Treble 100: No. 73, King Crimson – Red

King Crimson Red

I’ve written in many places about the stressors, traumas, wounds and confusions of my life. In doing so, my hope is not that people see me as uniquely suffering or having a uniquely miserable existence; far from it, my hope is that the connection between art and the real, granular aspects of our existences is made more concretely bare, that instead of name-checking something like “hardcore feels like community,” I can with my own real story show precisely how that, at least once, has been historically true.

A great deal of criticism of art renders large chunks of its interior motions and exterior connectivities as abstractions, mystifications, with both listeners and critics sometimes skewing toward a kind of materialism but, lacking the biographical and lived/experiential materialism of we the masses who love and bond with art, turns into weird bullshit like how a V chord feels like despair. We have, in the worlds of music theory, lots of strange texts from composers and critics of the past few hundred years where they map keys and chords to specific emotional timbres, ones that feel (because they are!) deeply personal rather than universal. But that personal touch isn’t failing at something that a more universal approach would be better prepared for; instead, that personal information is the very heart of things, a window into what music means to the heart of people rather than dead numbers in a spreadsheet.

I mention this because while a great deal of my writing about music from a biographical space has been tied so much to trauma and confusion, tears and healing, an elaborate pseudo-dialectical behavioral theory-aping therapeutic writing masquerading as musical critique, a way of understanding myself through understanding these liminal glimmerings, that is, of course, not the entirety of my being. I dream; I love; I lust; I laugh; I beam and break open with joy.

I discovered King Crimson, like many do, when I began to dive deeper into the worlds of art rock and prog in my middle teens. In the Court of the Crimson King, with its killer prog metal opener “21st Century Schizoid Man,” its numinous and elegiac middle three tracks (including underrated ambient experiment “Moonchild”), and its monumental and epic closing track, became a highlight of those early years of my love of this wing of music. My friend Jeremy and I, the twin writers of my friend group, who were bonded as if we were brothers along with our friend Jono by our conjoined and destructive home lives, would sit with the album on loop, passing fantasy novels and a notebook in which we wrote our own stories back and forth. Its grandiloquent poetry drove us to pursue things of similar heights; The Faerie Queen, William Blake, the epics of the knights Roland and Gawain, the strange mystic Christian allegorical texts of the middle ages, Romantic poetry. There was a vastness to that imagination, that sound, that language, which purpled our hearts. We’d all grown up with punk and hip-hop, it being the ’90s and early 2000s and our proximity to Richmond and D.C. The value of street-level directness and the jagged, sincere roaring heart of the oppressed and working class was, and is, something we greatly valued. But there was more inside of us, something better captured by the obscure mysticism of The Silmarillion than the schoolyard prancing of Harry Potter (that’s right, we dumped it before it was cool). And, for the curious—yes, we were immense D&D nerds.

To say this period of King Crimson’s career was important to me would be a hysterically imperfect understatement.

As time went on and our imaginations grew darker, complicated by the interior fires of the hormonal storm of puberty, our deepening abuses at home and subsequent responsive young reliance on substances and vices of lust and hooliganism to staunch those widening wounds, our curiosities and intensities grew deeper. Despite my small frame, struggling with young male eating disorders and a trauma-induced body dysmorphia, I briefly became fixated with working out, becoming stronger, strong enough that I might finally… (That elliptical end never being resolved.) I discovered in my digging into King Crimson a deeper body of work: Their inventive and mystical second album In the Wake of Poseidon, the bizarre and faintly terrifying circus-scented Lizard, the close to their elemental quartet (later mirrored by Mastodon) in the romantic and beautiful Islands. But it was on discovery of their fifth album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic that I found the ideal workout album. It was the perfect length, just over 45 minutes, able to be split relatively easily into three 15-ish minute segmented workouts of the core trio (pushups, crunches, lunges) in my bedroom. But it wasn’t just the length that made it perfect. It was the music.


King Crimson had always been a volatile group. Their first lineup emerged from the sinking wreck of a previous group—Giles, Giles and Fripp—who released a single album splitting the difference between the latter-day Beatles and early Zappa but with a more pastoral and jazzy English bent than either of those two groups. That early record is in certain ways the decoder ring to what King Crimson would become. It featured in its turns the bizarre surreal comedy that would pepper their work until its final emergence in the dark irony of Adrian Belew’s lyrics of the ’80s material and beyond, the elegiac and classical-leaning progressive rock that became the staple of their earliest incarnations, as well as the complex pop and jazz writing that would underpin the vast majority of their less obscure material. That early group would recruit two members to the trio, Ian McDonald on horns and flutes as well as Judy Dyble notably of Fairport Convention, but would dissolve due to creative conflicts. Robert Fripp, the clear creative engine of King Crimson, would take half the band with him and, from the more serious and abstract material, forge the sound of that early King Crimson sound.

