KING CRIMSON — Starless And Bible Black

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KING CRIMSON - Starless And Bible Black cover
3.94 | 33 ratings | 4 reviews
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Album · 1974


A1 The Great Deceiver
A2 Lament
A3 We'll Let You Know
A4 The Night Watch
A5 Trio
A6 The Mincer
B1 Starless And Bible Black
B2 Fracture

40 Anniversary Edition bonus tracks:
9. The Law Of Maximum Distress: Pt 1
10. Improv: The Mincer
11. The Law Of Maximum Distress: Pt 2
12. Dr Diamond (Live)
13. Guts On My Side (Live)


Guitar, Mellotron, Effects [Devices] – Robert Fripp
Percussion [Percussives] – William Bruford
Violin, Viola, Keyboards – David Cross
Bass, Vocals – John Wetton

About this release

Island Records – ILPS 9275 (UK)

Thanks to snobb for the addition


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Specialists/collaborators reviews

- Rage, rage against the dying of the light - (Dylan Thomas)

According to Eric Tamm's book 'Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft' the majority of this album was recorded live and subsequently overdubbed to bring it to it's present form. If that is indeed the case, they have done a wonderful job of both removing the audience noise completely and disguising the origins of the performances. It seems that Fripp has an ongoing reservation about the studio being a valid medium as representative of a performance, and this half live/half studio hybrid possibly offered for him, an acceptable compromise between the two competing disciplines.

'The Great Deceiver' - After being accustomed to quiet mood building intros on previous albums, it's something of a shock to hit the ground running here with an explosive salvo of sixteenth note riffing from the violin and guitar over Bruford's manic kit groove. A truly spellbinding display of controlled power and dynamics from a band who sound leaner and hungrier than ever before. I particularly love John Wetton's voice as his faintly adenoidal tenor serves as the 'eye of the storm' at the center of the Crim tornado. The chorus here is so good that it would have served a more mainstream pop classic well. In lesser hands this type of unconventional structure can sound disjointed and unbalanced but King Crimson make the difficult sound monstrously easy (and vice versa - see Prelude: Song of the Gulls)

I think the lyrics are (unusually) Fripp's, and he casts a jaundiced eye over the commercialization of spirituality that pervades the modern age:

- Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the virgin mary -

'Lament' - Beautiful 'chiming bell' guitar sound enhances another fine vocal performance by Wetton in a song that betrays a jaded cynicism with the machinations of the rock world in general. A feature of Cross's violin playing throughout this record is how sparing it is and his contributions carry more weight as a result. Those duetted lead moments he shares with Fripp's fuzzy black liquorice tone are exquisite. Again, sublime use of dynamics in the separate parts and boasting a melody that even Lennon would have been proud.

'We'll Let You Know' - The dramatic style change that was initiated by 'Larks Tongues in Aspic' is emphasized on the improvisatory tracks like this one. More than any other band whose origins are from a predominantly rock tradition, Crimson demonstrate an ability to improvise using the vocabulary of rock as fluently as that employed in the jazz of say, Miles Davis various groups over the years. When Bruford and Wetton kick into the main groove after teasing us for several delightful minutes, the effect is that of an entirely credible white funk. Accept no imitations, these guys can make the Meters sound like pale Russian bank clerks. The title may be an overspill of the caustic from 'Lament' i.e don't call us etc ?

'The Night Watch' - The rapid trilling of the guitar on the intro appropriates a venetian mandolin, but there the comparison ends, as all conventional techniques in Fripp's erudite hands tend to. A very plaintive and haunting tune sung admirably as ever by Wetton. Even on something as harmonically conventional (by Crimson standards) as this is refreshingly free of the sort of 'ear candy' coating employed by so many of their contemporaries. Unadorned, humble and beautiful.

'Trio' - So named presumably because Bruford does not play on it ? This has a capricious celtic/middle eastern tinge and features some fantastic dynamic interplay between Fripp, Wetton and Cross. How unusual is this, a rock band where the individual members actually listen to what each other are playing?

'The Mincer' - After a very atmospheric build up we get a multi tracked psychedelia hued vocal from Wetton that portrays some harrowing and disturbing imagery.

