And then there were three: Robert Fripp, John Wetton, and Bill Bruford.
Red makes the final statement of not only the ’73-4 period but of King Crimson’s reign since 1969, and it carries every bit of that weight. Stately, dark, well written and played, it’s an honorable finale and one of KC’s best studio albums. It roughly mirrors In the Court in that the first half is made up of three strong songs, the first of which is a flagship palace-burner, while the second half includes a free improv and a majestic epic. Back from the past are Ian McDonald and Mel Collins on alto and soprano sax, and Robin Miller (oboe) and Marc Charig (cornet) make guest appearances as well. As does David Cross, by way of a live track taken from the preceding tour.
“Red”: The common feeling among Crimson’s instrumental anthems is a sense of purpose, where the music has a self-contained aim, and wider implications, perhaps. There’s no doubt that “Red” knows its purpose from front to back - “intelligent heavy metal” as Fripp called it. It’s sort of a guitar-riff junkyard, from which elements like an octatonic scale (in the opening/closing theme), a double-stop main riff, and suspended seventh chords in the “chorus” are hammered into a Frippenstein contraption. In the middle section, clipped guitar chords and a dark bass part create the impending feel that Crimson can purvey like no other. What makes the structure work, to me, is the change to a Bsus7 chord that occurs four times throughout the piece, brightening the surroundings, suggesting triumph amidst adversity. In the first and third appearances, it moves up to D, and the uplift is even greater.
Fripp covers the track with a raging, roiling landscape of guitars, while Wetton squeezes his huge stage sound into the mix, and Bruford strikes away. There’s nothing technically difficult about playing the piece, but it concentrates the energies of the players.
“Fallen Angel”: Reflective, sad, angry, and muscular. The song proper (with lyrics by Palmer-James) concerns dangerous street life in NYC, specifically the fallen brother of the protagonist, as told in the melodic verses. Secondary color comes from acoustic guitar, oboe, and cornet, twice usurped by the dour march of Fripp’s gloomy arpeggio riff. The half-step root movement of the riff has a bemoaning character almost too cheap for Crimson, especially when Wetton intones the title phrase and the band moves like a restless funeral procession. Then comes a cornet solo in the fadeout, the only instrument that could have cut through the morose wall at that point, I suppose.
“Fallen Angel” has no live history before or since, except for the arpeggio riff that was used on a jam basis back in the Larks’ Tongues live days. I’m not a big fan of the song, although I like the “West Side skyline” passage.
“One More Red Nightmare”: There’s so much happening in this song, I don’t know where to start. Except at the start: escalating tritone riffs alternate with jazzy drum breaks, an exchange that is repeated twice more down the road. The verses hop into a funky sequence as Wetton sings about a fear of flying. (The lyrics are his own, and having read my Crimson scrapbooks, I suspect “The stewardess made me” might be an inside joke.) The instrumental segments are built on blurry guitar arpeggios - and Ian McDonald takes a sax solo. Two of them, in fact. The return of the crimson king? It sounds nice.
Notice how Fripp avoids standard rock cliches in this song. For example, anybody else might have opted for a typical rhythm part in the verses, but Fripp instead drives two-note signposts into the chord changes. His overdubbed guitar in the solo sections is just as detached. Meanwhile, “One More Red Nightmare” is one of the finest Bruford performances ever waxed. The deft fills, the cross-rhythms of the sax solo sections, and the clamped-hi-hat/bass drum of the verses all speak of Bruford’s drumming wit. As does the disfigured cymbal that he rescued from the studio’s trash to put to effective use.
“Providence”: An edited live improvisation. David Cross may have been dismissed from the band because the music “wasn’t right,” but his violin perfectly sets the menacing mood of this piece. Fripp duets with Cross using the flute tapes on the Mellotron, and he actually plays flute-like phrases with it. (In fact, when I first heard this album back in college, before I knew jack-diddly about Crimson, I thought it was a real flautist.) Wetton and Bruford’s background tinkering sets up Stage 2, where Cross is mixed out and Fripp moves to laser-beam guitar. At the summit, bass and drums joust over an angular groove as the guitar scurries and howls - stand in awe of this demonic tremoring, O mortals, else mitten thy ears and run for the meadows! Cross reappears after the tempest subsides to bid the final goodbye. “Providence” matches the mood of everything else on Red and summarizes the Crimson tradition of free playing. The moonchild has come a long way.
