perhaps Robert is just a tiny bit less creative on Red than he is on Larks' Tongues (at least there are fewer guitar solos), but Wetton and Bruford were still more than happy to compensate, on their own as well as bringing in some session musicians to fill out the sound — most notably, a whole bunch of brass players, including past members Mel Collins and Ian McDonald, as well as Mark Charig on cornet, Robin Miller on oboe, and an uncredited person playing the cello on ʽStarlessʼ. Wetton, rumor has it, was already inclined to push King Crimson in a more commer­cial direction — he himself admitted that his invitation of Ian to take part in the sessions was part of his plan to push the band into Pink Floyd territory, what with Dark Side Of The Moon looking like a perfect compromise between artistic self-expression and popularity — and you can feel tiny shades of «commercialism» on at least ʽFallen Angelʼ and ʽOne More Red Nightmareʼ; but with Fripp and Bruford as the other two cornerstones of the sound, there was clearly no talk of crafting complex pop hits. Instead, they set out to create... a Leviathan!

Okay, the simplest thing in the world would be to call Red a «dark, brooding, apocalyptic vision of an album» and end it right there. Nobody could really seriously deny this anyway, and people who truly love music usually tend to love dark-brooding-apocalyptic, so that's that. The trick is that Red is also a King Crimson album; and ever since it was made obvious that Robert Fripp was King Crimson, and everybody else was just serving a certain amount of time in His Majesty's Government, it also became obvious that no King Crimson album would ever comfortably fit a simple, one-line definition. For one thing, Fripp hardly comes across as an overtly gloomy, fatalistic kind of guy: even when everything really begins to fall apart and the Four Horsemen appear on the horizon, he will still be sitting on his little stool, immaculately dressed and immersed in composing a last-minute soundtrack to events in a parallel universe. For another thing, ever since the original King Crimson dissipated and the band freed itself from the operatic nature of Greg Lake's voice and the cosmic depths of Ian McDonald's Mellotron, KC music was rarely, if ever, about the grand open spaces and large-scale cataclysms — on the contrary, it became deeply introverted, with a sort of «anti-arena rock» vibe where the music could kick as much ass as any stadium anthem, but stay all the time «within you» rather than «without you». To that end, Red burns hot and bright, but with a strange, inner flame, where you have to enter the furnace and politely close, lock, and bolt the door behind you before you get the right to properly feel the burn.

Take the title track, for instance, probably the heaviest rocker of King Crimson's entire early and mid-period (and one that still proudly stood its ground even after 1994, when the band began getting real heavy once again). From the very first seconds, its heaviness is undermined by the odd, thin, whiny tone of the lead guitar, playing the opening riff three times in a row, each time higher and higher until the pitch gets dangerously close to ultrasound level. This is not a glam-rock / arena-rock kind of thing, nor is it a Black Sabbath kind of crunch, nor is this a merger of psychedelia and hard rock in a Hawkwind way — this is the soundtrack to your local mental strain, the sound of your brain as it encounters a threatening, potentially lethal challenge and begins to run in circles, trying, now in a collected and logical manner, now in a total panic, to circumvent it. Like its immediate predecessors, Red is often quoted among the progenitors of math-rock, and ʻRedʼ is, indeed, the perfect early math-rock composition, where the main riff sounds like somebody trapped in a labyrinth, making one attempt after another to get out of it, to break some invisible barrier with a set of well-calculated moves. Around 2:50 into the song comes a temporary breakdown, as logic gets replaced by panic; but the panic attack is brief, and eventually, we get back to the algorithm, and when the opening theme returns in coda form, you got your light at the end of the tunnel. Too bad the video era was not yet upon us: ʻRedʼ just screams for an accompanying animation of a suspenseful journey through dark tunnels and treacherous warp holes (just like ʽTalking Drumʼ requests the animation of falling down in an elevator to Hell). This is not just psychedelic chaos like the one generated by early Pink Floyd or classic Amon Düül II — this is an ambitious stab at a rational representation of your darkest subconscious, an amazing combination of instinctive dread-'n'-doom with meticulous planning and logical analysis, and, might I add, one that you rarely, if ever, find these days even with the best «math-rock» ensembles.