The early days of gigging for the band saw them praised by their fellow musicians, including adoration from the Who, Black Sabbath, a young Jethro Tull and even being described by Jimi Hendrix as “the best band in the world,” a credit Fripp still tells with an atypical wide grin. And why shouldn’t he? There’s no one stoic enough in this world to sheepishly turn down that level of praise from the widely-considered greatest rock guitarist of all time. But the band had already more or less dissolved by the time their debut was released; hoping to capitalize on that momentum, as well as to capture material written around the same time, Fripp assembled as much of the lineup of the debut as he could and filled out the rest with, ironically, the original core musicians of Giles, Giles and Fripp to produce In the Wake of Poseidon, only to have nearly everyone leave shortly after its completion. (Notably, vocalist Greg Lake would form his own legendary, triple-named group Emerson, Lake and Palmer.) So it went for Lizard and Islands as well, each record seeing a cycling of members as well as an accruing of names on a list of figures that would, in time, become recurring collaborators but seemingly never full members of the group. Each record was, unsurprisingly, stridently different from the last. They released an average of two albums a year, experiencing apocalyptic levels of evolution in a phenomenally short period, connecting with other key prog groups by things like a guest vocal turn by Jon Anderson of Yes voicing Prince Rupert on the title track of Lizard (don’t ask; it’s prog) as well as selling the Mellotron used on their debut to a young Genesis.

Then, suddenly, a moment of crystallization. Fripp, in one of many fits of madness, got a wild hair. He had been monitoring the shape of rock, witnessing the molten birth of heavy metal through groups like Black Sabbath and the growing occult rock movements in Britain, as well as the rising dominance of jazz rock. His early desire to play a form of rock divorced from the blues, feeling admiration but little connection to the cultural sub-matter of blues, had pushed him to pursue other shapes informed by orchestral and certain forms of jazz music. These shapes, however, seemed finally to be an answer to his conundrum. Rock may be inexorably tied to the blues, likewise with certain forms of jazz. But the avant-garde angularity he witnessed, not to mention metal’s primordial heaviness, seemed ideal vehicles for something new and improvisational—and deeply experimental. So he put his feelers out for, in what would through his career be a typical maneuver, another wholly-new lineup of his group.

What he found was John Wetton, a bassist of burgeoning heavy metal skill and menacing baritone voice who had until then been a bit player circling rock and prog orbits; David Cross, a then-unknown violinist, keyboardist and flautist; Jamie Muir, a jazz-obsessed free improviser of percussion; and, in a mighty coup, Bill Bruford, the greatest drummer in the history of progressive rock, recently departed from Yes following the greatest record in the history of progressive rock, Close to the Edge. The first three of those players clearly fit the mold for the new wild, dangerous, volatile mixture of jazz, rock, prog and heavy metal Fripp had in mind. Bruford was a surprise, both to critics/listeners at the time and to his former bandmates. But, per his own words, he had always been more fond of jazz than rock or pop and the promise-nee-task Fripp gave him of constant improvisation and innovation was substantially more enticing than, to him, the interminable and highly contentious writing sessions Yes would undertake whenever making their own new material.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic was the first record of this new lineup, the title having come from Muir’s own description of their new sound, mixing the delicacy of prog and the heaviness of metal through the improvisational and volatile mediant of jazz. Formally, it played mostly as a recapitulation of their debut but through this new idiom. The same structure repeated: An explosive heavy metal opener and extended progressive closer, with more song-oriented material in the middle. But this time, the wildness which on their debut had been constrained largely to “Schizoid Man” and its title track now pervaded every song, with more melodic pieces like “Easy Money” featuring deep grooves and strident odd-time improvisations between verses while pieces such as “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” parts I and II, the opener and closer respectively, would hyperextend the battalion-approach of the improv rock portions of “Schizoid Man” into more schizophrenic bursts of force, energy, and menace. As a young boy, maneuvering early questions of my gender, my sexuality, my future, my dreams and passions and terrors and urges and the way these increasingly seemed to bleed into an explosively psychedelic roar inside of my brain, setting my body to the task of building my strength to this music was a mighty boon. I could hear, through the early synesthesia that would later factor into my autism diagnosis, the exact shape of the interior sorcerer-self that warbled and pulsed inside of me.


