A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 13 (Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)

By 1984, the Belew/Bruford/Levin lineup was still together: the longest-lasting version of Crimson to date, though apparently things were getting pretty rocky during the Beat sessions. Good thing Fripp and Belew patched things up, otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten Three of a Perfect Pair.

Perfect Pair (or Three? Abbreviating this one is awkward) is generally seen as also a step down from the excellence of Discipline but a step up from Beat (so I guess a half-step up?) I more or less agree with that; it’s not for nothing that Discipline is the last of the four Crimson albums widely considered to be extremely influential/revolutionary/etc. (along with Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues, and Red, or that’s how I count them, at least.) It’s not that this version of the band had run out of steam after its first album — Beat had some great material, but it also varied wildly in quality and had a sharp division between its first and second sides, featuring both more straightforward pop and out-there experimentation with just a little of the blending that worked so well on Discipline.

Perfect Pair has some of that issue too. In fact, it seems after Beat that the band realized what they’d done and simply decided to play up this pop/experimentation division on its next album, splitting it into a brain-inspired “Left Side” and “Right Side.” As before, the first side is poppy and catchy and radio-friendly (even if the radio ultimately might not have cared, sadly) and the second is full of weird extremely radio-unfriendly instrumentals. It’s also generally considered that the first side belongs to Adrian Belew and the second to Robert Fripp, though I doubt it’s as clear a split as that — if you know Belew’s solo work at all, he has plenty of weird experimentation to go along with his “normal” music, and the pop stuff on Perfect Pair wouldn’t work without Fripp’s guitar either.

As with Beat, I like this “pop side” more than the experimental one. So much for my hardcore prog fan credentials, but fuck it, what else can I say? Model Man and especially Man With an Open Heart are fine 80s pop songs, the latter of which definitely should have been a radio hit with its extremely catchy verse and chorus (though as with “Heartbeat”, I think it was passed on in favor of irritating dogshit like fill in the blank 80s trash hit you hear at your local grocery store. If you want another reason to turn on Publix, here it is, though this seems like more of a licensing issue.) These are all pretty straightforward love songs, too — a nice way to introduce Crimson to your normie friends to begin corrupting their minds so they eventually end up hooked on repeated listens to “Fracture”. I’m certainly not as open as the “man with an open heart” in his song, but I guess I can appreciate the sentiment in Belew’s lyrics at least.

However, the best songs on this side and on the entire album are the two that I think effectively mix Crimson’s two sides again. The title track is one of the best openers the band ever came up with, its lyrics about a dysfunctional mess of a relationship woven into that interlocking double guitar line in different time signatures trick resulting in a really special song, one of my favorites not just from 80s Crimson but from the band’s entire catalog. And Sleepless isn’t far behind with its godly bassline — cite this song as one of the reasons Tony Levin is so highly regarded; he does an amazing job here — and its tense atmosphere.

After the fourth track “Open Heart”, we’re done with all this cool bright 80s pop/rock stuff and into the dark starting with Nuages. Aside from the beat poetry ode to an abandoned wreck of a car Dig Me every piece from here on is an instrumental, and most of them (“Nuages”, Industry, and No Warning) are what I’d call proto-dark ambient with their sometimes creepy, oppressive feels. This is also predictably where the album loses a lot of listeners (or where it gains the real weirdos, maybe.)

I’m not in love with this second side either, and not even with the closing Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III, that song series the band revived for some reason (maybe to bookend their career, if you start counting from Larks’ Tongues? Interesting to hear the 80s update, but I much prefer Parts I and II.) However, I also don’t hate them at all or even dislike them on the level I do some of that second side of Beat. Maybe it’s because these pieces really do create an effective atmosphere, especially “Nuages” and “Industry” — I can see them used in the context of a game with an urban/industrial sci-fi setting of some kind. If we’re on the continued hunt for “who did these guys influence,” add my bet of the second side of Perfect Pair -> modern dark ambient/vaporwave, a little of which I’ve covered on the site (see TOWERS and desert sand.) This shouldn’t be a surprise, since Fripp collaborated so closely with ambient godfather Brian Eno through the 70s and 80s and contributed a lot to experimental music through his own solo work.

Not that it makes me want to put on this second side any more than I do already. Like I said, I’m not in love with it, but I can respect what they’re doing especially on the more effective tracks like “Industry”. I think the atmosphere is effective, anyway, so if that’s what they were going for with these tracks, it mostly worked. And combined with two of the band’s best songs ever, the title track and “Sleepless”, and a collection of pretty fine New Wave pop, I’d rank Perfect Pair pretty highly. It’s not quite up with their four all-time classics as I count them so far, but I probably put this album on just as often as those. At least the first side of it.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the ambient and atmospheric a lot more in music, games, anime, any art in general as long as it’s done tastefully and effectively. Maybe I’m just getting old.

