Stop for King Crimson's "Red": Prog Review #15

Stop for King Crimson's "Red": Prog Review #15

King Crimson Red.jpg

The story goes that Kurt Cobain said that without Red there would be no Nirvana.

But I don’t hold that against this album.

I think I understand what Cobain meant. Red is a remarkable precursor to grunge; it's an album that embraces discord and noise to disguise infectious melodies with raw emotional force. Begrudgingly, I can agree that Nirvana perfected a formula that privileged melody, complete with their own embellishment of the quiet-loud dynamic that is barely nascent on Red. Maybe that melodic focus is one reason I don’t particularly like Nirvana, and instead prefer the grunge-era bands that played in the more experimental, vaguely proggy zone, with extended solos, odd song structures, and more ambitious instrumentation; Smashing Pumpkins (especially Siamese Dream) comes to mind as a band that more fully embodied the creativity of King Crimson’s Red.

After Foxtrot, this may have been by next step on the prog rock journey. I must have done a search on progressive rock some time in the mid-2000s and saw King Crimson’s name in the results. I do know that I came to Red with only an inkling of what was in store, having read that it was their best album and expecting something more ethereal given what I knew from Genesis.

Still very much immersed in post-grunge and alternative, I found Red immediately gratifying, but it took me somewhere far beyond the conventional music I was used to. The aggressive anti-pop sound was not unfamiliar, but this album’s take on it works very differently from 90s alternative. As much as Red embraces hard rock in a way that In the Court of the Crimson King only flirts with, the band is still very much in line with their early premise of eschewing conventional blues and jazz influences with its experimental blend of instruments, odd time signatures, and distinctive song structures. 

One big contrast between Red and earlier King Crimson albums is the cohesiveness of the tracks; as with Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, it’s hard to think about any part of this disc without considering the whole. There are five discrete tracks, but each has a great ebb-and-flow to it that fits seamlessly into the total package. Even the plodding ambient sludge of “Providence”, with its super-low bass, eerie synths, and dull, screeching violin is of a piece with the music that surrounds it. This is helped along by some very slowly developing angular guitar and lazy drum work that suddenly morphs into an understated jam supporting a beautiful, propulsive bass melody. So, while it begins as something nearly directionless, “Providence” shapes up into a fitting reinterpretation of the album’s sound.

Like all the other tracks, “Providence” moves in unexpected directions. But where King Crimson sometimes doesn’t seem to know where the songs are supposed to go, everything on here feels tight and planned. Even the epic 12-minute closer, “Starless”, an eminently moving masterpiece that’s part sultry and depressive lounge suite, part ear-splitting discordant jam session.

Used right, the mellotron is a powerful instrument, moody and plaintive (check out Genesis’s “Many Too Many” if you really wanna feel something). Combined with alto saxophone, it’s heart wrenching. “Starless” uses the moody mellotron and sax to bookend a very long instrumental section that follows a similar pattern to “Providence” by gradually ramping up the urgency of the whiny guitar, frenzied drums, and melody-driving bass. But then it shifts gear again with the return of the sax as lead instrument, and it just gets wild from there for a bit. “Starless” achieves something very rare and so satisfying in its middle section by creating a tension and loudness that becomes almost unbearable. You can feel tension in your body as you listen, and it’s almost painful, but suddenly, a return to the bookending melody, but with more backing guitar and drums. The moment that tension breaks, there is such a relief, but the catharsis needs the pain. It’s a challenging listen, but an amazing sonic experience. The only other song I know that recreates this is “The Storm Before the Calm” by Anathema, which is actually even more intense.

Because of how well-crafted it is, “Starless” is just about the shortest 12-minute song you could imagine. But by the time you finish listening to it, you’ve all but forgotten the previous four tracks. Not that “Red,” “Fallen Angel,” and “One More Red Nightmare” are forgettable tracks by any means. The jagged guitar riff with tinny cymbals and flat drums of “Red” is just as powerful as anything else, and it sets the stage for an entire album that works with an ostensibly off-putting tonality that very quickly reveals its charms. The middle section cuts the percussion and does some interesting things with tremolo guitar and a sort of fantasy movie villain theme on cello(?). It’s a fun way to break up what is otherwise a fairly repetitive song that only offers slight and subtle variations on its repeated theme.

Speaking of variations, “One More Red Nightmare” cutely revisits “Red” in its opening riff before shifting gears into the song “Red” could have been. It’s an interesting listening experience to hear the opening track return after a break and then become something new. Easily the worst song on Red, “One More Red Nightmare” is at least fun. It’s got a staccato rhythm and hand claps, but also some wailing sax and a more simply structured rhythm then the other tracks.  

Lastly, “Fallen Angel” is a beautiful tune that does wonderful things by shifting leads between oboe, cornet, guitar, and bass. It hits the same marks as everything else on Red: dolorous, inspiring, rugged, surprising, powerful. Can you say as much for Nirvana?

 Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Yes – Close to the Edge

  4. King Crimson - Red

  5. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  6. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  7. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  8. Rush - Moving Pictures

  9. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  10. Pink Floyd - Animals

  11. Yes - Fragile

  12. Rush - Hemispheres

  13. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  14. Can - Future Days

  15. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

Flailing About With Gentle Giant's "Octopus": Prog Review #16

Flailing About With Gentle Giant's "Octopus": Prog Review #16

Dancing in Time to Genesis's "Foxtrot": Prog Review #14

Dancing in Time to Genesis's "Foxtrot": Prog Review #14