Monday, November 6, 2017
King Crimson - 1974  "Starless And Bible Black"
King Crimson's previous album, Larks' Tongues in Aspic (on which they had moved decisively away from a more traditional progressive rock sound drawing on American jazz, and towards the influence of European free improvisation), had been recorded by a quintet lineup of the band, including experimental percussionist Jamie Muir. Early in 1973, Muir abruptly left the band – ostensibly due to an onstage injury, but in fact due to an overwhelming spiritual need to retreat from music and spend time in a monastery (something which was not communicated to his bandmates according to the liner notes for the Portsmouth Guildhall show in the Complete Recordings box set). Muir's departure turned out to be permanent. The band's drummer, Bill Bruford, absorbed Muir's percussion role in addition to his own kit drumming, and the band continued to tour as a quartet.
These upheavals and the pressure of touring left King Crimson short of new written material when it came to the time to record their next album. Having increased their level of onstage improvisation during recent tours, the band opted to take advantage of this to solve the problem. New compositions tried out in concert and captured on several live recordings were presented as part of the new album material, alternating and in some cases blending with studio recordings.
The only songs recorded entirely in the studio were the first two tracks, "The Great Deceiver" and "Lament". "We'll Let You Know" was an entirely improvised piece recorded in Glasgow. "The Mincer" was another improvised piece, originally recorded in concert in Zürich but overdubbed with Wetton's vocals in the studio. "Trio", "Starless and Bible Black" and "Fracture" (the last of which Robert Fripp has cited as one of the most difficult guitar pieces he has ever played) were recorded live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Also recorded at the Concertgebouw was the introduction to "The Night Watch" (the band's Mellotron broke down at the start of the next section, meaning that the remainder of the song needed to be recorded in the studio and dubbed in later). In all cases, live applause was removed from the recordings wherever possible (although the remains of it can be heard by an attentive listener). The complete Amsterdam Concertgebouw concert was eventually released by the band in 1997 as The Night Watch.
"Trio" was notable for being a quartet piece with only three active players – John Wetton on bass guitar, David Cross on viola and Robert Fripp on "flute" Mellotron. Bruford spent the entire piece with his drumsticks crossed over his chest, waiting for the right moment to join in but realising that the improvised piece was progressing better without him. His decision not to add any percussion was seen by the rest of the band as a crucial choice, and he received co-writing credit for the piece. "Trio" was later included on the 1975 compilation album A Young Person's Guide to King Crimson, the performance credits of which cite Bruford's contribution to the piece as having been "admirable restraint."
Only four tracks on the album have lyrics. As had been the case with Larks' Tongues in Aspic, these were written by John Wetton's friend Richard Palmer-James (the former Supertramp guitarist who'd left the band after its first, self-titled album). "The Great Deceiver" refers to The Devil and is an ironic commentary on commercialism (Fripp contributed the line "cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary" after seeing souvenirs being marketed in Vatican City). "Lament" is about fame. "The Night Watch" is a short essay on Rembrandt's painting of the same name, describing the painting as an observer sees it and attempting to understand the subjects. "The Mincer" has more ambiguous lyrics, though lines such as "fingers reaching, linger shrieking," "you're all alone, baby's breathing," and the song's title could be references to a home invader or killer.
The phrase "Starless and Bible Black" is a quotation from the first two lines of poet Dylan Thomas's play, Under Milk Wood. The band's next album, Red, contains a song called "Starless", which contains the phrase "Starless and bible black", whereas "Starless and Bible Black" is an improvised instrumental. The title track on both the album and the compact disk is an edit of the original Amsterdam improvisation as performed at the Concertgebouw, which presumably ran several minutes longer (as improvisations of this tour often did). (The sleeve notes included with the CDs indicate that it was cut short for the 1973 album "due to the constraints of vinyl"). All currently-available master tapes contain the 9:11 version.
