With Jamie Muir departed, King Crimson became a quartet - one of the best KC lineups, in fact. They had compositional strength, improvisational mobility, and a tone of darkness. For Robert Fripp, this group validated his commitment to King Crimson through the precarious preceding years, as the music of the Starless quartet (as I think of them) is as strong as that of the original group, and more advanced. Crimson was still part of the progressive rock context, but compare Starless and Bible Black to, say, ELP’s triple live album of the time, and you can hear how Crimson stood apart. The emphasis on improvisation is significant. Crimson wasn’t just a talented group playing Big Important Works (although they had their share) - this was a group engaging with music, period.
Fripp was overshadowed by his other bandmates back in ’69, and he overshadowed himself with all the grand compositional attempts and multi-instrumental duties of the Wake-Lizard period. But circa ‘73-4, his hard-edged guitar “came out,” so to speak. (Although his best playing is often found on other people’s albums. Try Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” from 1973 for one classic example.)
John Wetton’s primary contribution was his nimble, powerful bass playing. As for vocals, he wasn’t a singer with a capital S; he was more like someone who could sing and happened to have a fairly attractive voice. Where Greg Lake sounded like angels had ferried him down to enlighten undelivered mortals, Wetton was more approachable in some ways. His enunciation could be rather curious - with some of the live songs, you’d better know the lyrics beforehand.
Bill Bruford, ex-Yes, took his playing to a new level in Crimson. Improvisation was in his blood; he rarely played a song the same way twice and he had a wannabe-jazzer’s touch on cymbals. He inherited some of Jamie Muir’s percussive goodies to add to his drumkit. In cahoots with Wetton, Bruford could go in all sorts of directions, and Fripp later remarked that they actually led the group onstage.
David Cross did not have as strong a musical personality as the above gents, but he filled a complementary role in the group. On violin, viola (forgive me if I fail to distinguish between the two), Mellotron, and electric piano, Cross colored the spaces and outlined the shapes of what the others played. Of course, he could step up with key moments in songs (he’s essential to “Exiles”, for one) and improvisations, and in almost every “Talking Drum” solo.
The Mellotron was one of the defining sounds of this Crimson, as it had been in the past. The notorious keyboard instrument was designed for artificial string (or flute, or voice) sweetening, and it enabled the insta-doom connotations of early KC tracts like “Epitaph”, “Mars”, and “Poseidon”. Manned by Cross and/or Fripp, it became the main paintbrush for starless skies.
King Crimson is caught “in progress” on this disc. Three songs are studio efforts from January of 1974, while the remaining tracks are live performances from late 1973, most of them improvisations. Starless and Bible Black doesn’t have a lot of formal weight, and as such, it’s not usually regarded as an outstanding KC album. Personally, I think it is an underrated and rather definitive document of this Crimson as a working unit.
“The Great Deceiver”: Nothing slack about this power-popping rocker. Blues-scale riffs, syncopated bass, a trenchant lyric, and lacerating layers of sound all coalesce into the catchiest Crimson track since you name it. Everyone features well: Fripp’s skewed rock guitaring includes a staircase sequence in the second verse and ornery octaves at the end; Cross bows the main hooks; Bruford prowls and pounces around; and Wetton centers everything, even self-harmonizing in the chorus. Early in the song is a “church organ” part with Wetton softly singing the “Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary” refrain, hinting at the Vatican commercialism that provided some of the lyric’s inspiration.