“Starless”: Call it an optimal result of progressive rock intelligence; call it the apotheosis of Crimsoid melancholy; call it sonata form or a grand AABA structure; whatever the tag, “Starless” is perhaps the most profound composition in all of Crimson. Mix a solid ballad with a great melody and an instrumental study in broad dynamics, and you get this 12-minute tour de force. “Starless” had been christened on the preceding tour, and a couple of those live versions are very good. The studio rendition is definitive and more controlled, although it misses David Cross’s violin statements.
Overcast Mellotron and a snail-pace momentum set up the main theme, a poignant rise and fall in G minor voiced by muffled fuzz-sustain guitar. Part of the effect of this melody is that it ends on the second degree (A) of the scale, which has a very “longing” and rueful sound, especially went bent slightly upward as Fripp does. In the song itself, Wetton sings of emptiness - perhaps at the end of a relationship, or of a passing from innocence to realism. Despite the “starless and bible black” atmosphere, it’s not a self-pitying or depressing song; certain inflections in Wetton’s vocal offer hope for fighting back. Mel Collins’ soprano sax adds some embellishments, too.
After three verses, everything clears out of the way for a 13/8 bassline with a tritone pivot. Bruford taps on woodblocks and then plays against the bassline more dangerously from the drumkit. Fripp switches to guitar, and instead of soloing in a traditional way, he plays droning unison notes, one string against the other, that climb a semi-chromatic path. The tonic of the bassline moves between C and F, sometimes going up to G, against which the guitar notes have a nagging, dissonant effect. Slowly this section builds power, as the bass gets louder, the percussion becomes more restless, and the guitar notes venture higher. There’s a sudden drop into a drumless vortex with staccato guitar signals, and then the group races back into the 13/8 line at a much faster tempo. All of the pent-up suspense of the preceding episode is released in saxophone and guitar solos. Breaking up Fripp’s screaming statement is an interlude where the two saxophones reprise the vocal melody from the song.
In the dramatic homestretch, saxes take the main Starless theme, accompanied by a strong rhythm and the returning Mellotron. These lines of hope and waves of remorse bring the journey to a unified denouement. There’s enough certainty in the final note to stand as the completion of everything Crimson had done since its inception.
Red is part hard rock, part grandeur, and pure Crimson. Every minute of it displays the artistic integrity that the band had forged in the Larks-Starless period, and it squashes the likes of Lizard and Islands flat. As for the progressive rock context, Crimson’s solution to the self-feeding pomp circa 1974 is to downsize. “Red” is more about a state of mind than a barrage of notes or the juvenile posturing associated with other “heavy metal.” In “One More Red Nightmare”, crafty musicianship stands with feet on the ground, as opposed to being adrift in a topographic ocean. I don’t mean to sling arrows at other artists’ aesthetics, but in less than six years, Crimson had pretty much abandoned the genre it helped spawn.
Ian McDonald’s cameo presence on Red was no courtesy call; there were plans to have him rejoin the band. In the great book of What Ifs and Missed Opportunities, that’s a big one. But Fripp, for personal reasons, had decided to go on sabbatical. All the pretensions to democracy in the world couldn’t change the fact that Fripp’s exile meant the end of Crim, and it was the man himself who officially announced that the King had “ceased to exist.” Probably for the best in the larger scheme of things, as sea changes were about to take place in the rock world. But how enticing the potential of a readmitted McDonald remains. Think of the increase in writing. Think of the sax-frenzy improvs and how Bruford might have thrown himself further into his jazz leanings. Ah well, the world needed Foreigner and UK and Asia, didn’t it?
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