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King Crimson - Rock & Folk

Publication date: February 2014

Red: Welcome to the New Heaviness

For many people, King Crimson will forever epitomise that most divisive of genres: progressive rock. That screaming face on the cover of their 1969 debut album In the Court of the Crimson King could be interpreted as either the battle-cry of popular music embracing a whole new world of fantastical possibilities, or the horror of rock’n’roll traditionalists at the ungainly mutant suddenly in their midst.

But King Crimson were never just a sterile exercise in pseudo-baroque concepts and endlessly bad keyboard solos. Yes, they were right there at the genre’s birth – in fact, In the Court of the Crimson King could convincingly claim to be the first all-guns/mellotrons-blazing prog rock album. But while other pioneers were still sweetening the prog pill with psychedelia, folk and blues, King Crimson opened their debut with the crunching jazz rock frenzy of band signature tune ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, a full frontal sonic assault that left both their audiences and contemporaries open-mouthed and raving. From the very start, King Crimson music was most certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Under the mercurial leadership of guitar wunderkind Robert Fripp, King Crimson forged a unique path that, in the space of just six years, saw them leave behind the lyrical whimsy and musical grandstanding of their first few albums to arrive at a new sound that was both freer and more focused, embracing improv, world, modern classical and proto-noise rock elements.

It’s this leap into uncharted waters that makes King Crimson one of the most significant bands on the rock timeline. Because it’s with King Crimson – and particularly Fripp’s dense, geometric fretwork – that a new type of heaviness starts to emerge, one that effectively disengages itself from the blues-derived riffology practiced by the big three of early 70s hard rock – Sabbath, Zeppelin, Purple – and instead creates a starker, colder, darker version of heavy that’s nevertheless still capable of delivering serious thrills and chills.

This new sound’s influence is legion. It’s there in the annihilating atmospherics of Wire’s ‘A Touching Display’, the sheet metal jazz of Hüsker Dü’s ‘Reoccurring Dreams’, the crepuscular dynamics of Slint’s ‘Nosferatu Man’, and in the DNA of just about every post-rock group from Mogwai onwards, whether they know it or not. And because Fripp spent much of the latter half of the 70s as a gun for hire, it’s also there on some of the era’s most celebrated albums. While he’s perhaps best known for the soaring sustain of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, my favourite example of Fripp’s transformative powers is his work on Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’, where his ferocious but controlled shredding combines with the disturbing lyric and bombastic rhythm to create one of the most brutal singles ever to chart.

King Crimson developed and refined this sound through the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black, but it was with Red that they distilled it down to its pure essence, and in so doing created their masterwork. Ironically, this was achieved at the expense of the group itself – disillusioned with the music business and undergoing a spiritual crisis, Fripp disbanded King Crimson two weeks before Red was released in October 1974.

But as final statements go, Red takes some beating. Named for the studio volume levels going ‘into the red’, it’s an absolutely monstrous album, the sound of light being sucked out of the air, of stars collapsing, of darkness taking physical form. It actually feels like it might be bad for your mental health, but it’s also utterly compulsive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums.

Having gone through numerous line-up changes, King Crimson were effectively a power trio at the time of Red’s recording – Fripp, plus bassist/singer John Wetton and drum maestro Bill Bruford. While I’ve highlighted Fripp’s integral role in creating the new sound, that’s not to downplay the contributions of the other musicians – as well as possessing one of the finest voices in rock, Wetton’s massive bass sound here wouldn’t be out of place on a Big Black record, while Bruford’s clattering, percussion-heavy playing keeps the songs constantly on their toes. In fact, it’s widely acknowledged that, with Fripp in meltdown, Wetton and Bruford exerted greater influence than previously during the Red sessions, perhaps reining in some of Fripp’s more outré ideas.

First and foremost, Red absolutely rocks in a very modern sense, as comprehensively evidenced on the instrumental title track which opens the album. I remember hearing it for the first time (lights off, headphones on, as I’m sure is still de rigueur for all gloomily precocious 15 year olds) and just being amazed by this surging, intense and slightly terrifying sound being blasted into my skull from the heart of the 70s of all places.

‘Red’ explodes into being: Fripp’s future shock guitar builds to a triumphant crescendo, and then again, but on the third pass, it ends on a horribly queasy discord and plunges down into the song’s main riff, which sounds like the clanking gears of some engine of death. The track picks up velocity, driven by Bruford’s skittering beats and Wetton’s elastic bass, before folding in on itself, Fripp’s guitar pulsating over a see-sawing cello. But all roads lead inexorably back to that grinding, relentless riff.

Musically speaking, the palpable sense of dread that this song generates comes from its use of the tritone, or the ‘diabolus in musica’ to give it its more colourful name, a tonal interval that basically sounds, well, a bit scary. Perhaps its best known application in rock is in the “oh no, no, please God help me” riff to ‘Black Sabbath’. But if Iommi’s crew provided the aural equivalent of gothic horror, then ‘Red’ is like doomsday sci-fi, a gigantic alien edifice hovering over the planet ready to obliterate the primitive lifeforms below.

