Album review: King Crimson – Red

The future has been canceled and we’re all going to die.

Genre: Progressive rock
Country: United Kingdom
Release date: October 6, 1974
Label: Island (reissued on vinyl by Panegyric)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: KCLP7

Robert Fripp – guitars, mellotron
John Wetton – bass, vocals
Bill Bruford – drums, percussion
David Cross – violin (track 4)
Mel Collins – soprano sax (track 5)
Ian McDonald – alto sax (tracks 3 & 5)
Mark Charig – cornet (track 2)
Robin Miller – oboe (track 2)





Fallen Angel



One More Red Nightmare



Providence (live)





Total running time:


“Genius” is a word and an idea I have little use for these days; rather than to elucidate, the concept of the “genius”, the innate talent whose skills are a manifestation of his (almost always his; it was and remains a highly gendered term) singular force of personality, instead serves to mystify, to obscure, to cover things up. Robert Fripp is many things but a genius in the classical sense of the word he is not; when he started playing music at age 12 he had no sense of rhythm, timing, pitch, or musical logic by his own admission. Everything, everything he ever had, everything he ever was, everything he ever did, everything he still is, has and does, he built up from nothing, over thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hours of arduous practice, diligence, and hard, body-and-soul-subsuming labor. Part of the story the music industry sells its captive audience (who else is going to publish your favorite music? Are you?) is that music, especially rock music, is a spontaneous act of play, “letting the inner voice sing” and all the usual clichés. This is nonsense. Music-making is work, often incredibly difficult work, and to ignore the idea of rock music as work, as effort, as discipline (something Fripp understands very well, as evidenced by his use of the word in several of his projects) is to get a very skewed, unhealthy idea of what music is, why it is, and how it is made. “Laborious” is a word often used to criticize long or very complicated pieces of music, but I don’t see such a word as an insult at all. What is more uplifting, more beautiful, more true than hard work, well done, at something the worker truly believes in? People spread adages like “technicality is a craft, not an art”, but craft is art. To sever the link between labor and art is to not to love art, but to fetishize it, to objectify it, to utterly debase it.

Nearly every review of this album mentions its supposed influence on loser-rock icon Kurt Cobain, and while there are some similarities in textures, tones, and (on a strictly superficial level) emotional affect between this album and Nirvana’s more dissonant, abrasive tracks on Bleach and In Utero, that’s where any resemblance stops. This is angry, alienated, and frustrated music, surely, but not in a way that panders to the immature sensibilities of adolescents whose most intimate experience with such emotions came from a messy breakup. This was the sound of an entire generation of musicians getting the door slammed in their faces, a primal scream at the death of rock and roll and its unholy resurrection as the monstrosity known as “rock” that haunts us to this day. And, it should be noted, unlike the lonely, alienated male rock stars of a thousand loud and ugly bands to come, King Crimson quit when they found themselves unable to move forward any longer instead of giving in to the machine or burning themselves out (as Cobain did) on drugs and self-destructive behavior. Given the choice to remain a guitar player or become a rock star, Robert Fripp has always chosen the former, even if it meant his music would go unheard for many years before resurfacing for a while in a more favorable time and place.

And make no mistake, Fripp really would rather go unheard than be heard on terms that are not his own, as anyone who has attempted to find King Crimson music on free streaming platforms quickly discovers—it’s just not there, because Fripp doesn’t believe in free streaming. There are a handful of samplers and live tracks on YouTube, but that’s it; any unauthorized videos of Crimson studio music posted on YouTube rarely stay up for long. The record label that released this edition of Red is one that operates under Fripp’s direct ownership and control, and every step in its mastering, pressing, and reissue was personally overseen by him. Don’t want to buy a copy? Tough tukhes, you won’t get to hear it. It is an inflexible and financially self-limiting way of doing business, certainly, but also a bit of genuine integrity in a music publishing world of compromise, manipulation, deceit, and often outright fraud. My vinyl copy is not the new Steven Wilson mix (which I have not heard for reasons previously stated), but rather the original mix and aside from the stout 200-gram disc, it’s the same plain, basic packaging a buyer in 1974 would have gotten—a simple but strong single-disc jacket with a plain inner sleeve and no lyric sheet (will anyone care? I doubt many people listen to King Crimson for their poetry). Even the label on the record itself is just the bare essentials of black text on a pale background, with none of the art or fancy typesetting you usually find on newly issued records’ labels.

