Review – Red (1974) by King Crimson

John Wetton, Bill Bruford and Robert Fripp

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 end of Act One of Saint Francois D’Assisse by Olivier Messiaen.

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

Starless (2016 version)

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.

Review – Dream Theater

Celebrating 20 Years of Scenes from a Memory

Dream Theater

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

Sunday 23 February 2020

A stunning stage show with virtuosic guitar playing

****

The Armadillo in Glasgow somehow seemed appropriate for a stage set that began with futuristic images of robots on the big screen, revealing some of their innards just as the hall itself does, looking like the inside of the space craft from Alien.

My companion joked that the images of robots looked like the members of the band before they put on their human skin for the show. But the level of instrumental virtuosity from the members of the band was so high, and the depth of emotion was so great, that it was clear that these were exceptionally musical human beings rather than androids.

The stage show was stunning; two staircases at either side allowed the singer James LaBrie to climb up onto a long platform behind the drummer Mike Mangini and prowl around like a restless Big Cat. At one point he slouched menacingly above the drummer and moved his arms around as if controlling him like a puppet master.

The big screen behind the band displayed videos throughout the show, including a moving story in Pale Blue Dot about Earth seen from a space station. Refreshingly, although the Armadillo is a large venue there were no images of the band on screen as they played live, which can make an arena gig seem like an expensive pop video. The lighting was crisp, dazzling, constantly inventive, beautifully choreographed and often very evocative. The sound was clear and well-balanced, although occasionally the double kick drums were slightly dominant, but this is progressive metal after all. And John Petrucci’s guitar sound was possibly the best live guitar sound I have ever heard, ranging from guttural thrashing riffs to sweet, aching Floydian melodies that would have made Dave Gilmour proud. The whole show felt like a huge step up from the last Dream Theater show I saw at Manchester Apollo.

Wolfgang ‘too many notes’ Mozart

It’s said that Emperor Joseph II once told Mozart that one of his operas was too beautiful for his ears, and had ‘an awful lot of notes’. Mozart supposedly replied ‘exactly as many as are necessary, Your Majesty.’ The comment could also apply to Dream Theater, particularly to John Petrucci’s guitar playing; is there a more virtuosic live guitarist than him right now? He was matched note-for-note and length of hair by John Myung on bass. On keyboard Jordan Rudess had no hair but what he lacked follicly he compensated for digitally with amazing keyboard runs. A highlight was when he came to centre of the stage to play a solo on his Keytar, flanked by the two guitarists. Reader, my heart sang! Head of Percussion Mike Mangini was equally virtuosic, and had helpfully brought along all his pots and pans to hang above in case in case he fancied some flash cooking.

James LaBrie on vocals had a great metal stage presence, his long black locks matching those of the guitarists. He also had the sense to leave the stage when he wasn’t singing, leaving his colleagues to delight us with long and incredibly complex instrumental passages like naughty mice who had come out to play while the cat was away. It has to be said though that he was vocally tired – not surprising as this was the final gig of a seven-week European tour. As he admitted in an engaging aside, he was almost ready to kill his fellow band members by this stage of the tour. Sometimes he and the melody of a song seemed to be inhabiting different Continents, but he was sweet-voiced in the ballads and was relentlessly committed in his delivery wielding his mic stand like a warrior.

The first half of the concert was mostly taken from the latest album, Distance Over Time, and it proved a worthy opener, an overture to the rock opera that is Metropolis Pt 2 – Scenes from a Memory. This was the main event, the twentieth anniversary of the ‘conceptual album’ as the vocalist described it, that proved so popular on its first release that the band toured it for two years on its first release. I’m not sure what the conceptual aspect of the album is, but it seems to involve a murder which took place in the 1920s. There was a lot of blood on the screen and the words Murder and Police Line Do Not Cross, with images of a woman with a Flapper dress and bob . And – No Spoiler Alert! – there is a New Ending but as I wasn’t following the story I can’t tell you what it means.

But even for those not following the story the sense of the 1920s period was clearly evoked, partly by the comic book images from the story that dominated the screen, and also by the occasional bar-room piano sounds. And there was a real sense of dynamics in the music, light and shade that lifted this beyond the progressive metal genre to something more subtle but as emotionally visceral. The first five Scenes of the rock opera from Regression to Through her Eyes were one of the most musically satisfying sections of a concert I have ever seen. And the quality of the live sound was so good that it sounded better than the original album, which although a classic now feels in need of a little remixing and remastering (is Steven Wilson free?)

Strangely enough, after the epic performance of Scenes, the encore that ended the concert felt unnecessary, like a dessert in an Indian restaurant. But it was a great evening a Night(mare) to Remember even, a constant joy that makes me smile again as I write this.