And that’s all for 80s Crimson. No, not even a posthumous live album this time to tie matters up, though considering how god damn good this band was live, that was a big mistake, one that would only be remedied with the archival release Absent Lovers over a decade later. Both that and the official concert video Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan are highly recommended, featuring great renditions of a lot of this band’s best songs along with a few old favorites like “Larks’ Tongues Part II” and “Red”, and the video is worth watching just to see their stage antics — Belew having a lot of fun with his guitar effects, Bruford going nuts on his massive drum kit, Levin just being cool on the bass, and Fripp of course sitting down the whole time as he works away on his guitar. (And don’t miss the short travelogue in the middle with the guys wandering around Asakusa! I’ve only been there in games, sadly. But one day…)

As for the band, it was once again finished following Perfect Pair. I guess they’d gone through each primary color in their trilogy of album covers and had none left, or more probably Robert Fripp again felt the band had done its job and had to hang it up. I won’t even say it’s a shame this time: I’m just happy we got what we did. Though they never quite reached the heights of Red, 80s Crimson was just as skilled and enjoyable, and in some ways even more likable than the 70s version (though maybe that’s just Belew’s infectious positivity?) They had their excesses too, but then it wouldn’t be Crimson without excesses. So rest in peace, 80s Crimson.

Does that mean this post series is finished? Not even close (are you getting used to this theme?) King Crimson wasn’t dead but was merely on a long hiatus, though once again the members didn’t know it. Next post, we’ll be entering my era: the 90s. See you there!

 

* A general note on the album cover, because despite its simplicity I thought this one deserved some attention. Apparently that weird symbol wasn’t just something the guys pulled out of their asses. According to the album’s Wikipedia page:

The Peter Willis designed artwork illustrates the sacred–profane dichotomy while being a simplified version of the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic cover; a rising phallic object represents a male solar deity about to penetrate the crescent figure, a female lunar deity.

So there you go. And now I can’t look at this cover the same way ever again.

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 12 (Beat, 1982)

For the first time ever, a King Crimson lineup would completely hold together long enough to record more than one album, a true miracle. Beat is also one of the few Crimson albums that sort of has a concept, this time a tribute to the Beat Generation of the 50s. All those references went over my head aside from the very obvious stuff in the opening Neal and Jack and Me — I’ve never read Jack Kerouac, but I understand that the references go further than that just from reading about some of those connections online.

Concept aside, Beat continues the interlocking guitar lines and the mix of experimental and pop sense of Discipline. It’s also a step down from Discipline. Maybe that was to be expected considering that every track on the previous album was a winner, but my feeling is that Beat is a lot more uneven than its predecessor. Even those two “pop” and “experimental” aspects of this 80s Crimson that were so intertwined in Discipline feel as though they’ve been unwound somewhat, so that while the mix is still here, it’s not blended in quite the way it was before.

There are just a couple of songs that I feel do blend those sides of Crimson, and they also happen to be my favorites (and also all on the first side of the album.) Waiting Man combines a distinctive and hypnotic drumbeat with a great delivery from Adrian Belew, and Sartori in Tangier is a memorable instrumental with some of the flavor of Discipline in it. I also like “Neal and Jack and Me” as an opener, though it’s not the absolute best 80s Crimson would come up with — that would be the opener to their next album. But man, that ending section really works nicely.

Every other song on Beat either falls definitively into the “pop” or “experiment” slot, and out of those five, I only really like one. Heartbeat is about as close as King Crimson ever got to being a top 40 pop band — it’s a straightforward 4/4 love song, and I’ll set aside my pretensions here and say it’s a good one. The fact that this wasn’t a pop hit in 1982 is a shame, though maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that it was never overplayed so that I don’t have to hear it every time I go to the grocery store. (Then again, the grocery store doesn’t play good 80s pop/rock, only stuff that I disliked at first and have grown to completely hate like “Sussudio” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth”. Please, expand your fucking playlists, you corporate drones!)

But then the second side of Beat is a major dropoff in quality from the first. The Howler is rough and ugly without much of an aim (kind of reminds me of “The Mincer” off of Starless and Bible Black in fact, both for that and the similar title) and Neurotica is just too damn neurotic for me to enjoy and without much else to recommend it aside from the chorus. Even the softer Belew song Two Hands doesn’t quite work for me, though I see the more romantic types enjoying it. And considering my favorite romance is Saya no Uta, that might say a lot about just how romantic I am.

Either Saya or the classic Nekomata fight in SMT Nocturne, a true heartbreaker that one. Still waiting for my hybrid SMT/Persona digital demon dating sim.

That leaves the closer Requiem. This instrumental seems to be among the most controversial pieces in King Crimson’s catalog. Understandably so: it sounds like one of 70s Crimson’s improvs in the 80s sound, and as with a lot of those pieces, it gets equal love and hate or at least disinterest. But while it’s not my favorite track on the album, I do get something out of “Requiem” that I don’t get out of some of Crimson’s other improvs. This one feels like an eruption, building up slowly into its climax near the end of the track after which it slowly fades away. Sounds suitably mournful for a piece titled “Requiem” too, though who it’s a requiem for, if anyone, I’m not sure. Probably not for the band, since they’d be around for a while longer in this form.

But then, “Requiem” has the same problem some of Crimson’s wilder pieces have: I have to really be in the mood to identify with their dark, jagged, rough atmospheres. I just happen to be in that sort of mood more often than I’d like. I guess this music isn’t meant for very happy people, is it? Then again, Adrian Belew is optimistic enough to balance things out — just go back to that first side if “Requiem” isn’t your thing.

