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I recently watched the BBC 4 documentary 'Prog Britannia' and it inspired me to dig out some of my prog cds. In case anyone doesn't know, 'prog' is short for 'progressive rock', a style of music popular in the late 60s through to the mid 70s.
King Crimson is one of several bands which are put under the banner of progressive rock, but that isn't necessarily the way to look at them. When I think of 'prog rock' I think of the ridiculous excesses of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or the hugely self indulgent 'Tales Of Topographic Oceans' by Yes.
Robert Fripp, leader of King Crimson, does appear to have a good deal of integrity and ended King Crimson in 1974 stating that it was 'over for dinosaur bands', a pretty enlightened view. Many of the contributors to 'Prog Rock Britannia' still haven't got over the way that they were cast aside when Punk hit Britain's shores in 1976. The smart ones chose to either lay low for a bit [prog had a resurgence in the 80s], or throw themselves into higher levels of experimentation, which is what Fripp did post Crimson, thereby actually gaining some kudos with the punks.
'Red' is the culmination of 5 years of differing line-ups and changes in musical direction. Over its 5 tracks and 40 minutes, the album dishes up a cacophony of noise with seemingly the kitchen sink thrown in.
Fripp furiously cross picks his guitar, creating a series of swirling arpeggios whilst Bill Bruford thrashes around the drum kit in 12/8 or some other bizarre timing. This leaves John Wetton, who in some ways is the weak link in the band, to play bass and sing. His voice is annoying, a weird sort of deep tenor. It should be good, its perfectly tuneful........ but its just annoying. Wetton's bass playing is mostly superb and in many ways King Crimson would have been so much better as a purely instrumental band.
The opening title track seems to take that on board, with its scary loud and quiet moments, but gratifyingly no vocals!. Supposedly Kurt Cobain was a big fan of this track, which is understandable as it is a landmark in art-rock.
Track 2 'Fallen Angel' is a kind of soft ballad, it reminded me of Roger Waters lighter Pink Floyd songs, a fairly standard piece of songwriting with some experimenting in the middle.
Next is my favourite track on the album 'One More Red Nightmare', a great combination of accessible rock mixed with the avant garde. The singing on it is actually not too irritating!.
Track 4, 'Providence' is very experimental and could try the patience of the listener, but to be honest at 8 minutes in length this is very short for a prog rock instrumental. A lesser band might have stretched this out to 25 minutes and filled a side of vinyl with it, which was rarely a worthwhile idea. 'Providence' is not too bad and might appeal to fans of jazz fusion with some very fine saxophone work from former band members Mel Collins and Ian McDonald.
Mention should also be made of David Cross who delivers some great violin parts which sort of bubble under the surface on most of the tracks.
The final piece 'Starless' slightly confusingly references the previous King Crimson album 'Starless And Bible Black' giving the listener an insight into the fact that these two albums were recorded pretty much together and are of a piece, though 'Red' is by far the superior of the 2 albums in my view. 'Starless' is a suitably grandiose way to finish the album and again fuses elements of rock, jazz and classical music into something quite interesting.
Where many Prog Rock bands used baroque and classical influences in their music, you get the sense with King Crimson that they were listening to more 20th century stuff, perhaps Benjamin Britten or Stravinsky. There's lots of space between notes and its not quite as furious as some progressive rock.
If you listen to predominantly blues or rock music, then King Crimson is a bit of a departure, but some of their stuff is worth delving into. I would say this one and 'In The Court Of The Crimson King', 'Lark's Tongues In Aspic' and 'Discipline' show the band at their most focused and influential. Most of the stuff on those albums holds up today a lot better than most other prog rock as there is no attempt to do a Bach cover on a synthesizer!.
If you want to get into King Crimson then get a copy of this album or their debut 'In The Court Of The Crimson King' first and then proceed with some caution. You can't really get a 'best of' that will do the job adequately. A great remastering job was done in 2000 and it sounds great through a decent stereo.
King Crimson's final album for the best part of a decade, 'Red' would have been a fitting swan song as the finest album in the band's erratic discography since their classic 1969 debut. Similar to that earlier album, there are five tracks beginning with comparatively straightforward prog rock songs (I'm using 'comparatively straightforward' in the loosest possible sense) before letting loose some instrumental indulgence in the longer final couple. Fortunately, each song is excellent, from the back-to-basics rock instrumental 'Red' to the grand finale 'Starless.'
This was the tightest incarnation of the band, here cut down to a three-piece (with several guest performers drafted in when necessary), and the band's song writing ability was never better. The first three songs entirely leave behind the drawn-out, rambling style of the previous few albums in favour of something more easily accessible, though no less worthy of the experienced listener, and there's a great balance between hectic and slower, softer rhythms.
