Friday, December 3, 2010

King Crimson - Red

Red (1974) ****1/2

If you were a fan of the awesomoid heavosity of "21st Century Schizoid Man" but couldn't stand those sissy hippie ballads that filled up the rest of In the Court, then this is the KFC (King Fucking Crimson) platter for you.  After several albums floundering in the early '70s with incontinent lineup changes and subpar material (yes, I've heard Lizards in Poisedon's Starless Aspic Islands and may eventually force myself to listen to several LPs' worth of atonal jams in search of nonexistent songwriting again, for reviewing purposes - certainly not for pleasure!), the King slim down the members and metamorphize into into a heavy kickass power trio in a Cream vein of virtuosos who can play and don't let you forget it.  The basic idea can be roughly summarized as inventing the genre of heavy jazz metal, a commercially suicidal proposition even among the most open-minded pop audience, but that drives working musicians to slobbering fanboy-ism.  Not only is this shit heavy as osmium (or contempo Black Sabs) but it's full of untrivial chord changes and clockwork smooth tempo shifts and tight ensemble playing, as well as seering, technically accomplished solos.  I'm not a musician so I can't go into the technical details, all I can tell you is what my ears hear, and that is three top-notch musicians seemingly working at full capacity:  Bill Brufford, splashy rumbling tricky time signature drums; John Wetton, rubbery thick distorted bass grumblings and dead-ringer for Greg Lake clear art-rock vocals; and main man Robert Fripp swooping and slicing with shards of sharply atonal guitar, not quite fragmented enough to count as proto-post-punk but getting there.  Unlike the debut, which will forever carry the whiff of its patchouli age, this still sounds in 2010 very modern, not the least because so many math-rock and avante-metal bands can trace their roots to this basic template.  As far as dark, evil, heavy jam-rock goes, this goes head to head with the Stooges' Funhouse as my cerebral headbanger of choice - the comparison isn't often made (OK, I think I'm the only one) but both albums are equal parts atonal free jazz squall and heavy hard rock pounding, under the thumb of a very well-rehearsed and tight as an oil-drum band, with the Stooges obviously more on the headbanging side of things and King Crimson clearly aiming more for the cerebellum.  But both albums aim to hit both the body and mind, and succeed at doing so.

As with the debut, there are 5 lengthy songs.  The opening title track is an ear-puncturing instrumental with guitar (scraping) and bass (popping) against each other, drums down the middle, creepy mellotron on the break.  Dark, creepy, abrasive, eerie - that's the mood of the album; just look at the cover, it sets the intended mood just fine.  "Fallen Angel" eases off into a bit of light relief with some pretty mid-tempo balladeering before erupting into the title chorus and dragging the final minutes out on a sax-honking atonal jazz jam.  "One More Red Nightmare" is the mostly heavily rhythmic track, an agressive rocker that's all slappy-happy drum licks and ominous bass rumblings, with more jazzy soloing near the end.  "Providence" is the sole bummer, eight minutes of scratchy violin scraping while the band makes random jamming noises.  It's inexcusably awful and deprives this LP from scoring the highest possible grade.  But, saving the best for last is the twelve minute "Starless" which successfully marries the Crimson ballad and rock jam modes, and is probably the definitive King Crimson track for that reason.  Note that definitive doesn't necessarily mean best, though it may very well be - it satisfies both the requirements of flowing melodicism and instrumental show-off wankery.  Which is all you can ask of the Crimson Kings.  What more do you want?  Emotion?  Fah, tis for weakling souls.

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