The album art is by painter Tom Phillips. The phrase "this night wounds time", which appears on the back cover, is a quotation from Phillips's signature work, the "treated Victorian novel" A Humument (p. 222).
Starless and Bible Black is even more powerful and daring than its predecessor, Larks' Tongues in Aspic, with jarring tempo shifts, explosive guitar riffs, and soaring, elegant, and delicate violin and Mellotron parts scattered throughout its 41 minutes, often all in the same songs. The album was on the outer fringes of accessible progressive rock, with enough musical ideas explored to make Starless and Bible Black more than background for tripping the way Emerson, Lake & Palmer's albums were. "The Night Watch," a song about a Rembrandt painting, was, incredibly, a single release, although it was much more representative of the sound that Crimson was abandoning than where it was going in 1973-1974. More to that point were the contents of side two of the LP, a pair of instrumentals that threw the group's hardest sounds right in the face of the listener, and gained some converts in the process.
Possibly the only thing more challenging, unpredictable and even befuddling than King Crimson’s otherworldly musical creations at the start of the '70s was their ever-shifting personnel. By the end of the band's first half-decade of existence, leader Robert Fripp had already gone through several lineups of musicians.
Thankfully, for Crimson’s sixth album, Starless and Bible Black, which was released on March 29, 1974, they had found some measure of stability around Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, drummer Bill Bruford, multi-instrumentalist (violin, viola, keyboards) David Cross and lyricist Richard Palmer-James, whose unorthodox wordplay capably filled the role vacated by Fripp’s longtime foil, Peter Sinfield.
Musically, though, King Crimson’s restless experimenting continued thanks to a renewed focus on improvisation that saw all but two of the new album’s songs recorded live in concert, then overdubbed and cleansed of crowd noise in the studio. Both of those studio-only creations kicked off Starless and Bible Black, whose title was an allusion to Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood." The first melded skittish tempos and drastic soft/hard dynamics with a beautifully ethereal interlude lasting mere seconds, while the second, by comparison, opened gently and plainly, sweetened by Cross’ violin, but soon embarked towards darker realms on an ominous Wetton bass line.
Wetton’s instrument also starred alongside subversive guitar interjections across the understated "We’ll Let You Know," which then gave way to lusher, almost Spanish-flavored chords on "The Night Watch," a minimalist, virtually percussion-free instrumental (one of many) in "Trio" and finally static-encrusted lounge jazz for "The Mincer." And that was just Side One.
The second half of Starless and Bible Black bowed under the daunting weight of two epic instrumentals averaging ten minutes -- edited down from their concert originals -- of wanton improvisation. The title track slowly gained intensity around Fripp’s distorted, dive-bombing guitar-strangling until finally locking into a steady groove five minutes in, and then gradually decomposing again. By Fripp’s own admission, "Fracture" challenged even his abilities with its complexity, and yet, the tight interplay between all involved throughout the song’s protracted ebb and flow is on display.
And to think that this quasi-telepathic musical synchronization was already being undermined by a new occurrence of lineup uncertainty — namely involving Cross, whose violin was losing the battle for expression and sheer volume vs. his more assertive bandmates. This, in the kill-or-be-killed world of King Crimson, meant his inevitable ousting (by unanimous vote, no less) prior to the following year’s excellent, Red, which signaled another complete band collapse and a five-year hiatus.
1. The Great Deceiver (4:02)
2. Lament (4:00)
3. We'll Let You Know (improv recorded in Glasgow) (3:46)
4. The Night Watch (4:37) *
5. Trio (5:41) *
6. The Mincer (improv recorded in Zurich) (4:10)
7. Starless And Bible Black (9:11) *
8. Fracture (11:14) *
* Recorded Live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam
- Robert Fripp / guitar, Mellotron, effects
- David Cross / violin, viola, Mellotron, electric piano
- John Wetton / bass, vocals
- Bill Bruford / drums, percussion
Posted by Crimhead420 at 6:07 PM