Album Review: King Crimson – Red (40th Anniversary Series)

King Crimson - RedFrom the first ominous, jagged chord of “Red”, the opening track on the 1974 King Crimson album of the same name, listeners know they’re in for a bracing, uncompromising experience. The song is now widely accepted as an exemplar of instrumental progressive rock.

The song’s high-wire act balances brutal riffs (modern day listeners, think of Tool) with an unrelenting sense of doom (think of black metal acts) and a deft sense of dynamics and melody (the best modern example of which might be Porcupine Tree). And all this, working almost exclusively within the framework of a rock trio: Robert Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass guitar and Bill Bruford on drums. A bit of sawing cello is a critical element to the song, but save that, it’s just three guys.

What’s even more amazing is that there was nothing like it in rock before. The closest thing to “Red” would have been the tracks on the previous King Crimson album, Starless and Bible Black. But even that album — recorded by the same lineup plus violinist David Cross — never quite reaches the heights of “Red.”

Or, perhaps, the depths. There’s something malevolent, lubricious, and just plain evil about the song. If you’ve ever wondered what the music might sound like in Dante’s Inferno, this gets pretty close. The riffs are punishing yet full of finesse; not a note is wasted. Within a single song, King Crimson (perhaps unwittingly) created the template for modern progressive metal; it’s impossible to overstate the song’s influence.

Two qualifiers: One, “Red” was but one of five songs on Red the album, and each of the remaining four tracks is in many ways its equal. Two, one need not like progressive metal at all to appreciate the majesty of Red. (This reviewer, for example, can’t stand most metal.)

From its roaring bass intro to its pop-song construction featuring a rich Wetton lead vocal, “Fallen Angel” starts off sounding like the most commercial thing Crimson had turned out in years. But just over a minute in, the acoustic guitar and Mellotron strings give way to a menacing riff and a cascade of carefully-constructed mayhem. Three minutes in, a high-neck bass figure harmonizes with Fripp’s sinewy guitar lines to create a thing of majestic beauty. Then it’s back to the pop arrangement with a bit more muscle put behind it. Then it’s back to the mayhem, atop which are layered multiple harmony vocal lines (again courtesy of Wetton, the album’s sole vocalist). If John Wetton never topped his vocal work on “Fallen Angel,” he’d still have earned a revered place in rock history. But the best was yet to come.

“One More Red Nightmare” kicks off with tightly controlled riffing from Wetton and Fripp, punctuated by a particularly nasty-sounding cymbal crashes from Bruford. (In the liner notes to the 2009 reissue, Bruford reveals that he found the “fabulously trashy” cymbals in “the rehearsal room rubbish bin.”) Fripp’s angular, bordering-on-atonal chording is buttressed by inventive drumming that’s in turns subtle and jaw-dropping. While Wetton sings, Fripp adds trebly, distorted single-note guitar lines. A middle section explores some odd time signatures, and handclaps are prominently featured, something normally quite out of place on a progressive rock record. Former King Crimson multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald contributes a memorable, squawking sax line.

Things take a bizarre turn from there. The eight-minute “Providence” — so named because it was a live improvisation from a gig in Providence, RI — moves far away from the confines of rock. Onstage the group (here including David Cross) explores the sonic reaches in a distinctly amelodic fashion. The players have a keen sense of interplay, yet the piece is always moving forward, never covering the same ground twice. Wetton’s bass serves as much as a lead instrument as does Fripp’s thickly distorted guitar, and both musicians follow where Bruford leads. The piece ends on a tentative note, precisely because the released recording is merely an edit of the midsection of a much longer piece.

“Starless,” the final track on Red is the greatest musical work King Crimson would ever produce, and that’s saying something. Soothing yet slightly foreboding Mellotron strings start the song, and Fripp’s beautiful soloing — also perhaps his best ever — atop them sets an almost pastoral scene. Wetton sings Brian Richard Palmer-James‘ lyrics in a plaintive manner, allowing just the right touch of vulnerability to show through. There’s a deep sense of sorrow pervading both the lyrics and Wetton’s reading of them. Saxophone adds to the song’s forlorn ambience. And so it goes for the first few minutes.

