A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 8 (Starless and Bible Black, 1974)

Man but these guys could be inconsistent. After producing the excellent Larks’ Tongues, the band went on tour, losing their percussionist Jamie Muir (who went off to join a monastery, really) so the band was down to a quartet when they returned to the studio to put together Starless and Bible Black, their next album.

And it’s another major drop-off in quality from its predecessor. Not because of the loss of Muir: though by all accounts he was a great percussionist, his duties are covered by Bill Bruford, and the entire band sounds as great as before. No, the trouble with Starless — and this is where I think I disagree strongly with some fans — is that so much of it feels so unfocused, especially when compared to the albums directly preceding and succeeding it. Starless does have some high points and a few great tracks, but I get nothing out of a lot of the rest of it.

The opening is extremely promising, featuring one out of its three “normal” songs. The Great Deceiver is just about the perfect opener, in fact: it’s loud, energetic, catchy, and actually focused, with an earworm chorus that got stuck in my head the moment I played it again after years. The only issue I think someone could possibly have with the song are the lyrics, which seem to be a sort of atheistic screed? Or maybe it’s just against cults, or against consumerism? It’s hard to tell, but John Wetton does immediately drop the f-bomb (the one you’ll see referred to as the “gamer word”, yes — i.e. the one that isn’t fuck) in the first verse. I have read that that word has a different connotation in England, referring to a meatball, though, so keep that in mind if its use makes you feel weird. This might be a context issue (and maybe a UK reader can confirm?)

The other big song highlight on the album is The Night Watch, an ode to Rembrandt’s famous painting of the same name. Good painting to write a song about — maybe the guys saw it at the Rijksmuseum and got inspired. The song is nice as well, with a great delivery by Wetton and a memorable Fripp guitar solo.

Makes me want to join a citizen’s brigade and get a polearm, though I don’t think my shitty apartment’s ceiling is high enough to make room for it.

Aside from Lament, which for me is pretty passable, the rest of Starless is purely instrumental. That wouldn’t be a problem if these were tight, focused instrumentals with real structures like on Larks’ Tongues, but for the most part they seem to be improvisations. Parts of this instrumental section weren’t recorded in the studio but live on tour, where Crimson would play improv sections in the middle of their regular set, and apparently some of these were edited together with studio work into some of the Starless tracks, creating a weird sort of hybrid live-studio album.

And hell if some of these aren’t just a waste. Namely The Mincer, We’ll Let You Know and the title track, which I can’t remember a damn thing about. I absolutely do not doubt King Crimson’s technical ability, which is very much on display in these tracks, but shit — write something interesting to play. Or improvise on tour and release a live album full of those tracks if you want so people can take it or leave it as they wish (which they sort of would do later on.) To be clear, this stuff is not nearly as bad as the headache noise featured on Earthbound: it’s recorded properly for one, and thank God John Wetton doesn’t try to scat or sing over these at all for that matter aside from a few bizarre lines on “The Mincer”, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable either.

However, the above doesn’t apply to Trio, which is short but pleasant enough, nor to Fracture, which has more of a structure than the title track it shares the second side with. Fripp’s recurring guitar line starting at around 2:50 of “Fracture” is famous for its intricacy and difficulty, and best of all it is actually memorable and the band plays around it at times, doing something interesting with the piece (and here’s a possible link with the future of the band in its 80s incarnation that we’ll be getting to soon.) I’d prefer even more of a structure to “Fracture” than we get, but overall it’s good — I don’t go as crazy for it as some people, but I can see how it would be a great time to hear live.

For me, Starless and Bible Black is a mix of exciting and dull. I’d say the album’s good parts redeem it overall, but considering how much better this “fourth version” of Crimson would do before and after, this one can’t help but be a letdown. Or maybe that was just the problem: not enough time had passed between albums to put together one that could measure up to those extremely high standards. I have no idea, but it’s just a wild guess. Taking breaks is important, especially if it means you don’t have to end up putting Frankenstein’s monster’d studio-live improv tracks onto your album.

On the other hand, some people really love Starless and these improvs, and so as with Lizard, I’ll say your mileage may vary based on your own tastes. Give me some structure. I’m not too much into free jazz either, if that tells you where I’m coming from.

P.S.: check out the live bonus track Dr. Diamond, not bad. It’s not part of the original album, and I don’t usually cover bonus tracks, but I’d never heard this song before going through this relisten marathon. Not sure why they didn’t bother recording a studio version.


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