“Lament”: Commentators have sidelined this song before, but it really is a small wonder of arrangement. The whole tune is based on the reiteration of a particular chord sequence (F#-G#-A, sometimes continuing elsewhere) in different guises. The first verse is a maudlin setting for major chords on guitar and Wetton’s vocal remembrance of being on “the rock and roll stage”, and then the prettiness is whisked away for an episode of chromatic guitar figures and sneaky percussion. The following verses - some vocal, some instrumental - are by turns martial, chromatic, dissonant, and/or funky. Deployed throughout the song is an effective turnaround from a suspended, “happy” B chord to a harsh, answering E7. All of this follows the lyrical lament of someone who was once triumphant but is now troubled. (“I took my chance and you took yours / You crewed my ship, we missed the tide.”) In the final verse, the guitar’s intervals are at their most unsettling. The protagonist, meanwhile, has reached a point of desperation, trying to return life to where it used to be, where one could hear a good band and “dance all night.” The instrumental tag renders the main chord sequence in whole tone riffs - meter in 7, although Bruford plays in 4 against it - and instead of F#-G#-A, it ends F#-G#-A#, in keeping with the whole-tone scale. Instead of resolution, there’s a question mark, and the deconstruction of the opening chords is complete.
In live performance, “Lament” becomes more aggressive. This studio version has a few exclusive details, like a countermelody and processed handclaps.
“We’ll Let You Know”: An edited live improv that originally appeared at the end of an “Easy Money”. In this playful atmosphere, no one commits to anything right away. Fripp pings harmonics and bends stray notes, Cross noodles on electric piano, Wetton assembles a funky line, and Bruford taps on woodblocks and metals. Only when the suspense is unbearable does Bruford fall into a comfy groove with Wetton, cheering on Fripp’s solo at the same time. It ends with another fragmented exchange. Fun track.
“The Night Watch”: It’s “just a ballad,” perhaps, but this meditation on the Rembrandt painting imports a sincerity from older times, and the group plays most elegantly. Apparently the boys were making use of Leslie speakers in the Command Studios, and both Cross and Fripp contribute good parts, especially the latter’s introspective solo. The song feels a little too “posed” to me, but that’s part of the charm.
“Trio”: In this peaceful improvisation, Cross and Fripp exchange bittersweet melodies over Wetton’s gentle bass skeleton; it’s as if time stands still and all of life’s irritations disappear. Bruford lays out, a judgement that earned him a compositional credit. (For “contributing silence.”) This beautiful reverie dates from a November 1973 concert in Amsterdam, from which other parts of S&BB were taken.
“The Mincer”: A live improv excerpt from a Zurich concert. No one knew it at the time of this album’s release of course, but “The Mincer” is the missing link between Parts 1 and 2 of “Law of Maximum Distress” as later documented on the Great Deceiver boxset below. Rising Mellotron clouds, distorted electric piano, gnarled fuzz guitar, and a sneaky rhythm all form a heady scene. Wetton overdubbed a nice vocal part in the studio, although the lyric is inscrutable. Apropos the law of maximum distress, the track ends with the sound of the recording reel running out.
“Starless and Bible Black”: Another live improvisation. Chilly nocturnal soundscapes and an eventual Wetton/Bruford funk beat set up a quietly searing Fripp solo. The interaction of the quartet could be quite subtle, as evidenced by the way the groove morphs into lighter, double-time implications. The ending, between Cross and Wetton, is sublime. The title of this piece is not to be confused with the later song “Starless”.
“Fracture”: Like “LTIA pt.1”, “Fracture” is sort of a chamber-rock instrumental. It’s built on guitar figures that for the most part utilize whole-tone scales, thus giving the piece an ambiguous, searching feel. The prime motif is a spider-like riff in 5, which alternates with a crunching power chord riff in the main “verses”. The middle section develops a faster ostinato with a new melodic motif on top. The homestretch includes a rocking call to arms from the guitar, more development of the main melody (moving up in thirds), some rhythm section adventures, and a crashing finale.
The microcosmos of “Fracture” could be analyzed in much detail, but what makes it all work is the way the structure dwells on the various segments until they’re almost hypnotic. The guitar stays on a written course almost all the way through; unaccompanied, this would be impressive but dull. The counterpoint from violin/viola and bass add a lot of interest to the guitar spine, and the percussion - including xylophone? - is invaluable. The dynamic peak comes during the “split melody” near the end where Cross and Fripp trade two-note lines and the bass/drum momentum is at its strongest.
