Originating from an unsuccessful 1968 album, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles enlisted vocalist and bassist Greg Lake, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, as well as lyricist Peter Sinfield to form King Crimson. The group were immediately successful with their debut In The Court of King Crimson, its long song lengths and instrumental virtuosity laying the groundwork for the symphonic progressive rock that was popular in the early 1970s.
Like a lot of progressive rock, there’s little middle ground when forming an opinion on King Crimson; listeners will either be enchanted by their ambition and virtuosity, or be turned off by their lengthiness and pompousness. King Crimson often escaped the critical condemnation often handed out to their progressive rock contemporaries (although a review at the time wrote scathingly that if Wagner was able to join a rock band, he’d pick King Crimson), largely because of their ability to constantly change styles and remain experimental. Fripp, the only constant member of the group, has successfully charted a course through five decades of popular music, embracing trends like heavy metal and new wave without ever seeming either in step or out of step with the rest of the musical world.
King Crimson Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Red
Overlooked Gem: Starless and Bible Black
In The Court of the Crimson King
While the seeds of progressive rock were sown before In The Court of the Crimson King, with bands like Procol Harum, The Mothers of Invention and The Nice exploring classical elements and extended suites in rock music, it was In The Court of the Crimson King that established the benchmark for the genre. While King Crimson often feel like an experimental band, out of step with prevailing trends, In The Court of the Crimson King was the group’s only gold album and a huge influence on the ensuing progressive rock. While guitarist Robert Fripp is the constant member of King Crimson, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald wrote a lot of the music for the album, while Greg Lake’s vocals are much stronger than the vocalists who’d replace him over the next few years – he departed to form Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
The consensus opinion on In The Court of the Crimson King is that four of the five songs are terrific. ‘Moonchild’, the exception, starts off nicely enough but quickly descends into ten minutes of directionless noodling. But ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ starts off with a powerful assault, with a distorted Lake vocal and a tangible jazz influence through McDonald’s saxophone and Giles’ complex drumming, a song that has few points of comparison in the rock canon. ‘I Talk To The Wind’ is the gentle ballad, while ‘Epitaph’ and the title track are more conventional progressive rock epics. The performances match the material; Giles is an excellent drummer, Lake’s vocals and bass are superb, while McDonald’s multi-instrumental ability provides fluidity to the arrangements. Sinfield’s lyrics don’t necessarily bear up to close scrutiny, but they’re respectable enough and the fantasy themes set out the agenda for a lot of the progressive rock that would follow.
Sadly, this is the original lineup’s only complete album; Fripp was left with an almost completely different band for the followup albums, and it would take him a few years to find another King Crimson lineup that was as effective.
In The Wake of Poseidon
King Crimson fractured during the making on their second album; Greg Lake left to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer during recording, although he does sing all of the lead vocals except ‘Cadence and Cascade’. The group considered replacing Lake with Elton John, but ‘Cadence’ features Gordon Haskell, who’d front the band’s next album Lizard. Ian McDonald also left during recording; he only contributed to the writing of two songs, and it’s noticeable that they’re the two songs most markedly different from the band’s debut material. The jazzy ‘Cat Food’, and ‘The Devil’s Triangle’, based on Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’, are the two new directions for the band.
Otherwise, a lot of the material on In The Wake of Poseidon has direct precedents from In The Court of the Crimson King – ‘Pictures of a City’ is essentially a reworking of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, while the mellotron laden title track is similar to ‘Epitaph’. Both songs are good, but they do feel like retreads. ‘Cadence and Cascade’ is pretty – while Haskell’s vocals can be tough to take on Lizard, his voice works for this song. The jazzy ‘Cat Food’ works well – Sinfield’s surreal lyrics are a strength in this song – while ‘The Devil’s Triangle’ is also engaging.
It’s difficult to shake the impression that In The Wake of Poseidon is a less inspired facsimile of its predecessor, but in its defense it doesn’t have a tough avant-garde piece like ‘Moonchild’, and it’s one of the band’s most consistent and accessible albums.
Apart from Robert Fripp and lyricist Peter Sinfield, Lizard features an entirely different lineup from the band that recorded In The Court of the Crimson King the previous year. Fripp is joined by bassist and singer Gordon Haskell, drummer Andy McCulloch, and Mel Collins on saxophone and flute. This lineup never played live, and Haskell and McCulloch were gone before the band’s next album. Haskell’s vocals worked on ‘Cadence and Cascade’ on the previous album, but his frog in the throat vocal style is tiring over an entire record; it’s telling that Jon Anderson from Yes is bought in for the album’s best song, the ‘Prince Rupert Awakes’ section of the side long Lizard.
