A Beginner’s Guide to the epic music of King Crimson
An interesting question: How, in 2019, do you introduce King Crimson? After all, the seminal and arguably foundational progressive rock band (more on that later) is 50 years old now, just recently added to Spotify for another generation of fans to dig into and is—oh yeah—one of the most cited/influential bands in the world. Chances are if you are on this site you’ve heard of the group already and likely own some albums; even more likely is that you’ve heard a group that cites them. Kurt Cobain famously listed Red (more on that one later, too) in his published journals as one of his favorite albums of all time while Tool have cited King Crimson as the most influential reason for their shift from the heavier end of grunge toward progressive metal. Everyone under the sun loves the group, from progressive rock peers Yes and Genesis (the Mellotron you hear on “Watcher of the Skies” is the exact same one you hear on In the Court of the Crimson King, by the way) to math rock groups like Battles and The Jesus Lizard. Which is wonderful as a fan of music but particularly daunting as a writer.
So, that said, the presumption going forward will be that you have heard a bit but not much of the group. For starters, the basics: They were the second permutation of an earlier group called Giles, Giles & Fripp, a formation that released one album of the psych/proto-prog variety that was percolating through the sixties. As mentioned before, King Crimson is cited as the first prog band of all time largely because of how eruptively different their debut In the Court of the Crimson King was to other records at the time, but the notions of long-form suite-composed songs, complex time signatures, orchestral and jazz structures and virtuosic playing had been accruing for quite some time, from the early psych rock explorations of Pink Floyd to the sonic developments of later-day Beatles (especially Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Abbey Road suite) to groups like The Nice, The Moody Blues and Procol Harum exploring textures that seem unequivocally prog in retrospect. The group Yes even managed to beat King Crimson to the punch, releasing their debut a full three months before Fripp’s group—which retained some members of the Giles, Giles & Fripp permutation—would issue their own.
And yet King Crimson is still considered prog’s founders for much the same reason that Black Sabbath are to heavy metal and the Ramones are to punk. In all three instances, the musical style objectively existed before those groups debuted, but it always felt subjunctive to some other style, with both prog and heavy metal feeling tied to psych rock and punk to garage rock. In all three instances, it’s not that they created the style so much as made records that felt at last like they demanded a brand a new name and with it a brand new way of approaching those sounds, both critically and artistically. Their success in this manner touches on the notion that it’s good to originate but better to perfect; we may have difficulty naming off the tops of our heads the very first historical example of these styles, but few have trouble naming those that perfected the craft for others to build off of, and the stream of influence clearly favors one type of creator over the other.
King Crimson would go on over the course of its 50 year and ongoing life to undergo a number of permutations, resisting the urge to settle into a distinct style as much as instead developing a clear inner impulse. The group would often soldier on, producing two to three albums in a period, before collapsing and reconfiguring, reorienting themselves, incorporating contemporary influences from both mainstream and avant-garde sources. As a result, despite only having 13 albums across their 50 year history, they span perhaps the widest expanse of styles within progressive rock. As a result, something like a beginner’s guide becomes a real treat, a way to highlight key moments of that tremendous and deeply influential discography in order to hint at the vast tapestry of ideas that lurk beneath the surface. Dig into our beginner’s guide highlighting the best King Crimson albums to start with.
In the Court of the Crimson King
One can’t presume that everyone has heard this record, as universal as it’s become. In the Court of the Crimson King is about as influential as they come, ranking up there with the Stankonias and the Songs in the Key of Lifes of the world as one of the greatest albums regardless of genre. Where other records prior dabbled in fusions of jazz and orchestral music into the mainframe of rock, King Crimson excelled, pushing a deliberate replacement of blues (which the white Englishmen of the group felt they had near no right to play) with something closer to their European sensibilities while still paying homage to their outspoken love of the work artists like Jimi Hendrix were producing at the time. What emerged was a paradigm shift for rock music, something that bifurcated the increasingly crowded world of psychedelia into progressive rock as we know it.
“I Talk To The Wind” and “Epitaph” are both gorgeous if at times a bit monochromatic, and “Moonchild” may meander a bit too much for some (while presaging explicitly ambient composition in rock for others), but the real heavy hitters are the bookending tracks “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the title track. The first is an explosive proggy heavy metal track that still feels ahead of its time with its mixture of a ludicrously heavy riff and intense sax workouts plus some of the best jazzy drumming in rock music history, while the latter is perhaps the foundational progressive rock epic, the quintessential song of the genre that cast the mold for all to follow, still ranking as one of the absolute greatest compositions of the genre thus far.