After that, the two vocal tracks that make up side one (as was) sound almost breezy in comparison, though of course, they’re nothing of the sort. ‘Fallen Angel’ lulls the listener into a false sense of security with its gentle oboe-augmented verses before a brittle spidery riff from Fripp suddenly lowers the temperature to freezing. Wetton sings the title over and over as though haunted by some terrible knowledge while a cornet soars above a stuttering, self-destructing guitar part.

In contrast, ‘One More Red Nightmare’ heaves into view with the swagger of a wounded and mightily pissed off Godzilla. With Bruford playing what sounds like the entire contents of a scrapyard, this track actually swings, but just as Wetton starts to rock out and enjoy himself, Fripp cuts him dead with another piece of icy guitar picking. Suitably chastened, the song stomps to its conclusion assailed by some stingingly caustic sax.

‘Providence’ follows, a live improvisation that builds from disquieting violin through a passage of nerve-jangling avant jazz, before Wetton’s snarling, snaking fuzz bass takes over to throw jagged shadows across Fripp’s stratospheric soloing.

But the real showstopper (quite literally at the time, though Fripp was to resurrect the King Crimson brand in 1981) is saved until last. While Fripp (and many other players at the time) soon grew tired of the tag, ‘Starless’ is pretty much the ultimate prog rock track. So much so, that if cosmic justice had prevailed in 1974, the likes of Yes, Genesis, ELP et al would have simply downed twin-neck guitars, removed capes and called it a day.

The opening sweep of elegiac Mellotron immediately creates an atmosphere somewhere between reflection and unease. Fripp plays some of his most fluid and downright lovely guitar to lead us into the verse/chorus section of the song, where Wetton delivers a spectacularly plaintive vocal with the clarity of a man confronting his own mortality. It’s mournful and beautiful, but just as your eyes might be starting to close…

The third chorus ends on a jarring, unexpected chord and the ground suddenly gives away beneath your feet. There’s a rumble of bass from the gloom before Fripp starts to slowly and very deliberately pick out notes like fingernails scraping at the underside of a coffin lid. Bruford decides to accompany this on wood blocks, which would be comical if it wasn’t so unnerving. It grows in power, Fripp’s guitar shrieking in desperation as Wetton’s growling bass ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree.

When the song finally explodes into a sax rock wig-out that harks back to ‘Schizoid Man’ itself, the sense of release is enormous (for both band and listener), with Fripp inspired to wring out a sustained bout of manic guitar abuse. But it’s in the thunderous coda of the song when the original Mellotron theme returns that the absolute apogee of the new heaviness is reached, the earth-shattering bass underpinning the melody confirming that the end of the world is indeed nigh.

Assuming that they aren’t just throwing bodies into a recycling pit by the time I die, this is the song I’d like to have played at my funeral (maximum volume, with the church doors locked and bolted as necessary).

With music created from a melting pot of cross-fertilisation, technical advancements, compositional innovations and incremental micro-influences, it’s often difficult to track the exact origin of a specific sound or genre. Red is that rarest of albums: a clearly-defined jumping off point for much of the left-field rock music that was to emerge over the decades following its release. But it’s also much more than just a record of historical interest – after 40 years, it’s still primed and ready to tear the head off the unsuspecting listener. It may be called Red, but we’re talking very, very dark red. King Crimson indeed.

BOX-OUT – The Road to Red

At the end of last year, King Crimson released perhaps the ultimate in live documentation in The Road to Red, a 21 CD box-set that features sixteen concerts performed by the band during its final North American tour, April-July 1974, just prior to the recording of Red itself.

It’s testament to the high level at which the band were operating during this period that this release doesn’t just come off as shameless hubris, but as a vital illustration of something it’s easy to overlook in our modern pre-packaged, risk-averse culture: no two King Crimson shows were ever the same. Yes, the set lists were similar, but the band thrived on improvisation to produce extended pieces each night that were unique to that performance. Just listen to, for instance, the first improv from the Asbury Park gig (previously released in truncated form on the posthumous USA live album), a complex yet visceral piece of prog funk that amply demonstrates why the band were able to enter the studio and quickly produce an album of the density and intensity of Red.

The Road to Red also captures both a sense of coming full circle and the bitter irony that these would be the last shows this version of the band would play together – as Fripp himself has noted, the final concert of this tour in New York’s Central Park “was the first gig since the 1969 Crimson where the bottom of my spine registered 'out of this world' to the same degree.”

Included in The Road to Red and also released separately is a reissue of Red itself, which is of particular interest because of the presence behind the mixing desk of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, nu-prog major domo and increasingly the go-to guy for the retooling of classic 70s albums (he did a similar job on Hawkwind’s superlative Warrior On The Edge Of Time, and has previously polished albums from ELP, Yes and Jethro Tull). Alongside Fripp, he’s gone back to the original tapes and produced a new stereo mix of Red which reinstates some of the grime and murky brute force that had been removed from the 30th anniversary remaster (also included on the standalone reissue), particularly on the title track. There’s also a different feel to ‘Starless’, the intro more ethereal than ever, the middle section even chillier.


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