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Music Review: King Crimson – Red (Deluxe 40th Anniversary Edition)

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The release of King Crimson’s seminal 1974 album Red continues the overhaul of the progressive rock band’s catalog that also — so far anyway — includes their debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King and Lizard. As was the case with those two albums, the remastering of this album was overseen by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, along with founding member Robert Fripp.

Wilson was a great choice for this task for a couple of reasons. He’s a longtime fan, and with Porcupine Tree and his other many projects, he also definitely has the necessary prog-rock credentials.

But beyond that, Wilson understands the possibilities of recording in the lossless surround sound format better than just about anybody. His remastering job here literally places you in the center of the room, particularly on the surround mixes for the DVD. This is as close to actually being there as it gets, folks.

By the time King Crimson originally released Red, they were essentially reduced down to the power-trio of Fripp on guitar and mellotron, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford — who left the then-mega successful Yes to join up — on drums. Guest musicians like Mel Collins on soprano saxophone, Ian MacDonald on alto, and David Cross also make appearances.

What makes Red really stand out from previous King Crimson albums like In The Court Of The Crimson King though, is the way that the three core members create such a big noise. The fantasy inspired lyrics and symphonic sweep of their previous work had by this time been largely replaced by a more frenetic type of playing. On Red, King Crimson draw as much from heavy metal and a sort of pre-punk-rock racket as they do from prog and fusion-based jazz.

It’s as though the smaller lineup — and the deceptively smaller (but no less intricate) arrangements of the songs — had finally freed these guys up to stretch themselves that much further musically. The result is music that is often difficult and occasionally even cacophonous listening — especially given the time it was recorded.

But for tech-purists and musician types, Red was, and is still now something of a wet dream. You can still hear its influence today in bands as diverse as Primus, Tool, and Wilson’s own Porcupine Tree. If there is such an animal as jazz-punk-metal, King Crimson pretty much invented it on this album.

So what we have on this deluxe edition is a double-disc, featuring the entire album in both CD and the glorious sounding surround sound you get with the DVD. The latter of which is clearly the main event.

You can hear the difference immediately as Fripp’s discordant fuzzed-out guitar leaps out of the speakers on the title track, followed in short order by Wetton’s bass and Bruford’s almost inhuman drumming. The raw power of that track has never sounded better than it does here, and is reason alone to get this immediately. This is power-trio playing at its finest and most frenetic, and Wilson’s mix puts you right in the center of it.

The middle tracks of this album — which to me always seemed to be the lesser ones — also take on new life with the surround mix.

I still think “One More Red Nightmare” would have worked better as an instrumental, but even Wetton’s vocal makes more sense in the remixed version. Fripp’s discordant guitars, Bruford’s intricate off-signature drumming, and especially Mel Collins’ blaring soprano saxophone still create a eerily irresistible noise.

“Providence” is still just a bit meandering for my tastes, but again the surround sound here adds a new dimension, which this time comes in the form of the separation. Wetton’s bass creates a newly thunderous boom, which Fripp’s guitar and David Cross’ violin slices through like butter. As for Bruford, he is just an absolute monster on the drums here.

The closest Crimson gets to the symphonic sweep of old comes on the album-closer “Starless,” which remains one of the all-time great prog-rock epics.

The mellotron intro sounds as gorgeous as ever — did I mention I really miss that instrument? — and Collins’ soprano sax gives it that perfect little extra kick. Again, Wilson’s surround mix brings everything out that much more clearly. The way this song transitions from its melancholic beginning to Wetton’s power bass chords, Fripp’s droning guitar, and finally to the full-on fusion freakout at the end is mesmerizing. “Starless” has never sounded better than it does here.

The DVD also includes rare video of four songs recorded for French TV. As is often the case with video from this time period, there’s the usual goofy psychedelic visual effects to put up with. But the performances are keepers, particularly “Larks Tongue In Aspic: Part II” and “Starless.”

Kudos to Steven Wilson for a fine job on these King Crimson remasters. I can’t wait to hear what he does by the time he gets to the eighties albums with Adrian Belew like Discipline and Beat.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    definitely one of my favorite Crimson records, but not sure i’ll be getting this…the whole surround dvd thing isn’t worth the money for those of us with no surround system (and no interest in one)

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Mark,
    It sounds good even when played on a standard DVD player…you can definitely hear the improvement even without the 5.1 capability. The extras are nice too. If you’re a fan, this is definitely worth your while. There’s a couple of unreleased tracks too.

    -Glen

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    yes, but can you hear the difference with the cd remaster? there’s no dvd player hooked up to my main stereo and there never will be.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    To me, even the CD sounds better. And it also includes the three extra tracks which show the songs in embryonic stages prior to overdubs. It’s mainly just the three guys doing their thing…which is how I like my KC best with this particular lineup.

    I probably raved about the DVD surround too much in the review, and should have said more about the CD. The DVD is definitely the main event, but the CD recording is quite good too — and at least for me, I hear a difference there as well. It’s just quite as dramatic.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Its just NOT quite as dramatic is what that last sentence meant to say.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i do see that the lossless data is available on the dvd so that’s sort of interesting. i may have to get it after all.

    totally love this record.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’d actually forgot how good it was. You won’t be sorry if you get this, Mark.

    -Glen

  • http://everythingisamess.wordpress.com Tom Johnson

    The original album tracks on the CD are NOT remastered. It is the same audio as on the 30th Anniversary edition from 1999. (It may have been made a bit louder in volume, which can fool the brain into thinking things are significantly different, but it definitely was not remastered – this is confirmed on the Crimson site. What’s not clear is if the high-rez audio on DVD is remixed or not.) I personally think the “trio versions” of “Red” and “Fallen Angel” are worth the upgrade, however, and the video is DEFINITELY worth seeing if you’re a fan of this era – it’s hilarious, plus how often can you say you’ve actually gotten to see this era of Crimson live?

    Why they opted to go with the original audio on CD, I don’t know. It’s a little annoying since both In The Court and Lizard use the newly remixed audio. I think they should have just gone with remixed audio even if the results were only minimally different. I may have to rip the DVD’s stereo track for listening to easily compare and see if there’s much of a difference.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I never heard the 1999 version which is probably how my brain got fooled. The difference on the DVD is dramatic, while the difference on the CD (to the 1974 release) is definitely noticeable. Like you say, its worth the upgrade.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    you guys should listen to faust or this heat.

    those are both some fairly pop-leaning songs for these bands. they got way out there.

  • zingzing

    another, more typical, faust link.

  • Joe Higham

    Simple question. Is the DVD (version) playable on a CD player or do you have to listen to it all on a DVD player or via computer etc ……. if so, very annoying.

    Thanks in advance.