The sound of tearing galaxies
There’s something in my psyche that reacts strongly to noise – to monstrous, pummeling, scarifying music played at the limit of endurance. I suspect it’s my willingness to be utterly overwhelmed by the universe.
The first album I bought that got me hooked on noise was King Crimson’s Starless And Bible Black. I remember buying it on Oxford Street, London, during a school trip to visit the Dutch rooms of the National Gallery. I’d snuck off instead. When I saw that the LP included a song about Rembrandt called ‘The Night Watch,’ I decided it was close enough.
Of course, even barely into my teens, I wasn’t a noise virgin. I’d been listening to heavy rock for years. I understood the triple power of the relentless loud riff and the screaming guitar solo: to blast that annoying inner voice out of your head, to impress your mates, and to piss off your parents. I’d begun a concerted effort to do all three.
This wasn’t even my first Crimson album. But Starless was on a different level to anything else I’d heard. It opened turbulent vistas in my mind, unpleasant places where ugly things thrashed and devoured each other. The louder I played it, the clearer they got. When the sound became all but unbearable, it was like rapture. I spent most of my evenings communing with those angry things deep inside myself.
I tried playing the album to friends, even those who’d reacted well to In The Court Of The Crimson King, but they didn’t get it at all. To everyone else, Starless was discordant, ugly, irredeemable. Nobody liked it. Nobody wanted to inflict it on themselves. I couldn’t stop playing it.
True, I was never much of a fan of side one. I disliked the commercial bombast of ‘The Great Deceiver,’ which anyway always jumped in three places. (I always anticipate those jumps, even now on the CD version.) ‘Lament’ was a self-pitying ballad, ‘We’ll Let You Know’ random stop-start space filler, ‘The Night Watch’ twee and – horror! – ordinary, and ‘Trio’ a still pond in which I saw nothing reflected.
Not all was lost: side closer ‘The Mincer’ planted deep, disturbing footsteps in my psyche, like something monstrous struggling to rise from a viscous black surface, only to freeze mid-stroke.
That second side, though. I wore it out. The degrading sound quality just added to the effect.
First the title track, a spite-driven argument, all one-sided: Robert Fripp’s angular electric guitar hurling physical abuse at David Cross’s cowering Mellotron. Careful with that axe, indeed.
And then in came creeping my all-time favorite Crimson track, then and now, and what I’m sure is Fripp’s finest single composition. ‘Fracture’ was pure heaven, pure hell, wrapped up in eleven terrifying minutes. Growling bass riffs from John Wetton, Bill Bruford’s distinctive hollow drum assault, Fripp and Cross trading ever more vicious insults on guitar and electric violin, and no vocals.
Always, and almost uniquely (I can only think of Jade Warrior as being comparable), King Crimson was a band that understood the nature of dynamics. They placed in ‘Fracture,’ dead center, a moment of uneasy calm, as if daring you to crank up the volume. And I did, even when I’d learn the precise moment the next assault would begin.
And no matter how loudly I played it, the guitar/violin duel in which Fripp and Cross back each other further and further up their finger-boards never quite seemed to last long enough, or rise high enough. The only way to assuage the yearning was to play it again – only louder.
It’s obvious to state it, but there’s never been a band like King Crimson. Their closest neighbor sonically, and perhaps my favorite band of all time, was Van Der Graaf Generator, who would also push my endurance until the onslaught of the noise – or myself, I’m unclear which – was literally clawing the wallpaper off my room. But VdGG never had Crimson’s ability to walk fearlessly into the jaws of improvised nightmare, not knowing if each step would be the last, if they’d ever return.
I’ve amassed every King Crimson concert recording I can find. The excellent new Starless box (from which the photo of Bruford above is taken) gathers a treasure trove of them at what I consider their peak. Now older and wiser, I can appreciate the calm moments – yes, even ‘Trio’ – but it’s still the noise I live for. The noise I crave. The noise I drown myself in. A perfect ‘Fracture,’ or a ‘Lark’s Tongues In Aspic Part 2’ so well-bedded that even the awkward 10/8 rhythm seems natural, and I’m inching up the volume control as loud as I can bear it.
It’s not just the noise, incidentally. There are heavier bands than King Crimson, with a more relentless wall of sonic overload. They’re never interesting to me. I don’t react merely to the machine-line drive of metal, or the shrieking energy of punk. I react to the noise on a cerebral level. King Crimson demands I crack a forbidding surface, and once I do, it opens these dark places, welcomes me into unfathomable hells.
It wants me to struggle, and be repelled, because it knows that the more I have to fight to understand it, the stronger the attachment will be once I do.
For me, that has always been a large part of the contract I make with my music. If I like it and understand it the first time I hear it, I know I’ll be bored of it the second time. If I have to fight to assimilate it, then it’s going to be a love affair that will last my lifetime. Turbulent, abusive, but unbreakable.
As a mere human, walking the tightrope of existence above an immensity of death, ‘Fracture’ is the mirror I choose to gaze into. It reminds me of my place in the cosmos.
It’s certainly the feeling I put into many of the things I write, in which small solitary mortals like myself are forced to accept their place in a world that not only cares nothing for them, it doesn’t even know they exist.
In truth, I like this feeling – a thing that doesn’t have a name, so it surely can’t be a psychosis. (Not until it’s named, anyway!) I like to be overwhelmed, physically and spiritually, by the brutal facts of nature. We’re all passive in the face of something this large, this powerful, and this voracious. None of us are in control.
And that’s perhaps the point of the sensory assault I inflict on myself. Deep down, in that dark place, there’s no control whatsoever. It’s humbling to open myself so nakedly to the universe, begging only that it reward me with those small gifts I snatch back from the void so preciously: creativity, mere creativity, and inspiration.