Nearly four minutes in, “Starless” takes a detour. A minimalist arrangement initially features only Fripp’s guitar and Wetton’s fuzz bass. Other instruments — haunted-house guitar figures, splashes of percussion from Bruford — fade in, adding to the tension. Sounding unlike little that has come before it (with the possible exception of the C.A. Quintet‘s A Trip Thru Hell), “Starless” gets scarier and scarier: something’s coming, but the listener doesn’t know what it is. Some of the meanest and most angular bass playing on record keeps things moving toward the horrifying denouement. After four minutes of building, the tension is nearly unbearable.

Around the nine-minute mark the piece explodes with ferocity into a jazz-influenced maelstrom featuring free-form soloing from Mel Collins. At ten minutes, things quiet down (but the tension returns) as guest classical horn players reintroduce the verse’s vocal line melody. Bruford’s drum figure leads the full band back into a noise-fest that hearkens back to sections of the group’s 1969 debut album. The song ends with a return to the magisterial and highly memorable signature melody, featuring guitar, bass, drums and Mellotron all seemingly at the front of the mix. After just over twelve minutes, “Starless” and Red are over, leaving any listener who invests in an attentive listen emotionally exhausted.

Throughout the album, listeners are treated to a tour de force of writing, playing, arrangement and performance. Each of the primary participants is at the top of his game. Robert Fripp had already gained notoriety and respect for his playing style, but the crushing sonics of his Les Paul on Red bear little if any resemblance to the sounds he was making a mere five years earlier on In the Court of the Crimson King. For all his (it must be said) somewhat haughty and pretentious pronouncements, there have, in the history of popular music, been few if any guitarists so equally possessed of creative and technical ability and a willingness — no, really an unyielding insistence upon — contributing as a team player. Fripp never overplays. When his guitar is out front, it deserves to be there. But in almost all instances, Fripp’s guitar fits neatly into the overall mix. His celebrated image — seated upon a barstool, unsmiling and imperturbable — reminds one of The Who‘s bassist John Entwistle. The primary difference is that Fripp is always and ultimately in control of the proceedings.

John Wetton was King Crimson’s secret weapon. By 1975 the revolving-door group had gone through quite a number of bassists (Greg Lake, Peter Giles, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell), and Red marked the first time a bassist played on two consecutive studio albums. While Yes’ Chris Squire is justifiably held up as a prime exponent of thick, beefy, assertive prog rock bass guitar, Wetton’s work on Red bests Squire on the “heavy” score, at least. Through use of fuzz pedals and a prominent placing in the album’s mix, John Wetton’s bass is a primary propulsive force to all Red songs.

Speaking of Yes, when that group was at a creative and commercial peak, producing some of its strongest, most groundbreaking and innovative work (Fragile and Close to the Edge), their drummer Bill Bruford left the group, reportedly because he wanted a greater challenge. He would get that in King Crimson. Never content to merely pound out a beat, on Red — Bruford’s third album with Crimson — he soars to heights unknown. While in his early days with the group he shared percussion duties with the irrepressible Jamie Muir (he of the flying chains), once Muir departed, Bruford handily provided all the needed clatter on his own. Like Fripp, his playing is busy and intricate, yet never fussy or gratuitous. Overall, it’s eminently musical.

With Fripp feeling that Crimson had said all it had to say, he disbanded the group after the release of Red. USA, a live document of the ’74 tour, would follow, but that was it for King Crimson until Fripp re-formed the group in 1980.

Red has been reissued on CD a few times, but in 2009 Robert Fripp sought to release a definitive version as part of the King Crimson 40th Anniversary Series. To that end, he enlisted the aid of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. Part of Wilson’s charge was to create new 5.1 Surround mixes of the songs. The 40th Anniversary (of the group’s debut, not of Red‘s 1974 release) package included a number of goodies that made it a required purchase for anyone interested in the group (or, for that matter, in the music Red would influence).

The CD includes the original album plus three bonus tracks. The first of these is a “trio version” of “Red.” It’s as close to a live-in-the-studio rendering of the song as one could imagine. A drum count-in and even more abusive guitar are the mix’s hallmarks. Large sections of the song sound identical to the official version, showing just how much of the group’s power was truly down to the trio format (i.e. not a function of fussy overdubbing). Here, shorn of its cellos, the song’s middle section illustrates how Wetton’s fuzz bass figure led the arrangement.