King Crimson stakes out some unusual musical territory on Lizard – adding medieval and classical flavours to their progressive rock, and there’s little electric guitar from Fripp. Opener ‘Cirkus’ has a satisfyingly dissonant riff, although even there the lyrics and vocals render the song a tough listen. The rest of the first side is given to attempts at charming, non-rock songs; there’s weird light-hearted fare like ‘Indoor Games’ and ‘Happy Families’. Apart from the riff of ‘Cirkus’, the other salvageable part of Lizard is the ‘Price Rupert Awakes’ part of the ‘Lizard’ suite – even though the lyrics are still a tough sell (“Gone soon Piepowder’s moss-weed court”), Anderson gives the song a strong delivery. After this initial, excellent segment, the song goes into a lengthy pseudo-classical piece – it’s pretty, and better than the rubbish on the first side, but it’s not enough to make the song one of the great side-long progressive epics.
There’s some interesting material on Lizard, but overall it’s a band bereft of direction after losing some key pieces.
Continuing with the high musician turnover in King Crimson in the early 1970s, Islands features an entirely new rhythm section. Ian Wallace joins on drums, while Boz Burrell, who’d later form Bad Company, is on vocals and bass. While his vocals aren’t outstanding, he’s an improvement on Haskell from the previous album. Despite the changes, on Islands Robert Fripp still has a supporting cast of journeymen, but it’s a more likeable album, ditching the strange medieval affectations of Lizard for a jazzier, spacier sound.
Apart from the gross groupie tribute, ‘Ladies of the Road’, the weaker material on Islands is merely monotonous – the opener ‘Formentera Lady’ doesn’t do a whole lot over its ten minutes. The album’s best moment is ‘Sailor’s Tale’, a menacing instrumental with squalls of Fripp guitar noise that points the way forward for the group’s next records. Elsewhere there’s a pretty classical instrumental ‘Prelude: Song of the Gulls’, not out-staying its welcome with a succinct four minute running time. ‘Prelude’ runs into the pretty, pastoral title track – while Burrell’s vocals aren’t ideal for the song, there’s some pretty work in the long instrumental coda with Mel Collins’ saxophone, Keith Tippett’s piano, and Fripp’s mellotron all prominent.
Islands is largely pleasant and a step forward after the unsuccessful Lizard, but compared to the stronger incarnations of King Crimson, Fripp doesn’t have a lot of talent in the band to work with. When Fripp re-emerged with Larks Tongues in Aspic in 1973, he would have an entirely different King Crimson lineup with him.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
After the tour for Islands, Fripp effectively rebooted King Crimson, dismissing the remaining members. Peter Sinfield, who had contributed lyrics since the debut, had already been dismissed during the tour. In their place, Fripp recruited a new band with strong collaborators – bassist and vocalist John Wetton has a gritty voice that works well with the harder edged material, while masterful drummer Bill Bruford was poached from Yes. Percussionist Jamie Muir and electric violinist David Cross are also part of the band, while Richard Palmer-James, formerly of Supertramp, takes over the lyric writing. With a much stronger set of collaborators for Fripp, Larks Tongue in Aspic is the group’s first essential album since their debut.
Larks is also much tougher sounding than their previous albums – with Cross on board, Fripp is mostly playing guitar, and a lot of the album is taken up by complex instrumentals, the two parts of the title track and ‘The Talking Drum’, which builds from gentle percussion to sheer cacophony. Jamie Muir named the title tracks for their balance of delicacy (larks’ tongues) and acidity (aspic). The instrumentals overshadow the three songs, but ‘Exiles’ is a pretty, mellotron laden epic, and the abrasive sound of ‘Easy Money’ works well.
After a rough ride in the early 1970s, Robert Fripp returned with a new lineup of King Crimson, and Larks Tongues in Aspic is an impressive return to form.
Starless and Bible Black
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.
David Cross was ejected from King Crimson after Starless and Bible Black, leaving the group as a three piece for Red, their final album before a seven year hiatus. Like the preceding two albums, Robert Fripp is joined by bassist and vocalist John Wetton, and drumming virtuoso Bill Bruford. The core band is augmented with saxophone and wind instruments – Ian McDonald and Mel Collins, both from previous iterations of the band, make guest appearances on Red. But the foundation is from the heavy power trio of the core trio, and it’s the most consistently heavy album that the 1970s’ band cut.
There’s one live improvisation, ‘Providence’, which features David Cross’ violin prominently – the first half is eerie violin scrapings, while the second half is dynamic once the full band joins. The instrumental title trackand ‘One More Red Nightmare’ are both evocative and intense; the former spirals out of control, while the latter is a paranoid account of a fear of flying. Bruford’s percussion is notably innovative in the latter, producing a clattering riff. Sitting between these two pure hard rock songs, complete with powerful drumming, feedback and distorted bass, ‘Fallen Angel’ starts off as a delicate ballad, but it ends up as intense as everything else with Fripp’s dissonant one note lead spicing up the chorus. But it’s the majestic closer ‘Starless’ that’s the standout track on an excellent album. The first five minutes consist of a lovely jazzy piece, merely an entree for the stunning instrumental passage which culminates in a huge climax.
