Following the release of Starless and Bible Black and a North American tour, King Crimson would kick out violinist/keyboardist David Cross and record their next album Red as a trio. I’m not sure why Cross had to go, because the guy seems to have been good at what he did, but I’m sure band historians know the answer. In other words, not me: despite how long this post series is running and will continue to run, I’m mainly interested in the music, though I have heard a comprehensive band documentary is coming out soon that I’ll definitely watch.
But if you were wondering why Cross wasn’t featured in the band portrait on the cover of Red (a first and last for the band, and a real rarity for progressive album covers) that’s the reason. On the plus side, the band here brought in a few guest musicians to add some flavor, including former Crimson players Marc Charig on cornet, Mel Collins on soprano sax, and old founding member Ian McDonald himself on alto sax.
And as for the music: this is it. I’ll have to save my actual final judgment until the end of this run of albums, but ever since hearing it up to this day, Red has been and is my favorite King Crimson album and one of my favorite musical works of all time. It’s extremely focused, purposeful, and powerful, full of amazing moments and memorable lines. Out of its five tracks, the only one I’m not in love with is Providence, another live-studio hybrid improvisation (and for that reason the only track featuring Cross on violin and the reason he’s listed in the album’s credits — I think it’s called “Providence” because they recorded it in Providence, RI, but that’s just a guess based on later song naming conventions.) Even this improv is better than most of the similar material on Starless, however, creating a nice dark atmosphere that works in its spot between the first side closer and the album closer as a whole.
The other four are absolute winners, starting with the opening instrumental title track. Red sets an extremely heavy tone that continues throughout the album, mixing later with the second track Fallen Angel, which intersperses softer, calmer verses with that heavy guitar tone again in the chorus. Both make for an excellent opening to Red — it’s a contrast that somehow also blends beautifully. The first side ends with One More Red Nightmare, which add a little humor with lyrics about fear of flying. But the playing is serious: the track sounds like what it feels like to fly through a storm, especially in its instrumental stretches, and with Bruford banging on what I used to think was sheet metal but was actually an old cymbal they pulled out of the trash somewhere — either way it has a nice “thunder” sort of effect to me.
As much as I love those pieces, it’s the final song that makes Red a legendary album. Starless isn’t just my favorite on Red, it might be my favorite song of Crimson’s, period. At the very least, it stands up there with “Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph”. If I had to say what I like best about this lineup of the band, it’s all in “Starless” with its masterful building up and releasing of tension. But then any extended description I try to write of “Starless” doesn’t do it justice, so I hope you’ll just listen to it and see what you think.
I thought I’d write more about Red than this, but there you go: the work speaks for itself. Even Mr. Christgau liked it, so I’ll return to him at least a little of the credit I took from him in my Larks’ Tongues post — I have to be fair. And speaking of being ahead of their time once again, this album didn’t do well upon its release, but over the decades it’s gotten its due as one of Crimson’s greatest works. Nirvana fans take note: Kurt Cobain cited Red as an influence, and I can the seeds of that late 80s/early 90s grunge in there.
So what do you do when you’ve made what may well be your magnum opus? Following Red, Robert Fripp decided King Crimson had said all it had to say and dissolved the band. This might seem astounding, but it does fit in with what seems to be Fripp’s general idea about music and creativity: don’t get stuck in a rut and continue to actually progress. That’s what he’d do, and what some of the other Crimsoners (?) would do as well, with Bill Bruford heading off to help out Genesis as a guest drummer after Peter Gabriel left and Phil Collins took up singing duties and then later heading off to the world of jazz, and John Wetton heading off to do whatever he did throughout the rest of the 70s before co-founding Asia, where he and a few former Yes and ELP members didn’t do much musical progressing anymore but made a whole assload of money, and who can blame them. And Ian McDonald went off to co-found Foreigner. People really don’t realize just how central this band and its members were to the shape of popular music, even the stuff you wouldn’t necessarily associate them with.
And was the end of King Crimson. Requiescat in pace.
Except, once again, it wasn’t. Fripp might have retired King Crimson by decree, but it would rise again in a new and totally unexpected form seven years later. If you’re not familiar already, there’s no way you’d be able to predict what they’ll end up sounding like upon their return. The next post will be a look at another live album from the Wetton/Bruford/Cross lineup, though, so we’ll have one more look at the 70s before jumping forward in time.
I just want to say that I love how you always place Azumanga Daioh gifs. Its still one of my favorite anime of all time. I might go watch it right now.
Same, Azumanga is a true classic. I rewatched the whole thing a few months ago and it all held up perfectly.
stumbled across this site by searching “real life k-on” on google, and i gotta say, i dig your writing style! incisive and informative, classic combo right there. can’t wait to read your review of discipline (my personal fave kc album) in part 11!
Thanks! I did write a post about K-On season 1 too, so that might done it. Or maybe the screenshot in the Earthbound review. Either way, I’m happy you’re here. I’m looking forward to getting to Discipline and the 80s band too!
Likewise, my dude! Always nice to meet someone into music and anime (and their permutations)
Their most consistent, balanced, and focused work, even if I still prefer their debut because it has higher highs, I think.
I do prefer Red, but the debut is amazing, and I can see preferring it for the three masterpieces on that one.