Review – Thrak (1995) by King Crimson

Part II of How I learned to listen to King Crimson

My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror 

Robert Fripp, Die Zeit, May 1995 

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Bill Bruford, Auditory Illusions, BBC Radio 4 2019

In 2019, I heard that King Crimson had released an album called Thrak in 1995. The title reminded me of another great progressive rock band, the mighty Thotch who recorded their classic song Land of the Crab in 1975.

Thotch perform Land of The Crab in 1975

But Seriously © Phil Collins, despite its opaque title and equally impenetrable cover art this is a great album.

The music itself can also be opaque and impenetrable at times, partly because there are two bands playing at the same time. In different time signatures. The two bands are in fact a double trio:

Robert Fripp        

Guitar, Soundscapes, Mellotron 

Trey Gunn 

Stick, Backing Vocals 

Pat Mastelotto 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

Adrian Belew 

Guitar, Voice, Words 

Tony Levin 

Basses, Backing Vocals 

Bill Bruford 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

But, as Tom Johnson wrote in 2015 it was difficult to sustain for a whole album

In theory, it sounds fascinating, and is a real challenge to the way rock music can be approached. In practice, however, the band, well, didn’t. The only real example of this approach to be found is VROOOM: Pan your speakers left or right and you’ll hear two separate trios playing, you guessed it, slightly different versions of the same song. They merge back together as Coda: Marine 475 begins. As promising as the idea had been, it proved too much to accomplish an entire album that way at the time. 

Tom Johnson Something Else Review

VROOM is the opening track. The first minute is King Crimson in a microcosm, a universe in a grain of sand. It begins with a lovely, nostalgic-sounding theme on Mellotron strings which soon drifts uneasily down in pitch before we are briefly thrown through countless galaxies in Space and the grinding industrial prog-funk-metal of the double trio kicks in.

VROOM segues into Coda Marine 475, which according to Robert Fripp takes its title and spoken words from the Marine 475 Syndicate at Lloyd’s Insurance. Musically, something very interesting is going on. This sounds like an example of an auditory illusion called the Shepard Tone, in which a tone seems continually to ascend or descend in pitch but in fact gets no higher or lower, trapped like a brown paper bag blown by the wind against a rusty gate. The music appears to be constantly descending here; the great Hans Zimmer used the same effect, only with an ascending tone, in his score for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.




‘Shepard Tones are what anxiety sounds like ‘ (YouTube comment)

Dinosaur begins with short Mellotron intro, sounding like a Mahler symphony beamed from a distant planet, then dystopian guitars crunch and grind; the same thing happens again after a lovely pastoral interlude at around 3.36. But there is humour in the lyrics, which seem to acknowledge that the once hip young Crims [sic] of the 1960’s have been left behind,

When I look back on the past
It's a wonder I'm not yet extinct...

I'm a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones  

(The term ‘dinosaur rock’ itself now seems to be largely extinct; a quick image search mostly reveals rocks shaped like dinosaurs…)

Walking on air is a lovely ballad, similar to Matte Kudasai from the 1981 Discipline. Even in the midst of all this Thrakking, King Crimson can surprise us with beauty.

But don’t get too comfortable. We go briefly spinning into the galaxies again before we land at B’boom. It’s a drum solo. For two drummers. What can I tell you? Well, since you asked, it does sound rather like The Flowers of Romance by Public Image.

Gentle reader, I recently re-discovered my hand-written notes about each track on the album. Under the heading Thrak I wrote one word:

HELP!

A visceral reaction to a visceral song. It’s time to Unleash the Frogs (well, one frog and seven fridges). You may remember (you won’t, but I’m being polite) that I began my opening blog in this series, How I learned to listen to King Crimson with a quote from an Amazon review of the album.

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

It’s a compelling image. And the song would make an excellent soundtrack to a dystopian movie, perhaps about a Plague of Frogs (or fridges?)

But now I need to explain how I came across the album Thrak, and why I have chosen it as the first of the albums to feature in this series rather than some of the more famous ones. I admit I hadn’t heard of it until I emailed Bill Bruford about to ask him about auditory illusions in music – particularly rhythmic illusions. He suggested, modestly, that I should listen to a track from this album called Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream as I might find it interesting. I did. There’s one extraordinary section where the two drummers play in completely different time signatures. Listening to the track on the train when I was on my way to meet Bill I happened to be facing backwards and I became disorientated. It felt as if I was moving backwards and forwards at the same time. I felt as if I were moving in two different, but related dimensions at the same time, like the passenger and the person on the platform in Einstein’s thought experiment about the train being struck by bolts of lightning. This was a musical bolt of lightning, one of those rare moments when the musical landscape is briefly illuminated and its contours reveal themselves. The reason I felt so disorientated was that the two drummers, Bill himself and Pat Mastelotto were playing in two different time signatures at the same time.