The arcane meters and harmony follow the chromatic investigations of “Larks’ Tongues pt.1” and push Fripp’s guitar technique along as well, what with the precise cross-picking of the main riffs. The central section is kind of a sonic representation of the quartet’s inter-player schematic, with Fripp as the balancing beam upon which the others might perform. However, that’s not a blanket situation, and it applies more accurately to the 1980s Crimson. (Indeed, “Fracture” is like “Pre-Discipline”.) SaBB’s “Fracture” is a live take with a few studio overdubs. Other available live takes demonstrate the relative flexibility the other instruments have within the piece, while the guitar rigging remains fixed.
In toto, the appeal of Starless and Bible Black depends mostly on the listener’s acceptance of improvisation. But then, why else would one be interested in this Crimson?
Bootlegged before, this legendary concert was officially released by DGM in 1997 on two CDs. The sound is great and the booklet contains commentary from Fripp, David Cross, and engineer David Singleton. This was the performance from which parts of Starless and Bible Black were taken - “Fracture”, two improvs, and the opening portion of “The Night Watch”, to be exact. Comparing the two “Fractures” demonstrates the effects of mixing. The unadorned live version (although a couple of small overdubs could not be removed) has a louder guitar presence but minimizes David Cross somewhat, and the track sounds “closer up” than on SaBB. In fact, you can compare the “Talking Drum” on Disc 2 with the mix that originally appeared on Crimson’s 1991 Frame by Frame boxset and find slight differences there, too. Anyway, The Night Watch presents a fair and balanced picture.
The performance earns its keep. Exhausted, tense, and dealing with trials such as a Mellotron going kaput in the middle of “The Night Watch”, the group soldiers on, sometimes raising the intensity, sometimes turning to free improv for rejuvenation. It’s no accident that “Starless and Bible Black” and “Trio” wound up on a proper album, as they rank among the cohesive examples of KC free playing. “Easy Money” and “Exiles” are powerful and nuanced, while “Lament” has a rather goofy wah-guitar solo. The audience applauds the opening of “Book of Saturday”, as close as a live rendition could get to the exquisite studio take. As mentioned, “Night Watch” suffers from a technical snafu, but Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford cover for Cross’s absent instrument, thus avoiding a total train wreck.
The final sequence starts with a suspenseful improv called “The Fright Watch”, led by Wetton, that segues into a long “Talking Drum”. Cross’s solo is great, and when Fripp’s burning guitar joins in, the group keeps the needle in the red for quite a while. You can just barely hear Bruford shouting as he emphasizes the crash cymbals at the end, perhaps trying to remind the band that there is another piece to follow. “Larks’ Tongues Pt. 2” leaves some of its energy behind in the “Talking Drum” but it’s still decent. The encore “21st Century Schizoid Man” is my personal favorite version outside of KC69’s Fillmore East performance. In this one, Fripp’s raw sound and the jazzy interplay in the middle section stand out. Wetton gets a bass solo, too. The escalating din that precedes the stop-time riff summons the terror that was suggested by the cover painting of In the Court of the Crimson King. Overall, Night Watch is a great sample of the group in action.
First released in late 1992, this 4-disc set is still the most in-depth portrait of any Crimson lineup. It contains excerpts from six different concerts, all well recorded and with no post polishing. (Although I have my suspicions about the violin solo in the first “LTIA pt.2”.) Fripp’s extensive booklet notes include journal extracts that reveal the inner tensions of both music and personnel. It was not a perfect group, but no outfit that takes as many chances possibly could be. The many brilliant moments are tempered by scattered moments of error: a violin or vocal momentarily out of tune, a botched guitar line, or a carelessly accelerated tempo. All is bound within the spirit of live performance, and The Great Deceiver documents a process as much as specific music or players.