“Fallen Angel” is also presented in a trio arrangement, sans vocal. This version does in fact have a bit of overdubbing (Mellotron), but seeing as that was played by Fripp, they’re still (strictly speaking) a trio. The instrumental mix might encourage adventurous listeners to try and add their own vocal line; good luck. The horns are missed here, but the simple mix points the way toward what the song might have sounded like performed live.

The full version of “Providence” rounds out the CD. If nothing else, its inclusion makes the sharp point that King Crimson was an effective improvisational unit onstage. The sections excised from the original album version are no less interesting than the parts left in, suggesting that the original edit was down to the limitation of the vinyl format. Or, perhaps, a concern that a longer “Providence” might have weighted the album too much in the improvisational direction. Seeing as Red is nothing short of a perfect album as it stands, one can’t quibble.

But wait; there’s more. A DVD included in the package offers more wondrous discoveries. The original album is offered up in no less than four audio formats: regular stereo, high-resolution 24/96 stereo, lossless 5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1 Surround. The previously-mentioned bonus tracks are included in those formats as well. (“Red” is present only in the stereo versions.) The live track “A Voyage to the Center of the Cosmos” (originally released on the Great Deceiver box set) is present as well; it’s a lengthy improvisation related to “Providence.”

There’s more still. A rare ORTF-TV broadcast from 1974 is included on the DVD. Viewers thus have the rare treat of seeing the Starless and Bible Black lineup (Fripp, Wetton, Bruford and Cross) run through four songs. The 30-minute video is of excellent quality and shows how the group reproduced their sounds without the luxury of overdubbing. Two Mellotrons get put into use; one by Fripp, who switches deftly between guitar and the keyboard instrument, and the other by Cross, doubling on violin. Atop each Mellotron is a Hohner Pianet. No synthesizers are employed.

As the quartet blasts through “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: Part II” the viewer is treated to a dynamic and smiling Bruford; a Fripp who stares into the camera deadpan; and a deep-in-concentration Cross. Only bassist Wetton is left to maintain the demeanor of a rock musician. This he does, while thumping out the precise bass lines the song demands.

Though there’s no Frippertronics (the sound-on-sound technique actually devised by Brian Eno) on “The Night Watch,” with hindsight the song does sonically point the way toward Fripp’s explorations in that direction. Innovative (for the era) video gimmickry does detract from close-up shots illustrating Fripp’s fretboard technique, but then this was a French TV show, not an instructional video. Wetton manages to keep up with the breakneck pace of delivery that Palmer-James’ lyrics require.

“Lament” is as close as King Crimson generally came to romantic pop ballad territory. Here — as on its studio version on Starless and Bible Black, its bait-and-switch arrangement kicks off with those lovely ballad stylings but quickly shifts gear into mayhem and a raucous vocal delivery similar to the chorus of “Ladies of the Road” from the group’s 1972 album Islands (which, incidentally, featured none of this lineup save Fripp). The song’s abrupt ending is jarring, but then so is the tune as a whole.

A live version of the immortal “Starless” rounds out the set. All of the previous comments about the song apply here. It’s a revelation to witness the song being performed live without overdubs, prior to its recording for Red. The lyrics differ slightly from the Red version. The song’s dynamics translate well to the visual medium. Cross re-creates (or, perhaps pre-creates) the album’s signature cello arrangement via his heavily-distorted Pianet, and his violin expertly takes the place of the album’s Albert Ayler-styled sax wailings.

The original album art — including a not-so-subtle nod to the art from another mightily influential album (With the Beatles, or Meet the Beatles for older American fans) — is reproduced, along with photos and brief essays. Fripp himself weighs in, spouting the sort of language fans (and detractors) have come to expect.

Steven Wilson’s mixes do justice to the songs, bringing out heretofore hidden pleasures. And in a (hopefully precedent-setting) departure from the norm, the DVD audio is compatible with all DVD players; a special decoder or other device is not needed. The 2009 re-release of King Crimson’s Red sets the standard for reissues. That such an important album receives this exacting treatment is perfectly fitting.

You may also enjoy: a review of In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series)

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