A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 5 (Islands, 1971)

These guys keep you guessing, don’t they? After the Lizard lineup of King Crimson fell apart, the band reformed now with singer/bassist Boz Burrell (later way more famously of Bad Company) and drummer Ian Wallace, apparently without even bothering to tour with that material. This third version of Crimson recorded the band’s fourth album, Islands, and surprise — it sounds absolutely nothing like the album that preceded it (thankfully.) Nothing like the band’s first two, either: this time, instead of a strange mix of fusion and Renaissance (though I’m still doubtful about the latter really with LizardIslands contains a strange mix of easy listening and avantgarde jazz and classical? With a little sleazy rock thrown in too. You’d be hard-pressed to find another album like this one, even in the rest of King Crimson’s discography.

Islands gets dumped on a lot too, but while I think Lizard largely deserves that treatment, I actually like Islands a little more than I don’t. It’s not perfect by any means and never gets anywhere near the heights of Crimson King or Poseidon, but the mix of styles works better here than it did last time around.

A lot of the shit Islands gets is a result of its first side, the opener Formentera Lady and the instrumental Sailor’s Tale, for being screechy, obtuse, and meandering. There’s something to those criticisms for sure, and I can understand why someone would hate this first side. I’m not a huge fan of the second half of “Formentera Lady” myself; it does meander and the strange wailing singing in the background puts me off. But the first half is perfectly nice, opening with cello, flute, and piano as if to tell the listener to be ready for a ton of classical influence in this album. The main song part is pleasant too; Burrell isn’t Greg Lake by any means (one of my favorite singers if you can’t tell by how much I’ve brought him up) but he does fine on this album. “Sailor’s Tale” is admittedly a harder sell, but it does have a lot of cool parts to it to go along with the screechy ones. If it’s supposed to be a sailor’s tale, anyway, I can imagine the guy getting into a fight with a whale or giant squid or something in the middle. If you’re not into bizarre jazz, though, it might just totally put you off. Maybe I’ve been desensitized — I don’t love this track, but I also don’t think it’s nearly as awful as some reviewers say.

The second side of Islands is both better and worse than the first. It contains the only song that I can say I really like without qualifiers: The Letters depicts a rough love triangle of some kind with a nice dark atmosphere. The other sort of “normal” song on this album, and the only one that qualifies as rock if you care about that, is Ladies of the Road, a wildly sexist piece about groupies — yeah, the lyrical subject matter is pretty damn gross for lack of a better term, but the music itself is good, and the song feels so over-the-top as to be a joke. Hard to imagine anywhere else the usually extremely cerebral King Crimson has a song about fucking, much less with such specific references.

Immediately following “Ladies” is a massive tonal shift with a pure classical piece. Prelude: Song of the Gulls isn’t amazing, nothing much to care about if you’re really into classical in general, but at least it’s pleasant. Sounds like it could easily be a backing track to a visual novel, but that’s no insult: just check out the Umineko BGM and tell me it’s not great (and “Gulls” would be a lesser track there too, I think, but it’s still nice enough.) No, the only serious disappointment on Islands for me based on my expectations going back in was the closing title track, which for me crosses the line from relaxing to dull. The verses are decent enough, but beyond that it floats into the sort of no-edge easy listening that I don’t like. This stuff is okay as background music, but now that we’ve had Lo-Fi Girl running for years on YouTube and a lot of ambient music designed for that specific purpose, I don’t think there’s much need for it. The best part of it is the final minute, which inexplicably features Fripp giving instructions and some instrumental tuning, like they just left the tape running after the song ended.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Islands is massively underrated like Poseidon seems to have been — this album isn’t quite that good, and it does have its fans too. Despite its flaws, though, I enjoyed enough of Islands that I wouldn’t mind putting it back on again. Beautiful album cover, too, even if it might not have taken much work to create: it’s just a photo of the Trifid Nebula. Maybe the “islands” referred to in the title are all those stars and their planets? It’s a nice thought, especially for an extremely amateur astronomy fan like me.

It doesn’t have much to do with the album, but here’s a better look at the nebula courtesy of the European Southern Observatory (source, credit: ESO.) There’s also an alternate cover for Islands originally used for the NA release, a set of small “islands” on an off-white background that look more like moldy chicken nuggets, painted by Sinfield himself. I like the Trifid cover better.

As for the band: it fell apart again in 1972, leaving Fripp completely alone — even the lyricist Sinfield was out for good after an acrimonious break, so if you also disliked his lyrics you’re in luck. This total collapse might have been the end of King Crimson, but Fripp wouldn’t stop: he reformed the band for a third time the following year. Will this fourth version of Crimson hold together long enough to record more than one album this time?

There’s no suspense because this all happened a long time ago, so I don’t know why I’m even writing this way. Before getting to Crimson’s next studio album, however, we have a live album to take on, because they did tour for Islands before disbanding. And what a god damn live album it is. Get ready for it.


5 thoughts on “A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 5 (Islands, 1971)

  1. I’ve been listening to the albums as you review them. Something I notice with Islands is how much better the mastering is than modern albums. Softer soft parts, louder loud parts. I will keep reading!

    • I haven’t thought about it, but you’re right. There’s a lot of subtlety in the sound of these older albums — is that the word? There’s a lot more to come too, so you can look forward to that!

  2. I wish I had some kind of positive takeaway from Islands. I thought it sucked. I had it on while working, and it completely faded into the background. The music I listen to doesn’t tend to be so understated, which I guess is a vibe, but it wasn’t one I was particularly into.

    The most mind boggling thing about this whole thing is how Fripp keeps having the band completely fall apart, but he just keeps chugging along anyway. I guess when you’re driven by passion (or desperation?) you just keep getting back up to the plate to swing again hoping to drive it past the fences.

    • That’s fair — Islands is extremely divisive from the other opinions I’ve read. I can get into some of the bizarre stuff on the first side, but I have to really be in a weird place to listen to “Sailor’s Tale” again for example. As for the rest, understated is a good way to put it. Even “The Letters” feels like it would be done better by Van der Graaf Generator with their more emotional sound and far better singer.

      I looked up some info about the band because I was wondering the same thing as you. From the accounts, things really were chaotic for them at the time. Fripp is well known as an extremely determined and willful guy, so it makes sense that he could get through all that. This messy Lizard/Islands period is my least favorite version of the band, but credit to him for sticking to his plans.

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