Island Records/Atlantic Records 1974
This is a really strange offering in the KC canon – much of it was recorded live or derived from live recordings made on the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic tour, and some aspects feel too fast. This is especially true of some of the vocals on side 1. It’s not as though everything is too fast, just that speed sometimes overtakes dynamics.
Richard Palmer-James is back for another go in the writer’s seat. As with LTIA, there’s no overarching theme that ropes the lyrics together. (An argument can be made that the only other Crimson album that has some kind of thematic bonding is 1982’s Beat.) The album is divided equally between four instrumentals and four tracks with words, though side 2 only has two long instrumentals, so the division is not quite equal.
The Great Deceiver starts the album off with a bang, though it’s opening line (‘Health food faggot with a bartered bride’) rubs this listener the wrong way. It’s not common to hear something so derogatory in KC lyrics, though it’s not out of place in a song about the Devil. (ETA: The Elephant Talk FAQ notes that Palmer-James had in mind a meatball, not a derogatory gay reference.) There’s a nice slow bit in the middle of this track that helps it work as not just a rush from point A to point Z. The opening of Lament helps slow the proceedings down a bit. Lyrically it’s odd to hear a first-person, rather mundane song about being in a rock band from Crimson (though one could argue, Easy Money is also about being in a rock band, but from a different perspective). It has some of those nice changes that we’ve come to expect from KC and dives from the languorous opening into something more in keeping with the subject matter.
Next up is a strange little improv called We’ll Let You Know. As he did in Lament as well, Bill Bruford steps a bit into the odd percussive territory that Jamie Muir held on LTIA. It features a really nice interplay with Fripp and Wetton. I’m not sure Cross participates, though he might be on keyboards here. I’m pretty sure it was edited from a longer improv and messed with in the studio – it makes the piece a little less interesting as a base, I’m guessing, to build into a live staple.
The Night Watch (along with side 2’s tour de force Fracture), is one of my favourite songs on the album. The combination of instrumentation, subject matter, and setting is beautifully executed. The verses, telling the story of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, fit as if joints in a picture frame. It was recorded at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which is about half a mile from the Rijksmuseum where the painting is housed. The painting takes up a large dedicated wall – visitors make their way past hundreds of other pieces to find and then stare at it – if they can get close enough. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which plays a similar role at the Louvre, has one subject, and is about the size of a piece of notebook paper, The Night Watch is about twelve feet by fourteen and features almost two dozen characters and might be the museum’s star attraction.
The song is lyrically straightforward in its telling of the lives of Dutch burgers in the age after the Spanish occupation. There’s a line about the painting being dark (The city fathers frozen there/On the canvas dark with age). It had been displayed over its owners fireplace for several decades and in the 80s or 90s underwent repair and is much brighter now. (I am exceedingly lucky to have very good seats for the Crims’ return to this venue in July and I have hopes that they’ll add this to the set list. When they last played the Netherlands, they came to Utrecht which is very nice, but nearly so close to the subject of one of their songs.)
Trio, another instrumental, famously credits all four band members. Bruford’s credit, if I recall rightly, is ‘Admirable restraint’ as he never identified a place to come in so sat still with drumsticks in hand. Cross’ plaintive violin plays with (or against) Fripp’s Mellotron and guitar weaving in and out, bringing them together and then floating away. Wetton seems to join about three minutes in, gently, before Bruford’s bass drum and cymbals bring us into The Mincer. This one is a menacing vocal track that closes side 1 with effects-laden guitar work that seems to have some of the free jazz influence of earlier albums. The lyrics are oblique at best, but hint at the same feeling as Peter Gabriel’s Intruder who knew ‘something about windows and doors’. With lines like ‘Fingers reaching / linger shrieking…You’re all done baby / breathing, the menace behind the song builds, but the vocal style doesn’t really match.
As noted, side 2 comprises two long instrumentals, the title track and Fracture. In the last week, I’ve listened to this album more than a dozen times and at one point listened to the title track three times in a row. It resists entry. I honestly don’t know know what to make of it. It ebbs and flows between the instruments and sometimes seems to have a purpose and is sometimes just noodling between blasts of interplay before fading back out. The piece lacks a continued sense of itself while easing in and out of a sense of impending menace (yeah, there’s that word again). Eventually it feels like it’s going somewhere, that there’s some kind of synchrony between the musicians. Bruford, about half way through seems to take the reins of the piece and then it slips away again. The whole thing comes to an almost cohesive conclusion in its last minute or so.
And then Fracture comes on. Those opening notes introduce something that works and every section of the piece works together. As a representative of this lineup’s key pieces, it stands with the title track of Red and LTIA‘s bookend pieces as a statement of purpose. At about the eight-minute mark, someone (Wetton, probably, as he usually had a mic in front of him) lets out a ‘Whoo!’ because, I think, they are all in such a groove. It feels composed with room for each member to stretch. This is especially apparent in the version found on the anniversary reissue of the live album USA, recorded on the Starless tour.
There are songs on the album that were composed and arranged as pieces or evolved cogently out of improvisation, and others that are improvs cut to wax. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but in the context of this album, it distinguishes pieces on the album that work for me from others that don’t. As a whole, this album has pieces that absolutely shine and others that don’t succeed nearly as well. I still give it 3 1/2 stars.

