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King Crimson - Red CD (album) cover

RED

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

4.52 | 2270 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
5 stars My first ever King Crimson listening experience came with this album, back in April of 1998, during my senior year at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (a 3-yr residential high school). One Saturday night, my theoretical girlfriend and I planned to watch The Blues Brothers in her dormitory, but I had some time to kill before then. One of my friends, a guy by the name of Andrew Baran who was into Crimson and Zappa, popped over to my room with a copy of Red in hand, insisting that I had to listen to this ASAP. He popped it in, and for the next forty minutes, this album scared the living daylights out of me - everything was so loud and distorted and unconventional in so many ways that it blew my Moody Blues-addled mind (NOTE: I still love the Moodies) - this was back when I thought that Led Zeppelin was the hardest music imaginable. I was scared off Crimson for the next two years or so - eventually, I could get into Court, but it was still a long time before I could enjoy any other King Crimson.

Time heals all wounds, however, and I can tell you now that, if you're going to buy only one King Crimson studio album, it should be Red. Released a month after Fripp "permanently" broke up the band, consisting mostly of outtakes from the previous sessions, this is just about the perfect melding of the initial incarnation of the band (ie Court and Wake) with the mid-70's version. By this time, the band had officially dropped down to a trio - Cross had formally left - but the album contains several "featured players" from King Crimson's past - besides Cross, there's Mel Collins, Marc Charig, and even Ian McDonald (who supposedly was going to become a fulltime member again, before Fripp decided to blow the band up) to give the new stylistics a healthy dose of the past.

This album also features a relatively trivial, yet very important new aspect for the band - this album is loud and distorted and heavy in a way that the music world had rarely seen before. While Black Sabbath and company had firmly staked out their claim by this time to defining heavy metal as we know it, Red is arguably one of the first albums to take heaviness and move it in a direction that can be described as "proto-grunge." The heavy parts are distorted into oblivion, and the riffs and melodies are such that this only enhances the experience.

It also helps greatly that this album consists of actual, you know, songs. Much of it consists of improvised jamming, of course, but the framing of the improvs is, at the most base level, regular rock songs and ballads. Sure, it's tweaked and messed with far more than would be normal songs, but the framing not only makes sense, it's danged accessible! Heavy and complex as hell, but accessible!

Indeed, the opening title track, a Fripp-written instrumental, is everything "Fracture" wanted to be but failed to achieve. It's, well, it's a rock song, with verses and a chorus and a "middle 8" and all - it's just that it has no vocals. The various riffs RULE, the distorted guitar-bass interplay will make you feel like your face is getting sandblasted off, and the middle section, with what I guessed was Cross working with Wetton's bass (my brother informed me that it is actually Marc Charig playing bowed double bass, but others have told me it was somebody else) over Fripp's riffage, is one of the spookiest themes ever conceived by the band. In some ways, I prefer later live versions of the track - I like it when the guitar in the middle is louder and more echoey - but no other version quite has this level of intensity.

Up next is a mournful ballad, the eerie-as-hell "Fallen Angel." The lyrics are actually quite nice - a sad tale of one's younger brother getting stabbed to death by street thugs in New York City. Wetton's vocals give both a warm sense of longing and a cold, detached stately feel, particularly in the chorus, and that's definitely nothing short of remarkable. As for the music, the main melody is impeccable, while the instrumental parts, from distorted backwards violins to creepy guitar arpeggios to free jamming by whatever instruments were available to Bruford's masterful drumming (this is not a trivial statement - Bruford's work on this album may very well be my favorite studio performance by any drummer ever), successfully make this an emotive experience not routinely found on a Crimson album. Hell, even Fripp's parts are potentially tear-jerking, and the last time that could be said was on, sheesh, "Epitaph."