The shape of who I wanted to become, this latent self burning like a coal inside of the real and diminished self I felt trapped inside of, was bound to two things: writing and music. The former, a mainstay of my life since childhood, had been fed by novels and films, short stories and my continuous burning of notebooks with pages upon pages of notes, sometimes for novels and sometimes for video games and sometimes for stories I’d never get around to writing, peeling off page after page of outlines and character notes and titles and poetry while the pile of finished stories with my name at the top began, slowly, to build and build. Music had likewise been a mainstay. I grew up, thankfully, in a deeply musical home, with my dad’s side especially being marked by someone almost always singing, at the piano, holding a guitar or more than one of those at once. We had stacks of records in the house growing up, everything from Coltrane to Jan Hammer to Mozart to Sabbath to Nirvana to Cream and more. That space, the synesthetic realm of music, built every imaginable architecture in my head, from blob-like oil beads of psychedelia to the cathedrals of perfect pop to fragmented nuclear wastes of heavy metal. It was inevitable that, in my family, I’d pick up an instrument. But my father, whom I had a strained and complex relationship with due to his absence in work and the depths of alcoholism, and my brother—whom I hated and reviled and warred with constantly back and forth through brutal physical and emotional abuse as a child—had both been guitarists. My brother’s friend Shane, meanwhile, a regular at the church we all attended, was a drummer. And Shane, like me, was the younger brother to a remarkably evil and, in retrospect, complex and deeply hurt older brother. So I became his mentee, learning drums from him as he learned about drums by teaching me.

“Starless” is the greatest piece the genre has ever produced. It is perfect, a jewel, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, played, or recorded. It is, to me, a beacon of salvation: that, despite all that had happened to me, something was still there inside.

Which meant that this period of King Crimson, which leaned so heavily on percussive interplay—allowing drums to take equal place alongside guitar, bass and keyboards as an improvisational force—meant so much to me. Listening to music had always been about the construction of spaces and shapes within my heart and within my head; my hunger for every genre under the sun came from how remarkable their unique shapes and colors were to me and how beautiful it was, and is, that every space seems to have something truly unique and special to call its own. Playing music, meanwhile, has always been much more singular, about the explosive evocation of these things burning inside of me. I have felt, forever, like an atom bomb bursting, or flash paper burning too quickly. I have feared since childhood that my death will be young, that I have to pour it all out as fast and as hard as I can before I inevitably am stolen away forever. Everything about me can be rooted, in part, to this neurotic livewire, from my manic posting style on social media to my maximalist writing style in spaces such as this. On the drumkit, it was no different; for years and years, laying back and serving the song to me was substantially less important than the provocative and wild shapes I could create. My youthful desire to play hardcore and heavy metal on the kit emerged naturally from this desire, beating the ever loving fuck out of the kit as heavy and as hard and as fast as I could. My love of prog emerged just as much from that desire as from my desires as a listener. All of a sudden, the long and tense and image-driven improvisational spaces of psychedelic music became not the obscure dalliance but the point, with thoughtful symphonic orchestration along rock instruments being made to mirror these shapes and colors of the heart rather than being chained to the melody or to a lyric. (A sentiment which, in time, would burgeon into my lifelong love of things such as post-rock, doom metal and the more abstract arthouse spaces of hardcore and post-hardcore as well.)

To say this period of King Crimson’s career was important to me would be a hysterically imperfect understatement. The cataclysmic warfare between Bruford and Muir as they dueled across their percussion lineups thrilled me to tears; it felt often that they were more the lead than the string players, with their tense drummers’ duel being followed in harmonic and melodic timbral shapes more to make sense of it for non-drummers than the percussionists providing rhythmic backing for a setting of strums or idle lyrics. My brother and I put our wars to bed in one environment only: music. We had a band together, one which cycled through bassists and second guitarists before eventually discarding them. Despite, or maybe in part because of, our constant battles, our ability to lock in together musically was impossibly deep and, both being ardent lovers of improvisatory music and implementations in heavy rock space such as odd-times and counter-rhythms, we found a lot of meat to dig into with this material. I tasked myself with the impossible feat of summoning with my four limbs all the mighty rhythmic clamor that Muir and Bruford dealt out with their eight, to be able to explode as volcanically as they did from the song-driven playing of a piece such as “Exiles” or “The Talking Drum” into the demanding fills and ear-turning odd-time bars and interjections. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic became the Bible for me, as shockingly complete a shift of my approach on the kit and toward music in general as things like Hendrix, Soundgarden and Led Zeppelin had been before—but not the apex of that evolution.

