King Crimson appeared in 1969 as an island, on the far side of the bridge joining a tiring psychedelic scene to a studied, if no less freaky (for its age), “progressive” rock. In its nearly fifty years the group’s membership has drifted in and out through orbits around guitarist Robert Fripp, his steady hand and heart dissolving and reforming Crimson as there is music for it to play. As Fripp assembled the band’s third incarnation, Crimson was riding a wave of popularity the rewards of which didn’t settle entirely well with him, and in promising a more difficult, rockier terrain he was able to lure drummer Bill Bruford, looking for a similar fresh start, from megaprog juggernaut Yes. With violinist David Cross and bassist/vocalist John Wetton, the band created three albums in quick succession, ranking among their diverse best. 1974’s Red, the last of the trio, is an able summation of Crimson to that point, before Fripp forcibly retired the band (he would let Crimson lie dormant until a brilliant, left-field return in 1981). The music is a metallic, abrasive take on contemplating the dying of the light, its mood no doubt reflecting Fripp’s, and his band’s, growing uneasiness.
In its lyric, “Starless” is an extension of the previous album’s title, Starless and Bible Black, but the resemblance more-or-less ends there. It has more in common with the grandeur of Crimson’s first record, In the Court of the Crimson King, mellotrons drifting into Fripp’s signature sustained tones, with Wetton’s vocal part an overtly dramatic (such was Wetton’s m.o., but here it works) preamble to a long instrumental passage as heavy a piece of jazz metal fusion as has ever been created. For all his professorial demeanor and seriousness, Fripp loves a good stoner riff, and the tension he can build around such beasts — harmonic, exploratory — separates him from the pack. Brainy, yes, but beguiling, gorgeous, devastating.
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