Even back when this album was being worked on in ‘74, the band were acutely aware of the dangerous position they and their fellow progressive bands were in, with Robert Fripp in later interviews speaking of the “success trap” that he ended up sacrificing the entire King Crimson project to avoid (contrast to contemporaries like Yes and ELP who walked right into the trap and didn’t realize what was happening until the jaws were already closing). Progressive rock enjoyed widespread popularity and mainstream sales success in the early ‘70s, but from the perspective of a large enterprise, prog bands were a very unattractive prospect. Large capitalist enterprises love certainty, consistency, stability, and predictability, and hate anything that even suggests sudden change or spontaneity. Proggers made great bands but terrible brands; they were prone to sudden, unexplained stylistic changes, eccentric stylings and presentation, and the sort of person who would and could play such music was the sort of person likely to not just argue with producers and executives, but get the upper hand in such an argument and if not outright win (after all, the company holds the purse strings, and money talks), then at least make their opponents feel intimidated and uncomfortable and the company’s victory unsatisfying. They also built bases of fans who were just as mercurial, odd, and stubborn as they were. From the record labels’ perspectives, all this was a threat to future profits and had to go, and because business rules this world utterly and completely, it duly went, and the narrative of punk (a different style of music with different performers and different fans; a Venn diagram of punkers and proggers approaches total separation) “killing prog” by being “more authentic” (never mind that most prog bands were groups of childhood friends making music they cared about and the most famous punk band was entirely manufactured out of a group of random street kids by Malcolm McLaren) was fabricated to, as Chomsky would put it, manufacture consent for this assassination of a subgenre that was still making great advances well into ‘74 and even early ‘75, and seemed on the verge of a total rupture with rock tradition and the institution of a new one (can you even call something like Red Queen to Gryphon Three rock music?). From a corporate perspective, this explosion of creativity was an explosion of uncertainty-producing, brand-endangering madness, and had to stop, so they made it stop. Punk just allowed the suits and their bloody hands to edit themselves out of the picture.

Having been given advance warning of the future’s cancellation, King Crimson had nowhere to go but dark, dark, dark. I’ve heard quite a few “nihilistic”, “depressive”, and “grim” rock and metal bands in my time, but nothing compares to the all-devouring, bottomless hopelessness that I hear on this album. Heavy metal likes to play at nihilism, but it can’t really pull it off because the (guitar-)heroic egoism that defines the style’s ethos can never be totally defeated; even for the suicidal protagonist of Judas Priest’s “Beyond the Realms of Death”, “Yeah! I’ve left the world behind / I am safe here in my mind”. Self-annihilation in metal is portrayed as a sort of win, a last exercise of power to hurt those who have hurt you. Red offers not even the respite of an inner, moral victory; the world as portrayed here doesn’t care and won’t miss you. Go ahead and die, you’ll just be replaced in our machinery by a better-fitting cog. The protagonist in “Fallen Angel” will never see revenge for the murder of his brother; there is no upside, no redemption, no final settling of accounts, not even an “inspirational” platitude about valuing life while you have it (thank God!), just an empty hole in a man’s life that will keep hurting forever. Many critics seem to miss the point of this song entirely, giving Crimson a pat on the back for “talking about social issues for once” by mentioning New York gang crime, even though the actual thrust of the song is about personal mourning, not urban decay, and furthermore, King Crimson not only had already been writing “socially conscious” songs for years, but their most famous song, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, is not just a social commentary but a rather blunt one that I grasped immediately even as a small child. I would think a person who gets paid to write about rock songs would be better at understanding lyrical themes than an eight-year-old listening to his dad’s record collection, but maybe I expect too much.

Despite the usual narratives about “raw” music, it is in fact the very technical proficiency that King Crimson bring to their instruments that gives Red it’s emotional power. If these lyrics and John Wetton’s vocal lines were set to an ordinary rock band, like—why not?—Nirvana, it would be a bunch of morose, angsty poetry delivered by a mediocre rock singer (Wetton isn’t terrible, but he’s no Elton John…hell, he’s not even equal to his predecessor Greg Lake). There’s a misconception that musical education and diligent practice will somehow dilute “your sound” or make you more generic, but in truth boning up on your technique and your craft will give you options, to approach a particular mood or musical idea in any number of unusual and interesting ways instead of just the obvious one. Bill Bruford once contrasted his stint in Yes with his time in King Crimson, talking about how in Yes everyone would argue constantly about the fine details of composition and arrangement down to the last note, while in Crimson, “you just had to know”. This is commonly taken to reinforce the received rock and roll narrative of musicianship being less important than “true feelings”, but this is a complete misrepresentation. If anything, King Crimson studied even harder, so they could all be on the same page no matter how complex the music got; one of the reasons why jazz fusion exploded in the 1970s was because while writing out complicated music ahead of time and playing it back perfectly is hard, doing so on the fly, without being able to think about it, is just about the ultimate challenge in all of music-making. I’ve occasionally thought of jazz as “composition in fast motion”–a level of musicianship beyond fussing over sharps and naturals, where you can just hear something a bandmate is playing and know how to accompany it instinctively, because you’ve put in your 14,000 hours or however they measure it now and mastered a huge range of musical styles and techniques. This album is radically stripped down in its arrangements compared to many contemporary prog albums—no surprise with only three musicians plus a few session guys to blow solos rather than a quintet or sextet who probably each know two or three different instruments—it is very much a guitar music album instead of being an “electric orchestra”, and the guitars make a lot of distorted crunching, grinding, scraping, and clunking noises, but that’s pretty much where this album’s grounding in hard rock ends.

