Sunday, December 20, 2009

Red by King Crimson

The music that progressive-rock pioneers King Crimson made in the mid-1970s continues to be a rather contentious issue, even amongst avid aficionados who possess every single one of the band’s recordings. On the one hand, supporters would refer to the mind-expanding improvisatory instrumental jams and the virtuosic musical aptitude that luminaries like Bill Bruford, John Wetton and Jamie Muir brought to the table as proof of the enduring qualities of the music. On the contrary, detractors would charge the same long-winded instrumental jams as nothing more but artistic self-indulgence, and would also point to the lack of coherent melodic structures and intentionally complicated production values as evidence that King Crimson was deliberately making life difficult for their fans.

While King Crimson’s mid-1970s-era material continues to inspire endorsement and exasperation in roughly equal measures, one album does stand out from the rest of the three albums that were released between 1972 and 1974. This particular record is 1974’s ‘Red’, which, incidentally, was the 1970s King Crimson line-up’s last album before bandleader Robert Fripp decided to retire the King Crimson name, albeit temporarily until 1981. ‘Red’ stood out by virtue of its tighter, more focused songwriting and more purposeful performances (although artistic excess did exist in places), as compared to the dissonance of the preceding ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ and ‘Starless and Bible Black’, making it arguably the most resonant and accessible of the three albums.

This newly minted surround-sound reissue of ‘Red’ fleshes out the inherent muscularity of the original music, making it the definitive version of the album. The remastering does help in spades, especially in bringing out the hitherto buried tonal shades of the opening proto-metal instrumental ‘Red’, a cacophonous but still melodic tour de force that compellingly displays Fripp’s one-of-a-kind tri-tone guitar-riffing method. The following ‘Fallen Angel’ is an expansive six-minute ballad that abounds with lots of interesting sonic details like oboes, cellos and alto saxophones, while the guttural, raucous ‘One More Red Nightmare’ is an explicit showcase for percussion, a psychedelia-tinged rocker with death-defying metrical changes.

‘Providence’ marks the one instance on ‘Red’ when King Crimson lapsed into musical indulgence, a freeform instrumental improvisation that is both calculatedly chaotic and whimsical, and ends up neither here nor there. Thankfully, the band did a fair bit of bootstrapping for the concluding, twelve-minute epic ‘Starless’, a carefully crafted, multi-segmented showcase that seems to incorporate everything that contributes to King Crimson’s artistic majesty: melancholy, slightly medieval-influenced balladic elements, aggressive riff-based counterpoints and dissonant improvisational changes, making for a very apt swan song for this formation of the group.

So, even if King Crimson’s music in the 1970s still constitutes a bone of contention amongst its community of hardcore fans, ‘Red’ does prove that there is a large measure of validity to the material put out back then. It’s a futile exercise to compare ‘Red’ to the awe-inspiring 1969 debut ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ or any of the latter-day, streamlined albums released from the 1980s onwards, simply because it operates on a different level of artistry altogether. Therefore, ‘Red’ must be assessed on its own terms, and in doing so, one can finally recognise its core values and appreciate its true artistic standing, without any inappropriate comparison to other Crimson albums. The best way to do so is to get hold of this remastered edition, which also doubles up as an essential and effective introduction to a particular stage of King Crimson’s artistic evolution.


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