This jazz-metal fusion period of King Crimson’s career would be, in the eyes of many, the group’s apex. While a great deal of artists especially from the post-punk and art-punk space would find primary inspiration from their new wave-driven ’80s work, featuring Adrian Belew fresh from his tenures with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Talking Heads all within a two-year span, not to mention studio bassist extraordinaire Tony Levin, playing tight and pre-Meshuggah polyrhythmic nervy gamelan rock pieces, it is this mid-’70s lineup that seems in retrospect most keenly to be the true beginning of King Crimson and its ethos as we’ve come to know it. The first four records, spanning Court up to Islands, feel often like a young Fripp trying out and deciding on what he wanted to do with his instrument, both as composer and bandleader. On Larks’, the idea bursts from the cannon fully formed. This is revealed by two things: the rapidity of new material from this group and the shocking previously unheard-of stability of the lineup. This period saw them release three full albums in a year and a half. There are multiple boxsets, each many discs long, composed solely of unique live improvs of this period of the band, a habit they’d begun in their early lineups but had only fully mastered here. The interplay of the players, especially the core rock trio of Wetton, Fripp and Bruford, felt often more telepathic than jazz- or rock-driven, with their ability to burn through time and key changes matched only by their impossible ability to shift tonal and timbral textures in sync with one another. For certain stripes, the perfect live group is the Dead, with their ever-evolving folk/bluegrass/country rock rambles. For me, its King Crimson, marrying everything I love into music into a pre-AI driven perpetual creative engine. (That last clause physically hurt me to write.)

Each album of this lineup saw a depletion of the group. The second, Starless and Bible Black, largely comprising edits of live improvs with overdubs, was made as a quartet, with Jamie Muir having left the group to join a monastery. (No, really; and this, bizarrely enough, wouldn’t be the last of the theologically-themed endings of this group.) Their following record Red would see the group and management agree to drop David Cross from the lineup, reducing them to a power trio format supplemented by a series of guest performers; disputes and miscommunication between band and management would lead to Cross not being informed of this decision until the day before recording was to commence on what was to be the final record of this lineup. Fripp would increasingly find himself unsure in the midst of these recordings, leaving decision-making largely up to the rhythm section, leading to the substantially heavier and more rhythm-centered focus on the material found here. Then, suddenly, just before the record was to be released, Fripp discovered two things: the work of the British Hindu-influenced mystic John G. Bennett as well as the burgeoning material that would one day calcify into punk rock. The twin blows seemed to shatter something in him. He sought to leave the group to collect himself, citing the “coming apocalypse” (seemingly preternaturally aware of what punk would do to prog groups such as his own), but, on finding no purchase with the record label on this account, instead dissolved the group completely, leaving Red as the final earthly will and testament of group until the Belew years began six years later.

This sense of brooding apocalypticism is palpable across the material. Every track references religiosity in general or intimate toward the latent Satanic imagery of the titular Crimson King, from the oblique “Red” and “One More Red Nightmare” to the far more direct “Providence,” “Starless” and “Fallen Angel.” Of the five pieces on the record, only three feature vocals, and all of which conjure a swarming gothic darkness that even metal itself would take years to catch up with. “Fallen Angel” is a brooding elegy about the loss of a brother to gang violence, watching a dove’s wings blacken as they arc downward toward hell. “One More Red Nightmare,” the jauntiest tune here by a wide margin, is a fantasy about dying in a plane crash, mirroring in more literal terms the sentiment of a fallen angel. “Providence” and “Red” are both instrumental pieces, the former being an edit of a free improvisation of the group on Cross’ final tour with the group while the latter became to many listeners, myself included, the true iconic piece of the band’s oeuvre, ousting “In the Court of the Crimson King” and summarizing in compact, potent detail the very core of what made King Crimson not only special but perennially restorative.