So Beat is all right. Still a good album on balance, but certainly not the one to start with the 80s lineup of the band in my opinion. Though if you have a friend who’s really into 80s pop and they haven’t heard any Crimson yet, consider sending them a link to “Heartbeat” — it really could fit onto that Vice City radio station, the one that starts with playing “Billie Jean” (and now that I think of it, wasn’t “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in there too? I wonder if that game eventually led some kids to get their minds expanded with Close to the Edge and Relayer. It all comes back to 70s prog in the end!)

And before I move on to the final album in the 80s trilogy (and spoilers there I guess) I have another bonus track to highlight. Absent Lovers is another instrumental, one I’d never heard until going through this full relisten, and I like it more than half of the tracks on the album proper. So why didn’t it make the album? Just as with “Dr. Diamond” on Starless, it’s a mystery.

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 11 (Discipline, 1981)

After three collapses and three reformations, this fourth collapse of the influential and successful Wetton-Bruford (and Cross and Muir) brand of King Crimson in 1974 was the final one and the true end for the band. So everyone thought, apparently including Robert Fripp himself. He must have had some great foresight, because the “first wave” of progressive rock Crimson inspired in 1969 would famously die off in the following years, with fellow prog men Yes, Genesis, and new ex-prog band member supergroup Asia transitioning into highly successful commercial 80s pop/rock and others trying, failing, and disbanding.

Throughout the rest of the 70s, everyone from Crimson went off on their separate ways, including Fripp, who started a solo career and got into collaborations with other hardcore music guys like Brian Eno. His path took him into further collaborations with David Bowie and Talking Heads, where he’d meet the up-and-coming American guitarist Adrian Belew, who got his start with Frank Zappa and also ended up working on tour with Bowie and Talking Heads. This big musical web ended up putting Fripp and Belew together in a new project, with Bill Bruford returning on drums and the also American, also extremely talented bassist Tony Levin joining in (also on something called the Chapman stick, which is a sort of big guitar neck without the body powered by touch alone. Sorry to any stick players reading for the probably awful description.) This new group was originally called Discipline, but eventually I guess the group felt it was Crimson-ish enough with about half of the old 70s band there to bring that old name back, so they did, and their new “debut” album received the Discipline name instead.

I’ve been trying to avoid lengthy “history” sections like the above, but it’s impossible to avoid in this case. If you were to jump directly from Red into Discipline, straight from “Starless” to Elephant Talk, without knowing the name of the artists involved, you’d never believe they were both created by King Crimson. Yet they were — despite the shared name, this Crimson sounds nothing like any Crimson that came before it, the difference in sound being all the more dramatic because of the passage of time. More importantly, I’d argue as many others have that despite their very different New Wave-ish sound at this point, King Crimson along with Peter Gabriel were the only “old prog” guys left working in that truly progressive spirit. Discipline is another seriously influential album, their last “big” release in that earth-shattering sense, and it’s easy to see why: all seven songs on this album are exciting and fresh, combining Crimson’s experimental edge with a new catchy pop sound. They’re woven together effectively kind of like the knot on the album cover — the perfect cover to describe its contents, even if it probably does have some esoteric reason behind it (just ask Mr. Fripp about that — it was the same with the Larks’ Tongues sun and moon graphic, though beyond looking cool I have no idea what it’s about.)

The signature of this new 80s Crimson was the “interlocking guitar” sound. For the first time, the band had two guitarists in Fripp and Belew, and they use that opportunity to play intricate and complex figures, often in different time signatures, that weave around each other as on Frame by Frame and the instrumental title track. These are more than just pieces to show off technique — they really pulled me in when I first listened to this album and they still do. This intricate guitar work around Levin’s bass/stick and Bruford’s drums to even better effect in the fierce Thela Hun Ginjeet, in which Belew recounts his run-in with some tough guys in New York City where they were recording. And of course it wouldn’t be a King Crimson album without a wild experimental piece: see Indiscipline, one of the times I think the wild experimentation works, possibly expressing paranoia or neurosis through the unhinged instrumental sections and Belew’s vocals just as well as Talking Heads could in their own work, and at times even better thanks to Belew’s impressive guitar effect antics.

Bocchi is good, but can she make her guitar sound like an elephant? With the right equipment, probably. I have no idea what these guys were using to make their bizarre sounds.

And look, there’s an honest-to-God love song on this album in Matte Kudasai — the first Crimson love song ever? I think it might be, unless you count “Ladies of the Road”. It’s a good one too, featuring more of Belew’s guitar tricks with his replication of seagull cries and also the two non-English words I remember hearing on a Crimson album. I understand 80s Crimson was fairly popular in Japan, and it’s no surprise if so — there’s something city pop-sounding about “Matte Kudasai” and a few of Belew’s more pop-oriented songs still to come. But then city pop and New Wave seem to have been tied together pretty closely anyway, and similar fusion/proto-electronic guys like Yellow Magic Orchestra were already well established by this point. And finally, don’t forget about The Sheltering Sky, a nice, peaceful instrumental that I used to overlook.