- Fingers reaching, Fingers reeking. Jump for the scream, Good night, honey -

Your very expensively assembled 'Hi-Fi system falling through a black hole' effect at the conclusion is where the first reel of tape ran out half way through the original live recording.

'Starless and Bible Black' - Takes over from where 'We'll Let You Know' left off. Like most inspired phenomena, this is resistant to causal analysis and appears to inhabit the realm of 'happy accidents' that Fripp and co guessed could not be arrived at in any other fashion. Perhaps Robert was justified, and that the recording studio was not conducive to the realization of beautifully crafted moments like this? These types of tracks need LOTS of listens before they can seep into your affections, but on arrival, they remain there steadfast and true.

'Fracture' - For an album that contains no weak troughs at all, this is the certifiable highpoint of the set.

(If EVERYTHING is just peaks, why does the resulting landscape NOT look like a high altitude Holland? - .....Dunno)

In its 11 minute duration we hear a culmination of everything that Robert Fripp had learned up to that point in his driven quest for perfection throughout an inconsistent but adventurous career. The building blocks for this piece are almost without exception, very short phrases and motifs that are treated with a bewildering array of transpositions and modulations as the track progresses. All the elements that made this scarlet red animal so unique and thus an endangered species, are well in evidence throughout: Wetton's guttural bass provides the rock hook and generous heart, Cross supplies an ethereal mystic spirit, Bruford contributes a playful polyrythmic funk and Fripp mans the controls at Brain Central. A cerebral creature yes, but one that has learned to kick and scratch for both love and sustenance.

This is not a particularly accessible album, but one that will provide enduring rewards on repeated listens, so don't be discouraged by the paucity of conventionally 'pretty' music as what is here is damningly beautiful forever.
Not completely satisfied with the results they were getting in the studio, King Crimson decided to take some of their live recordings, remove all audience noises/responses and use those basic tracks as the foundation for five of the eight songs on this album. Only this band would do something radical like that and have it come out sounding as good as it does. Since there's no mention of this process on the LP cover, I wondered for decades how they had managed to get such a raw, in-the-moment atmosphere to surround this project and now I know. "Starless and Bible Black" is one of the group's most underrated efforts and I've never understood why that is because it's just so damned intriguing.

"The Great Deceiver" kicks the door down from the get go with its compressed, tightly- wound hard energy but then turns into anti-rock as soon as the unorthodox verse begins. Bassist John Wetton frantically sings twisted lines like "Health food faggot with a bartered bride/likes to comb his hair with a dipper ride," provided by lyricist Richard Palmer-James and you know you're in Crimson's wicked world immediately. As strange as the song may be the catchy chorus of "Cigarettes, Ice Cream, Figurines of the Virgin Mary" will stick to your brain like some kind of macabre nursery rhyme. "Lament" is next and it is one of their most engaging tunes ever. It's about a former rock idol looking back on his overnight success and the inevitable decline that followed. The melody is simple yet profound at the start, then the tune develops into something more dramatic. It's a song made up of different segments and ideas separated by a recurring musical sigh portrayed by an augmented guitar chord. In the end the singer has no regrets and has humbly accepted his reduced role in the rock and roll biz. "I like the way the music goes/there's a few good guys who can play it right/I like the way it moves my toes/just say when you want to go and dance all night." Exquisite. "We'll Let You Know" follows and the instrumental's deliberately slow buildup has always caused me to envision a disassembled robot pulling himself together piece by piece. It finally rises and takes a few clunky steps before his battery runs down. It's a great example of how these four musicians could work together on a very avant-garde experiment without ever stepping on each other's toes.

