For many people, King Crimson will forever be associated with the pomp and pageantry of 70s prog rock: Roger Dean cover art, concept suites, and endlessly bad keyboard solos.
But how wrong they are. Yes, King Crimson were there at the birth of this divisive genre – but under the leadership of guitar wunderkind Robert Fripp, they forged a unique path of their own that quickly saw them leaving behind the lyrical whimsy and musical grandstanding of their first few albums to arrive at a sound that was both freer and more focused, embracing improv, world, modern classical and proto-noise rock elements.
And it's this leap into uncharted sonic waters that makes King Crimson one of the most significant bands on the rock timeline. Because it's with King Crimson – and particularly Fripp's dense, geometric fretwork – that a new type of heaviness starts to emerge, one that effectively disengages itself from the blues-derived riffology practiced by the big three of early 70s hard rock – Sabbath, Zeppelin, Purple – and instead creates a starker, colder, darker version of heavy that nevertheless still delivers serious cathartic thrills.
King Crimson distilled this new sound down to its pure essence on Red, but ironically, this was achieved at the expense of the group itself – disillusioned with the music business and undergoing a spiritual crisis, Fripp disbanded King Crimson two weeks before the album was released in October 1974. But as final statements go, Red takes some beating.
'Red' itself opens the album in explosive fashion. Fripp's future shock guitar instantly builds to a crescendo, and then again, but on the third pass, it ends on a horribly queasy discord and plunges down into the song's main riff, which sounds like the clanking gears of some engine of death. The track picks up velocity, driven by Bill Bruford's clattering beats and John Wetton's elastic bass, then folds in on itself, Fripp's guitar pulsating over a see-sawing cello. But all roads inexorably lead back to that grinding, relentless riff.
After that, the two vocal tracks that make up side one (as was) sound almost breezy in comparison, though of course, they're nothing of the sort. 'Fallen Angel' lulls the listener into a false sense of security with its gentle oboe-augmented verses before a brittle spidery riff from Fripp suddenly lowers the temperature to freezing. Wetton sings the title over and over as though haunted by some terrible knowledge while a cornet soars above a stuttering, self-destructing guitar part. In contrast, 'One More Red Nightmare' heaves into view with the swagger of a wounded, pissed off Godzilla. With Bruford playing what sounds like the entire contents of a scrapyard, this track actually swings, but just as Wetton starts to rock out, Fripp cuts him dead with another piece of icy guitar picking. Suitably chastened, the song stomps to its conclusion assailed by some stingingly caustic sax.
'Providence' follows, a live improvisation that builds from disquieting violin through a passage of avant jazz, before Wetton's snarling fuzz bass takes over to throw jagged shadows across Fripp's stratospheric soloing.
But the real showstopper (quite literally at the time, through Fripp was to resurrect the King Crimson brand in 1981) is saved until last, because 'Starless' is pretty much the ultimate prog rock track – if cosmic justice had prevailed in 1974, the likes of Yes, Genesis, ELP et al would have simply downed twin-neck guitars, removed capes and called it a day. The opening sweep of elegiac Mellotron immediately creates an atmosphere somewhere between reflection and unease. Fripp plays some of his most fluid and downright lovely guitar to lead us into the verse/chorus section of the song, where Wetton delivers a spectacularly plaintive vocal with the clarity of a man confronting his own mortality.
Then the third chorus ends on a jarring, unexpected chord, and the ground suddenly gives away beneath your feet. There's a low-end rumble from the gloom before Fripp starts to slowly and very deliberately pick out notes like fingernails scraping at the underside of a coffin lid. Bruford decides to accompany this on wood blocks, which would be comical if it wasn't so unnerving. And so it continues, Fripp's guitar shrieking in desperation as Wetton's growling bass ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. When the song finally explodes into a sax rock wig-out, the sense of release is enormous (for both band and listener), with Fripp inspired to wring out a sustained bout of manic guitar abuse. But it's in the thunderous coda of the song when the original Mellotron theme returns that the absolute apogee of the new heaviness is reached, the earth-shattering bass underpinning the melody confirming that the end of the world is indeed nigh.
The reissue of Red under review here is of particular interest because of the presence behind the mixing desk of Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, nu-prog major domo and increasingly the go-to guy for the retooling of classic 70s albums (he did a similar job earlier this year on Hawkwind's superlative Warrior On The Edge Of Time). Alongside Fripp, he's produced a new stereo mix of Red which reinstates some of the grime and murky brute force that had been removed from the 30th anniversary remaster (also included on this reissue), particularly on the title track. There's also a different feel to 'Starless', the intro more ethereal than ever, the middle section even chillier.
With music being a melting pot of cross-fertilisation, technical advancements, compositional innovations and incremental micro-influences, it's often difficult to track the exact origin of a specific sound or genre. Red is that rarest of albums: a clearly defined jumping off point for much of the left-field rock music that was to emerge over the decades following its release. But it's also more than just a document of historical interest – after nearly 40 years, it's still primed and ready to tear the head off the unsuspecting listener.