I’ve seen Discipline described as feeling cold or distant, but I never had that feeling about the album myself. It’s extremely precise, sure; if you’re a fan of “math rock” you absolutely need to listen to this stuff if you haven’t already, especially if you want to know who influenced guys like Tool. But does precision equal coldness? I don’t know. Even if it does, this music is both enjoyable and innovative enough that it doesn’t matter, but there’s plenty of warmth in “Matte Kudasai” and heat in “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (right in the title too, if you know what it means!) Discipline is excellent overall and a must-listen: I’d rank it right up with Crimson King and Larks’ Tongues all together just below the pinnacle of Red, even if, again, it sounds absolutely like none of those albums.

But that’s the game with King Crimson as we’ve seen. Expect the unexpected! There’s a lot more Crimson to listen to as well — I think we might be halfway through the catalogue at this point. So I’ll hopefully see you next time.

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 10 (USA, 1975)

Yes, it’s another live album, and put out the year after the band folded yet again. These posthumous live releases are starting to become a theme — my copy of the album even has an “R.I.P.” at the end of the track and personnel listing on the back cover. Though for some reason, just like with Earthbound, there’s no hint of this album on the band’s channel aside from Asbury Park, my least favorite track, go figure. Why? Who knows. Maybe these albums have some weird licensing issues.

But thank God, very much unlike Earthbound, USA is a worthy enough tribute to the Wetton/Bruford/Cross lineup it represents, a recording taken from their American tour as the album’s title suggests. The track listing this time actually makes sense and isn’t totally stupid, featuring plenty of good stuff from Larks’ Tongues (“Part II”, “Exiles”, “Easy Money”) and just one improvisation (“Asbury Park”, named after the city they were playing in New Jersey) that’s actually okay — plenty of energy in that one at least.

In fact, the energy and skill is all on display in USA. Just as importantly, the recording more or less does the band and their material justice, with “Larks’ Tongues Part II” as a special highlight from the first side. And look, they’re still playing “21st Century Schizoid Man”! This track was the closer on the strangely short original vinyl release of USA — but still a great closer, and this 70s Crimson lineup does an excellent job with it.

If that were all I had on my version of the album, I’d complain about Red going completely unrepresented. However, the CD reissue of USA I own contains two bonus tracks: “Fracture”, one of the better possible choices off of Starless and Bible Black, and “Starless”, which is the best track on the album and an even better closer than “Schizoid Man”. Maybe that’s sacrilege to say, but I think these two songs are held in just about equally high esteem by fans anyway.

Not much else to say except to look out for Wetton’s ad-libbing in the first verse of “Easy Money”. If that “health food-” line in “Great Deceiver” was an awkward one, at least to my American ears, this one is quite literally criminal. That’s not an argument you’ll win with a judge, John. Not unless “licking fudge” has a more innocent connotation than I’m imagining.

So USA is a good album. Worth picking up for sure if you find yourself getting into this band and want to hear what they sounded like back in 1974 when they played live. It really is a different sort of energy, and it’s nice to hear the crowd noise come in on occasion — I can imagine myself in the crowd, and I may well have been if I hadn’t been about a negative dozen years old at the time. And if you want to hear this lineup of the band live without buying USA, the roughly concurrent archival live release The Night Watch is up on Crimson’s channel, and it’s probably good too. The closest I ever got to seeing these guys actually live was an open air concert by Adrian Belew and two guitar prodigy kids he was touring with years ago — but that’s spoiling what’s coming up next in this series. I hope you’re ready for some Discipline!

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 9 (Red, 1974)

Following the release of Starless and Bible Black and a North American tour, King Crimson would kick out violinist/keyboardist David Cross and record their next album Red as a trio. I’m not sure why Cross had to go, because the guy seems to have been good at what he did, but I’m sure band historians know the answer. In other words, not me: despite how long this post series is running and will continue to run, I’m mainly interested in the music, though I have heard a comprehensive band documentary is coming out soon that I’ll definitely watch.

But if you were wondering why Cross wasn’t featured in the band portrait on the cover of Red (a first and last for the band, and a real rarity for progressive album covers) that’s the reason. On the plus side, the band here brought in a few guest musicians to add some flavor, including former Crimson players Marc Charig on cornet, Mel Collins on soprano sax, and old founding member Ian McDonald himself on alto sax.

And as for the music: this is it. I’ll have to save my actual final judgment until the end of this run of albums, but ever since hearing it up to this day, Red has been and is my favorite King Crimson album and one of my favorite musical works of all time. It’s extremely focused, purposeful, and powerful, full of amazing moments and memorable lines. Out of its five tracks, the only one I’m not in love with is Providence, another live-studio hybrid improvisation (and for that reason the only track featuring Cross on violin and the reason he’s listed in the album’s credits — I think it’s called “Providence” because they recorded it in Providence, RI, but that’s just a guess based on later song naming conventions.) Even this improv is better than most of the similar material on Starless, however, creating a nice dark atmosphere that works in its spot between the first side closer and the album closer as a whole.

