King Crimson - Red - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

King Crimson - Red

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:1974-10-06
King Crimson - Red
King Crimson - Red

Bruce Springsteen sang, “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby /Than we ever learned in school.”

Well, I learned more from a twenty-minute side long prog epic, baby /Than I ever learned from a three-minute pop record. So there!

But about this album: Robert Fripp disbanded King Crimson before the American release of Red. Apparently, he stated, “When I found {J.G.} Bennett in July 1974, the top of my head blew off.” As Bill Bruford remembers, as also cited in Sid Smith’s book, In the Court of the Crimson King, “He said that he had decided to withhold the passage of his opinion.” And then Sid Smith went on to suggest for Fripp, “King Crimson, as his principal means of education, was now at an end.”

I don’t know anything about that. I was just devastated because King Crimson was to be no more.

You see, those first eight Crimson records (yes, even the poorly recorded Earthbound), to my young mind, were like a great college lecture about life, music, magic, life again, and all sorts of weird progressive rock stuff. Crimson’s Islands was my first taste. What was that? It sounded like Mediterranean Homer’s Odyssey jazz, with an absurdly intense “Sailor’s Tale” guitar solo, Mel Collins’s jazz(!), and a dirty tune about “Ladies of the Road” (no comment whatsoever, except to say Tipper Gore probably wouldn’t like the song!). And, quite frankly, the title cut was the most beautiful bit of music I had ever heard, with Marc Charig’s gorgeous cornet solo and Keith Tippett’s soft piano that played notes far beyond any three-minute record I had ever heard. By the way, I first bumped into King Crimson at the local department store when this old woman salesperson let me open the album and play on the store’s hi-fi. This guy next to me said, (with certain disdain) “You like that?”

I said “Yes.”

I often wax philosophical (with ample Biblical allusions), but, speaking in purely rock ’n’ roll terms, this was my own pluck at the apple in The Garden of Eden. Because, in a weird proggy way, Crimson is The Tree of Knowledge.

And Lizard was next. What was that? Medieval jazz-rock? It’s (almost) Miles Davis Sketches of Spain. Yes’s Jon Anderson sings title cut’s lead vocal! And my young Romantic heart found a sympathetic pulse in “Lady of the Dancing Water.”

But my brainy synapses didn’t like Larks’ Tongues in Aspic at all! But Fripp, as always, has something to say about everything: As quoted in Eric Timm’s excellent book, Robert Fripp from King Crimson to Guitar Craft, our Robert said, “I go to see people who I don’t like because I get something from it which is worth far more than having been entertained.” I took his advice and listened to the album twenty times. Then my brainy synapses throbbed into the grooves of the record. Ditto for Starless and Bible Black. “Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary” indeed!

The first two records, In the Court and In the Wake, at this point, were wonderful necessary buys. I really liked “Cadence and Cascade.” And my brain was blown a bit by the song “In the Court of the Crimson King.” Ah, but the damage was already done.

Red may well be the best of the bunch. The title cut is Crim Metal, although the roots of that harsh sound is rooted in “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the unearthly “Prince Rupert’s Lament,” the before-mentioned “Sailor’s Tale," and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two.” And “Fracture” was pretty intense, too. But this tune cuts to the sonic bone and refuses to take progressive rock prisoners.

Now, Eric Timm says of “Red,” “In the recurring main theme, the predominant interval between guitar (soprano) and bass is the tritone.”  Then Mr. Timm writes, “The tritone was called the diabolus in musica (‘the devil in the music’).” And, believe it or not, we prog nerds who wear old prog tee-shirts and still listen to twenty-minute side long prog epics, baby, find that really interesting!

Let’s just say popular music has come a long way from, “Love, Love Me Do.”

But “Fallen Angel” is a lovely tune with super sincere vocals from John Wetton. Thankfully, the West Side Story lyrical portrait of gang warfare manages to avoid (and I just have to use this word) frippery. And, the Crim Islands alumni Robin Miller (oboe) and Marc Charig (cornet) make a welcome appearance. Oh, and Fripp plays an acoustic guitar, last heard to this dramatic effect, I believe, on Lizard’s “Cirkus.”

Odd: “One More Red Nightmare” is often overlooked because of the bounty of other songs on the record. It rushes across the finish line, breathes hard, and has a strange run-off as the tape abruptly ends. But this may be the toughest track, as Wetton delivers a scathing vocal; Bruford is all over the place; Fripp, with or without “the top of his head,” just grooves in a wonderous Crim metal matrix; and then Ian McDonald returns to the Crimson fold with a sax solo that simply makes time run backwards, and Schizoid Crimson and Red unite to sing a proper Epitaph for the band.

“Providence” is a live recording that captures the magic of the band’s improvisation. This tune features David Cross’s violin that rambles over mellotron flutes and Fripp’s dark guitar. Bruford and Wetton toy with that nightshade, until the song opens into full Crimson glory. It’s interesting to note that this improv is not jazz, where one player steps forward for a solo. Rather, this music is the spectral conversation among all the band members. Telepathy hovers in the moments of the performance. Sadly, David Cross left the band shortly before the recording of the album proper. Crimson membership was always volatile. That’s always the trouble with a band that sings about “apples we stole in our youth.” As said, Crimson may well be that forbidden (and very brainy) Tree of Knowledge, which in time, will force everyone out of Eden.

Of course, “Starless,” is perhaps, Crimson’s finest moment. And that’s saying a lot. But it is a circle completing itself. It’s a snake devouring its tail. Wetton’s lead vocal is sublime and weary at the same time. Mellotrons frame the moment. Mel Collins and Ian McDonald both breath sax life into the inflation of the tune. Fripp, as always, plays tightrope tension with his guitar. Weird noises make weird noises. This one barely contains the riot that is King Crimson. Bruford becomes the god of percussion. There’s more sax heaven. Until, of course, the beauteous main theme returns for a moment; pause; then heavenly hell breaks loose, only to find, finally, the delicate balance between peace and war, between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between band members, between the sun and the moon, and, ultimately, between the beauty and the chaos that will always vibrate in the grooves of those early King Crimson records.

This album is simply a musical lecture by a great band that speaks, in weird Larks’ Tongues, into the deepest synapses of the very progressive rock ‘n’ roll brain.

Note: I love this record. But this review is just an overview. For a lot more information, please read Sid Smith’s book, In the Court of the Crimson King. And also read Eric Timm’s book, Robert Fripp from King Crimson to Guitar Craft. A sincere thanks to both writers.

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