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic
We then jump four years ahead to this, their fifth studio album and fourth lineup of the group, as well as their second total reconfiguration of the direction of the band. The intervening three records (1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard, and 1971’s Islands) all maneuvered similar territory as the debut, exploring symphonic textures in the context of jazzy psychedelic rock while also generally sticking close to the works of their peers in groups like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer who’d arisen by then. Larks’ Tongues In Aspic was the second time following their debut that the group shot past their peers with the visionary foresight of the founder Robert Fripp, replacing the entire lineup with the five-man variant of their acclaimed mid-’70s cast, filled out by John Wetton on bass and vocals, David Cross on violin and keyboards, Jamie Muir on auxiliary percussion and Bill Bruford, who departed from Yes following their magnum opus to pursue more challenging waters, on drums.
What follows is a masterclass in the noisier and mathier end of jazz, rock and prog. The opening and closing tracks are two installments of the now five-part title track, spanning from intense avant-garde heavy metal to noise to sound collage to virtuosic and wickedly primal jazz-rock, while the intervening four vocal-led tracks are built around equal parts sass and verve in the lyrics and vocals department and clever improvisational instrumental breaks by the band. This lineup would sadly only see one album under their belt before attrition would take hold, but on the six tracks present you can hear an alchemical unity that many bands have tried and almost none have managed to match. Muir slinks about like a salamander or a toad, slashing at random percussion and adding chaos and character to the proceedings, while Fripp and Wetton set in turns either a straightforward and solidly foundational rock approach or squalorous screaming heavy metal, Cross draping the tunes in the Mellotrons and violins we associate sonically with prog and Bruford supplying his psychic jazz-rock savant drumming, proving on this record why many (myself included) consider him the best drummer the genre’s ever known. A total masterwork, one that surpasses its acclaimed predecessors with what feels like ineffable grace and, more, power.
By 1974’s Red, the five-man lineup that had created Larks Tongues In Aspic had already dwindled to three, losing Muir to a turn to monastic life and devotion of all things before the much more improvisational and live Starless and Bible Black and then David Cross in the leadup to this record, the final of this period. Red is often considered one of the greatest progressive rock albums of all time, and it’s easy to see why. The title track, for instance, is an instrumental tour-de-force, truncating the previous instrumental madness featured on Larks’ down to six scant minutes, producing an enduring instrumental track in the canon of heavy prog. The lack of violin led the two traditional song-oriented pieces “Fallen Angel” and “One More Red Nightmare” to take on a darker atmosphere, feeling often as languid and vampiric as the cover itself, rendered in stern black and white with striking silhouettes. This mood would carry over to “Providence”, an 8-minute edit of a much longer improvisation from the end of Cross’ time in the band, demonstrating both the rarefied and emotionally darkened version of their wild improvisations of this period and a sign that they’d learned a few things about unfiltered improv since the days of “Moonchild.”
But the album closes out with “Starless,” a contender for the greatest song ever recorded by any band of all time, itself a syncretic masterpiece of nearly every idea the group had ever pursued. There are the implied symphonics of the Mellotron opening, the programmatic flourishes of the guitar which seem more to score the movement of a single actor across a dimly-lit stage than to be solely musical, the intense psychological inward ruminations of Wetton’s voice plumbing the heart of what seems to be a profoundly evil man in a profoundly evil world, all ending with not only the most sinister and leering proggy instrumental close of all time but also the greatest drum performance of Bill Bruford’s life, navigating multiple conflicting polyrhythmic lines laid over a 13/8 pattern that he still manages to make groove. There is a sinister darkness all across the album, one that is broadly present across all of the band’s work (itself a key reason why they remained hip even when their peers did not) but that took particular presence with this incarnation, from the chaotic serpent of Jamie Muir to the effervescent Satanic darkness of Red. The satanic associations of the color seem not to be lost on the group, who pursue darkness across these songs, ranging from the murder of a brother in gang fights in New York to images of plummeting airplanes and the broiling permanent evil present in the instrumentals. A masterwork, and one of the greatest albums of all time.
Three of a Perfect Pair
(1984; EG/Warner Bros.)
Those in the know could have guessed the group’s beloved ’80s material would get represented here, but so to are those types likely shocked at this pick. Yes, yes, Discipline, the group’s first ’80s record and the first that demonstrated their reconfigured lineup of Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford and Robert Fripp was the one that demonstrated the archetypal fusion of New Wave, post-punk (yes, it’s in there), Beats-influenced lyricism and intense interlocking technical rhythm patterns spread across all four instruments. And yet what we don’t often discuss is how many of the tracks on Discipline have a more annoying edge to them. “Elephant Talk” for example is a bouncy and joyous prog-meets-Talking Heads workout (fitting, given Belew’s involvement in that group’s Remain in Light recording and touring), but the vocals devolve over several listens into aggravating gibberish. Likewise “Indiscipline” is tiresome, and “Thela Hun Ginjeet” is better in almost every live incarnation with a slightly different taped recording acting as the vocal track.
