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Thursday, March 1, 2018

King Crimson: Starless And Bible Black

KING CRIMSON: STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK (1974)

1) The Great Deceiver; 2) Lament; 3) We'll Let You Know; 4) The Night Watch; 5) Trio; 6) The Mincer; 7) Starless And Bible Black; 8) Fracture.

General verdict: Too much unfocused improvisation for a band tailor-made for pre-planned activities.

In between the two masterpieces framing the short, but brilliant lifespan of the Wetton-Bruford era King Crimson sits this particular chunk, one which I have never properly understood how to treat. Technically, it is a fairly lazy album: two new songs properly recorded in the studio, fol­lowed by a bunch of short and lengthy live improvisations, taken from various shows but sub­sequently doctored in the studio with extra overdubs. Apparently, Fripp was pressured into releasing a new album by the record label, but the band's touring schedule, as well as the short turmoil related to Muir's sudden departure, left them seriously short on new material — so, hey, since we are improvising each night anyway, why not take some of those live improvisations and slap them on a «studio» album? This way, (a) we fulfill our contract and (b) make a brave and daring artistic statement.

I realize now that what irks me most of all about Starless And Bible Black is this subtle element of fakeness. Now that 1974 is long gone and we have access to hundreds of hours of live material that King Crimson took the trouble to record during that era — beginning with the Great Deceiver boxset, which returns all these improvisations to their rightful context — it is easier to take a benevolent look at ʽStarless And Bible Blackʼ and ʽFractureʼ the way they were supposed to be looked at during the show: twenty minutes of trying to connect with The Transcendental after being properly revved-up by performing some classic material. Improvisation as a form of inertial movement, triggered and inspired by composition, is one thing; improvisation cut out of such context can, much too often, be likened to a pool of vomit left behind by an inebriated party goer. I mean, there's no real shame in throwing up, but I'd at least rather enjoy the drinks first.

On their own, these improvised pieces have never held much appeal to me. Fripp's greatest strength is in composing — the structures and trajectories he consciously and meticulously lays down are often examples of such geometric perfection that they can bring tears to your eyes when you least expect those. Once these structures are deviated from, the perfectly planned buildings turn into chaotic ugliness, and although there is very often much to be said about chaos in rock performances, Fripp's idea of chaos is not to detonate and explode the building, but rather to distort it, deconstruct it, add a few unnecessary bricks here and pull out a few necessary supports there, «just because we can» — ʽFractureʼ is, perhaps, quite an apt title for one of these attempts at uglification.

An interesting way to look at it would be to compare the «diddlings» on, say, ʽMoonchildʼ from In The Court with the first, relatively quiet, part of ʽFractureʼ. ʽMoonchildʼ may be off-putting at first, but eventually its quiet mini-melodies might win you over — nowadays, every time I listen to it I imagine an innocent game of hide-and-seek played by a bunch of sprites and pixies in the moonlit glade, or something to that effect: the experimental music comes to life here, largely because it seems to follow an idea, no matter how vague it may have been in the minds of the composers and performers. The improvisation on ʽFractureʼ does not work this way: it has no set plan, it meanders rather pointlessly between darkness and light, order and chaos, and only really manages to capture my attention at 7:42 into the track — this is where Fripp hits you with a mammoth riff, one that begins as a variation on ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2ʼ, but soon evolves into an early version of ʽRedʼ. That is the anchor, and all of a sudden, the entire band rallies around Fripp in an almost glorious-epiphanous «FOUND IT!» moment of awakening — the final five moments of this track might be the single best instrumental passage on the album. Unfortunately, it is way too small a reward after sixteen minutes of meandering.

Luckily for us, on the other side of the platform the LP is bookmarked with ʽThe Great Deceiverʼ, one of the finest vocal numbers from the 1973-74 lineup... although, frankly speaking, mostly fine because of its instrumental parts — the guitar barrage greeting you on the very first second is quite an explosive opening, perhaps their most explosive since the days of ʽSchizoid Manʼ. The verses are cluttered, and the song's angry send-up of religious hypocrisy does not work (for some reason, any elements of social criticism in King Crimson's work always produce a somewhat unnatural feeling — like, leave that stuff to Roger Waters, guys!), but the musical whirlwind in the opening and mid-section is almost glam-rockish in its multi-layered pomp, perhaps the closest this band ever got to sounding like all those proverbially coked-up Seventies' rock idols.

