When in September 1974 King Crimson declare they will break apart as a band, they have been only five years in the business. But their influence has already been enormous: although band leader Robert Fripp has never been comfortable with that classification, King Crimson are widely seen as the band that has kicked off the progressive rock movement and as one of the driving forces of that very genre. They have established themselves as one of the true pioneers and leaders of this defining sound of the early 70s on which’s experimentation and breakthroughs in both technical and musical terms the world of music still feeds today. However, in October the same year the band’s eighth studio album is released - the last one by the band’s most legendary line-up. At that point King Crimson hasn’t released one bad album, but the quality of their outputs has been anything but staple, always interesting but more than once almost too experimental to be enjoyable anymore. But after all that excessive experimentation is what distinguished them from their peers. Several line-up changes with Robert Fripp remaining the only constant band member have made sure that there was no possibility for an artistic standstill. And indeed, where most progressive bands settle with fusing various genres, taking inspirations from classical compositions or relying more and more on the gimmicks of the studio, King Crimson constantly continue to explore new and often previously unheard material. Sometimes they overshoot the mark but every time they hit the nail, they prove to be one of the greatest rock bands to walk the earth. And not one of their albums hits the nail as directly, perfectly and brutally as “Red”.
Following “Starless and Bible Black” which had been released earlier the same year, “Red” marks another significant turn in their style, a change that actually is rather pragmatic in a way: violinist David Cross had just left the group and because the timbres and soundscapes King Crimson became famous for always relied heavily on Cross’ talents, the band abandons those hallmarks of their sound this time. Instead of replacing Cross, the remaining trio of band leader Robert Fripp, ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford (with a career-topping performance), and bassist/vocalist John Wetton create an incredibly tight and heavy sound unlike anything they have done before. At the same time the album sets new standards for production values and through adding a number of guest musicians it manages to keep a rich array of instruments.
So all in all you get about nothing of what King Crimson has stood for on side A of “Red”: this is as straight forward and hard-hitting as music in the first half of the 70s has ever been. From the arpeggios that initiate the instrumental opener, it is clear that King Crimson are heavier than ever before. Hard rock has already become a widespread phenomenon in 1974, but nothing from Black Sabbath to Deep Purple has come close to the furious rage of this album’s title track. It isn’t louder, faster or heavier than other songs written around the time - it’s middle section is carried mainly by an instrument as un-heavy as a cello for example. But its heavy distorted tritone riffs that Fripp creates with extensive use of guitar overdubs as well as the driving drums and bass lines are executed with a precision other bands could only dream of. In theory Red
is a completely emotionless song, calculated and icy - but somehow because of this lack of emotionality it evolves a driving passion... this have to be the sole six minutes that Tool owe everything to. It's the antithesis to the endless and carefully crafted epics that prog rock has stood, and still stands for. And it was to the first half of the 70s what their debut’s opener 21st Century Schizoid Man
was to the late 60s: the ultimate musical badass.
Like on “In the Court of the Crimson King” a heavy opener is followed by a ballad of sorts. Fallen Angel
is one of the catchiest pieces of music King Crimson have written, which often leads to the misconception that it is somewhat close to “usual” rock music. But as accessible and perfectly arranged as it is, it’s still highly complex in both the songwriting and the way it intertwines instruments as the mellotron, clean and distorted guitars, an oboe and a roaring trumpet. John Wetton gives one of his best vocal performances when bemoaning the death of a fallen angel, of “sick and tired blue wicked and wild”
New York and the death of one of its inhabitants: “Snow white side streets of cold New York city / Stained with his blood it all went wrong”
. But no matter how depressing the song might seem, it is a joyride compared to the purely evil One More Red Nightmare
and its dissonant riffs and insane drum performance that comes next. The lyrics circle around a plane crash, but the nightmare of which John Wetton sings pales in comparison to the one the band arouses: the long instrumental section in the middle is menacing and enthralling and revolves into an awesome saxophone solo, leaving the listener baffled after the abrupt ending.
Now one thing that gets a bit lost in the time of audio CDs and downloads is the division of the two sides of the original LP. This is particularly obvious when it is used as clever as on “Red”: whereas the first half was surprisingly straight and often quite catchy, side B chooses a completely different path. Actually it is amazing how different the two sides are although they so tightly belong together that each of them wouldn’t work half as well without the other one. For example the calm beginning of Providence
is so much more effective because of the heaviness that proceeded it. It’s the most experimental song on this album, recorded at a live performance at the Palace Theatre in Rhode Island and capturing a group improvisation built around a violin solo by David Cross who has still been with the band at that time. A song like that is in no way new to King Crimson, but this might be their best recording of that kind: whereas the band’s most famous improvised recording, the debut’s Moonchild
already showed a highly talented band, they hadn't yet been ready for the kind of interaction the band develops here. And so what had turned out way too random and confused in 1969 is done perfectly here, much more diverse, interesting and purposeful. Also the improvised songs on “Starless and Bible Black”, although highly enjoyable, can’t compare to Providence
which captures every one of the members at their very best. Although it’s more cohesive than any other group improvisation they have done, its free floating form as well as the weird experimentation with sounds and rhythms still make it by far the hardest song to listen to on “Red”, which led to its reputation as the album’s weak spot. I personally strongly disagree upon that, but I can see where the complaints come from.
However, I heavily doubt anyone can deny the brilliance of Starless
, which is a strong contender for the greatest song of all time in my book. It starts as a ballad not that different from what they have done before, mellotron-heavy and full of weeping guitar and saxophone lines and filled with imaginative lyrics like: “Sundown dazzling day / Gold through my eyes / But my eyes turned within / Only see starless and bible black”
. But four minutes into the song, it builds what might be the greatest arc of tension ever created with the forms of music alone: abstract, moving, beautiful, driving and impossible to be put into words. A long one-note guitar section, heavily distorted bass lines, a slowly building drum section, it all gains momentum and finally blasts into fierce guitar and saxophone parts. And the musical nirvana that follows it... well, if the unison riff of 21st Century Schizoid Man
marks the beginning of the classic prog rock era, than the last minutes of Starless
are its glorious finale. On this track, 70s prog rock finds its last and definite formulation and its creative peak - a peak that probably hasn’t been reached since. With the end of this incarnation of King Crimson classic prog rock has come to a sudden halt as no band from Yes to ELP and Genesis has managed to spin the tale further. Everything that has followed it within that genre has just been the aftermath.