Next up: Red.


My friend M, a libertarian, posted a Buzzfeed article which detailed much of what Kim Yo Jong actually (or is purported to be) up to in North Korea. He noted this as a contrast to how the liberal media is treating Kim Jong-Un’s sister and her attendance at the Winter Olympics (as if she’s the anti-Trump and the most wonderful thing to come down the pike since Trump took office).

Another friend of his replied ‘But the Left-wing press and the imbeciles who worship them think her classy, but murderous ways, are so lovely.’

And here’s where I fucked up. While I don’t worship the left-wing press, necessarily, I am decidedly a member of the left wing. I took it personally and did one of those things that drives those who are working for justice so mad when it comes from the other side.

People who have agendas against, for example, female empowerment or the desire of African Americans not to be judged guilty on the street for simply being Black often bring decidedly disingenuous questions to the table: ‘What about what this one woman did’, or ‘What about when some Black person did something else?’ But it’s not the responsibility of any one member to stand up for or denounced what any other member of any group does. If you’re honest about your position, you do the research and don’t waste the other side’s time. If you’re dishonest, you waste the person’s time (and the movement’s time) with basic education questions that have been answered multiple times before.

asshatI am an asshat: Instead of doing my own research and looking up recent reports in the news (both left and right) about Kim Yo Jong, I asked ‘Such as?’ M’s friend called me out as an ‘asshat’ in the context of his reply in such a way that I would never do with someone I’d never met. He then linked to a NY Times article that gushed about Ms. Kim.

My reply was, ‘That’s how you interact with someone you’ve never met? Wow.’

And he came back with ‘It’s how I interact with asshats who speak before they think and prominently display quotes from antisemitic dirtbags like Cornell West.’ Still not endearing himself to me, but what’s that about Cornell West? I have one sentence in my FB Intro: Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public. ~Cornell West.

Why? Because, as I mentioned in my reply to him, justice is key to how I try to interact with the world. I usually fail, but justice is the goal. And I like the conflation of justice with public displays of love. When one loves one’s fellow human being, one fights for their justice. The two go hand in hand and West’s single sentence sums it up.

Note that I know that I’m still giving the person who insulted me the benefit of the doubt, even though he reduced another human being (whom he doesn’t know) with a pretty despicable epithet.

However, time for more research. What else do I know about West? Um. He’s an African American public intellectual. Yeah. That’s about it. I search Google on the string ‘Cornell West Antisemitism’ and get conflicting answers to the question at hand from HaAretz and The Forward. Oddly, a DuckDuckGo search on the same string finds far more returns against West on this question, most having to do with Palestine.

