King Crimson. Red.
Reissue. 40th Anniversary Series

review by William Gillespie and Cristy Scoggins

Since the late 1980s and the time of the first King Crimson CD releases (then tagged as "The Definitive Edition"), all King Crimson products seem marketed exclusively to obsessive-completist collector nerds. Over time, as bandleader and virtuoso guitar technician Robert Fripp has slowly seized the means of production and distanced himself from the industry, this aspect of their marketing has only become more severe. King Crimson fans are presumed to be like sober deadheads with Ph.D.s, bent on archiving every possible live recording in the most pristine, obscure, lossless file formats yet engineered. There is no such thing as a fair weather fan.

We are fans of the early King Crimson - the band that changed its line-up every record and produced seven impressive studio recordings (and two live LPs) in the five years from 1969 to 1974. As intriguing and inspired as these discs are (the fact that live performance and improvisation is a crucial cog in the King Crimson composition machine notwithstanding) a great album is a form of perfection, and out takes are, or were, exactly that.

So it is with great enthusiasm and some trepidation that we pull the shrinkwrap off the latest re-release of Red, with its three bonus remixes, and a second disc of DVD video footage and the album offered in triplicate esoteric audiophile formats for the listener gifted with the ears of a bat and a stereo system funded by NASA.

With Red, King Crimson, before going supernova and scattering their remaining members to the art rock winds, trimmed all unnecessary fat (and band members) and became, essentially, a taut power trio with a fierce, disciplined energy that could stand beside any punk rock, bringing forth this five-song LP that hangs together better than any of their previous recordings.

Before the bloated eighties supergroup arena atrocity Asia (“it was the heeeeaaat of the moment”), John Wetton’s stellar talents as bassist and vocalist were put to the best possible use in the final lineups of King Crimson - the majestic Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and, finally, Red. Also present on Red is power-finesser of the esoteric percussion kit Bill Bruford. Other Crimson alumni Mel Collins, David Cross, and Ian McDonald drop in to play saxophones and violin, though they are explicitly not credited as members of the band. (We have discovered that King Crimson is like Kevin Bacon in that it is possible to get from King Crimson to any other band in six or fewer steps by tracking their myriad ex-band-members).

On Red, pulled back are some of the trademarks of King Crimson - florid lyrics, chamber music arrangements, and a loud-quiet-loud dynamic range that threatens to submerge the softer sections of the LP beneath the crackling of surface noise. Present is the strenuous athleticism, hard edge, and unrelenting musical experimentation of their best work. There is one improvised jam--“Providence,” named after the city in which it was performed (a better name for a King Crimson song than Peoria on the live album Earthbound)--that tip-toes from the starting blocks in an extended prologue quirky and low-key enough to be the soundtrack to a Quay Brothers film. But this indulgence passes soon enough and what follows is smart, hard art rock.

While we are enthusiastic to have the best possible pressing of this landmark album, the extras are mostly superfluous to us. The high point is the video footage: a 1974 French television appearance by the previous lineup of King Crimson playing songs mostly from the album Starless and Bible Black. The primitive psychedelic video effects are not especially captivating, but neither do they get in the way too much. Robert Fripp, seated and motionless while he saws out some of the fiercest riffs in the Crimson repertoire, stares at the camera like a demonic MIT grad. A boyish Bill Bruford--drummer, and the most animated member of the band--steals the show with his intense precision, expressive face, and refusal to play anything that feels like a backbeat. John Wetton is handsome and unassuming, showing no sign of his impending alcoholic meltdown or the feathered sweat-banded eighties rocker to come. Last but not least, an important component of the 1970s Crimson sound, David Cross appears on violin, and it is satisfying to see him play and be able to isolate his parts. Also present is the famous King Crimson mellotron, which, along with Robert Fripp, is the only original member of the band.

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