Meanwhile, Three of a Perfect Pair is a flawless record, the first half containing the more approachable post-punk/New Wave/prog fusion of the previous two records while the back half contains some of the most adventurous and metallic improvisations the group ever put to tape. The title track of the record is one of the finest pop-structured pieces ever written, featuring a densely woven mesh of shifting time signatures decades before djent and miles beyond it in terms of quality, while “Sleepless” is an unrelentingly driving song and both “Model Man” and “Man With An Open Heart” hold key places in the avant-pop world, catchy post-punk/New Wave melodies alloyed with strangulated avant-garde guitar work. Meanwhile the largely instrumental second half explores fusions of industrial music, noise, and heavy metal in a free improvisational realm years before other major groups would pick up on it. Levin, Belew and Fripp were all living in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, all witnessed the rise of punk and the gleaming futuristic avant-garde edge; their usage of industrial and noise textures is not a fluke but a nod from prog elder statesmen of the profound artistic quality the underground was producing, and their continuation of the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic suite on this record features a psychopathic art-metal rendition that perpetually unspools. A jaw-dropping and flawless masterpiece.
The Power to Believe
The intervening two records between this 2003 album and Three of a Perfect Pair are not so much inessential as they are non-ideal starting points. 1995’s Thrak is a ten-years-later addendum to the ideas of the ’80s material and features stronger material than it’s often credited with but is better for those already acquainted; 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light is avant-garde even by the group’s own standard and far less cohesive than their records tend to be, albeit composed of some of the most adventurous improvisations the group had put to tape. The Power To Believe meanwhile is a perfect recapitulation of the group’s body of work, fitting given that as of 2019 it is also their final studio record. The album harkens back to In the Wake of Poseidon with an interlocking instrumental suite recurring at set intervals across the record acting as a sort of sonic backbone, with most of the record taking the clattering industrial art-metal hinted at on the end of Three of a Perfect Pair and developing it into a perfect weapon. The group insisted at the time that they were worried the amount that Tool’s recent record Lateralus had influenced them would be so palpable as to provide grounds for a lawsuit, but while that influence is clearly noticeable, the group still deftly bends it to their own prancing and satanic designs.
“Level Five,” the fifth installment in the ongoing Larks’ Tongues In Aspic suite, may be the most ferocious and ideal instrumental the group has ever crafted, guitars passing like sheets of sound, all rattling steel and mechanical scream, while electronic drums synchronized with deep and devilish Warr Guitars and bass to create a horrific art-metal whirlwind. The shifting time signatures of the ’80s material remains, the guitars often playing juxtapositional interlocking figures, but the group learned how to best enmesh it against a firm rhythmic backing, making the proceedings feel like the same kind of taut and annihilating machine as Meshuggah (fitting, given the influence of King Crimson on that hall of fame-worthy prog metal band). Belew’s vocals on “Facts of Life” scream through distortion in a genuinely menacing strain while elsewhere on “Eyes Wide Open”, the group sound elegiac, keening, but all done up in cold blues and violets and blacks rather than the warm sunlight of earlier years. You can hear the symphonics of their first four records, the proto-metal improvisations of their second, the interlocking figures and propulsion of their third, and the cybernetic futurist art-metal of their fourth, all done by a group that had been going for over 30 years at that point. A profound and lasting statement from one of the greatest of all time.
Also Recommended: Discipline screams out to be listened to; if you liked Three of a Perfect Pair, you’ll find that one satisfies too, even if just for the title track and “Frame By Frame,” each ranking as some of the best material King Crimson ever put to tape. Thrak is another obvious one to peruse if your interests are piqued; it’s definitely King Crimson at their most commercial, but even that is still pretty out there. Lastly, In the Wake of Poseidon produces the same types of thrills as In the Court of the Crimson King, and real heads know the value of tracks like “The Devil’s Triangle” and “Cat Food.”
Advanced Listening: Disregarding live releases and side projects, each almost demanding their own similar lists as this, what remains are their other five albums. Lizard is a bizarre record, presenting the group’s only real prog epic, the half-hour title track which features Jon Anderson of Yes and lyrics about fairies or something, and yet delivers more than that premise should allow. Islands, a recent favorite for the group’s live set, is a gentle and pleasant record unlike anything else the band has produced. Starless and Bible Black is a wild listen, comprising mostly lightly edited and overdubbed live improvisations, most of which barely work but all of which demonstrate the group pursuing new ideas like rabid animals in the years leading up to their masterpiece Red. Beat is the most accessible of the ’80s records, featuring both some of the period’s best songwriting for the group as well as the worst arrangements; nearly every song would be bettered in later live performances. And finally The ConstruKction of Light, the modern-day parallel to Starless and Bible Black (Ha! Cute name parallel too!), itself more a compilation of material and improvs from side projects brought under the primary banner to be developed more fully, feeling more like an experimental incubation chamber for what would inevitably arrive in the form of their final (brilliant) record.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.
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