Let's talk about this thing called "progressive rock" for a moment. Like "alternative" and "jam band," it's a term that has lost any real meaning and has come to describe a very particular type of music. There are plenty of prog bands but how many are truly progressive? King Crimson was one of the first wave of prog bands whose debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, practically invented the genre. Yet Crimson actually progressed throughout the years, often the result of an ever-shifting lineup. Guitarist Robert Fripp has been the one constant and his distinct playing ties the many eras, sounds and lineups together.
1974's Red is often cited as a highlight in the Crimson catalog and for good reason. At this point, the band was officially down to a trio of Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford, though the recording is augmented by several additional musicians. This lineup had developed a sound much heavier than most other prog bands of the time and was also prone to extended improvisation of a sort few other bands of the era would attempt. Red opens up with the heavily stomping instrumental title track. While this song was never performed live by this incarnation of the band, it would become a staple of the band's repertoire in the 80s and 90s and is one of the all-time Crimson classics. This is followed by two relatively straightforward rockers, "Fallen Angel" and "One More Red Nightmare." Odd time signatures keep them slightly off-kilter as even when they're rocking out Crimson will toss in unusual elements.
"Providence" is the most challenging track on the album, an excerpt of a long improvised piece recorded live in, where else?, Providence, Rhode Island. This comes from the time when violin/mellotron player David Cross was still in the band and his presence is definitely felt. The piece moves from a moody, ambient soundscape into a full band rock jam. While many bands of the time were playing extended jams and prog bands were writing long compositions, Crimson were one of the few, along with the Grateful Dead and Can, who were taking improvisation to such levels, actually creating new compositions out of thin air. The album concludes with the epic number "Starless," which had been a live staple for well over a year at the time of this release. While it’s a 12-minute track that moves through three distinct phases, it's very different from the composed, multi-part epics that most prog bands of the time were producing. It starts off as a nice mid-tempo number with Wetton giving one of his best vocal performances. Next comes a long passage built around an infectious, repetitive bassline and Fripp's minimalist guitar "solo" where he essentially plays the same note over and over. Bruford increases the tension by amping up the percussion till it all explodes in a hard rocking frenzy that repeats the musical themes of the first segment. A pair of former Crimson members, Mel Collins and Ian McDonald, contribute some great woodwind solos.
After the release of Red, Fripp broke up the band and claimed he was retiring from music. This retirement lasted only a couple of years before he came back with a variety of projects, all of which eventually led to the return of King Crimson in 1981. Again, there was a new lineup and a new sound. The band would split up and reform several times throughout the years, but was always moving forward and always progressive in the truest sense of the word.
- Adam Reshotko