Part III of How I learned to listen to King Crimson
King Crimson’s 1974 album Red is a challenging listen, partly because it refuses to be categorised. It’s progressive rock, heavy rock, proto-metal, jazz, contemporary classical, full of terrible beauty and actual beauty. The musicianship is of the highest order, but that makes it sound cerebral. Although it’s always driven by Robert Fripp’s fierce intelligence, and by Bill Bruford’s stunningly technical drumming and percussion, it’s topped off by John Wetton’s achingly raw vocals, and underpinned by his gorgeously melodic bass lines.
This review isn’t going to concentrate too much on the technical aspects of the music and the performances; I would rather try to convey some of its visceral and emotional impact. John Lennon said in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview, in response to the criticism that his lyrics to I Want You (She’s so Heavy) were too simple because they basically repeated the title of the song over and over again, said this
When you’re drowning you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.
So I will just scream; an appropriate reaction to King Crimson. As Robert Fripp himself said
My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror
The opening instrumental track Red begins with an ascending figure on guitar, which sounds like a whole-half diminished scale. This immediately tells us that this isn’t going to be a predictable album; in fact a short, conventional bridging chord sequence from one section of the song to another comes almost as a disappointment.
The crunching, dense double-guitar riff that follows continuously winds back in on itself, like the steps on an Escher staircase. Yet despite its dense atonality, this riff has a stark simplicity that makes it a surprising ear-worm, albeit a worm with sharp teeth (a safer way of clearing earwax than cotton buds; can it also clear brain wax?)There follows a dystopian, bass-led riff, reminding me of Bill Bruford’s comment about King Crimson I mentioned in the first blog in this series.
In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.
The keening, probing instrumental riff at the start of Fallen Angel shatters apart suddenly, leading to a lovely vocal from John Wetton, with mellow acoustic guitar, mellotron and oboe accompaniment.
A heavy riff enters, suspended in slow motion as the chorus begins, a cornet playing jazz stylings above.
A double guitar solo with oboe, baroque with heavy drums, then a moment of daylight.
The heavy riff returns with distorted guitar above. Morse code guitar, with jazz cornet.
The track ends with a magisterial instrumental fade, a slow procession disappearing into the distance.
One More Red Nightmare is an epic journey, another red nightmare following the opening disturbing instrumental track Red. This has led to speculation online that King Crimson were frightened of Reds Under their Beds, but this song is about a dream of a plane crash, a ‘Pan-American nightmare ‘ (unless that’s the fear of Communism taking over the whole of the States?)
The track begins with a stop-start syncopated heavy riff, an ungainly broken animal limping through a desolate landscape, like the creature in WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born
This riff is a precursor of what later became Progressive Metal, as practised by Dream Theater (see concert review here) and others such as Tool, the spawn of heavy metal and prog rock.
The whole song is unsettled and unsettling; the open vocal phrase seems to come in half way through a thought, breaking into a dream. The chorus suddenly appears like an unexpected guest at a wedding. John Wetton sings at the top of his range, at the top of his lungs and at the top of his emotions.
At one point, Bill Bruford’s off-beat drumming gives a sense of moving forwards and backwards at same time – just as in the song Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, as mentioned in my review of Thrak, the previous blog in this series.
A rapid series of key changes and an endlessly questing bass line mean the song is tightly structured while still sounding free-form.
The track disappears suddenly like an old TV shutting down into a white dot – the Creator with the Remote Control shuts it off, just as the Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy) ends with white noise that suddenly becomes a white dot.
In the next track Providence we leave rock music behind; we are in the world of avant-garde classical music. A solo violin duets with and fights against ominous electronic and percussive noises.
A heavy bass line begins to assert control then drifts away again, jazz drumming takes a hold. A distorted introspective guitar line joins the fray.
John Wetton’s bass guitar tone is beautifully heavy, reminiscent of Chris Squire of Yes.
Constantly struggling to find a clear groove, the track never quite becomes funky in the way that some King Crimson tracks can. Then, without ever reaching any resolution, the music has gone. If it sounds improvised, that’s because it was recorded live, with the applause removed; or did the audience remain in stunned silence at the restless virtuosity they had just witnessed?
The lyrics for Starless contain the opening words of Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood, commissioned by the BBC and written twenty years earlier,
To begin at the beginning: It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
Strangely, the track didn’t appear in its natural home, the band’s previous album Starless and Bible Black.
After the the fretful avant-gardism of the previous song, Starless brings a real sense of musical release – like final major chords that appear like sparkling sunlight the end of sections of Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi, such as the c major chord at the end of Act One of the opera.
The opening section of the song has a true sense of inevitability, something very hard to create in any genre of music. This occurs when a melody and chord progression work together so well that it’s impossible for them to be conceived of in any other way. Think of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, John Lennon’s Imagine or Bach’s Air on a G String.
The album version is excellent, but the much more recent YouTube version is absolutely gorgeous at the start, the guitar is more prominent and Jakko Jakszyk almost matches the raw emotion of of John Wetton’s original vocal
Of course this is King Crimson so the four-minute opening ballad is followed by section of equal length featuring a searching, intensely chromatic repeated guitar line above with a louche, syncopated bass line. It feels like being circled by a sleek wild animal, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. The guitar gets completely stuck at one point. Then suddenly, at nine minutes in the tension is released when the track flies off into a joyously jazzy flight of fancy. Nice. The once-louche bass line becomes more urgent.
The track ends with main theme restated briefly but less tranquil than before, almost cathartic. Another band would have repeated the whole of the opening section, but this being King Crimson you will have to seek your catharsis elsewhere.
See you next time.