King Crimson is an enigma in a rock band’s body--at their most spontaneous, a formidable jazz monster; at their most calculated, a symphonic orchestra rolled up in between confrontational, frenetic guitars; puncturing bass; clamorous percussion; and topped off with sweet flourishes of wind, brass and ivory.
Speaking of which, those who are most familiar with this band when they still dwelt inside the pseudo-mythological Court of the aforementioned spirit will be surprised at the lack of those ivories. Huge mellotron compositions take a backseat to a band that tends to favor improvisation and post-bop jams to dungeon choirs and phony string orchestras. Still, that doesn’t go to discount the epic scope of this album—or any of King Crimson’s post-1969 albums for that matter. This incarnation of the band is where one could say they dropped the whole prog rock thing and started up the King Crimson thing.
These are shady, dangerous waters the band trends on this album. Comprised of the remnants of the Lark's Tongues members (Fripp – guitar, devices; David Cross – violin, mellotron; Bill Bruford – drums and percussion; John Wetton – bass and vocals), this particular lineup chose to fly by the seat of its vintage pants more than any KC lineup before it-hell, this and the subsequent Red
were essentially afterthoughts, compiled and comprised of last-minute improvisations and swift studio work. But that seems to be the way Robert Fripp works at times--unevenly, unpredictably, answering only to one person--er, entity--above him--the Crimson King. Yes, this is the man who snubs record companies and feels the walls crumbling down around him every time his music reaches a taste of mainstream success. And the problem with this experimental nature is that it could go either way--it could become a stroke of streamlined brilliance, or a tumultuous dream gone awry.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though…this is improv from true masters of it. It’s not quite as unwaveringly singular in its vision as the proceeding Red
or the preceding Lark’s Tongues in Aspic
, as it is more kinetic and disorganized than those two, if not equally as dynamic and idiosyncratic.
Only two of the songs here were fully written and performed in the studio (The Great Deceiver, Lament), which becomes quite obvious due to the stronger structure and more logical synthesis of rhythmic and melodic courses. Others are fully recorded live (albeit with some studio overdubs) and others are a combination of live and studio. In the studio tracks, you will hear syncopated drum rhythms and guitar work that makes some kind of sense intellectually. But in the end, the improvised tracks become the more fascinating ones, satisfying on only an intuitive level—a beautiful display of a singular streamlined emotion, the paragon of a band of brothers in touch with each other’s visions, a kind of showcase at the vanguard of sacred platonic musical chaos bound only by the listener’s own imagination or lack thereof. Feel the magic without the cold calculations of a studio wizard. This is when music is stripped naked of forethought, and becomes catharsis on the most basic level.
The album starts with The Great Deceiver
; atypical Crimson in that it could be typical rock’n’roll. Harmonizing between the guitar and violin overplays a frenzied, loud drum beat and fat bass. The song starts off with hints of what could even be called jolliness, a playful sort of foolhardiness that switches between sparse sections of rhythmic bass and filled-out sections of all-out rockin’. In the chorus, Wetton’s vocals finally take the forefront over his sporadic bass playing, bellowing in a strangely addicting voice: “Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the virrrrrgin Maaaaarrrrrryyy!” Are those good lyrics or not? I can’t seem to decide. The song slowly decays from the ranting of a partly senile jolly man to paranoid schizophrenia, alternating between jarring, spiraling guitar and jagged transitions with flying violins. The once-amusing mantra of cigarettes and ice cream idols suddenly doesn’t seem as amusing as it is unsettling. What happened?
The album felt the presence of the Crimson King, that’s what happened.
Things continue to go in strange directions from here. Lament
, the second and final fully studio-conceived song starts as melancholy yearning—naïveté packed up in a neat package—which transitions into a sinister bassline and some trademark Frippian riffing that continues to plague the tune, as the drums crash into a jazzy jam with guitar and bass weaving an abrasive and fascinating web of building tension that leads into a final rocking climax. David Cross, who handles mellotron duties in addition to violin, plays some nice textural backdrops in this classic tale of the fall of innocence, from a bittersweet ambition to an existential indifference. We’ll Let You Know
begins the darker material, a song that continues to build tension throughout, but never really satisfies in its release. Perhaps one of the downfalls of improvisation which shows up maybe once or twice within this album. Fripp’s guitar during the jazzy jam is satisfying enough, swirling around and moving chromatically in a way a guitar shouldn’t.
The Night Watch
is a combination of composition and improvisation. The beginning of the song is an epic, sweeping arrangement of guitar, cymbals and violin, then dying off into a surprisingly catchy vocal passage from Wetton and—dare I say it?—some !melodic! playing from Fripp. The trade-offs between guitar and violin prove to be the most interesting part of this movement. The song is melancholy in all the ways you might not expect, including some sweet, subtle bass playing from Wetton, beautiful lullaby guitars and catchy beats from Bill Bruford.
