seeing red

king crimson's 1974 studio album "red" has been reissued this fall.

king crimson: red

I took a spin the other night with an old friend – a 1974 studio recording by prog rock champion King Crimson titled simply Red.

Specifically, it was a spruced up “40th Anniversary” edition of the album (the anniversary being that of the mighty Crim’s formation and obviously not of Red itself). As such, the album was presented in five digital surround and lossless stereo mixes that were unthinkable when Red was first unleashed upon the world. There were a few unreleased treats, too, including live-in-the-studio recordings and some DVD footage of Crimson on French TV around the time of Red‘s release – all of which were enough to make junkie fans like myself purchase another edition of an album we already owned.

But digging into Red again with Thanksgiving at hand underscored something I never expected, but should have. While all the extras were a blast, what I kept listening to over and over again was the original album – five tracks and 40 minutes of blissful, electric music that was dark and pensive but also open and often very free in its improvisatory approach. Witness, for instance, Providence, the concert instrumental that underscored what a crafty set of improvisers these Crimsons were.

The power chords from guitarist Robert Fripp still pack a wallop 35 years later while the drum fills of Bill Bruford remain full of propulsive muscle, as does the warmer, more playful shades of his percussive spirit. Finally we have the raw bottom end bass from vocalist John Wetton.

king crimson, circa 1974: robert fripp, david cross, bill bruford, john wetton.

king crimson, circa 1974: robert fripp, david cross, bill bruford, john wetton.

Fripp and Bruford sounded immediately thrilling from the first time I heard Red played as an import recording on a Fort Knox radio station in the fall of 1974. But as time goes by, Wetton’s contributions shine all the more. It’s a testament to the new edition’s mixes that his ominous, sweaty bass phrasings are given new prominence on Red.

I mention all of this not as a form of a review, but as a bit musical comfort. Sure, it’s great to hear one’s favorite albums remastered on a level that takes full advantage of the newest sonic technology. But what is really inspiring about when an album like Red resurfaces is the prospect of how its renewed but very temporary visibility might attract a new and perhaps younger ear.

Undoubtedly that was a hope when The Beatles’ recordings were re-issued with shiny new sound in September. So if it takes a new, spruced up edition to give Red a momentary new day in the commercial sun, so be it. Same goes for Crimson’s groundbreaking 1969 debut record, In the Court of the Crimson King (which has also been re-released) and 1971’s Lizard (which will resurface early in 2010).

Those were the splendid works of entirely different (save for Fripp) King Crimson bands. But Red was the last record made by the Crimson I came to know first. It sounded great then. It sounds better now. And if you’ve never heard it, it’s going to sound too insanely cool for words.

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