Island Records/Atlantic Records 1974
This is a really strange offering in the KC canon – much of it was recorded live or derived from live recordings made on the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic tour, and some aspects feel too fast. This is especially true of some of the vocals on side 1. It’s not as though everything is too fast, just that speed sometimes overtakes dynamics.
Richard Palmer-James is back for another go in the writer’s seat. As with LTIA, there’s no overarching theme that ropes the lyrics together. (An argument can be made that the only other Crimson album that has some kind of thematic bonding is 1982’s Beat.) The album is divided equally between four instrumentals and four tracks with words, though side 2 only has two long instrumentals, so the division is not quite equal.
The Great Deceiver starts the album off with a bang, though it’s opening line (‘Health food faggot with a bartered bride’) rubs this listener the wrong way. It’s not common to hear something so derogatory in KC lyrics, though it’s not out of place in a song about the Devil. (ETA: The Elephant Talk FAQ notes that Palmer-James had in mind a meatball, not a derogatory gay reference.) There’s a nice slow bit in the middle of this track that helps it work as not just a rush from point A to point Z. The opening of Lament helps slow the proceedings down a bit. Lyrically it’s odd to hear a first-person, rather mundane song about being in a rock band from Crimson (though one could argue, Easy Money is also about being in a rock band, but from a different perspective). It has some of those nice changes that we’ve come to expect from KC and dives from the languorous opening into something more in keeping with the subject matter.
Next up is a strange little improv called We’ll Let You Know. As he did in Lament as well, Bill Bruford steps a bit into the odd percussive territory that Jamie Muir held on LTIA. It features a really nice interplay with Fripp and Wetton. I’m not sure Cross participates, though he might be on keyboards here. I’m pretty sure it was edited from a longer improv and messed with in the studio – it makes the piece a little less interesting as a base, I’m guessing, to build into a live staple.
The Night Watch (along with side 2’s tour de force Fracture), is one of my favourite songs on the album. The combination of instrumentation, subject matter, and setting is beautifully executed. The verses, telling the story of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, fit as if joints in a picture frame. It was recorded at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which is about half a mile from the Rijksmuseum where the painting is housed. The painting takes up a large dedicated wall – visitors make their way past hundreds of other pieces to find and then stare at it – if they can get close enough. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which plays a similar role at the Louvre, has one subject, and is about the size of a piece of notebook paper, The Night Watch is about twelve feet by fourteen and features almost two dozen characters and might be the museum’s star attraction.
The song is lyrically straightforward in its telling of the lives of Dutch burgers in the age after the Spanish occupation. There’s a line about the painting being dark (The city fathers frozen there/On the canvas dark with age). It had been displayed over its owners fireplace for several decades and in the 80s or 90s underwent repair and is much brighter now. (I am exceedingly lucky to have very good seats for the Crims’ return to this venue in July and I have hopes that they’ll add this to the set list. When they last played the Netherlands, they came to Utrecht which is very nice, but nearly so close to the subject of one of their songs.)
Trio, another instrumental, famously credits all four band members. Bruford’s credit, if I recall rightly, is ‘Admirable restraint’ as he never identified a place to come in so sat still with drumsticks in hand. Cross’ plaintive violin plays with (or against) Fripp’s Mellotron and guitar weaving in and out, bringing them together and then floating away. Wetton seems to join about three minutes in, gently, before Bruford’s bass drum and cymbals bring us into The Mincer. This one is a menacing vocal track that closes side 1 with effects-laden guitar work that seems to have some of the free jazz influence of earlier albums. The lyrics are oblique at best, but hint at the same feeling as Peter Gabriel’s Intruder who knew ‘something about windows and doors’. With lines like ‘Fingers reaching / linger shrieking…You’re all done baby / breathing, the menace behind the song builds, but the vocal style doesn’t really match.
As noted, side 2 comprises two long instrumentals, the title track and Fracture. In the last week, I’ve listened to this album more than a dozen times and at one point listened to the title track three times in a row. It resists entry. I honestly don’t know know what to make of it. It ebbs and flows between the instruments and sometimes seems to have a purpose and is sometimes just noodling between blasts of interplay before fading back out. The piece lacks a continued sense of itself while easing in and out of a sense of impending menace (yeah, there’s that word again). Eventually it feels like it’s going somewhere, that there’s some kind of synchrony between the musicians. Bruford, about half way through seems to take the reins of the piece and then it slips away again. The whole thing comes to an almost cohesive conclusion in its last minute or so.
And then Fracture comes on. Those opening notes introduce something that works and every section of the piece works together. As a representative of this lineup’s key pieces, it stands with the title track of Red and LTIA‘s bookend pieces as a statement of purpose. At about the eight-minute mark, someone (Wetton, probably, as he usually had a mic in front of him) lets out a ‘Whoo!’ because, I think, they are all in such a groove. It feels composed with room for each member to stretch. This is especially apparent in the version found on the anniversary reissue of the live album USA, recorded on the Starless tour.
There are songs on the album that were composed and arranged as pieces or evolved cogently out of improvisation, and others that are improvs cut to wax. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but in the context of this album, it distinguishes pieces on the album that work for me from others that don’t. As a whole, this album has pieces that absolutely shine and others that don’t succeed nearly as well. I still give it 3 1/2 stars.

Next up: Red.