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King Crimson - Red CD (album) cover


King Crimson


Eclectic Prog

4.55 | 3218 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars If you haven't heard King Crimson, you haven't heard prog. And if you haven't heard the Red album, you haven't heard King Crimson. I don't mean to say by this that you would and should by all means rate the Red album a superlative effort as much as I do. But, from a more detached standpoint, a fan of 60s and 70s rock would revise his opinion of rock's reach and possibilities once he gets to know the Red album.

Personally, it is my favourite King Crimson album and also my favourite prog rock album bar none. There is a timelessness about this album that only the best of music captures. Heavy metal crush meets jazzy laziness. Robert Fripp's textures at times point the way to the punk years that lay ahead, grunge even. But mellotron, saxophone and cello are also employed on this album. The everlasting appeal of the album lies, partly, in that the band embraces a wide, diverse and sumptuous palate of sounds.

They are also surprisingly effective in projecting emotion, for a band often regarded as cold and clinical. Perhaps, it is the absence of dramatic baggage compared to the other prog heavyweights of the time Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull and ELP. It is something that can sometimes make their music come across as self indulgent, if intriguing, jams. Here, it enables them to render downbeat pathos like Fallen Angel delicately in a manner that Yes or Genesis may have found tougher to capture with their wall of sound approach. Because they are not habituated to emoting a whole lot, they seem to be secure from the perils of overemoting and there is a down to earth quality about this album that I have rarely come across in prog.

By far, though, the most unique aspect of this album is its construct. I was not born in the 70s but reproductions of newspaper clippings on King Crimson album sleeves nevertheless drop clues to how the musicians went about it. Bill Bruford mentions, ostensibly at the time of the making of Larks Tongue in Aspic, that they are attempting to marry improvisation and composition. That approach is brought to its most satisfactory fruition on Red album. Instead of jams, the band treats us to songs, to tunes that you can wrap around your head and feel compelled to put on repeat for days together. But an element of improvisation is still accommodated within this more formal approach, leaving ample room for the unexpected. It also brings about a feeling of listening to a band actually performing the music and not just well processed recordings. If the Red album is brilliantly conceived, it is even more brilliantly executed. Arguably the most outstanding ensemble in prog rock pulls out all stops here and Bruford especially shines, casting a shadow over his days with Yes.

Onto individual tracks now. The title track makes for an electrifying opener. Fripp casts a spell of doom and menace on the listener from the get go with some crushing heavy guitar. Not content with that, we have some cello in the middle. What is this it riffs or melodies or both? Fripp refines the approach employed on Larks Tongue in Aspic Part 2 and turns riffs inside out while simultaneously developing a coherent musical theme. Metallica before Metallica came into being?

I have already dwelt on Fallen Angel. Moving onto One More Red Nightmare. Another menacing riff and a simply irresistible bass growl. I am not the biggest fan of John Wetton's singing and especially not with King Crimson but there's fortunately not much for him to do here other than iterate the short verse. Bruford's furious drum strokes compete with Ian McDonald's languid saxophone. The track captures for the first time on this album why this ensemble is so incredible as the band shuttle from trippy doom to languid jazz and back. More intriguingly, the whole saxophone solo is underpinned by a bassline that strongly evokes Warpigs! It's a wonder that they complete the puzzle so comprehensively but the outcome appears entirely natural and apt.

Providence sticks out like a sore thumb. It is not necessarily the cacophonous mess it is sometimes made out to be and I think it is more organized that it is taken to be. Nevertheless, this is clearly their most overt stab at modern classical music since Moonchild. And it simply doesn't gel with the rest of the album. Where the other tracks on Red album are more immediately intelligible and reveal intricate detail upon closer listening, this is prog of the "needs to be be sorted out" variety. By itself, it is not a bad piece of music but it feels like a throwaway in how incongruous it is in the context of the album. Fortunately, at eight minutes, it is not too long for a proghead to endure!

And those eight minutes are well worth enduring because they give way to Starless! Can you really ask for more from twelve minutes of music? There is a lovely vocal melody at the start accompanied by very sensitive playing by the ensemble, moving onto a slow but suspenseful crawl that leads into a blowout with the band absolutely on fire to close with a powerful re-iteration of the opening theme. In short, a kaleidoscope of emotions. Other than the vocal parts, the rest of the track once again appears loose with scope for expansion and contraction. And yet, there is not a moment too many of music in there, the entire track is very purposefully organized and performed brilliantly once again. Wetton's flat delivery fails to endear me again but with melodies this great, it is hard to go wrong. The above perhaps does not capture everything or even much of what makes this track so unforgettable but I am also anxious not to spoil it for you in case you have never heard it before.

Time for the rating. Five stars are generally reserved for albums that are absolutely flawless and beyond reproach. But I have a different take on this. Firstly, I don't really know how to define flawless in a style of music where flawed is often beautiful and flawless is robotic and sterile. Secondly, when I look at album ratings, I take four star albums to be excellent ones that I need to get around to sooner or later and five star albums as the ones I absolutely need, the ones that will define the genre for me even if I choose not to dig deeper. And it seems incomprehensible to me that by any rating system, the Red album would be an album that anybody interested in prog should not have to listen to. If I were to list 10 albums that I would introduce to somebody new to prog to give him a good idea about its possibilities, Red album would most certainly be on that list.

The flaws of Providence are easily forgiven, Red album is one of the brightest stars in the prog rock universe. Five stars.

rogerthat | 5/5 |


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