The two vocal tracks that follow are almost obligatorily weaker, mainly because they have vocals — and, for that matter, I am not sure if the tendency to mix Wetton's voice so strangely was purely accidental, or if Fripp expressly meant to keep the powerful vocalist in the aisles rather than upfront, in order to avoid falling back onto the operatic style of Greg Lake. Not only that, but the lyrics to ʻFallen Angelʼ would have probably fit in much better on a Thin Lizzy album, with a morbid tale of two brothers not faring well in New York City's gangland that could have hardly been farther removed from whatever was going through Robert's mind at the time — but this is merely to reinforce the idea that the last thing that matters on a King Crimson album are the words, particularly after they had parted ways with Sinfield. What does matter here is the contrast between the main balladeering theme, almost peacefully pastoral with its oboe and cornet overdubs, and the jazzy chorus / bridge sections, where Fripp's nagging guitar part, like an alarm signal gone wrong, is intertwined with free-form jazz brass soloing, which I probably could not have tolerated if it were on a jazz record; but together with that guitar part, the effect is strangely oppressive and haunting. You will hardly remember this tune as a passionate social statement, but if you give it a good chance, you will always remember it as a mesmerizing duel between moments of inner peace and psychic turbulence (not to mention the last time ever you will hear Robert Fripp play a bit of acoustic guitar).

The lyrics are a tad better on ʻOne More Red Nightmareʼ, which is, contrary to desirable associations, not about John Wetton preventing a communist plot to kidnap Robert Fripp and appoint him head of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, but rather about the protagonist's fear of flying — again, the word "red" implies a subconscious flashing alarm signal, and the track does feature the most psychotic verse melody on the entire album, although most of it is given over to a slower, subtler section that merges... heck if I really know what it merges: folk-rock guitar patterns, crazyass time signatures, and a sax part from Ian McDonald that is more R&B than jazz in nature. However, the opening riff again returns us to the math-rock territory of ʻRedʼ, like a conundrum waiting to be solved, and so, once more, we get the impression of an entrapped spirit trying to break free — caught in a "red nightmare" that is so endless, the only way to get rid of it is to abruptly cut the track around 7:09, the same way the Beatles did with ʻI Want You (She's So Heavy)ʼ  five years before.

The second side of the album consists of but two tracks, heavy on jam power, and while many people (myself included) tend to regard the live improv ʻProvidenceʼ as a piece of filler that lacks focus and a sense of purpose compared to the other tracks, I cannot help admitting that, atmosphere-wise, it fits in perfectly with the rest — same psychodarkness all over the place, with Fripp's high-pitched guitar tones, Wetton's thick metallic bass grumbles, Bruford's poly-frickin'-rhythms, and David Cross's excruciating violin warbles. All that is really needed is some sort of memorable theme to complete the package — but once you get to the juicy part when the "Power Trio" begins unwrapping its potential in earnest (rather than just chilling and waiting for Cross to finish torturing his violin), even that is forgotten. However, on the whole, the "one more red nightmare" of ʻProvidenceʼ is really just a big introduction to the album's magnum opus — ʻStarlessʼ, formerly ʻStarless And Bible Blackʼ before Fripp, out of his usual contrariness, decided to give that title to another composition and put it on another album.

It is fairly clear why Fripp disliked the song originally — Wetton's vocal delivery again borders on operatic, and the lyrical message of depression and desperation is not far removed from whatever territory the band had already covered with ʻEpitaphʼ, a stage that Fripp thought was already completed. But in the end, he did like it enough to throw on an almost nostalgic Mellotron part, and invent a guitar part for the main melody that sounds like the weeping song of an alien... or, rather, of the little green man deep inside your brain, who only gets activated late at night ("starless and bible black", see). And he compensated for everything with the last seven minutes of the tune — of course, that slow, diligently conducted crescendo is one of the most stunning moments in King Crimson history, with the gradually ascending guitar leading the rhythm section on and on, higher and higher, until you just can't take it any longer. I have a hard time trying to come up with a better example of psychic tension, where the spirit inevitably winds itself to breaking point, anywhere in rock music.

In the end, it's not about the end of the world, and it's not even about insanity (another favorite subject in art rock), but it is about the hidden manoeuvres of the subconscious, and how there's order in its chaos and chaos in its order — something like that (even though I am still searching for a way to state that better) has always been my impression of Red, and, for that matter, the majority of King Crimson's material both in the 1973-74 and in the later (though not earlier) periods. If it does not make much sense to you, this does not exactly surprise me, because records like these are unique — they don't really let you apply the usual cliches about depression, desolation, darkness, and destitution.