Ah, Bruford. One person I have not mentioned near enough in this review. While I feel he is underutilized on this album, he is still one legend of a drummer. He dips in between the sporadic transitions, playing clamorous rock percussion, polyrhythmic madness, and jazz all at once. His rhythmic intonation is perfect, his beats unmatched in creativity, his duality between restraint and all out maniacal crashing unheard of.
One place where the band insists Bruford had a huge impact is where he is not even heard at all. Indeed, one of his biggest contributions is strangely the lack of his presence in the next track, the beautiful, ambient Trio
. With Robert Fripp taking the helm of mellotron (it sounds like a flute here, but not without that signature vintage mellotron color), he communicates with Cross’ violin in a way literal language never can. It’s a piece that never really changes in dynamic but is kinetic and stable in all the right places. Wetton lays down a nice, subtle bass arpeggio for the violin and mellotron to float across, like a slow cascade down a tranquil river at night, the only light coming from a full moon. Alas, no werewolves on this track, however—just peace, with some subtle tension that tugs right at the heartstrings. It is what the band called a “moment of magic” during one live show.
revs up in much different territory, with some strange sounds from Fripp’s “devices” and a quiet, ominous mellotron. Bruford begins to pile on the menacing feeling with a building drumbeat and Fripp’s guitar splays intermittently with those evil chords. A irregular, bizarre guitar line snakes around over the soundscape, contributing to a heightened sense of madness. When Wetton’s vocals come in, they provide no source of comfort from the anxiety, only adding to it with his hoarse voice. The song builds towards a climax but never reaches it—the tape cuts off. Another downside of live improv.
No matter. The Mincer served only as an introduction to whet our appetites for what comes next. The two final tracks on the album prove to be the most accomplished, and some of the most overwhelming music ever put to tape. Starless and Bible Black
begins quietly, with some vague ideas beginning to paint a picture, as most improvs do. Fripp’s “devices” again punctuate the air, and we know something is coming. The song builds gradually and tastefully into a signature Wetton bassline and some evil noisemaking from Fripp. Bruford’s percussion serves to perfectly complement these two madmen as they work their magic, fighting each other, yet holding one another’s hand. Cross joins in with a sinister melllotron and the song kicks into full gear with a solid beat from Bruford and mounting guitar tension. The rhythm section is so tight and on-par here, you’d never guess this was an improv. King Crimson shows its unique talents for amelodic and atonal songwriting here as the only melody—the mellotron—fights to survive, only to be buried by a screaming, growing guitar line that overtakes the entire piece with sinister mayhem. It’s an amazing thing to hear. Finally the piece begins to peal itself away, leaving only the mellotron, some soft guitar arpreggios and some decaying percussion to fade out. The bass comes pulsating back in however, and the guitar dissonance rises in combination with a creepy mellotron drone. The band blasts back in for one more brief climax and the song finally fades out for good.
Okay, here is the centerpiece of the album. Fracture
. It’s what makes Robert Fripp the legendary guitarist he is and it truly shows the talent of this band and just how in tune they were with one another. This is an instrumental composed by Fripp himself, so we can expect from it all the sinister Frippian riffing, the guitar arpeggios, the building of tension, the repetition of themes and the climactic ending all familiar to a Fripp composition. However, no other part of this song was written or planned except for Fripp’s guitar part. The rest of the band was forced to stay on the tip of its toes, forced to jump in between Fripp’s strange metric shifts, modal and atonal sections, and mounting apprehension. Everything is on par here. A huge, Frippian riff is the centerpiece of the song, evil in nature and perfectly complemented by Wetton’s frenetic bass and Bruford’s drums, adding the perfect flourishes to the song. The song moves in and out of calamity and sections of quiet building, exploding into all-out chaos and then going back again. Fripp’s now-famous arpeggiated theme which seems inhuman to even think about replicating is not only fascinating but perfect in its mounting of tension. It’s a streamlined, live performance of what sounds like three guitar parts moving in and out of each other at once, and Cross cleverly overlaying the main theme of the song with his violin. This is Crimson at its darkest and best. How the band managed to keep up with Fripp on this is beyond me, and with such good sense that I’d never guess they hadn’t heard the song before. The song may seem slightly disjointed, but that’s one of Fripp’s trademarks. This really is the avante garde of music. It’s hypnotic, visionary music at its best. A quiet section of strange noises precedes one of the biggest, loudest, meanest, most muscular King Crimson riffs ever, with violin weeping across it. This is menacing, crazy stuff. Overdubbed guitar screams overtop—this is fucking
scary! The song continues to build into what we know will be the climax of a lifetime. Fripp’s guitar spirals through the bass and drums, still doing all kinds of things a guitar shouldn’t do, building, climbing through rhythmic changes commanded by Bruford and Wetton until finally the song ends with a huge percussive clash and fades out.
And the next time we saw this beast, it would be inside the nightmare Red