Famously a favourite recording of Kurt Cobain, Red is a towering achievement, a culmination in an erratic, but highly rewarding, five years from King Crimson.
Seven years after breaking up his band for good in the wake of Red, Fripp reconvened King Crimson with drummer Bill Bruford and two new members. Fripp had intended to call the new band Discipline, but was so impressed by his new lineup that King Crimson was the only name that fitted. Adrian Belew is on vocals and guitar, a technological whizkid who’d toured with Frank Zappa, Bowie, and the Talking Head, is able to coax exotic noises out of his instrument. Tony Levin also joins on Chapman stick and bass. There’s a section of Fripp’s diary included in the liner notes of the CD reissue, where Fripp lays down a set of rules for Bruford including a cymbal ban, and Bruford is often playing ethnic beats rather than a rock style. The King Crimson of the 1980s owes an obvious debt to new wave acts like Talking Heads, but their ornate sound, with four virtuous playing tightly together and with world music flavours, is unique.
Belew is a capable vocalist, sounding uncannily like Talking Head David Byrne on the funky and clever ‘Elephant Talk’, and delivering the smooth ballad ‘Matte Kudasai’. Both ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and ‘Indiscipline’ have amusing spoken passages; the latter is a study of painting appreciation while the former is an over-dramatised account of an attempted mugging. The tightly constructed ‘Frame By Frame’ is the best song on Discipline, while the two instrumentals that conclude Discipline are more tightly focused than the improvisations of the 1970s’ groups.
While Discipline is an interesting exercise, introducing virtuosity to the new wave ideals of energy and conciseness, it has an air of intellectualism and austerity that makes it difficult to love, but it’s a technically impressive record.
For the first time in their career, King Crimson sported the same lineup for two consecutive albums. Correspondingly, for the first time in their career, King Crimson created an album that’s a lesser facsimile of their previous album. Beat is relatively straitlaced after the experimental pieces on Discipline, and it also lacks the standout songs. It still has the impressive ensemble playing of Discipline – Bruford’s cool percussion and Fripp’s Frippertronics guitar style – but it’s less engrossing overall.
The first side of Beat is strong – ‘Sartori in Tangier’ is a complex, impressive instrumental, while ‘Heartbeat’ slows down for an emotional new wave song. On the second side, ‘Neurotica’ has squalls of guitar noise and enjoyably paranoid lyrics from Belew. If you really enjoyed Discipline, by all means check out Beat – it’s just a less impressive record in the same style as its predecessor.
Three of a Perfect Pair
Like Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair doesn’t add much to the template the group established on Discipline, but it’s a much more solid album than its predecessor, with stronger material. It’s divided into two halves – the first side is focused on Adrian Belew’s songs, while the second is largely Fripp’s instrumentals.
It’s the first side that’s most immediate – there are a brace of strong Belew songs. Levin’s complex, funky bass barrage opens ‘Sleepless’, ‘Man With An Open Heart’ is hooky and urgent, while the title track grooves along pleasantly. On the second side, there’s the third part of the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic series; the first two parts were featured on 1973’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, while further parts appeared on 21st century albums.
After the underwhelming Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair is a solid rebound for King Crimson’s 1980s lineup. The group would again go on hiatus, not recording another album until 1995’s Thrak.
After another hiatus, King Crimson re-emerged in 1995 with Thrak. The 1980s lineup of Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford is still intact, but they’ve been joined by Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto, forming a “double trio” of guitar, bass, and drums; in the opening track the two trios are split into seperate channels. The main impression Thrak leaves in the juxtaposition between subdued Belew fronted ballads and driving instrumentals.
Opener ‘Vroom Vroom’ is a tough display of guitar riffing that could have come from one of the 1970s lineups with John Wetton. But while ‘Dinosaur’ is tough, the defining mood of most of the vocal songs is slow and spacey – ‘One Time’ and ‘Walking On Air’ are gorgeous and languid. But while the album doesn’t mesh particularly well, the material is generally strong and it holds attention well over 55 minutes.
It’s not quite on a par with their best earlier albums, but Thrak is a surprisingly vital album from a band in their fourth decade.
The ConstruKction of Light (2000)
The Power To Believe (2003)
I haven’t heard the band’s last two studio efforts – the general consensus is that The ConstruKction of Light is one of their weakest efforts, but The Power To Believe is strong.
Ten Favourite King Crimson Songs
21st Century Schizoid Man
Frame by Frame
In The Court of the Crimson King
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
One More Red Nightmare