The other four are absolute winners, starting with the opening instrumental title track. Red sets an extremely heavy tone that continues throughout the album, mixing later with the second track Fallen Angel, which intersperses softer, calmer verses with that heavy guitar tone again in the chorus. Both make for an excellent opening to Red — it’s a contrast that somehow also blends beautifully. The first side ends with One More Red Nightmare, which add a little humor with lyrics about fear of flying. But the playing is serious: the track sounds like what it feels like to fly through a storm, especially in its instrumental stretches, and with Bruford banging on what I used to think was sheet metal but was actually an old cymbal they pulled out of the trash somewhere — either way it has a nice “thunder” sort of effect to me.

As much as I love those pieces, it’s the final song that makes Red a legendary album. Starless isn’t just my favorite on Red, it might be my favorite song of Crimson’s, period. At the very least, it stands up there with “Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph”. If I had to say what I like best about this lineup of the band, it’s all in “Starless” with its masterful building up and releasing of tension. But then any extended description I try to write of “Starless” doesn’t do it justice, so I hope you’ll just listen to it and see what you think.

Maybe I can express my feelings in gif form more effectively, so here they are

I thought I’d write more about Red than this, but there you go: the work speaks for itself. Even Mr. Christgau liked it, so I’ll return to him at least a little of the credit I took from him in my Larks’ Tongues post — I have to be fair. And speaking of being ahead of their time once again, this album didn’t do well upon its release, but over the decades it’s gotten its due as one of Crimson’s greatest works. Nirvana fans take note: Kurt Cobain cited Red as an influence, and I can the seeds of that late 80s/early 90s grunge in there.

So what do you do when you’ve made what may well be your magnum opus? Following Red, Robert Fripp decided King Crimson had said all it had to say and dissolved the band. This might seem astounding, but it does fit in with what seems to be Fripp’s general idea about music and creativity: don’t get stuck in a rut and continue to actually progress. That’s what he’d do, and what some of the other Crimsoners (?) would do as well, with Bill Bruford heading off to help out Genesis as a guest drummer after Peter Gabriel left and Phil Collins took up singing duties and then later heading off to the world of jazz, and John Wetton heading off to do whatever he did throughout the rest of the 70s before co-founding Asia, where he and a few former Yes and ELP members didn’t do much musical progressing anymore but made a whole assload of money, and who can blame them. And Ian McDonald went off to co-found Foreigner. People really don’t realize just how central this band and its members were to the shape of popular music, even the stuff you wouldn’t necessarily associate them with.

And was the end of King Crimson. Requiescat in pace.

Except, once again, it wasn’t. Fripp might have retired King Crimson by decree, but it would rise again in a new and totally unexpected form seven years later. If you’re not familiar already, there’s no way you’d be able to predict what they’ll end up sounding like upon their return. The next post will be a look at another live album from the Wetton/Bruford/Cross lineup, though, so we’ll have one more look at the 70s before jumping forward in time.

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 8 (Starless and Bible Black, 1974)

Man but these guys could be inconsistent. After producing the excellent Larks’ Tongues, the band went on tour, losing their percussionist Jamie Muir (who went off to join a monastery, really) so the band was down to a quartet when they returned to the studio to put together Starless and Bible Black, their next album.

And it’s another major drop-off in quality from its predecessor. Not because of the loss of Muir: though by all accounts he was a great percussionist, his duties are covered by Bill Bruford, and the entire band sounds as great as before. No, the trouble with Starless — and this is where I think I disagree strongly with some fans — is that so much of it feels so unfocused, especially when compared to the albums directly preceding and succeeding it. Starless does have some high points and a few great tracks, but I get nothing out of a lot of the rest of it.

The opening is extremely promising, featuring one out of its three “normal” songs. The Great Deceiver is just about the perfect opener, in fact: it’s loud, energetic, catchy, and actually focused, with an earworm chorus that got stuck in my head the moment I played it again after years. The only issue I think someone could possibly have with the song are the lyrics, which seem to be a sort of atheistic screed? Or maybe it’s just against cults, or against consumerism? It’s hard to tell, but John Wetton does immediately drop the f-bomb (the one you’ll see referred to as the “gamer word”, yes — i.e. the one that isn’t fuck) in the first verse. I have read that that word has a different connotation in England, referring to a meatball, though, so keep that in mind if its use makes you feel weird. This might be a context issue (and maybe a UK reader can confirm?)

The other big song highlight on the album is The Night Watch, an ode to Rembrandt’s famous painting of the same name. Good painting to write a song about — maybe the guys saw it at the Rijksmuseum and got inspired. The song is nice as well, with a great delivery by Wetton and a memorable Fripp guitar solo.

Makes me want to join a citizen’s brigade and get a polearm, though I don’t think my shitty apartment’s ceiling is high enough to make room for it.

Aside from Lament, which for me is pretty passable, the rest of Starless is purely instrumental. That wouldn’t be a problem if these were tight, focused instrumentals with real structures like on Larks’ Tongues, but for the most part they seem to be improvisations. Parts of this instrumental section weren’t recorded in the studio but live on tour, where Crimson would play improv sections in the middle of their regular set, and apparently some of these were edited together with studio work into some of the Starless tracks, creating a weird sort of hybrid live-studio album.

