This Darkness Has Got To Give: A Tris McCall Guest Blog

by - August 04, 2020

2020 has been a no-win scenario, hasn't it? The sliders on the video game of life have been pushed up to Insane difficulty.  I've gravitated toward music that matches that feeling of curious stillness that sometimes comes in the midst of a panic attack: Sarah Harmer's frosty deep-woods retreat on Are You Gone, the isolation, misdirection, and pure loneliness of the first Paul McCartney solo album, Billy Woods's devastating dispatches from spider-holes, the held-breath sound of Drake's Dark Lane Demo Tapes. When I've needed relief from anxiety, I've turned to Laura Marling, which is a little odd, because she never exactly intends to comfort.

But there's one album that will always mean quarantine to me – a set so appropriate to 2020 as I've experienced it that I had to stop playing it because it was scaring me too much and seeping into my dreams. Nothing matches the mood of the moment like King Crimson's 1974 set Red. As I hear it, this is an album about just barely holding it together while everything around is falling to pieces. The ship is taking on water, the engine is knocking and steaming, and the captain’s white knuckles are on the tiller, still trying his damnedest to steer through the storm. Crimson had made music with the intensity of Red before, but they'd never sustained that tone of horror, destabilization, and impending catastrophe over an entire set. Seriously, it's unrelenting. Because it's King Crimson, you already know it's heavy, brilliantly written, and brilliantly performed. Because the band was about to go on ice, they delivered it like a last will and testament.

It wasn't. Robert Fripp would bring King Crimson back in the early eighties, and make another album weirdly appropriate to the quarantine year: Discipline, a thicket of notes and passages and scraps of overheard conversations from a city under siege. But in '74, there was good reason to believe that Red was the grand finale, and the musicians had every incentive to empty the tank. Fripp thought that the world was ending: he retreated into his own head and loosened his grip on the project. He was shedding collaborators, including some very important ones. The entire progressive rock enterprise was approaching diminishing returns.  Red wouldn't be released until King Crimson had already disbanded.

Nevertheless, the group never sounded more unified, or more terrified – even as they made music of harmonic complexity, cohesiveness, and nuanced tonal color. The title track is a hungry pyroclastic flow that just keeps bubbling, steaming, and crackling as it comes to claim you in a rush of heat and fumes. "Fallen Angel" is a brutal story of a Hell's Angels stabbing in a cold-winter New York City; "One More Red Nightmare" illustrates, among other things, a plane crash, with Ian McDonald's maniacal saxophone in the role of the gremlin on the wing. It ends with a master-tape slash of frightening finality – one that speaks straight to the deep unconscious. "Providence", an improvisation, only sounds like a let-up until you pay attention. 

And then there's "Starless", the soundtrack to a slow-moving cataclysm.  The verses are beautiful, but elegaic; there's menace everywhere, and miasma stretching in all directions, under a blank, black sky.  Since this is progressive rock, there needs to be an instrumental solo, but Crimson turns expectations upside-down with a middle section driven by inverted neurotic energy.  Every instrument is penned up and searching for an exit; everybody is bumping into walls, turning around, knocking knees into another wall, focusing, channeling their frustrations, finding no way out. Fripp is the meticulous timekeeper, his notes like tallies in a log, marking investigations, but getting him no closer to release. Bassist John Wetton lurches around the bottom end with a filthy, angry, lager-swilling, basement-dwelling tone. He sounds desperate to throw some punches, but he's got nobody to spar with. Bill Bruford's beats are frantic flurries, fists pounded against the wall with increasing abandon, the last recourse of a man about to snap. Finally – after way longer than you'd ever expect the three to sustain the menace – the whole thing crashes, and the band sprints, breathless, still together but getting unstitched, straight to the finish line. As it's put in a different song that applies all too well to 2020: one way or another, this darkness has got to give. 

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