The improvs during this time are like reconnaissance reports from the front rooms of haunted houses: a screech, a metallic clang or scrape, a brief gust of Mellotron air, and then the crawl down the main hall, with dark delights waiting beyond. When inspiration is low, or when an aggressive drive is favored, Wetton is ready with an appropriate bass line. Bruford is all over the place, either pushing or decorating, while the twin Mellotron atmosphere lends a “spacy” gravitas to everything. Cross’s violin and viola are good for the quieter, motivic moments, while Fripp bravely surfs the rowdier rhythms with his guitar.
“The Golden Walnut”, Massey Hall, Toronto, June 24, 1974: A short fanfare and we’re off. Drums and bass kick into high gear and a distorted guitar flurries over the hyperactive foundation. Electric piano joins the din, but this opening stretch is clearly led by the rhythm battery, whose funky groove is syncopated, broken down, double-timed, and then folded upon itself. As the 4/4 Theme and Variation clinic winds down, the guitar essays a tritone riff from stage right - a red nightmare in gestation. The drums then drop away and a three-note line, doubled in the electric piano and Mellotron, signals a second act. The economic keyboard cell is spun outward, picking up bass counterpoint along the way. And it is in this support that the bassist discovers the centerpiece for Act Three, a choppy modal line that draws curious attention and offbeat punctuations from the other instruments. The guitarist jabs deconstructive intervals into available spaces, but the bassline prevails and, after a shimmering keyboard interlude, wins its player solo coda honors: lulling harmonic rakes, fading into silence.
So much for a guitar solo.
The improv sensibility carries over to the tunes, several of which are repeated from set to set, like “Easy Money”, “Fracture”, both “Larks’ Tongues”, “Talking Drum”, and so on. A couple of those pieces retain rigid guitar parts but for the rest of the band, it’s never the same way twice.
And now, a quick tour of the box. Disc 1’s Providence gig catches the quartet near the end of their life, playing balls-out despite fatigue and tension. Bill Bruford can be heard shouting, “Keep going! One to go!” before one of the last numbers. “Larks’ Tongues pt. 2” roars in at the start of the show, followed by “Lament” and “Exiles”. The centerpiece improv “Voyage to the Centre of the Cosmos” features strong grooves, Mellotron nebulae, and a Cross violin freakout. Fripp cracks up Wetton with obscene guitar bends in the first verses of “Easy Money”, and his solo includes a conspicuous motif that melds “Fracture” and the future “Discipline”. “Easy Money” leads into “Providence”, a nasty improv that was edited for inclusion on the Red album. Closing the set is a new piece called “Starless”, an epic downcast ballad with a thrilling instrumental workout. (I discuss it in detail on the Red page.) A vicious “Schizoid Man” serves as encore - and spills over to Disc 2.
At the Glasgow Apollo in October of 1973, “Larks’ Tongues pt.1” and “Book of Saturday” are still on the agenda, and “Cat Food” provides a nice, rocking surprise. The “We’ll Let You Know” improv that trails out of “Easy Money” was included on Starless and Bible Black. A drumbox rhythm fuels funky yet dissonant threads in the improv “Tight Scrummy”. Finishing Disc 2 is “Easy Money” from Penn State in 1974. The solo section goes so far into another zone that it becomes its own improv (“It Is For You, But Not For Us”) and “Easy Money” is left behind. Excellent track.
Disc 3 captures a Pittsburgh set that includes “Great Deceiver”, a new song called “Doctor Diamond” (which one reviewer called “Heartbreak Hotel” meets Mahavishnu Orchestra, too accurate to be topped), and another preview of “Starless”. We hear an unusually consonant hoedown in the “Daniel Dust” improv that precedes “Night Watch”. Another improv called “Wilton Carpet” ranks with Crimson’s fright-watch best and leads into “Talking Drum” with a marvelous Cross solo. An abbreviated “LTIA pt.2” follows. Disc 3 ends with another taste of Penn State: a lengthy improv entitled “Is There Life Out There?” The answer is yes.
