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King Crimson - Red CD (album) cover


King Crimson


Eclectic Prog

4.55 | 3248 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Red' - King Crimson (74/100)

King Crimson's Red has long reminded me of another classic prog record from 1974, that being Yes' fantastic Relayer. Although the sounds of the two bands are little alike, both albums share a similar role and place in their native discographies. Superficially, Red and Relayer are the seventh LP for each band; more importantly however, they structurally reflect and intensify each band's longstanding masterpiece. In the case of Yes, Close to the Edge was (and arguably still is) that band's institutional zenith, and Relayer sought to take its three-song structure to new heights and chaos. In the case of King Crimson, there's no doubt that the magnum opus in question was In the Court of the Crimson King, and while Red has long since earned a wide following unto its own, there is the far-reaching sense listening to this album that Robert Fripp and company were, in part, trying to see how much further they could push that structure of album. It wasn't King Crimson's first attempt to reinvent their debut (their sophomoric In the Wake of Poseidon was an obvious copy of In the Court) but it's certainly the finest. The dark, progressive proto-metal heard on Red is undoubtedly years ahead of its time, but many of the stylistic and structural flaws of the debut have leaked into the sound here. Prog rock fans from here to sunset will attest that Red is a masterpiece tier godhood, but it seems to me like the album's glaringly inconsistent pace and quality has held it back from the excellent record it could have been.

Yes, I have the audacity to call Red- one of this genre's most beloved albums- less than a masterpiece. If you haven't seen fit to track down my home address with the hopes of poisoning me with anthrax yet, I'll assume we're able to agree at least that even the most historically acclaimed albums should be open to scrutiny and criticism. In the case of Red, it is a tricky situation, because parts of the record are groundbreaking to the point where the rest of the world wouldn't catch up to them for years. The oppressive title track and opening instrumental "Red" is precursor to progressive metal by over a decade. The gorgeous and mournful "Starless" is blessed with one of the richest guitar tones I've ever heard on a record. The ecstatic fusion blow-up at the album's end conjures almost as much awe as the glorious mid-section to "21st Century Schizoid Man". Like I said, there is the brilliance of a genius present here, but something's still missing.

Unlike In the Wake of Poseidon, I don't think Red is held underneath the shadow of King Crimson's most obvious achievement. In the Court of the Crimson King is still a far better album in my books, but Red sees King Crimson taking a totally different route with the structure. In this case, the debut's structure I've been referring to so often relates to the five song formula, wherein the first song will kick things off with an explosive bang, the second track will be soft, the third will try to strike a balance, the fourth will be long and experimental, and the fifth will be an epic that finally seeks to knock the first off its throne. "Red" is nowhere near as monumental as "21st Century Schizoid Man", but the impressive effect is still there, and the almost dystopian atmosphere sets the tone for the rest of the album. The soft quasi-ballad "Fallen Angel" draws a strong, darker parallel with "I Talk to the Wind", and so forth... Further comparisons between the two albums may only serve to take the focus away from Red as an artistic work of its own; it is enough to say that Red follows the same arc, albeit on a much darker wavelength.

The title track and "Starless" are easily the best things the album has to offer. On top of the foreboding timbre, "Red" is a superbly written track: it is meticulous, calculating and offers none of the symphonic warmth offered by other progressive acts of the day. On the other hand, "Starless" embraces that warmth; the guitar tone and central melody is heartbreaking the first time you hear it, and while the track eventually deteriorates back into the dissonance of "Red" for a time, it ultimately peaks with an explosive saxophone solo that brings all of the life back at once.

The other three songs here are unfortunately far less impressive than the masterpieces that bookend the record. "Fallen Angel" starts off as a good change of pace from the title track, but plain vocals (offered here by John Wetton) and painfully irrelevant lyrics keep this ballad from ever striking an emotional note. "One More Red Nightmare" definitely reflects the first song in the guitar tone and generally jarring atmosphere, but once again, John Wetton's vocal parts feel underwhelming and needless; the purely instrumental sections remain as compelling as ever, but the rest of the song feels half-baked and fails to reach me. "Providence" recalls the puzzling boredom of the extended "Moonchild" off In the Court of the Crimson King, except in this case, there is no beautiful song buried within the meandering to make it really worth it. It's not so irritating as "One More Red Nightmare", but it's generally uninteresting and seems to serve no purpose on the album, save as a way to build up anticipation for "Starless".

King Crimson have musicianship and guts enough to survive in virtually any incarnation, with any number of musicians. Outside of Rush, it's uncommon to see a trio playing prog rock, but listening to Red, it usually sounds like Fripp, Wetton and Bruford actually benefited from having less cooks in the kitchen. If anything feels out of place or less impressive, the finger should be pointed at Wetton's vocals. He's a decent singer, but lacks the softness in tone or charisma to have compensated for King Crimson's otherwise unfeeling nature. Greg Lake did a noble job of it- I cannot say I feel the same for any of the vocals here, those on "Starless" included. Maybe it's that his voice and demeanour here are a little too severe. Greg Lake balanced out King Crimson with sensitivity, and Adrian Belew (KC's next vocalist following their hiatus) had wild humour and charisma in his delivery. Could Red have truly existed with either? I'm not sure, but the way things have been left, Red feels awfully dry.

King Crimson's defacto 'other great album' is cold, unfeeling and ominous. Those are some of its best qualities. Whatever its flaws, it's a vastly memorable album. Yet, try as I might, I can't dissociate my impression of the album from the perceived format and structure of the band's debut. It's not necessarily a bad thing to revisit a structure that 'works' (I actually think of Yes' Relayer more highly than Close to the Edge) but in doing so, it's brought the flaws of the debut along with it. That's not counting the problems it made on its own.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |


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