On this date 43 years ago, the British progressive rock group King Crimson released “Red,” their seventh studio album. They had just broken up or, as guitarist and founding member Robert Fripp put it at the time, “ceased to exist,” so when it hit record store shelves, it was less an album than a eulogy.
The group would of course reform several years later and they’re on tour at this very moment, so reports of the group’s death turned out to be greatly exaggerated. But had it stuck and the band not reformed, “Red” would have been one of the most powerful curtain calls ever released.
“Red” has only five songs, all of which clock in at six minutes and up. Despite the length of the songs, there is not a single ounce of fat or indulgent note to found on the entire album.
It opens with the title track, an oddly-metered and dissonant instrumental exercise. The group had already established themselves as specialists in harsh, jarring instrumentals, but those sometimes felt like collections of riffs and time signatures, strung together arbitrarily. The song, “Red,” has none of these issues, and it’s simply a powerful exercise in grabbing a great riff and milking it for everything it’s worth.
It segues into “Fallen Angel,” which has lyrics! You could call it a ballad, I suppose, although it gets into territory that’s too emotionally desperate and musically grating to qualify for the title. Whatever it is, it’s a great song to play very loud when you want to have a solitary evening of red wine and despair.
“One More Red Nightmare” is up next, and it’s probably the most commercial song on the album. Drummer Bill Bruford, who’s one of the all-time greats and has more than his fair share of iconic performances to his credit, simply plays his ass off on this one. It’s not a stretch to call it a performance for the ages.
What would have been side two opens with “Providence,” a creepy, dissonant instrumental improvisation that was performed live and put on the album. I actually didn’t know it was a live performance, or an improvisation, for years, just because it fits in so well with the rest of the album.
I’ll concede that when I make King Crimson playlists, “Providence” never makes the cut. But in the context of the album, it fits in perfectly.
The album closes out with the 12-minute epic, “Starless.” This is the greatest thing King Crimson ever recorded. The first third of the song is a lonely ballad that could fit in seamlessly on Roxy Music’s “Stranded” album, followed by a downtempo, tense sequence that builds and builds without the listener really knowing where it’s going to end up. The final section is an almost funky workout in some bizarre time signature that you’ll never figure out, so don’t bother.
By the time it’s all over, the listener has experienced the full spectrum of emotions, and if you’ve gotten through the whole thing, your very likely next response is to listen to it all over again from the beginning. Either that, or you stopped listening during the first 30 seconds. It’s that kind of album. There’s no one who thinks it’s “okay.”
Despite the high level of musicianship on display, you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate what an unusual album this is, and what a work of high quality it is. Whoever you are and whatever you normally listen to, “Red” is worth the 40 minutes of your time that it takes to listen to it, and if it affects you in the same way that it affected me, you’ll be listening to it forever.
Despite the high level of musicianship on display, you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate what an unusual album this is, and what a work of high quality it is.