Red is more jazz than anything else; an ugly, harsh, jagged, fucked-up sort of jazz to tone-paint our ugly, harsh, jagged, fucked-up society, like Magma without the opera and space religion aspects; it certainly comes through in John Wetton’s bass tone, which is so nearly identical to Jannick Top’s that I suspect he made it so on purpose. Much of this album is improvised (including the entirety of “Providence”, a freeform jam named after the city King Crimson played it at) and the verses and choruses feel more like interludes between all the guitar wizardry/bludgeonry than the focus of the songs. Normally I would consider it a flaw for a prog album to lean so heavily on one instrument like this, but for a primal scream of futile horror against our alienating machine-like society, you might as well go for instruments that sound like a gigantic mechanical abomination. Even when then-band member David Cross, who was retroactively demoted to session musician between the recording of “Providence” and the rest of Red, breaks out his violin his primary objective seems to be to figure out how cold and alien he can make it sound. There are occasional winds and even some (uncredited) strings in “Fallen Angel” and “Starless” who use more traditional techniques, but the mournful tones they put out only provide a human emotional reaction to all the servos and actuators and grasping metal protrusions that slice, rip, smash, grind, dissect, dismember, and obliterate the human subject. One of my favorite paintings is Peter Breughel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death from 1562, an allegorical depiction of the plague as a world-ending apocalypse of skeletal monsters indiscriminately killing beggars and kings, young and old, rich and poor, everything and everyone. Red feels like a musical expression of the same feeling, updated to reflect the terrors of the postmodern era.

Much like the performance transcends the artificial dichotomy of “raw” versus “polished”, so too does the production; the sound is harsh and plainly presented; most of the instruments get only a single track and everything is very dry, with little reverb. However, it’s also extremely clear, every astringent scream of the guitar captured meticulously. This was not music where “it’ll do” was acceptable; even in the most fervent displays of anguish everyone from the musicians to the mixing crew were always on point. On “One More Red Nightmare”, Bill Bruford deliberately uses a worn and damaged cymbal plucked from the garbage for its strident high-end resonances, which you can actually hear when you play the song. Nothing is obscured, nothing drowned out, nothing pushed into the background. When the winds come in there’s no sense of the rock instruments having to to “make a hole” like on a lot of recordings with variable instrumentation; they’re just there, among the others, and when they drop out it’s as if they were never there at all. I normally consider Wilson’s remixes to be huge improvements over the original album mixes, but he would really have to work hard to top this—for what the music intends to get across, the sound of this album is just about perfect.

But all the chops, all the inspiration, all the practice in the world couldn’t save King Crimson’s mangling machine from itself being caught in the gears of history and ripped apart. Riven by personal conflict, drained by the constant, relentless, unbearable touring schedule required to keep the band financially viable, and facing a commercial future that seemed uncertain at best, King Crimson announced its breakup “for ever and ever” in September of 1974, before the album was even released (needless to say, the fact that this record was orphaned by its own performers did not help it commercially and it charted far below King Crimson’s previous works). While the name was revived temporarily on a number of occasions by Robert Fripp over the years (most notably in the early ‘80s with Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford [again] to record Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair), King Crimson the band that started in the late 1960s, the vanguard of a musical revolution that seemed on the verge of sweeping away the old blues-rock music for something new and exciting, indeed die and will never return. You cannot revive the dead, whether it’s people or the ideas, creations, and institutions they leave behind. The entire prog rock scene since the original King Crimson’s demise has mostly operated on a “make prog great again” mentality—that, if they were to just play the old style of music again, and do it with enough panache, it would somehow come back. This approach has given us a handful of cult bands with two or second- or third-tier classics (among prog nerds) each floating in an endless expanse of mediocrity—in serious terms, little better than nothing. It is no more resurrection than the rituals of ancient Egyptian embalmers were. It’s just one more musical zombie to join the undead forms of various other genres that stalk our musical landscape, always restless because they no longer belong anywhere. A culture stuck in time, endlessly repeating the post-war golden years in a perpetual loop, never getting anywhere and slowly withering away. We walk among the ruins only to end back where we started so that the cycle may begin again.

Is this how it ends, not with a nuclear holocaust or mass famine, but this constant repetition of the same mistakes being made over and over, like a broken record, a tracery of grooves, now cut through, that can no longer be made whole, wearing away with each go around until the sound fades into white noise?

Is it, indeed, just one more red nightmare, after another, after another?

Rating: 92%

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