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

STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

3.90 | 1353 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
4 stars While I started enjoying Larks and Red pretty quickly once I began putting a little effort into assimilating King Crimson beyond In the Court of the Crimson King, it took a very long time for me to regard this as anything other than an aggravating and overrated disappointment. As complex and noisy and filtered through avant-garde jazz as Larks was, the music that made up that release was still very controlled and precise, and if somebody was already predisposed towards prog rock it wouldn't take much more than a handful of listens to realize that Larks wasn't really so far from more "conventional" and easily assimilated forms of prog rock. King Crimson's live performances, however, tended to feature multiple group improvisations within a given concert, and these improvisations tended to take on a level of chaos and aggression that tended to go far beyond even the levels shown in much of Larks. This album contains some properly composed material in the general style of what one would expect from a successor to Larks, but it also provides a sampling of the band's live improvisations (with audience applause edited out), and there's no guarantee that a fan of Larks will necessary enjoy this material. For my part, I hated a good chunk of this album's improvised material for a long time, but while I'm still not a huge fan of it, my feelings towards it have softened considerably. Add in that I mostly like the composed material on this album quite a bit (in some cases much more than I originally did), and a significant improvement of my feelings towards the album is inevitable. I still consider it an incredibly inconsistent release, but the highs are so high that I can't help but give this a very good grade.

The first half contains three "regular" tracks interspersed with three improvs, and both aspects of the band have their ups and downs in this half. The opening "The Great Deceiver" is one of the best songs Crimson ever did, full of whacky melody twists, gruff and fast rhythm work, and a NEAT electric violin line on top of it all. It also has some hilarious lyrics against organized religion (as well as the most startling opening three words to any major prog album I can think of), inspired by a band trip to Rome. Supposedly, Fripp visited The Vatican and nearby living areas, and found his way to a gift shop in the area. He went in, and sure enough, saw that they sold, among other things, cigarettes, ice cream bars, and figurines of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say, he was disgusted, and related the tale to the band; the result was the text found here. It would be hard for me to think of a reason for a fan of the band to not love this track, even if they somehow dislike the rest of the album.

The following "Lament" is an odd chimera of pleasant balladry, screaming hard rock and angry prog jamming, and it's a weird case of a song where I like all of the individual pieces but feel like it comes together poorly. The opening verse, laced with bits of violin and mellotron, is also graced by some lovely singing, but then the song turns into a hellish mix of chaotic drumming, popping basslines and Wetton screams over frantic Frippisms, and it took me a long time to regard the song as not representing the worst aspects of prog rock bands to ruin decent material through over-complication. I more or less like the song now, but I find that I have to focus on aspects like Bruford's killer drumming more than on the overall picture. Much better is "The Night Watch," which I've always categorized as "King Crimson plays The Moody Blues" and thus have always enjoyed. The melody is rock solid balladeering, and Fripp's guitarwork (in the long drawn-out introduction but also in other bits in the song) manages to shape the song into something quite moving, bizarre sounds for a ballad and all. Not surprisingly, this was the lead single for the album; it had little to do with Crimson's new direction on the whole, but it was definitely the best impetus for drawing people into having interest in the album.

The other three tracks side one are instrumental, with the exception of some vocals that were later overdubbed into the end of "The Mincer" (which starts out centered around some eerie tuneless mellotron, then turns into a bunch of angry guitar-driven atmosphere over an ok groove before the vocals come in and the tape suddenly ends). "We'll Let You Know" has always struck me as an example of the potential downsides of the band's approach to live improvisations; there's a long period of the guitar and bass circling around each other in search of what exactly they want to do, and when the groove eventually hits, it feels oddly clumsy and, in parts, as if it's tripping over its own feet. The thing is, by the standards of improvised music, this is pretty impressive, and the fact that it doesn't completely collapse is a testament to the band's abilities; it's just that I find myself kinda wishing that the band had taken this basic idea as a starting point, cleaned it up in a studio setting, and presented it in a more traditional form. Oh well, I guess that wouldn't have been consistent with what they wanted to present in the context of this album. The remaining improv, though, speaks to the surprising beauty the band could sometimes muster up when it was making up music on the fly. "Trio" begins with a quiet Fripp mellotron improvisation, then Cross comes in on violin, then Wetton quietly plays some understated bass, and the piece grows into the three of them circling around and playing off each other in a beautiful and delicate fashion. Again, maybe the piece could have been reworked and polished into something even greater, but in this case I think that would have been to its detriment; there's a vitality here from the spontaneity of its creation that would be lost in a studio reworking.

The second half of the album consists of but two instrumental tracks, one of them improvised and one of them as tightly composed and intricate as anything on Larks (and both taken from the Amsterdam concert that also produced "Trio"). The title track (which immediately preceded "Trio" in that concert) initially follows the band's frequent rubric (as shown in "We'll Let You Know" for instance) of "Let Robert and John make a bunch of noise until they stumble on something they both like, then build a groove out of it as Bill works himself in," and while I'm not terribly fond of it on the whole (it's 9 minutes!), I have to admit that the bass groove that Wetton eventually produces (while Fripp makes all sorts of squealing guitar noises and Cross does whatever on his mellotron) is a pretty great one, especially after Bruford locks into it. The vaguely atmospheric mellotron bits in the last couple of minutes are a decent touch as well.

Where I've gone from "this kinda sucks" to "ehn, it's fine" about the title track, "Fracture" has gone for me from "This is good but horribly flawed" to "This may be flawed but it's awesome anyway." My position on the track has long been that, at 11:17, it's a little overlong and could be reduced down to 6 or 7 minutes pretty easily, and for a long time I held to the idea that it's pretty overrated by KC fans. The thing is, though, while there's still that part of me that overthinks things and sees ways to make the track a little more "efficient," it's nonetheless also true that I've found myself in the mood for this track (warts and all) an absurdly large number of times over the years, and it finally wore me down to the point that I consider it a borderline classic from this era of the band (I'd probably rate it last among the "composed" instrumentals of the 70s KC, but that just means it's an A- track instead of an A or A+). The various themes (based around a whole-tone scale, just as "Red" would be) are deployed in a way that ramps up the tension of the track to a nearly unbearable level before the band breaks into an incredible hard-prog groove that's one of the greatest head-banging moments in all of prog rock. I'm not necessarily sure if this is the best available version of the track (again, it was recorded live), but it's up there, and Bruford's "woo!" during one of the more intensely grooving sections is awfully charming.

People often go out of their way to praise the album on the grounds of how dynamic and complex it is, but I don't think that's the right way to approach it; I mean, it is dynamic and complex, but that's just a natural outgrowth of having so much of the album coming from improvisations (granted, "Fracture" is plenty dynamic and complex itself). Rather, I think that the best way to sell this album to a more casual listener is to frame it as an album from a band with roots in tradition but that wanted to see just how far they could stretch the boundaries of rock music, without having any idea of whether a given idea would work but with enough musical chops and common sense to make it plausible that it could. I still would recommend getting Larks and Red before this one, and would offer the caution that enjoying those is absolutely no guarantee of enjoying this one, but nonetheless it finally won me over, and if I respect it more than I enjoy it, I nonetheless embrace it in both ways.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |

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