Of course, not every second of Red should necessarily leave the listener with a wide-open jaw, and pretty much every single track here, I think, is at least a tad overstretched: I would see no harm in trimming some fat off the sax jams in ʻOne More Red Nightmareʼ, in limiting Cross' time with the violin on ʻProvidenceʼ, and maybe even in cutting off a minute or so off the title track (the main riff is so instantaneously catchy anyway that replaying it over and over adds little to the initially accumulated awesomeness). However, this would only make sense in order to accommodate at least one or two other tracks of equal caliber, provided they had them — and if they didn't, there's no harm in a little bit of padding. I do have to say, though, that I am a little disappointed in ʻStarlessʼ after the crescendo — that passage is so intense that the only thing it could have successfully resolved itself into would be a mega-monstruous jam at the top of the trio's insane powers, something worthy of a ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ at least, and, well, there's a little bit of that, but not enough for my taste — we really needed a shattering, staggering coda, and instead of that, the whole album just kind of fizzles out at the end.

It is a little ironic, but telling, that most of the color of the front sleeve of Red is not red at all, but black — with only the title flashing red at the top. For 1974's King Crimson, "red" is above all a signal, a blinking warning light in the darkness, perhaps a survival mechanism that ignites in times of direst need, and this is what they are exploring — they do not even care if the activated mechanism leads to salvation or not, they are just interested in documenting the bloody struggle, and they document it with such unique musical means that you can never really tell where exactly the struggle takes place: in this world? in another world? outside your mind? inside your mind? All I know is, this is a perfect record for sitting and brooding alone on a dark, tense evening when your mind is not at peace and is in desperate need of a same-spirited companion. It may not be the most innovative or musically expansive record in King Crimson's catalog, but it certainly is the one King Crimson album that burrows the deepest, penetrates the most remote corners of your brain, and stimulates them in, I might say, an almost perverse fashion at times - then again, what else should one expect from a British gentleman as clean and well-behaved as Mr. Robert Fripp?..

Technical note: as with most of King Crimson's catalog, Red was treated to a whole series of remasterings and re-releases, the latest of which featured a complete remix (first in 5.1, then in proper stereo) by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree (I have the 2013 edition with the original and the re-mix, but still haven't gotten around to properly comparing the two — not that I'm that much of an audiophile, but Wetton's vocals do sound somewhat cavernous on the original). And, of course, for true loyalists there's always The Road To Red — a mammoth 24-CD set that contains soundboard recordings of pretty much every single show (or, at least, the vast majority of them) that the band played on their final tour, even if, as it has already been said, the only composition from Red to have been played on that tour was ʻStarlessʼ. Of course, you cannot call yourself a true fan unless you have memorized every single disc of that one (or owned the complete King Crimson catalog on CD, for that matter, which can only be done if you throw out your partner to make enough space for all the discs).


  1. Would not add or subtract anything said about this legendary album. But I am glad you mentioned Steven Wilson and his Porcupine Tree.

    It's about time to pinpoint his place on the map of contemporary music: Is he the real modern prog master, or just a clever creator of tasty neo-prog pablum?

    1. He is a master of COPY-PASTE in prog music (is it still prog? I don't think so). You see his TIME FLIES = Floyd's DOGS, his WATCHMAKER = Genesis' Musical Box. But I have to admitt he does have great ears for those 5.1 mixes. Just bought his 5.1 mix of Jethro Tull's Heavy Horses - Amazing !!!

    2. Adam, I am afraid that he is much more complex.

  2. The elevator to Hell is a rather appropriate image for "The Talking Drum", and I don't think that John McFerrin would mind a passing credit for it.

  3. It’s been said before, but I’m not sure what George is on about when he says that Starless just “fizzles out” at the end. That climatic, romantic mellotron swell at the end and stately reprise of the main theme on alto sax is about as perfect an ending as one could ask for.

    1. I would literally consider that ending the most climactic in all of rock music, so I never understood GS’s perspective as well.

  4. "I have a hard time trying to come up with a better example of psychic tension"
    Child in Time. This one does have a monstrous solo and "a shattering, staggering coda", an apocalypstic one. I'm not saying Starless is a copy, far from it. What I am saying is that CiT introduced an entire subgenre.

  5. Sorry for asking this in the comments section of an unrelated album, but do you have any plans to review Nick Cave in the not-so-far future? I would like to know what you think of his post-Abattoir Blues material.

    King Crimson rules, by the way.