King Crimson’s second album with John Wetton on lead vocals is a patchwork affair, with a mixture of live and studio tracks. The quintet from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is already a quartet – percussionist Jamie Muir left the band after experiencing a religious awakening and joining a monastery. The band didn’t have an album of new studio material ready for Starless and Bible Black – only the first two tracks, ‘The Great Deceiver’ and ‘Lament’ are studio creations, the rest of the songs originated as live recordings, often improvisations. Some are augmented in the studio – ‘The Mincer’ had Wetton’s vocals over-dubbed in the studio – while the audience noise is edited out from the live recordings.
Because of its patchwork nature, Starless and Bible Black is less consistent than the other two albums with Wetton and Bill Bruford, but it’s my favourite era of the band and it’s enjoyable despite its uneven nature. Bruford was given a writing credit for the improvisation ‘Trio’ for his restraint in not joining in. Along with ‘Trio’, the two long instrumental tracks on the second side were recorded in Amsterdam. The title track is an improvisation, while ‘Fracture’ is composed on the whole-tone scale, with plenty of nasty guitar from Fripp; he considers it one of the toughest pieces to play that he’s written. Elsewhere there’s the pretty ‘The Night Watch’ and the spiraling riff of ‘The Great Deceiver’, an anti-religion rant inspired by Fripp’s visit to the Vatican gift shop.
It’s a little messy and some of the improvisations drag, but Starless and Bible Black is an often excellent effort by my favourite Crimson line-up.