Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Red, Yellow or Orange: Red

King Crimson: Red

Trying not to overthink this, so I went with the first thing that came into my head when I heard what the new theme was. Red, the album, released in 1974, was King Crimson’s seventh studio album, and was supposed to be the last, until it wasn’t. It is probably the King Crimson album that I listen to the most, and I still think that it is great. For starters, at that point, the “official” band was a trio, all of whom were among the best in the business—Robert Fripp on guitar and mellotron, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums and percussion. They were augmented for certain songs by, among others, David Cross on violin (who had recently been kicked out as a "full" member), and Mel Collins and Ian McDonald (both of whom had been in prior versions of the band) on saxophones. Also, there’s a cellist, who is uncredited, and apparently is unknown to this day.

The song “Red” and the album are considered to be influential in progressive rock, but interestingly, they are different from what other prog bands were doing at the time—Yes, ELP and Genesis, for example, were more keyboard driven, with music that was filled with classical influences, while King Crimson’s sound on Red is harder, more metal even, although there are two more “ballady” songs on the record, including the stately “Starless,” which features atmospheric mellotron washes, and numerous jazzy passages. That’s why Red is cited as an influence by artists such as Tool, Primus, Kurt Cobain, Henry Rollins and Dream Theater.

The title track is an instrumental, in the vein of the earlier “Larks Tongues In Aspic, Part Two,” and it is “one of the more muscular pieces of Robert Fripp's, in particular the deployment of open strings and heavily attacked and syncopated bass and drums underlines this aspect.” That quote is from this post, which analyzes that song in truly granular detail.

Clearly, King Crimson’s complex and challenging music has been analyzed by music obsessives, including the band members (and management). So, you can read Fripp’s diary about how the song “Red” was pieced together. Here’s a typically dense Pitchfork analysis of the album. And here’s a piece by David Singleton, Fripp’s business and production partner, about the making of Red. Or, you can buy a 21-CD/1-DVD/2-Blu-Ray box set, The Road to Red, which features recordings of many of the concerts from the tour that preceded the recording of Red, so you can, if you are inclined, listen for improvisational sections that turned into parts of Red songs. I’m not that obsessive.

I’ve learned writing these posts is that sometimes you find something that says what you want better than you can, and when you do, just copy it. This is from a review of The Road to Red:

Red managed to encapsulate all the things that defined mid-'70s Crimson: ear-crunching instrumentals like the title track; improvisation-heavy excursions into the outer reaches of rock, jazz and beyond on "Providence" (recorded live on the penultimate night of Crimson's final North American tour, included in the current box); dynamic, mellotron-driven ballads that morphed into thundering solo opportunities for members past and present via a lengthy middle section that milked the hell out of just a few choice notes ("Starless"); and two songs ("Fallen Angel," "One More Red Nightmare") that suggested a shifting direction for Crimson, with even stronger song form than on [Starless and Bible Black] but delivered with the same—or, even, more—massive weight-bearing load of what was one of the loudest, most mind-blowingly powerful power trios in the history of rock music. 

Just to vary things up, though, the version of “Red” that I’ve embedded above is a live version recorded in Mexico in August of this year by the seven-piece version of King Crimson that features three drummers (!), Pat Mastellotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacy (who also adds keyboards), along with Fripp on guitar, Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, Mel Collins on flute and sax, and Jakko Jaksyzk on guitar and vocals (although not on this song).  You can download it here, for free!

Compare that to the original:

As I noted above, Red was supposed to be the last King Crimson album—and it is amazing that a band that was falling apart could create such a masterpiece--but a few years later, Fripp put together a band with Bruford, Levin and guitarist/singer Adrian Belew that eventually became a new version of King Crimson. The cover of their first album, Discipline, is red.

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