Over the last three weeks we reviewed some of the many musical highlights of 1973. All in all, 1973 was a very special year in which many bands achieved their definite breakthrough and others reached their top. The year after, 1974, was a bit different. Although some bands continued to deliver their best albums, some cracks in the scenery of progressive rock became visible. Some bands explored their musical boundaries even beyond imagination, others lost one or more important band-members. 1974 saw Rick Wakeman leaving Yes, Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis and King Crimson coming to an end.
The latter band, King Crimson, delivered one of their finest works, Red, just before falling apart. After 5 years of experimental music, from their stunning debut in 1969, onwards along several line-up changes, King Crimson died a sudden death. The pivotal father-figure of the band, guitarist Robert Fripp decided to call it a day.
A lot happened prior to this decision. At the end of 1972 Yes-drummer Bill Bruford was asked to join a new version of King Crimson, after the first line-up had lost its spirit. In two years time the new Crimson quintet developed very rapidly, as a result of which three albums were made, many concerts were played and two members, percussionist Jamie Muir and violinist David Cross left the group. Although Cross had a part in the creation of Red, the album was officially released by the trio Fripp/Bruford/Wetton, as the album-cover shows.
What was King Crimson in 1973 and 1974 about? In the booklet of the box-set The Great Deceiver, Robert Fripp describes the group as follows: "Between 1973/4 KC had an increasingly loud bass-player of staggering strength and imagination, arguably the finest young English player in his field at the time. The drummer has the temperament of a classical musician who wanted to be a jazzer and worked in rock groups. I'm not sure Bruford/Wetton were a good rhythm-section but they were amazing, busy, exiting, mobile, agile, inventive and terrible to play over. The violinist was placed in an increasingly impossible situation. A musical and personal distance began to open between him and the rest of the group. After the departure of Jamie Muir, (who left to start a new life in a monastery, JJdH) the balance, constructed in the original quintet was lost. David Cross added delicacy, and wood. But the front line couldn't match the power of the rhythm section, or their volume, and the guitar was stronger than the violin.
The King Crimson in 1973/4 was not a balanced group, or perhaps it was balanced in disarray. It was sometimes frightening and not a comfortable place to be. Increasingly it needed improvisation to stay alive. But that didn't show much in studio-albums. In concerts, it stepped sideways and jumped. This team looked into the darker spaces of the psyche and reported back on what it found. The 1969 Crimscapes were bleak and written, the 1973/4 Crimscapes were darker, and mainly improvised. After 16 month as a quartet it became a trio for three months, whereupon King Crimson ceased to exist. Inherently unstable, sharing different aims and going in different directions, finally it went there...."
I couldn't say it better. King Crimson wasn't a group, it was a creative process. And in creating things, it lost itself.
Nevertheless, Red has become a very interesting album. It's a bit heavier than previous albums (especially the title track), but at the same time it's a bit more structured. The title-track Red, is a perfect example of this. It features heavy guitars and an incredible bass. People who claim that Queensryche and Dream Theater introduced a new aspect to progressive music with their hard-rock influences, are dead-wrong. The middle of the song has an atmospheric, heavy bass part with many effects. No keyboards necessary! Wetton is a threat to your speakers and hence Red is an apt name. Your amplifier indeed turns red! This instrumental is still one of my KC-favourites and also one of the very few old songs that is still played live by the '90-s incarnation of the band.
Fallen Angel is a slower song, that starts off as a melodic ballad, with lyrics by Crimson-poet Richard Palmer-James. Wetton's raspy voice is accompanied by an ongoing melody-line, which builds to a climax, including a brass section featuring Mel Collins and Ian McDonald on saxophone. After a break, this strategy is repeated.
After this, One More Red Nightmare sort of continues where Red ended. Drums are featured even more prominent. After a few bars, there's a break that leads to a "chorus" (if there's ever any in Crimson-music), in order to return to the guitar-riff again. A great instrumental part follows. Bruford's jazz-influence is very obvious here, especially since a saxophone is present here again. The ongoing rhythm is great and leads to a sudden break again, after which the heavier guitar-part, the chorus and the sax-part follow again. In fact, it's a nightmare in three parts, completely different, but each very interesting.
Providence starts with a violin creating mystical sounds. Bass and guitar join after a minute or two. A jam follows of the kind that can also be found on Lark's Tongues in Aspic. It's just improvisation of the kind that has made King Crimson both famous and hated, depending on your personal preference. After 4-and-a-half minute Bruford starts a beat and Providence builds from mystical to hectic. Heavy bass, complex drums and sweeping guitars, it's all there. I don't know if I like it, but it's very.... err ... Crimson.
The fifth and last song on the album is another classic one. Starless (not to be confused with Starless and Bible Black) may be considered a Crimson epic, but I hesitate to use this label for this 12 minute long track. It starts very melodic, combining romantic mellotron with Wettons powerful vocals. The chorus is just one sentence: "starless and bible black", to make it even more confusing. After 4 minutes the ballad-part comes to an end and a darker part with a threatening atmosphere starts off with a inter-play between bass and guitar. This part starts slow and low and becomes increasingly heavier and higher during the next minutes. Bruford comes in and Fripp plays higher and higher. A few minutes before the end, the saxophone joins the three and takes over the melody of the first part of the song. The rhythm changes once again and a fast-part follows, before the track comes to a definite end including sax and mellotron. A majestic song indeed and I am glad that it returned on John Wetton's setlist last year in full version.
Maybe Red is not the best album of 1974 and maybe it isn't even the best album made by King Crimson. But it certainly marks the end of this influential band that showed that progressive music can be mystical, strange, intense and improvised. This album is worth buying for Red and Starless alone, although some of the other songs are also very interesting if you have the patience and nerves to give it a bit time to grow on you. After Red, Crimson was dead. For a while, at least.
Wetton went his own way, playing with Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, UK and Asia. Bruford started his own project called Bruford, joined Wetton again in UK and rejoined Fripp in the early '80-s to start a new version of King Crimson. Because music never dies. The King is dead, long live the King...!
Written by Jan-Jaap de Haan