King Crimson is one of my favorite bands, and I've always felt that Starless and Bible Black was unjustly overlooked, sandwiched as it was between the more popular Larks' Tongues in Aspic and Red. I'm pleased to see it getting the credit it deserves here, as a thrilling statement of experimentalism and virtuosity. No other band sounds like this, and certainly no band playing in 1974.
First, a little background. King Crimson has always had a turbulent existence. In 1969, their stunning debut shattered accepted notions of what rock music could be, but constant lineup changes threatened to tear the group apart multiple times in just a few years. After a handful of followups that managed to be great despite the inner turmoil, guitarist and group leader Robert Fripp pulled together a new lineup that included John Wetton on bass and vocals, David Cross on Violin, and Bill Bruford, fresh from his tenure with fellow progressive rockers Yes, on drums. There was also a short lived contribution from percussionist Jamie Muir, but that was aborted by the time of Starless and Bible Black when he went to go live in a monastery or something.
This lineup made three excellent albums, of which Starless is the middle one. What's interesting about the record is that it is drawn largely from material recorded live, cleaned up with a few studio overdubs, and features far more improvisation than most other rock records.
Until this point, improvisation in rock music had typically been relegated to extended stoner jams and self-indulgent solos, exhibited by psychedelic mainstays like In a Gadda-Da-Vida. King Crimson's improvisations are nothing like this. They more closely resemble jazz, feature thoughtful erudition, and focus simultaneously on structure and texture, transversing complex harmonic territory and creating an actual complex piece of music instead of just rocking back and forth between two chords.
This only works because all four of the musicians are at the very top of their game. Fripp's guitar technique is right up there with the greats, and Bruford remains one of rock's very finest drummers, employing subtlety and finesse as well as perfect timing and technical mastery. Particularly remarkable is his contribution to the track Trio, a live improvisation for mellotron, violin, and bass in which he elected not to play at all, allowing the other three musicians to finish their thoughts uninterrupted by the clattering of his kit. This may not sound like much, but trust me, a drummer choosing not to play when given the opportunity is beyond rare.
The centerpiece of the album is Fracture, the eleven minute instrumental that closes Side 2. It's a masterpiece of composition, establishing a handful of themes early on an developing slowly in a variety of forms as the piece progresses, each time growing in energy tension until at last resolution is delivered. It's also brimming with technical challenges, and it's a treat to here Fripp pushed to the limits of his abilities with his urgent, rapid-fire guitar lines.
In many ways, it would be fair to say that this is an album by musicians, for musicians. There is no doubt that people with more than a casual understanding of harmonic theory will get more out of it than a layperson. Nevertheless, I don't think that means that others can't enjoy the album as well. The group succeeds in building tension like no other, and there are great melodies here as well. If nothing else, you'd be hard pressed to find any band as consistently willing to push the boundaries of rock as King Crimson, and Starless and Bible Black is a snapshot of them at their finest.