And hell if some of these aren’t just a waste. Namely The Mincer, We’ll Let You Know and the title track, which I can’t remember a damn thing about. I absolutely do not doubt King Crimson’s technical ability, which is very much on display in these tracks, but shit — write something interesting to play. Or improvise on tour and release a live album full of those tracks if you want so people can take it or leave it as they wish (which they sort of would do later on.) To be clear, this stuff is not nearly as bad as the headache noise featured on Earthbound: it’s recorded properly for one, and thank God John Wetton doesn’t try to scat or sing over these at all for that matter aside from a few bizarre lines on “The Mincer”, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable either.

However, the above doesn’t apply to Trio, which is short but pleasant enough, nor to Fracture, which has more of a structure than the title track it shares the second side with. Fripp’s recurring guitar line starting at around 2:50 of “Fracture” is famous for its intricacy and difficulty, and best of all it is actually memorable and the band plays around it at times, doing something interesting with the piece (and here’s a possible link with the future of the band in its 80s incarnation that we’ll be getting to soon.) I’d prefer even more of a structure to “Fracture” than we get, but overall it’s good — I don’t go as crazy for it as some people, but I can see how it would be a great time to hear live.

For me, Starless and Bible Black is a mix of exciting and dull. I’d say the album’s good parts redeem it overall, but considering how much better this “fourth version” of Crimson would do before and after, this one can’t help but be a letdown. Or maybe that was just the problem: not enough time had passed between albums to put together one that could measure up to those extremely high standards. I have no idea, but it’s just a wild guess. Taking breaks is important, especially if it means you don’t have to end up putting Frankenstein’s monster’d studio-live improv tracks onto your album.

On the other hand, some people really love Starless and these improvs, and so as with Lizard, I’ll say your mileage may vary based on your own tastes. Give me some structure. I’m not too much into free jazz either, if that tells you where I’m coming from.

P.S.: check out the live bonus track Dr. Diamond, not bad. It’s not part of the original album, and I don’t usually cover bonus tracks, but I’d never heard this song before going through this relisten marathon. Not sure why they didn’t bother recording a studio version.

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 7 (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973)

Back to the true excellence, and it only took a few breakups and reformations! The fourth incarnation of King Crimson featured Robert Fripp (spoilers: he’s in every one, yeah), John Wetton on bass and vocals (if the name’s familiar, he’d go on to more commercial success in Asia), drummer Bill Bruford (recently departed from Yes after Close to the Edge), violinist/keyboardist David Cross, and percussionist Jamie Muir. Not even this lineup would remain totally stable, with Muir taking off pretty quickly, though he does have a strong influence on this album’s sound, but Wetton, Bruford, and Cross would be around for a while.

That’s good news this time, because Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is the best Crimson album since their debut. This new version of the band, on this album at least, is powerful and focused — out of every song and piece on Larks’ Tongues, only Book of Saturday is kind of middling, and it’s not even bad, just a two-minute showcase for Wetton’s singing, some backwards guitar, and the work of new lyricist Richard Palmer-James, formerly of Supertramp. The Lyrics to “Saturday” sound like meaningless gibberish that I don’t care for too much for, but he does marginally better elsewhere. It’s Crimson anyway — the lyrics don’t matter nearly as much as the music.

Every other track is a winner. Larks’ Tongues is divided between songs and instrumental pieces, with a clear emphasis on the instrumentals more than ever before: despite the even 3:3 split, the instrumental section is longer, dominated by the title track suite that’s broken up across the album. To take the other two songs first, they’re both very good and present a nice contrast, with Exiles being softer and more atmospheric and melancholic with a nice use of synths (and Mellotron? It is listed as used in the liner notes with Cross and Fripp both playing) and Easy Money being more rock, with a lot of funk thrown in, just in case you thought this music was all for nerds like me. Just listen to the bass and drums in the instrumental middle of “Easy Money” and tell me it’s not music to move your ass to.

Well okay, I can’t dance either outside rhythm games, so not like it’s my concern. Has anyone ever danced to King Crimson anyway? Now there’s a deep question.

But the real focus does seem to be on those instrumentals, starting with the opening Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part I, a 13-minute piece that’s simultaneously all over the place and together somehow, the best part being that repeated monster of a riff after the tense violin-guitar lead-in near the beginning. Even better is the closing two track-punch of The Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part II. Though they’re separated in the track listing and on the album, they feel like one long song, with “The Talking Drum” tense lead-in once again only stretched over several minutes, starting from what sounds like a bongo beat surrounded by some swirling wind effect and building up to a wild full-band piece, then ending in an explosion with “Larks’ Tongues Part II”, which — just listen to that one. It’s the best piece on the album, an amazing closer, and a deserved fan favorite to this day.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is among my favorite King Crimson albums for a reason. It’s not my absolute top; might be my third or fourth-ranked below Crimson King and another album I’ll be taking on soon. However, Larks’ Tongues seems like it was just as ahead of its time, if not even more so, than the debut in 1969 was — I’ve even seen this one referred to as metal (maybe the first progressive metal album then?) and it’s easy to see how this version of the band would influence rock musicians 20 years later, where Crimson King instead inspired the “classical prog” movement that Crimson itself had already moved away from by this point.