Another moment of revelation came when I met Bill himself and he explained the key to King Crimson’s music,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Suddenly, I understood. (Italics added for emphasis and a little bit of pretension). As far as King Crimson were concerned I now had a key to enable me to unlock the doors of perception © A Huxley and Wm Blake. And no Mescaline or sitting naked in my front garden seeing visions of flights of angels had been necessary. Although that would have been nice.

So my journey through King Crimson’s dystopian delights begins. It would be great if you could join me on my travels.

See you next time.

How I learned to listen to King Crimson

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

I hope Paul’s frog survived. In case you are wondering whether Paul liked the album, his review begins 

Wow. I was simply astounded when I first heard this

Paul gives the album five stars (not seven, one for each fridge…..?) 

To continue with the pet frog analogy, one of my friends describes some contemporary classical music as sounding like ‘a fire in a pet shop’, and the music of King Crimson can sometimes seem similarly difficult.

But another ‘difficult’ composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote not just the atonal horrorshow (and I mean that in a good way) of Erwartung but also the moon-drenched Romantic lyricism of Verklärte Nacht: 

Erwartung and Verklärte Nacht

King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, now 50 years old, is still a difficult listen. The first two tracks perfectly demonstrate the two different styles, beginning with 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Cat's foot iron claw    
           
Neurosurgeons scream for more  

At paranoia's poison door
    
21st century schizoid man. 

Greg Lake’s anguished, distorted cry ‘21st century schizoid man’ has become a cultural touchstone in the 21st century; sampled by Kanye West in Power 

And used by Paco Rabanne to advertise Invictus 

The song also features Tony Blair’s favourite guitar solo; and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song PRS Guitars have put the album artwork on a signature guitar 

Image © PRS Guitars 

But 21st  Century Schizoid Man, the first song on In the Court of the Crimson King is followed by the gentle pastoral musings of I Talk to the Wind.

21st Century Schizoid Man and I Talk to the Wind

And King Crimson can also write songs that are as Romantic and melodic as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – listen to the opening melody of Starless 

For many years, In the Court of the Crimson King was the only album of theirs that I knew. I was reluctant to buy any more of their albums on cd without hearing them first.

Then I saw a video of them playing Frame by Frame from their album Discipline on the Old Grey Whistle Test. This was very different from the prog glory of The Crimson King. The track reminded me of part III of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint – Fast, with its virtuoso playing, use of phasing and chorus effects (but not a chorus of Frogs). In both cases harmonic shifts turn a glittering surface into something deeper, more moving and engaging. I bought Discipline on cd and often returned to its post-punk discipline, sometimes edgy and occasionally slightly manic. But this didn’t really help me appreciate the whole of the King Crimson catalogue of 13 studio albums and about 457 live albums, as the two albums I now owned felt so different. This was partly because the two albums were over ten years apart, with only one member in both line-ups, a gentleman by the name of Robert Fripp esq.

Then in April 2019 a revelation. It was announced that King Crimson’s complete back catalogue of studio albums would be available to stream

At last, I could listen to the albums without buying them. (In case you are worried, I have since bought six more of them on cd).

At about this time, I began working on a radio documentary about auditory illusions in music. The Presenter asked me to find a drummer who could talk about rhythmic illusions, so we went to interview Bill Bruford who I knew from his work with Yes, and also with King Crimson on Discipline. To prepare for the interview, I spent a whole weekend listening to the King Crimson albums that Bill had played on. They were dense, a difficult listen, but there was something that made me want to hear them again.

Bill had e-mailed me to suggest a couple of tracks that would illustrate the creation of rhythmic illusions. One of them was Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream from King Crimson’s 1995 album Thrak. This is how he described the track,

The purpose here was to create an illusion of imminent chaos, something about to fall off the edge of the world, but in fact it’s not going to at all. It’s entirely precise…and it’s entirely notate-able if you wanted to.

Finally, it all made sense to me – the key to understanding King Crimson seems to be to view their music as precision-tooled dystopia.

Bill went on to say,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

I can see that music with a sense of impending doom isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But there is something visceral about the industrial funk of King Crimson of an album like Thrak. If you surrender to it, like the frog watching seven fridges falling towards it, the experience can be exhilarating, cathartic even.

My plan now is to review some of the King Crimson albums I have discovered in my next few blogs, starting with Thrak.

See you next time.