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King Crimson - Starless And Bible Black CD (album) cover


King Crimson


Eclectic Prog

3.93 | 1714 ratings

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4 stars Not completely satisfied with the results they were getting in the studio, King Crimson decided to take some of their live recordings, remove all audience noises/responses and use those basic tracks as the foundation for five of the eight songs on this album. Only this band would do something radical like that and have it come out sounding as good as it does. Since there's no mention of this process on the LP cover, I wondered for decades how they had managed to get such a raw, in-the-moment atmosphere to surround this project and now, thanks to this site, I know. "Starless and Bible Black" is one of the group's most underrated efforts and I've never understood why that is because it's just so damned intriguing.

"The Great Deceiver" kicks the door down from the get go with its compressed, tightly- wound hard energy but then turns into anti-rock as soon as the unorthodox verse begins. Bassist John Wetton frantically sings twisted lines like "Health food faggot with a bartered bride/likes to comb his hair with a dipper ride," provided by lyricist Richard Palmer-James and you know you're in Crimson's wicked world immediately. As strange as the song may be the catchy chorus of "Cigarettes, Ice Cream, Figurines of the Virgin Mary" will stick to your brain like some kind of macabre nursery rhyme. "Lament" is next and it is one of their most engaging tunes ever. It's about a former rock idol looking back on his overnight success and the inevitable decline that followed. The melody is simple yet profound at the start, then the tune develops into something more dramatic. It's a song made up of different segments and ideas separated by a recurring musical sigh portrayed by an augmented guitar chord. In the end the singer has no regrets and has humbly accepted his reduced role in the rock and roll biz. "I like the way the music goes/there's a few good guys who can play it right/I like the way it moves my toes/just say when you want to go and dance all night." Exquisite. "We'll Let You Know" follows and the instrumental's deliberately slow buildup has always caused me to envision a disassembled robot pulling himself together piece by piece. It finally rises and takes a few clunky steps before his battery runs down. It's a great example of how these four musicians could work together on a very avant-garde experiment without ever stepping on each other's toes.

Speaking of imagery, to my seasoned ear the beginning of "The Night Watch" has always sounded like nostalgic music composed to accompany an old-time silent movie with its sad but beautiful melody. (The fact that it was recorded on stage only adds to its magic.) Inspired by Rembrandt's famous painting, Palmer-James' lyrics bring the master's art to life with lines like "The smell of paint, a flask of wine/and turn those faces all to me/the blunderbuss and halberd shaft/and Dutch respectability." The descriptive words, Wetton's restrained vocal delivery, Robert Fripp's tasteful guitar work and the reverent attitude of the group as a whole make this cut a true gem. Next, after an extremely long fade-in, you are treated to the sublime serenity that is "Trio." It features David Cross on violin and viola, Fripp on guitar and Mellotron and Wetton on bass. It's a musical glimpse of heaven and you owe it to yourself to hear it before you depart this mortal coil. I haven't mentioned the greatness of drummer Bill Bruford yet but he's been lurking just below the surface (except on the last tune, which he tactfully sat out). On "The Mincer" he opens the song with a cool, jazzy feel but then things start to wander a bit. For one thing there's no melody to speak of for several minutes as Robert's guitar and his "devices" create eerie sounds and effects seemingly at random. Suddenly John starts singing along with some three-part harmony and then the whole thing just abruptly stops. It's an odd duck of a tune, for sure.

The title song is a little over nine minutes in length and if you are patient and attentive in your listening you will be richly rewarded. After some airy layerings of guitar and keyboard sounds Bruford finally enters to establish a basic beat with the tambourine, then Wetton's bass starts kicking at the bars erratically like a caged beast. Bill's drums relieve the incredible tension as they corral the bass monster and initiate some serious funk underneath the guitar and Mellotron. It all winds down eventually with reluctant dying spasms as Cross' somber violin lays it to rest. "Fracture" is an aptly titled jazz rock/fusion piece that actually has an identifiable riff to follow but it's far from the normal two-step as it coasts along (for a while) in 6/4 time. The tune has a lot of starts and stops with Bruford even adding some rare percussive Vibes before David's fierce violin playing gives it a slight Mahavishnu Orchestra glow. After a quieter section that nearly lulls you to sleep Fripp's stark guitar awakens you rudely as they tumble into a rock beat and accompany an ascending melody that leads to a loose ending. If this were any other band the last two instrumental songs would be beyond comprehension but for King Crimson it's just another highly constructive day at the office. Er, studio. Er, stage. Whatever.

I used to wonder how Atlantic Records approached marketing these guys. The King Crimson dossier probably got handed down to whomever was the newest member of the staff in advertising as a "let's see what you can do with THIS, genius" welcome-to- the-club present. They never got played on the radio (except for their classic debut), they didn't appear on or host television concert shows and they sure as hell didn't care what some record executives thought they should or shouldn't be doing. What they did have was a horde of loyal fans that bought enough of their records to justify their contract year after year and that's why we have albums like "Starless and Bible Black" to ponder, decipher and contemplate till kingdom come. Thank God.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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