The final track, “Starless,” is the masterpiece of this record. It was written during the Starless and Bible Black sessions, intended at one point to be its title track, borrowing a line from poet Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood describing utter moral and spiritual destitution. The track mirrors the grandiloquent poetry of their earlier records, but swaps out the fantastic imagery with a baroque and gothic sense of doom, featuring lines such as “Old friend charity / cruel twisted smile / and the smile signals emptiness for me.” This is a level of despair that prefigures doom metal by some years, capitalizing on the post-Sabbathian sense of gothic grandeur and occult storminess to finally make good on the band’s Satanic name. The slow ballad of the first movement would give way to its abstract second movement, which moves in a shape we might see more often now in groups such as Swans, Anatomy of Habit or any other arthouse group fusing doom metal, prog and post-rock. That sentiment of prefiguring post-rock also explains best the development of that movement, slowly accreting rhythmic motion between the clang and clatter of the chime of the bass and guitar, the drums attempting in broken patterns to thread the space between them, until over several minutes the engine picks up enough motorik pattern within the gothic shadowy gloom to accelerate and roar, producing a mirror to “21st Century Schizoid Man”‘s double time jazz-metal breakdown but here with much darker colors. It concludes with a return of the melody of the first movement, now played with the sturm und drang developed over the body of the song, feeling more like Chernobog’s ferocious black form rising over Bald Mountain, conducting the spirits of the dead in their wretched symphony than in a lightweight cape-adorned prog band playing 20-minute epics about King Arthur.


This relatively brief record floored me the first time I heard it. I was in the depths at the time of exploring both progressive music and heavy metal music, the latter being the music of my agonies and confusions while the former was largely the music of the ferocity of my imagination and the childlike wonder that still writhed in me under the burn wounds and scar tissue of the abuses of youth. Here I found a fusion of the two elements, feeling like the precursor that would bring everything from the similar doomed gothic post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor to the burn-ward math rock/emo fusion of Slint to the knotted darkened rhythmic pulse I adored in groups like Tool. I set myself the task of learning the material on the kit. By that time, my brother had left, the gap of abuse causing the psychic cyst of fixation to develop and now without the explosive release of music made together. Those hours upon hours in the basement, CD player shoved deep in my pocket and headphones maxed out and gripped to my head by a sweatband, were holy to me. My eyes were clenched tight; Red, from the imperial heaviness of its opening instrumental, I would later find mirrored in the works of death metal group Immolation. The grim balladry of “Fallen Angel” would one day lead me to Nick Cave. In the bleak and caustic post-Steely Dan jazz rock of “One More Red Nightmare” to the doom-jazz of “Providence,” and especially within the arms of the crooked heart perfection of “Starless,” I found a mirror to the wild mossy imagination that still boiled inside of me without direction.

It took me months to climb the highest mountain the record put before me: the second movement of “Starless,” its post-rock portion, mirroring the bass guitar in my bass drum and the guitar with my right hand on the cymbal, still holding down figures and the downbeat on the snare and hi-hats, following the deeply evocative but rhythmically non-repeating pattern. That mastery felt like a million things in one: the mastery of my body, a return to the fixation on fitness I’d carried as a younger boy but with clearer focus; the mastery of my instrument, becoming at last better on drums than my brother was on guitar, earning my position and my long-sought respect; the mastery of the translation of my imagination into form, that the figures and shapes and colors I felt within myself, both touched and untouched by the difficulties of my life, spare and mutilated both by the impulses of my slowly deforming brain, making them manifest in all their broken, ugly glory. This was my punk rock. Close to the Edge may be the greatest record of progressive rock. Yessongs may be the record that got me into the genre, opening the door to this magical force that has defined so much of my life and the brightness and vivaciousness and grandeur still alive in my imagination and will. But King Crimson is the greatest group and “Starless” is the greatest piece the genre has ever produced. It is perfect, a jewel, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, played, or recorded. It is, to me, a beacon of salvation: that, despite all that had happened to me, something was still there inside.

That Red would open with its title track would tie it back structurally as the third not only in the jazz-metal trilogy of the Bruford/Wetton years but also to the meta-trilogy of their debut, which ended on its title track, and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, which was bookended by its title tracks, each showcasing a deeper and ever-darkening descent into the pits of the gothic, the metallic, the doomed, the despairing. If King Crimson had ended here, as was initially intended, they would still be one of the greatest groups in the world. As the closing act of that magical seven-record run, another magickal number embedded in their body, Red still remains one of the greatest records of all time. That it is so widely beloved and cited by everyone from Kurt Cobain to Nick Cave, from yours truly to functionally every math-rock band under the sun, is no surprise.

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View Comment (1)
  • Wow. This is the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve seen in this countdown so far. If your goal was to provide “a window into what music means to the *heart* of people”… mission effing accomplished!

    Upon finishing this, I found myself desperately needing to know:

    What are your top, let’s say, 5-10 favorite heavy albums? (With “heavy” meaning whatever you want it to mean) Is there a post you’ve made somewhere that contains this information? If not, and you find some time to do so, you could just list ‘em right here!

    That’s besides the point, though. Thank you for sharing this transcendent love letter to one of the greatest bands of all time.

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