Sunday, October 30, 2016

King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black

In 2009, fifteen years after last hearing any King Crimson and twenty-five years since hearing this particular record, the opportunity to come across it again, just after relistening to Larks Tongues in Aspic, which rekindled (particularly the awesome "The Talking Drum") an interest in this remarkable band again.

It had actually been Starless and Bible Black that had stuck in my mind all those years, but actually, any memory of why the album had done so was totally unclear.  No particular songs came to mind, it was just some general impression somehow.

At any rate, that first time going back through the recording, what was striking was the effort Robert Fripp put into presenting a mix of live material (with audience reaction removed) and studio tracks as if to present the idea that the band's qualities were essentially the same in both settings.  At the same time, he has characterized the albums as love letters and concerts as hot dates, which might be construed as the idea that it was in performance that the band was best understood and appreciated.

On Starless, the lines between live and in studio work are blurred and improvisation plays a significant role in the proceedings.  The latter is especially highlighted in the remarkable "Trio," in which the band, noted for increasingly intense and powerful concerts, turned in a contemplative, hushed performance in which drummer Bill Bruford, who could be both a powerhouse and a sensitive accompanist, sat out.  Robert Fripp felt that, for making that unselfish move, the drummer deserved a writing credit.

"We'll Let You Know" and "The Mincer" are both largely improvised concert excerpts, although some studio overdubbing was applied to the former.  "Starless and Bible Black" is a powerful piece, with a piercing, probing Fripp solo backed by the duo propulsion of bassist (and vocalist) John Wetton and Bruford.

A word about violinst David Cross, who also played viola, mellotron and electric piano, as well.  Fripp brought him into the group to provide a lighter touch as counterweight to the heaviness of the others.  Over time, he was marginalized and simply overpowered by the intensity of the other musicians.  Yet, he plays beautifully on the violin in many places, esepcially on "The Night Warch", and dutifully did what needed to be done elsewhere.

As for the vocal pieces, there're all fine efforts, including the much-maligned "The Great Deceiver," which has an opening line reference to "health food faggot," which led American critics and fans to condemn lyricist Richard Palmer-James' homophobia.  He and Fripp, however, have stressed that the use of the term was about a vegetarian form of an English meatball in this song about Beelzebub.

"Lament" and "The Night Watch" are both interesting in terms of their introspective views concerning a musician's life on the road, in the case of the former, and the powerful experience of gazing about Rembrandt's famed painting in Amsterdam, in the instance of the latter.  Wetton's dusky vocals are served quite well in the two songs.

The pinnacle of this record and one of the great King Crimson tunes of them all is the staggering "Fracture," which includes the rhythm section providing powerful backing to Fripp's amazing speed, dexterity and control in his phenomenal playing.

As with other signature performances, Fripp didn't rely on pyrotechnics and acrobatics in his playing, so much as precision, power and placement of notes where they needed to be.  "Fracture" is a textbook example of that and it's also a stellar full band performance and a stunning way to end this very interesting and diverse album.

The 2011 release of the 40th Anniversary edition, mainly remastered by Porcupine Tree guitarist Steven Wilson and Fripp, on Fripp's DGM label includes many bonus tracks, as does the accompanying DVD, which offers 5.1 surround, MLP lossless stereo, and PCM stereo versions and more bonuses, too.  The best bonuses, though, are the video performances of "Easy Money" from Larks Tongues and the improvisation "Fragged Dusty Wall Carpet" from a gig at Central Park in June 1973.  Getting this edition is well worth it for those items, excepts from Fripp's 2000 and 2011 diaries, when preparing 30th and 40th anniversary editions and Crimson biographer Sid Smith's always-interesting liners.

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