The rest of the first side is equally uneven: there are occasional moments of melodic brilliance on ʽLamentʼ and ʽThe Night Watchʼ (actually inspired by the Rembrandt painting, yes), but they are mixed with even more improvisations — sometimes clicking, sometimes not, just too scattershot for me to be able to sort it out. Ultimately, this is an album strictly for the big fans, for those who think Fripp and Co. can do no wrong while following their muse, be it consciously or blindly. For my tastes, too much of this following is done blindly on Starless And Bible Black. And what is even worse, too much of this improvisation lacks energy: the way I see it, if you are improvising, you really need a lot of virtuoso musicianship in your band — and as much as I respect Wetton and Cross, in terms of virtuoso playing they would be no match for Tony Levin and Adrian Belew (which automatically places post-Seventies' KC improv one notch higher). In other words, the ambitiousness of the project somewhat exceeds its true efficiency — clearly making SABB the weakest of the three main entries in the 1973-74 catalog of the band, more of a stop-gap thing indeed than a fully credible release in its own rights.

13 comments:

  1. It is really weird to me that someone could perceive 'Fracture' as being an improvisation. To me it is perhaps the greatest example of Fripp meticulously laying down structures and trajectories of geometric perfection. The whole architecture is laid out from beginning to end with great care. (If anyone is not sure that it is a pre-written piece, note that the sole composer credit is to Fripp.)

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  2. Another pitch-perfect review. In my opinion however, the entire album is worth it for "Great Deceiver" and "Fracture". The latter ranks as KC's second best track to me. Thoroughly looking forward to the next review!

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  3. One mistake though - "Fracture" was never an improvisation. It was written by Fripp and performed live as a composed piece of music.

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    1. that's a huge fucking glaring mistake though lol

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  4. I love that Bruford got compositional credit for "Trio"(a track on which he doesn't play) for showing "admirable restraint."

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  5. Others have already pointed it out, but Fracture wasn’t an improv, but a pre-composed piece that was culled from a live performance. It’s in the same spirit as the Larks numbers from the previous album, a showcase for riffs that goes through some loud-to-quiet-to-loud phases to build tension before exploding into epic hard rocking at the end. I’ve always found the glockenspiel (I think?) bits in the middle to be particularly moody.

    Two of the three vocal pieces are masterful (Great Deceiver and Night Watch) and the remaining tune, Lament, is a semi-successful ballad-rocker fusion that alllows Wetton to demonstrate his cred as a hard rock screamer yet again, though I generally prefer him in ‘smooth-and-smoky’ mode.

    The four improvised pieces are predictably tougher nuts to crack, but can yield some moody delights if you pay close attention. Trio in particular has a noble, understated beauty, and Wetton’s thick, stuttering bass is entrancing on We’ll Let You Know, and serves as the funky anchor on the title track that holds the swirling, dissonant haunted house moods generated by the rest of the band together.

    Overall, a challenging near-masterpiece that fans of this particular lineup should not skip. Just be prepared for something less immediately accessible than anything the band did earlier (or later, for that matter).

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    1. damn dude, do you write reviews anywhere?

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    2. Grad school is presently inhibiting me from pursuing such a hobby, but I might in the future.

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    3. A minor self-correction: I said there were three vocal pieces above, but if you want to be nice and technical about it, The Mincer also features some vocals. It would be more accurate to say that there are three pre-composed songs on the album, one pre-composed instrumental, and four live improvisations that had been doctored in the studio to various degrees.

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  6. Loved The Night Watch on this album. It's a pretty symphonic piece and parts of it sound like traditional Chinese music to me (don't know why).

    And that ending to Fracture........

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  7. I have to disagree with you: Fracture is WAY better than Moonchild.
    By the way, the problem of the unreadable yellow could perhaps be solved with a very light blue background. I think this could be done with every color used so far.

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  8. Another great review and assessment. Worth it for the KC fans indeed, but a bit below the other albums of this line up.

    Will you cover some of the more renown KC live releases (not all 100,000), like The Nightwatch too?

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  9. I bought this album in the 70’s when I was a teen. For many years I used to think the song The Great Deceiver that Wetton was singing, ‘Great to see her’, as a sarcastic reference to Mary. Great album from start to finish.

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