Look at this thing! Will you just look at it?
This is the BEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF THINGS! Red is an album containing only five pieces of music, recorded by a band that was already fractured and about to disintegrate. It’s also the greatest album of all time. What you see here is 21 CDs, 2 Blu-Rays and 1 DVD devoted to that album, as well as the posthumous live document, USA.
If all you know about King Crimson is their title song with its AHHHH-AH-AHHHHHHHHHH chorus and trippy-dippy-hippy words about jesters and purple pipers, you wouldn’t recognise this to be the same band. It isn’t. Only the venal leader, Lord Robert of Frippshire, provides any link with that 1969 debut. By the time he was on the road to Red in 1974 the music had become terrifying—dissonant, angular, challenging and so heavy, it has its own gravitational pull. This stuff makes most metal acts sound tame.
When the parcel arrived an arcane ritual began—the unboxing ceremony. Ripping the packaging away I heard Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna as this black monolith hove into view. Upon opening the lid, fingers all a-tremble, I dug deeper and deeper through the vinyl replica sleeves, replica handbills, scribbled first-draft lyrics and the massive booklet with its lovingly-crafted essays and rare photos. It was a good 20 minutes before I even got around to playing any music. I stood in pause. 24 discs? Where the hell do I start? I’m a sucker for hi-res, so I went immediately for one of the Blu-Rays. Now which one? Red. No, USA. No, Red.
USA is, by happy coincidence, my favourite live album of all time. You can see why I had initially felt like one of the apes in Kubrick’s movie when confronted with this sable slab. Clumsily clutching my remote like a half-gnawed femur, I began navigating the menus, grunting expectantly, in need of a solid ear-blasting and bowel-bashing—but my travails were not yet at an end. Which mix to pick? Three to choose from, audio-restored full concerts of the shows that made up the original USA disc, a vinyl transfer of the original UK pressing. Unable to process any more branching logic I picked the first one—Casino Arena, Asbury Park, New Jersey, 28th June 1974. And it was gorgeosity and yum yum, o my brothers.
Settling back with a glass of red (natch) my simian sensibilities started to evolve as I was reminded of the heights that mankind had reached by 1974, how infinite in faculty humanity had become to create such brutality, and infuse it with such yearning. King Crimson pummels me to the floor and tickles my nether regions. It’s the most terrible beauty. John Wetton’s enormous fuzz-drenched bass speaks to all my primal urges while Robert Fripp’s piercing lighthouse beacon of a guitar tone turns my blood icy cold before lighting a fire in my heart. Schizoid band.
In the week since I started out on the long Road to Red, I have been working my way through the 20 CDs of live material. I’m now half-way there, and my priapism shows no sign of deflating. There are barely a dozen different tracks across this entire set but that doesn’t matter. Every take is different. Crimson charted dangerous waters every night and it’s a thrill to hear whether they’ve set themselves completely adrift, or will make it back to shore and end up resolving that crucial climactic chord at the same time. There are many group improvisations too, delicate tentative forays into the ether that build in intensity into pants-wettingly heavy proto-sludge metal with intervals so evil-sounding you’ll be clutching your security blanket for dear life.
Then there’s Red itself. The title track, with its face like a heavy metal Bartók string quartet. Fallen Angel—all the grief and heartbreak of a sibling’s murder, distilled into sound. One More Red Nightmare with its massive riff and masterclass in drum fills. Providence, a gurgling, sputtering improv that metamorphoses into a bass-driven behemoth. Starless—four minutes of balladry, a paean to the absence of light that is depression, an infuriating tension like an unscratchable itch and then POW! A climax that’ll make you go off like Hiroshima. If you’ve read this far and have never heard Red then I implore you at least to seek it out.
Do you need this box though? At £125 it’s not something the curious are going to pick up on a whim. For my own part, I don’t know how I got through 40 years without it. If I were alone on a desert island with just this, a generator and a means to play it, I would live out my years with all the musical entertainment I need, nursing my painful, distended loins, and weeping under the starless, bible black skies.