King Crimson – Red – Discipline Global Mobile DGM5012, (2 CDs) CD 1: 62:50, CD 2: 53:09 [12/3/13] (Distr. by Panegea) ****:
(Robert Fripp – guitar, mellotron; John Wetton – bass guitar, vocals; Bill Bruford – drums, percussion; David Cross – violin (CD 1: tracks 4-5, 7; CD 2: tracks 4-5); Mel Collins – soprano saxophone (track 5, both CDs); Ian McDonald – alto saxophone (tracks 3, 5: both CDs); Mark Charig – cornet (track 2: both CDs); bass cello – (track 1, both CDs); Robin Miller – oboe (track 2, both CDs))
For many fans, King Crimson most closely personifies English progressive rock music. The group was founded by guitarist Robert Fripp in 1969. Contemporaries like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer became better known and more popular, but King Crimson is regarded by their devoted cult audience as more respectable and less pretentious than their peers. During a multi-decade career which persists to this day, Crimson has been in near-constant flux with personnel shifts; the band has been retired several times, only to return to stage and studio; and the music has stretched the boundaries of expectations, from jazz and classical elements, and into the realms of art-rock and progressive hard rock.
The 1970s was a fertile but confounding period for band and listeners: musicians came and went seemingly every year; more than once, Fripp threatened to end King Crimson, and then would resurrect it. It was in this turmoil the 1974 Red LP was issued. The 40-minute album represented a group in the midst of transformation: violinist David Cross left (or was fired, depending on the source) during the recording process; some of the longer instrumental portions showed a heavier sound, which King Crimson increased on future endeavors. Conversely, other pieces had a modern classical tendency. Fripp was lukewarm about continuing the band and contemplated taking a spiritual sabbatical, which added to the friction (after Red was released, Fripp put King Crimson on hiatus until 1981).
The Red album has been in and out of print since 1974. While Red was not a big commercial success, it has been mentioned by progressive metal bands such as Tool, Primus and Dream Theater as hugely influential, and still garners admiration. Red has been revived numerous times, and in different guises. An LP version came out in 2000, and a 200-gram vinyl edition was distributed in 2013; a 30th anniversary edition, with new digital remastering, was issued on CD/DVD, which included three bonus tracks and other supplementary material. In 2013, a mammoth 20-CD (plus one Blu-ray) boxed set, Road to Red, came out. This review refers to the 2-CD release from late 2013 (which is also part of Road to Red), which features Steve Wilson and Fripp’s 30th anniversary remastering on one CD [the anniversary, by the way, signifies King Crimson’s formation, not this album’s original release date], plus two bonus live tracks. Steve Wilson’s comprehensive 2013 stereo CD remix is on another CD, with two additional bonus cuts. Oddly, the CD artwork has been flipped: CD 1 is obviously CD 2 and vice versa. Listeners should be very clear what they are hearing: although the packaging states the 2013 remix is on CD 2, it is on CD 1; and the 30th anniversary remix which should be on CD 1 is on CD 2. Same goes with the bonus tracks. Thus, during this review, music will be indicated by what the liner notes assert, rather than the incorrect CD artwork.
There is overlap between the 2009 and 2013 versions; and since both include Steve Wilson remixes, fans may not need this 2013 edition. The difference between the Wilson remixes may not be dramatic to some listeners: the 2009 version contains a 5.1 Surround Sound mix on DVD-Audio; the 2013 edition has a CD stereo remix. Which is preferable is best left to Crimson enthusiasts. The only bonus track not on the 2009 version is a live rendition of “Starless.”
One highlight is the menacing, dominant instrumental title track. It is considered a classic and reveals what prog rock could be in the hands of a band of virtuosos. It also exemplifies what King Crimson would eventually sound like in the 1980s. Fripp’s guitar is imposing and authoritative, and Bruford’s drums and percussion are massive. Despite not being a jazz-rock tune in scope, over the course of six minutes there are multiple time signatures which range from 5/8, 7/8 and 4/4, and yet the arrangement never seems to imply there are variable rhythms or changes. Bassist John Wetton (who later formed supergroup Asia) takes lead vocals on “Fallen Angel,” where he evokes Crimson founder Greg Lake (of ELP fame). After an acoustic guitar introduction, Fripp moves to harder, electric guitar and the group amps toward the levels heard on “Red,” while the arrangement gets further assistance from two guests: cornet player Mark Charig and oboist Robin Miller. Former Crimson member Ian McDonald (on alto sax) joins during the brooding “One More Red Nightmare,” which has a clamorous theme that had been developed during stage improvisations. Bruford’s trashy cymbal breaks are exhilarating. Bruford has stated he was deliberately reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Billy Cobham. The other two cuts, “Providence” and “Starless,” are also notable. “Providence” is a live improvisation taped during the previous tour (with audience noise edited out) and opens with a theatrical Cross violin solo which intersects with Bruford’s spooky percussion and Fripp and Wetton’s slowly escalating electric guitar and bass. The ambitious “Starless” had been part of the live sets, but was determinedly renovated for this definitive studio reading. Along with Cross, it has contributions from soprano saxophonist Mel Collins, Miller and McDonald; and uncredited cello and double bass, which make a vivid appearance at the climax. The two live bonus tracks showcase the band in its stage glory. The full, ten-minute “Providence” is on 1992’s concert document, The Great Deceiver, so some dedicated fans may already have this. If not, well worth hearing. Same goes for the live, 12-minute translation of “Starless,” recorded at Asbury Park in summer, 1974 (Crimson completists can find the entire Asbury Park concert in the Road to Red compendium).
Steve Wilson’s 2013 stereo mix on CD two brings out what the band put onto tape. He heightens the power quality, emphasizing the energy in ways previous incarnations do not match. The guitar, bass, and drums are terrific. Listeners with high-fidelity equipment should be able to push the volume up and not notice any deficiencies, which is the way this record was meant to be heard. The two extra tunes are quite good. Both were issued on the 2009 version of Red, but if anyone missed buying it, here they are again. There is a trio interpretation of the title track which provides prominence to Fripp’s guitar work and has a different mid-section. “Fallen Angel” is given an interesting treatment as well, which deletes vocals and acoustic guitar, and accentuates Fripp’s jazz-like electric guitar (if he had ever wanted to travel John McLaughlin’s path, he could have done so). The CD package includes Sid Smith’s informative notes and Fripp’s philosophical, Q-and-A interview (both from 2009); and vintage black-and-white photos.
CD 1: Red; Fallen Angel; One More Red Nightmare; Providence; Starless; Providence (full version); Starless (live)
CD 2: Red; Fallen Angel; One More Red Nightmare; Providence; Starless; Red (trio version); Fallen Angel – (trio version).