Of course, Village Voice music writer and “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau didn’t like Larks’ Tongues very much, famously writing at the time that it “doesn’t cook,” whatever that means, and “doesn’t quite jell” which, sure, subjective opinion here, but he’s wrong. But then Mr. Christgau doesn’t like progressive styles in general, so his opinion doesn’t count for much when judging such music in my own opinion. There’s a reason I don’t have any posts about Call of Duty or Rent-A-Girlfriend on the site: I have no interest in the genres they represent, so I leave them to those who enjoy them and can most effectively address such works’ strengths and weaknesses. Does that make sense? Maybe not, I don’t know. I guess when you’re a professional, you have to review what you’re asked to review — another benefit of being an unpaid amateur!

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 6 (Earthbound, 1972)

Earthbound is fucking terrible.

Now, to address anyone arriving here through a Google search who might be confused (especially considering this is supposedly a site about video and PC games first, at least when I started out) — I’m not talking about the SNES classic JRPG also known as Mother 2. I regrettably haven’t played that game, so I can’t comment on it, but I’ll take everyone else’s words for it that it’s a masterpiece.

This is not a masterpiece or even close to it, however. In 1972, after breaking apart for the third time, King Crimson put out this live album, their very first, and it’s hard to imagine them doing much worse. Almost everything about this Earthbound is awful: the track selection (with exactly one exception) is ridiculous, the sound quality is atrocious, and some aspects of the performance are so irritating you might believe these guys were trying to piss you off. Even Crimson themselves seem to realize all this: the album’s been beaten up by fans I guess for 50 years now, and it’s the one I can’t find any trace of on their YouTube page or even anywhere else. But idiot that I am, I own a copy. So no links this time — but then you’re not missing out on much anyway.

Earthbound was recorded during Crimson’s tour in support of Islands, their 1971 studio album. Islands was mostly decent, or at least I thought so, so it’s a shame the band couldn’t do it more justice. But then it’s barely even represented on the album aside from a short clip out of “Sailor’s Tale”, hardly the highlight of that album. Aside from the opener, in fact, this “Sailor’s Tale” bit blends in with the rest of this bullshit, because it’s almost all instrumental jamming. Now Crimson instrumentals can really be excellent as we’ll see soon, but these aren’t. At their best, they’re pretty okay jazz noodling with some cool Fripp guitar and cool Mel Collins saxophone lines — these guys make small parts of these jams acceptable at least. These bearable stretches sound like music that would be fun to get drunk to in a jazz club or a street party maybe, where you have a rowdy atmosphere and you’re not really paying attention (the second piece “Peoria” especially.) But why not play some of the actual songs off of Islands? Like “The Letters”, or even “Ladies of the Road” — that one is pretty damn nasty and could work in this context.

But no, it’s almost all jamming. And yeah, Fripp and Collins are both excellent musicians, and it sounds like Wallace is too, but because of the quality of the recording (recorded on cassette from the back of a Volkswagen truck in the rain — this is according to the album’s liner notes) you can’t even properly appreciate their talents as a band all together. The sound mixing is all fucked, with Collins’ sax blaring in the foreground and sometimes drowning out everyone else at times, especially when he really freaks out on it, which is a lot — so even if I’d like to enjoy some of the aimless jamming, I can’t.

And even if you can get past all of the above, there’s fucking Boz Burrell. I think I said something nice about him in my Islands post, but I’ll take it back, because he decided to scat over some of this jamming and it is awful. I’m happy that he quit to form Bad Company after this, and I’m sure he is too, since he presumably made tons of money with that band considering how huge they got.

Artistic integrity is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills on its own, does it?

I’ve only complained about Earthbound up until now, but there is one track that saves it from the trash can: the opening rendition of “21st Century Schizoid Man”. The guys were still playing this song live, and good thing, because they do a great job with it. Even Burrell has enough sense not to fuck it up with his stupid scatting. Of course it’s still buried behind the album’s shitty sound quality, but the song’s excellence shines through anyway.

If it weren’t for the opener, anyway, Earthbound would get an F, but instead it gets a D-. Nice work, guys. Maybe they really just didn’t care, being broken up and all. Or maybe they were contracted to release a live album and threw out some crap because of legal obligations. Thankfully, we now have a better live recording from this period in the archival release Ladies of the Road, so you might ask why bother covering Earthbound at all? Because 1) this is one of the regular releases in the King Crimson discography, and I said I’d cover every one no matter what, and 2) they’re still selling the damn thing, in a 50th anniversary edition this time which I don’t own and never will.

So rest in peace King Crimson version 3 (or 2.1? 2.2? I don’t know the official counting method.) Now on to something far better — I hope you’ll look forward to it!

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.

A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 4 (Lizard, 1970)

After the release of In the Wake of Poseidon (or in the wake of Poseidon? Yeah? Sorry) King Crimson reformed in 1970 for the first time out of several times to come, with Fripp and Sinfield remaining and an entirely new lineup otherwise, Gordon Haskell returning as main vocalist/bassist, a new drummer in Andy McCulloch, Tippett again on piano, and several others sitting in on brass and woodwinds. Then they produced Lizard, Crimson’s third album.

