Review Summary: A dark and thrilling performance by a trio on their last legs, Red summarizes King Crimson as the band we know and love today.
Red is King Crimson’s final work as a true progressive rock band. After the album, Robert Fripp disbanded the group without a tour to promote the album. Though King Crimson had a terrific run in the 1980s with Tony Levin and Adrian Belew, they never made another album as lasting and iconic as Red. Modern day bands such as Between the Buried and Me have often cited Red as an inspiration and truly a marquee piece in the Crimson catalogue.
Five songs for an album have always seemed to be the staple of Progressive Rock and even in the King Crimson world they are not uncommon. However, Red is more of an album than a collection of songs than anything else in their catalogue. The album’s songs seem to blend into each other in such a way that after its first listen, many listeners will have to look to the back of the album to see which songs they just listened to and how many songs there were.
The album itself starts off with the title track Red, written solely by guitarist Robert Fripp. The song begins with a harsh sounding guitar tone and Bruford’s tight drums that have always characterized the Crimson sound. This hard-rocking instrumental provides a perfect intro to the album’s sound and what lies ahead. The difference between Red and its predecessor Starless and Bible Black is the production quality. Red features a much grittier tone to it making the album feel like your treading in mud trying to break through to something bigger, something cleaner. We feel this as we listen to the first side of the album and as we move into track 2.
The second track on the album, Fallen Angel is a much more lyrical piece. Where the first track would change from 5/8 to 4/4 in the same measure, Fallen Angel keeps a strict pace throughout making it much more listener friendly than Red. John Whetton’s voice is first heard on this track coming in the softness and building to pure emotion and anger. His voice, nearly parallel’s another former King Crimson member, Greg Lake, nearly sounding like a clone. However, he uses his voice to his advantage by being able to speak former Supertramp member Richard Palmer-James’ words in a lush yet harsh approach.
One More Red Nightmare is by far my least favourite track on the album. Though Fallen Angel took us to a cleaner, softer, and more lyrical world, we again return to our Red Nightmare in hearing this tune. Though it has a certain pop to it, it again retains the feeling that the listener is treading through mud, trying to reach some unknown destination. Though the tune is lighter than Red, it still carries a feeling of toughness and harshness based on Whetton’s vocals and the production of the sound.
Providence brings the band back to instrumentation and introduces the violin. The piece itself is confusing, unclear, and experimental; yet it embodies the album as a whole. It creates a mood like nothing else in the album. Reminiscent of the improvisational second half of Moonchild from In the Court of the Crimson King Providence employs the same methods of harsh guitar mixed with a variety of instruments in what feels to be a free time signature. No structure, yet pure bliss.
The album slowly finishes with the beautiful Starless. Originally composed by Whetton as a piece to be featured on the previous album, Starless is a slow embodiment of King Crimson themselves. It can be characterized and viewed as a requiem to the band. Fripp knew for sometime that Red would be the final album and it is only fitting that Starless be the piece that closes the book on this three piece King Crimson lineup. Though slow and broad much like Epitaph, Starless shapes the album and characterizes what it really means to be King Crimson. Whetton’s vocals are at their finest. His emotion truly seeps through here while Bruford’s percussion slowly ascends until the end of the song. Fripp’s use of the mellotron is beautifully placed here and they seem to follow Whetton’s voice into the abyss.
What really brings this album to fruition in the progressive rock world is the sadness that it brings. Never really an uplifting moment in the album, even near the end, the percussion and guitar together create an even muddier scene. We are still treading through mud, and the light that we see at the end of the tunnel slowly fades to grey as the album concludes. From its packaging, to its final track, Red is a journey that everyone should take, but only some will find that journey pleasing to the ears, eyes, and mind.
Nevertheless, Red is King Crimson’s epitaph.