The next track is a slight, slight letdown, but it still rules pretty fiercely. "One More Red Nightmare" is a paranoid diatribe about being afraid of flying, with a good but NOT great riff serving as the foundation, yet it manages to still be great thanks to (a) Bruford's drumming (take note especially of the parts where it sounds like he's drumming on sheet metal) and (b) Wetton's vocals that depict the paranoia as well as anybody else in the world could. Damn, damn, the drumming on this track rules - the syncopated rhythm that Bruford uses again and again is one of the coolest things I've ever heard in my life. The midsong jam is a bit excessive, but still, I guess it does a plenty good job of depicting the nightmare foretold in the title, and again, the drumming! And yeah, I'm not quite sure why there's rhythmic handclapping during the jam, but whatever - the drumming! SHEESH.

The next track also doesn't help matters much, but it could still be much worse. "Providence" is a full-fledged improv, based around Cross' violin, but superior to most of the previous album in that it really has a dark, deathly mood to it that makes it creepier than anything there. 8 minutes is a bit excessive for such a piece, but the manner in which the violin crashes into the distorted bass and Fripp's various lines is such that the flow of the album doesn't seem affected for the worse much at all. Put another way, I could listen to "Providence" ten times in a row and not get as tired of it as I would to one listen of "We'll Let You Know."

All of this, however, is childsplay to the fifth and final track, the 12:18 "Starless." This track has grown on me to the point where it is, by far, my favorite King Crimson piece ever - the rest of the album could be outtakes from Lizard (which I hate) and I'd still give it a high *** if it contained this here track. Nowhere else on the album does the Court+Larks feel come across stronger, and nowhere else in their whole catalogue does Crimson come up with something so emotive and yet so complex at the same time. The opening theme is simply gorgeous - some lovely mellotron laying the foundation, Fripp playing lines as beautiful as the ones in "Epitaph," and solid basslines and subtle percussion giving just enough color. The vocal melody is the best this incarnation of the band ever came up with, Wetton's singing reaches its peak, approaching Lake levels of bliss, and even the lyrics are good this time around, matching the imagery of the music so very very well. Yet this opening is only just the beginning - after John has gone through the three verses, all singing stops, and a a lengthy instrumental passage begins to close out the song. But how does the passage begin? With some unnecessary, perfunctory assault of complexity for its own sake, the kind I'd fear Fripp would want to embrace after SABB?

Nope - as if to play a sick joke on KC fans, Fripp begins playing ... a one-note guitar solo. Again and again and again and again. Around this, though, the band builds the tension to a level unheard of in rock music to that point, not even within their own "Talking Drum." Wetton underlays Fripp with an interesting repeated theme, there's some bits and pieces of eerie violin scrapings in the background, and eventually Bruford starts banging on a woodblock at seemingly random (but actually quite calculated) intervals. Slowly but surely, things start getting a little louder - Fripp starts climbing the scale very very slowly, Wetton's bass increases in volume, and then Bruford starts using his regular drum kit. And so it keeps going like this - everything slowly gets louder and louder, more and more distorted, more rhythmic, and your brain wants it to resolve so badly but it just keeps going and going ... until Fripp stops playing around, and we get a sequence of Fripp playing call-and- response with his own distorted playing, building up the tension even MORE. Finally, the band breaks into a saxophone-led jam, with Wetton and Bruford holding down an incredibly intense and tight rhythm. This slows down a bit, Ian plays some more while Bruford rides his cymbal, and then the one-note solo starts again, only this time distorted to the hilt and with everybody going balls out. And then, the grand reprise - the part coming out of the jam, where the saxophone begins playing the guitar theme laid out by Fripp at the very beginning, while the mellotron comes back into play, is quite possibly the greatest passage ever conceived by the band. Complex, sure, but emotional as hell in its complexity - hell, even Bruford's drumming in that part makes me want to cry.

So yeah, this is the best studio album Crimson ever did. There's enough here and there to slightly annoy me, but make no mistake - that's just nitpicking. I am dreadfully fond of this album, and hope that you will join me in that assessment. If Crimson had never reformed, this would undoubtedly be one of the greatest farewells of all time, and that is not something to be taken lightly.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |

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