'Providence' is the only song that stands out as being a little too self-indulgent, the only song here aimed more towards avant-garde fans, but even this is a vast improvement over the similar failed experiments on the previous album. The finale 'Starless' is the real highlight, mixing mellotron and guitar in the way only Robert Fripp can. My only real gripe with the otherwise perfect album is that John Wetton's voice can be a little grating.
2. Fallen Angel
3. One More Red Nightmare
Red is the Colour of Noise!
From the many line-up changes and 'musical differences' that weave through King Crimson's long history - Red emerges as one of the peaks of their constantly progressive and eclectic output.
Following on from the 'mostly quiet with frequent noisy bits' jumble of Lark's Tongues In Aspic and the more coherent but somewhat mixed Starless & Bible Black, Red took a darker, heavier and more powerful turn.
The line up for this 1974 release comprises the omnipresent Robert Fripp - whose guitar playing has been described as somewhere between Bartok and a Typewriter, the sometimes in, sometimes out Drummer from Yes, Bill Bruford, and the Bass Player/Vocalist John Wetton, later of Archangel and solo fortune. (Wasn't he in Asia too? - Frankingstein should know!).
Fripp's dark, brooding style - he often performed gigs sitting on a stool at the front of the stage, staring at the crowd silently throughout - lends an eerie feel to the record, and only with some instrumental brevity from former band members (David Cross at least I think), does the mood steer away from depressing. The listener will sometime struggle to follow the guitar as it meanders through sections of song, Fripp having learnt and absorbed so many music styles and scales from all over the world that he is rarely tied down into one format, and the usual King Crimson surprises in direction and pace pop up.
Wetton played with a monster Guitar Amp setup, with his Bass heavily overdriven through it - creating the awesome wide growl that drives the songs on, and allowing him to play equal part as an instrumental part of the group beyond his vocals.
1. Red -
The opener is brutal. Suitable perhaps as a Fascist Dictator's wake up music, this song slaps you across the ears and demands your attention. With no vocals in the way the song follows a reasonably simple format of ascending and descending Tritones by the Bass that force the tempo along. A brief lull ensues at the Bridge, before the Guitar and Bass wind it back up to a final onslaught .
2. Fallen Angel -
The winding Bass melody and Wetton's passionate lyrics of violence and a lost brother counterpoint the harder edge of the chorus, where the guitar kicks into an odd-time pattern and the Bass and Drums stagger around the beat. The outro is a frenzied guitar section, with the reprise of the title wailed over it.
3. One More Red Nightmare -
A rather frightening dream for the lyricist - who is stuck on a plane plummeting earthwards. The hurried tempo and syncopation of instruments serves to grab the listener's attention and make them feel the sweat and fear of the unlucky passenger. The choruses seem to be a deep breath before each verse, slowing it down before lurching back to the vision once more. The passenger does wake up in the third verse to find himself safely ensconced on a Greyhound Coach - presumably this was a nightmare one of the band had whilst touring the USA! The ending is another brilliant progressive insert - with Fripp into typewriter mode, playing seemingly random scales all over the backing instruments as it leads out.
4. Providence -
Instrumental one again - with brass and woodwind instruments reminiscent of earlier albums such as Lark's Tongues and In the Court of The Crimson King playing through the first section, as the guitar enters rather timidly at first. The latter section is a progressive romp - and whilst it's certainly less coherent than the Lyrics led earlier songs, it's by no means as difficult to keep up with as previous albums' instrumentals (The Talking Drum for example).
5. Starless & Bible Black -
Monstrously good. The gentle opening merging into plaintive verses from Wetton are perhaps a warning - surely KC won't end an album so softly! - and the words speak deeply yet with mixed meaning:
Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Starless and bible black
Ice blue silver sky
Fades into grey
To a grey hope that oh years to be
Starless and bible black
Old friend charity
Cruel twisted smile
And the smile signals emptiness
Starless and bible black
- Work out what you can from that! The last half of the album begins with the ending of the third verse, and the Bass plays a fairly simple melody that builds as Wetton plucks the strings harder with each passing bar. Actually - this a progressive musician trick - the melody sounds simple - but it's in 13/8, which would make most 3 chord pop wannabe types cry in horror. As the intensity builds the Drums enter to their own increasing power - as more drums and percussion gradually fills each bar. The Guitar, until now happy to octave above the Bass, explodes into chordal mayhem at a stop section - and then the madness ensues, with Saxophone and Guitar screeching into the foreground as Bass and Drums skip into an almost Jazz beat version of the original pattern. The various instruments come together to the song's crescendo and it plays out to a powerful and conventional ending.
Overall - Red marked the highwater mark of King Crimson's intensity - and whilst later albums and line-ups achieved yet more eclecticism and a multitude of styles, none have matched the raw power of this 70s' classic.
Recently re-released, along with the old KC back catalogue, in a 30th Anniversary Remaster, Red is available in full aural pleasure to whirr away on your CD player.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Fallen Angel
3 One More Red Nightmare