Gnarly, muscular, very chewy – that’s the short review of King Crimson Red right there. Tick the box, move on to the next review.
Still here? okay then, here’s the longer version. Red was released in 1974 but is one of those rare timeless albums that sound like it could have been released yesterday, or possibly even tomorrow. From the brilliantly well-designed cover on in, Red is an uneasy listening classic.
I know I may risk some Antipodean tutting here but prior to Red my only other experience of King Crimson was their debut, which I can remember liking half of and my dad’s tales of seeing them live. I had them down as tricky, progressive and ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ aside, a little bloodless for my tastes. Well, as far as Red is concerned, if you want blood, you’ve got it!
The opener and title track never fails to get me excited and no matter how many times I hear it the sound is never quite what I expect it to be. It just sounds so menacing, muscular and ever-so-slightly off-kilter, this is the sound that the likes of Fugazi, Slint and all manner of post-punks thought they had discovered for themselves in the early 80’s and beyond; all unsettling angles and changing time signatures.
‘Fallen Angel’ is bizarrely reminiscent of a Blue Öyster Cult track, lyrically at least. William Bruford, not a Bill yet, sings of Hells Angel brothers, blood, switchblades and, I think, a bike crash. The slight McCartney-isms of his voice contrasting brilliantly with just how assertive and loud the music is, Fripp conjures some fabulous guitar squalls on this one and you can hear the brass struggling manfully to blow us back to a more peaceful place. I can spin this sucker 3 or 4 times in a row without tiring of it, easily.
After starting ‘One More Red Nightmare’ where ‘Red’ left off, it suddenly gets unfeasibly funky in a way that completely invents the Gang of Four*, albeit in a charmingly clunky manner – the mean man machines getting down on it. The rhythm section of Wetton and Bruford is shown to absolute best effect on this track; the internet tells me it zaps about between 15/8, 7/4, and 12/8 time. King Crimson chalk up some 1537 bonus points for the abrupt ending too.
The track ‘Providence’ is a partially live recording, the most ragged and gnarled track on offer here. You can hear violinist David Cross Jean-Luc Pontying for all he was worth before the metallic clanging commences.
My favourite track on Red is ‘Starless’, a throwback to the sessions for their previous LP Starless & Bible Black, it is a rare moment of complete transcendence in a world full of hurly burly, strife and wickedness. It has by far Bruford’s best-ever vocal to my mind** where he manages to sound simultaneously incredibly dignified and utterly lost, a real torch song.
Ice blue silver sky
Fades into grey
To a grey hope that all yearns to be
Starless and bible black
The music is suitably grandiose too, far too short at 12 minutes which is not something I say very often. Grandiose, but again not without an edge of menace too – Fripp ratchets up the tension to a great degree and you have no choice but to wait for the storm to break, God knows where – even if you’re on your 600th listen. Masterful stuff. Mel Collins’ soprano sax is absolutely spot on here too, this is everything you wished Pink Floyd were dangerous enough to do after their psychedelic years, but weren’t quite.
Again, Red still sounds like something yet to be recorded than an LP fast approaching its’ 43rd anniversary. It is one of those rare albums which get better with each and every listen and also one of those even rarer LPs where you can hear whole genres being invented in almost every track. Oh and it is damned loud too, right in the Red.
PS: Sheep that I am, I bought this on Kurt Cobain’s recommendation. My copy is a groovy reissue on 200g vinyl on the band’s own Panegyric Recordings label. 200g?! goodness me.
*and many more.
**and I base that solely on owning this one LP he ever sang on and being favourably inclined genetically towards anything even tangentially touching Dylan Thomas.