I wanted to like Lizard upon this new listen. It’s the first album in this run that I don’t have any memories attached to because I hardly ever listened to it when I was young, for the simple reason that I just didn’t like it back at the time. Lizard sounds absolutely nothing like the first two Crimson albums — the sound here turns to a mix of jazz fusion and sort of medieval/Renaissance-esque (or at least that seems to be what they’re going for; also judging by the pretty nice medieval tapistry-inspired album cover.) It’s a strange mix, but there’s no reason it couldn’t necessarily work, so I went back in hoping I was missing something back in the day that I’d hear now.

I’m sorry to say that I still don’t hear it. This is the first Crimson album, and certainly not the last if memory serves, that’s going to be a rough listen. It’s not because of laziness — it seems like plenty of effort was put into Lizard, but some of the musical choices the band made on this album were baffling.

The opener Cirkus isn’t awful, with some pretty memorable moments, but the sheer ugliness of a lot of the song largely wrecks it for me. The following songs Indoor Games and Happy Family don’t even have the memorability or power of “Cirkus” to at least partially save them — they just outright suck. On top of all that, Gordon Haskell’s voice is rough as hell and adds to that ugly effect. The guy might have been great at singing blues or something really raw like that, but this style of music would have been a lot better with say Greg Lake (then involved in putting out the far better ELP debut album at this point.)

Not that it would have helped a song like “Happy Family” much to have Lake singing instead. Haskell isn’t suited at all to sing these songs, but the songs are really the problem in my opinion — I have no clue what Crimson was going for with this first half, because it doesn’t work. Ugliness absolutely can work in music as in other forms of art, but I don’t think it works without a purpose, and what’s the purpose here aside from a weird retelling of the Beatles’ then-recent breakup (the subject of “Happy Family” supposedly) that I don’t need anyway? Even the requisite soft ballad Lady of the Dancing Water that closes the first side is far weaker than what we’ve come to expect; it slides out of my head right after it’s done playing.

That leaves the by default best song on the album. Lizard features what was quickly becoming a prog-rock standard, the sidelong track: a song that takes up one side of an LP (an anachronistic term even when I was growing up in the CD age, but vinyl is still around, isn’t it? So maybe not.) The 23-minute title track is an ambitious undertaking, a real suite in that old classical sense even if it’s musically a lot more based in jazz fusion. And I guess some people love the song “Lizard” as much as Yes’ “Close to the Edge”, Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”, or ELP’s “Tarkus”, but all three of those are far better than this mess.

To be fair, the first half of “Lizard” is all right; the first two parts (because of course it’s divided into parts, these prog guys loved making song subparts) “Prince Rupert Awakes” and “Bolero” are together by far my favorite parts of Lizard and the only ones I care to ever hear again. The first is a nice surprise for all the Yes fans like me, with guest vocals by Jon Anderson, a fine treat after having to hear Gordon Haskell all over the first half of the album (though he does return later in the song.) This song even sounds kind of like very early Yes before they got all cosmic and ultra-progressive the following year with The Yes Album. Nice stuff, aside from the messes of organ splashed around that completely clash with the verses (but still nowhere close to what we got on the first side.) And “Bolero” is a very pleasant instrumental lead-in to the main “battle” section of the suite, with a beautiful woodwind/piano section around the sixth minute.

Then “The Battle of Glass Tears” starts, and the song turns into mush again right up until Fripp’s really good guitar solo near the very end. This stretch from the middle on isn’t that memorable or interesting — you’d think the depiction of a battle should get the blood flowing, but it really doesn’t. While it does get pretty loud at points, the whole thing comes off like a weak copy of what Miles Davis was doing at the time, and as much as I like that early 70s fusion, if I want it I’ll listen to Bitches Brew.

Prince Rupert in a contemporary 17th century cartoon. This guy had a legitimately interesting life, getting exiled and fighting all over Europe.

And even that’s not exactly “get the blood flowing” music itself, so I’m not sure what effect Crimson was going for with “Lizard” in the end. It’s supposed to depict the Cavalier leader Prince Rupert of the Rhine at the Battle of Naseby during the English Civil War, one of the battles that really screwed King Charles I, but I don’t know how you’d tell without the references in the subpart titles. Not unless “burn a bridge and burn a boat / stake a lizard by the throat” has something to do with the battle tactics? And what a weirdly specific theme to take on. Was Fripp a history nerd like me, or maybe Sinfield since he wrote the lyrics? But who cares about that — themes and concepts are great and all, but if you’re writing a piece of music, the damn music has to be good or else the rest of it suffers.

That’s Lizard. It’s not very good, and even the band itself seems not to have been happy with it. After its recording, Crimson fell apart for a second time, with Haskell and McCulloch leaving and being replaced by still another singer/bassist and drummer along with the same or a similar set of guys on piano, horns, and woodwinds to record their fourth album Islands the following year. Lizard even got trashed for a long time by Mr. Fripp himself. Too bad — the band had a unique sound at this point, and maybe they could have done something better with it than this.

But maybe you’ll like it, or even love it? Lizard does have its ardent fans. Me, I’d rather put on Van der Graaf Generator’s Lizard Play, even if the rest of the album it’s on is a fucking mess too. But I’ll leave that complaint for the Van der Graaf post series if that ever happens (maybe in 2030.)