Although the Wetton-fronted Crimson was relatively constant in membership, it was never completely stable. The quintet on Larks’
had been reduced to a quartet on Starless and Bible Black
, percussionist Jamie Muir only playing on one album in the end. While the dark sounds of Larks’
were still very much present, Starless and Bible Black
is a completely different album. Most of the tracks not longer than 5 minutes, only the last 2 surpassing 9, and on top of that, a lot of the material was recorded live during improvisational sessions, some of the vocals having been overdubbed in the studio. Still, that fact does not mar the overall idea and purpose of the album.
The only tracks recorded entirely in the studio are the first two, The Great Deceiver
. Both of them, while not as notably dark as most of the material on Larks’
, are full of aggressive, driving riffs and manic playing, the former more so than the latter, and for anyone who’s heard In the Court of the Crimson King
, it’s not difficult to hear what it reminds you of. Like its other milestone tune Epitaph
, the classic 21st Century Schizoid Man
still carries over its influence in the group’s later music.
What makes this album slightly inferior to its predecessor is that the live improvised tunes are mostly not strong enough. Once again, half of the tracks here are instrumental, and while Larks’
showed this formation excelled at those above the vocal songs, Starless and Bible Black
means to prove quite the opposite. The aforementioned two opening songs are highlights, and so is the beautiful, melancholic The Night Watch
(also mostly recorded in the studio). The fault with three out of the four improvisational pieces is that they do not really go anywhere. We’ll Let You Know
builds up some excellent tension, and has a jazzy feel to it, but ends up closing before having used that tension at all. The title track is the most disappointing of all: it keeps building and building, and a few minutes in, you’ll be asking yourself whether it will actually do something worth hearing. That, it does not, and unfortunately makes for an unnecessary nine minutes of boredom.
There are some counterweights though, as Trio
is a very good and unusually soft (for Crimson, at least) improvisation, with Cross’ violin taking front seat, predominantly accompanied by mellotron. What really takes the cake however, and also makes up for the preceding title track, is the 11-minute monster Fracture
. Called by Fripp ‘the most difficult guitar piece I have ever played’, the entire track is credited to the guitarist, and is by far the most satisfying piece on the album, as well as the only improvisational track that manages to build, move and climax in a truly satisfying manner. Particularly the end is brilliant, Fripp’s intense trademark jazzy playing teaming up with Wetton’s aggressive-as-usual bass, as Bruford’s polyrhythmic drumming supports and Cross’ violin powerfully overflows with a haunting edge.
Those last minutes of Starless and Bible Black
are this formation performing cohesive interplay at its very best, and if that had being going on more throughout, the album would have certainly equalled, if not surpassed Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
. The record is also a document of how this King Crimson functioned: it was a formation that actively included improvisation in the albums they released in their short lifespan. You can love or hate that, but it is without doubt some of the best work the group ever created comes out of this era. Because of its inconsistent nature, Crimson’s sixth album ends up as the weakest of its trilogy, but is still definitely worth acquiring for any more-than-casual fan of the group. For those that deem themselves not to fall into that category, they should stick with the last superb piece of fully-British Crimson, and follow-up to this: Red
Starless and Bible Black’s King Crimson was:
- Robert Fripp ~ Guitar, Mellotron, Devices, Electric Piano
- John Kenneth Wetton ~ Bass Guitar, Vocals
- William Scott Bruford ~ Drums, Percussion
- David Cross ~ Violin, Viola, Mellotron, Electric Piano
Lyrics by Richard Palmer-James
TO BE CONTINUED...