Speaking of imagery, to my seasoned ear the beginning of "The Night Watch" has always sounded like nostalgic music composed to accompany an old-time silent movie with its sad but beautiful melody. (The fact that it was recorded on stage only adds to its magic.) Inspired by Rembrandt's famous painting, Palmer-James' lyrics bring the master's art to life with lines like "The smell of paint, a flask of wine/and turn those faces all to me/the blunderbuss and halberd shaft/and Dutch respectability." The descriptive words, Wetton's restrained vocal delivery, Robert Fripp's tasteful guitar work and the reverent attitude of the group as a whole make this cut a true gem. Next, after an extremely long fade-in, you are treated to the sublime serenity that is "Trio." It features David Cross on violin and viola, Fripp on guitar and Mellotron and Wetton on bass. It's a musical glimpse of heaven and you owe it to yourself to hear it before you depart this mortal coil. I haven't mentioned the greatness of drummer Bill Bruford yet but he's been lurking just below the surface (except on the last tune, which he tactfully sat out). On "The Mincer" he opens the song with a cool, jazzy feel but then things start to wander a bit. For one thing there's no melody to speak of for several minutes as Robert's guitar and his "devices" create eerie sounds and effects seemingly at random. Suddenly John starts singing along with some three-part harmony and then the whole thing just abruptly stops. It's an odd duck of a tune, for sure.

The title song is a little over nine minutes in length and if you are patient and attentive in your listening you will be richly rewarded. After some airy layerings of guitar and keyboard sounds Bruford finally enters to establish a basic beat with the tambourine, then Wetton's bass starts kicking at the bars erratically like a caged beast. Bill's drums relieve the incredible tension as they corral the bass monster and initiate some serious funk underneath the guitar and Mellotron. It all winds down eventually with reluctant dying spasms as Cross' somber violin lays it to rest. "Fracture" is an aptly titled jazz/rock fusion piece that actually has an identifiable riff to follow but it's far from the normal two-step as it coasts along (for a while) in 6/4 time. The tune has a lot of starts and stops with Bruford even adding some rare percussive vibraphone before David's fierce violin playing gives it a slight Mahavishnu Orchestra glow. After a quieter section that nearly lulls you to sleep Fripp's stark guitar awakens you rudely as they tumble into a rock beat and accompany an ascending melody that leads to a loose ending. If this were any other band the last two instrumental songs would be beyond comprehension but for King Crimson it's just another highly constructive day at the office. Er, studio. Er, stage. Whatever.

I used to wonder how Atlantic Records approached marketing these guys. The King Crimson dossier probably got handed down to whomever was the newest member of the staff in advertising as a "let's see what you can do with THIS, genius" welcome-to- the-club present. They never got played on the radio (except for their classic debut), they didn't appear on or host television concert shows and they sure as hell didn't care what some record executives thought they should or shouldn't be doing. What they did have was a horde of loyal fans that bought enough of their records to justify their contract year after year and that's why we have albums like "Starless and Bible Black" to ponder, decipher and contemplate till kingdom come. Thank God.

Members reviews

A strong followup to Lark's Tongues in Aspic - though I don't think it's quite hits the fifth star, following up an absolute masterpiece with another excellent album is still an achievement to be proud of, and displays a level of consistency which previous lineups of King Crimson had failed to attain. The album takes an interesting approach of mixing studio tracks in with edited highlights from live performances, most of which coming from the legendary Netherlands concert which would be released in its entirety on The Night Watch. To be honest, I prefer hearing the relevant songs in that context, especially the side two improvisations, because the live album captures the concert atmosphere which inspired them very well. But either way, it's a good King Crimson album which no fan of the Larks'-to-Red sound will want to pass up.
Sean Trane
Sunless And Babe's Bumpland

Hot on the heels of Lark's Tongue, the band started touring, and despite losing quickly Muir, they chose to go on as a quartet and when the came back to the studio to record this SABB album, they'd grown into a very tight quartet. Of course Muir's exciting percussions and noises are missing into this album, and the very bland artwork and probably some lesser worked-upon songwriting make this album quite a deception compared to Lark.

This one sounds sloppy to me, unfinished studio tapes and weird song endings. Although I see this mostly on the first side of the album I realize that I must be one of the only one to think that way but try the "Aspic" or "Red" albums as they represent the best of this line-up. Strange song structures such as Lament or un-interesting writing as trio makes that much is lost on me in the first side. Even the more conventional songs like Nightwatch and Great Deceiver appear a little weak and would be fillers on either album preceding or following SABB.

The two instrumental on the flipside are a bit unstructured to my liking, but they tend to be the best tracks of the album, solid energetic and crunchy. The instrumental numbers on Aspic were so much more interesting and riveting. Still much worth a spin, though! And as a Crimson fan, it's relatively inconceivable not having this album in your shelves, even if it is the poorest Crimson studio album of the 70's

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