Disc 4 starts with four tracks from a Toronto show, including the “Golden Walnut” improv detailed above. Cross adds Mellotron to “Fracture”, and his violin leads the way in the “Clueless and Slightly Slack” free blow. Then we backtrack to Zurich in 1973 for seven great tracks, including the ideal live version of “Larks’ Tongues pt.1”. “Easy Money” is as funky and fun as ever. The big improv here is “The Law of Maximum Distress” in two parts; the missing segment wound up as “The Mincer” on Starless and Bible Black. (So with a little CD archaeology, one may approximate the whole improv.) “Law pt.1” develops an obstinate bassline from Wetton, against which Bruford tries various counter-beats and ends up beating the absolute hell out of his drums. Bloody intense. The improv “Some More Pussyfooting” sends the Mellotrons in scary, detuned directions before heralding “Talking Drum”. Having rendered the Mellotron tonally useless, Fripp can’t accompany Cross’ solo in the usual manner, so he plays guitar throughout. “TD” builds to a screaming head and then, abruptly, the disc is over.
To sum up the Great Deceiver is to sum up the group itself. Risks are taken; some pay off, some don’t, and some lead to new avenues. I have no idea what it was like for audiences in the day to witness so much unexpected music at these KC gigs, when they hadn’t even heard all of the written material before, let alone the free jams. A lot of trust joins the musicians and listeners.
Bill Bruford stands out most to me on this set. His playing has a lot of cleverness (like the way he dices the 13/8 in Pittsburgh’s “Starless”) and personality. He’s an attentive listener and likes to dispatch thematic ideas, like the cymbal/snare motif that frames the last round of action in “Centre of the Cosmos”, or the dramatic tom hits that reappear in “Is There Life Out There”. So the occasional rushed tempo and overly mischievous fill can be forgiven, just for his awareness and creativity.
Mainz covers a lot of the same territory as the mainstream live releases, albeit with variations. “Lament” sounds a little too desperate - or at least the vocal does - while “Easy Money”, “Exiles”, and “Night Watch” are all respectable versions. “Doctor Diamond” makes another appearance; the soul-stealing lyric (if you can decipher Herr John) and strident instrumental part are classic dark-side Crim, and it’s a shame they didn’t take this song into the studio. “Starless” has a couple of rough patches but is still convincing. Crimson tries to repeat an improvisation with “Trio” redux; it’s nearly as good as the Amsterdam original and Bruford adds xylophone (or glockenspiel?) this time around. The standout improv “Atria” includes exotic scales, great bass parts, and charging finale. All as prelude to “The Night Watch”, go figure. Recommended to fans of this lineup.
Recorded mostly at an Asbury Park gig, and originally released in 1975, after Crimson had broken up. (A little “R.I.P.” graces the cover credits.) The 2002 reissue expands what was for the longest time the only available live recording of this lineup, adding near-definitive readings of “Fracture” and “Starless” to the original hardrock menu of larks’ tongues and easy money and schizoid men. The group is in strong form as they rivet hi-density, asymmetric girders for their tyrannosaur-cage material. A ferocious suite of progressive metal, some intelligence required: here’s the real Heavy ConstruKction. Fripp’s guitar almost matches shoulders with Wetton’s fuzzed out behemoth bass. Bruford pounds with power and Cross is odd man out, though not ineffectual. (Eddie Jobson was drafted to do a couple of overdubs, when Cross’ original tracks were deemed sonically unusable.) “Easy Money” goes into a lonely solo tangent from Robert and fades out just as his ideas start getting more complex. The sole free improv is the now-infamous “Asbury Park”, an open throttle jam. Even “Exiles” pounds the table. Subtleties exist, especially in the “Fracture” and “Starless” add-ons, but USA is mostly about muscle.
The quartet’s swan song was at Central Park in NYC. A Collectors Club recording exists of this exalted show (Fripp compared it to 1969), but it uses a spotty audience tape and the pitch is off. The decision was already made to boot David Cross from the group once the tour was over, despite Bruford’s objections, and even though Mr. Cross was not yet privy to this information. No one knew that Central Park would be the last Crimson gig for several years. Anyway, off to the studio went Bobby, Billy, and John...
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