I occasionally write on the Palestinian issue (which seems to be at the heart of the accusations of West’s antisemitism), but I try to admit to both a serious left-wing bias and a decidedly emotional response to the situation. For me, the occupation and the settlements are the elephant in the room regarding any solution. Friends on the ground in Israel point out the very complex issues of the various factions supporting the Palestinian cause and their long-stated goals of pushing Israel into the sea. There’s a lot to unpack there. I have a Palestinian colleague who didn’t endear himself to me when he saw my tattoo of the Hebrew word for truth on my arm. ‘Your truth is a lie,’ he told me. I’ve so far not cornered him on his experience, but one of these days, I’d like to. (I did send him links to blog entries in which I discredit the Zionist credentials he seemed to be affixing to me.) While I’m understandably unwilling to get into it with M’s friend what with his introduction to me, and his defense of it, I’ve got a lot to think about.

Image credit: Attila the Mom and her occasional Asshat of the Week posts.

Island Records, 1973

Recorded over a year after Islands and with a completely new lineup, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic takes King Crimson in an entirely new direction. Not only had Robert Fripp dismissed Collins, Burrell, and Ian Wallace, he also parted company with lyricist Pete Sinfield who had provided the words for all four previous Crimson albums.

The new lineup, mad percussionist Jamie Muir, drummer Bill Bruford nicked from an unsatisfying stint in Yes (here he is with Yes in ‘71), violinist David Cross and bassist/vocalist John Wetton (longtime friend of Fripp’s who had declined an invitation to join KC in two years before). Violin? Those strings on Islands and their possibilities possibly sent the band in an interesting new direction with the choice of Cross. And taking over lyrics, poet Richard Palmer-James who would continue to provide words for the next two albums as well. The album consists of three instrumentals, the first part of the title track opens the album followed by three songs with words, Book of Saturdays, Exiles, and Easy Money and closes with Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II. Palmer-James’ lyrics don’t seem to be thematically linked the way Sinfield’s were, especially on the first three albums. One should also note that there’s no embarrassment listening or quoting the words from this album. They’re penetrable or impenetrable as good poetry most of the time.

I got into this album in the 90s when it was recommended by my wife’s violin teacher. KC had a fiddler? Who knew? (At the time, I probably had Red, Court, Discipline, and Beat, but I wasn’t a collector.) Since then, it’s been my go-to perfect King Crimson album. It didn’t hurt that live recordings from the early Adrian Belew period also feature LTIA Part II, which along with Red and occasionally Talking Drum are the only Wetton-era songs that made it into the set lists when he fronted the band. One of the joys of the current line-up is that they’re not only playing LTIA Part II, but also Easy Money and LTIA Part I. (Not to mention several goodies from the first four albums which benefit from Mel Collins’ return to the fold.)

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I announces that a new KC is in town. On the one hand, it’s a multi-part epic of uncompromising, unrelenting noise, but midway through, Cross steps up with no accompaniment at all to deliver an elegy in four strings to which Muir adds bells and some noise and then the song turns again into something else entirely before the opening theme reasserts itself. Fripp and company continue to play with jazz structures, but it’s not jazz that’s found anywhere else. (Yeah, I know, save for in the Crimson Jazz Trio.) There’s something spoken in the back of the song near the end, but for the life of me I can’t make it out.

Following the crashing conclusion of the opening track, Book of Saturdays pulls the mood into almost love song territory. The instrumentation starts with some Frippertronics which blend really nicely with the violin, and Wetton uses his voice to very good effect. The vocal harmonies at the end of the song are oddly the only musical accents that place this album in its time. The music for the first time in the KC journey is only KC and not folk or prog or jazz. It’s like few other albums in that regard. Wish You Were Here, maybe? Bitches Brew?

Exiles starts with what sound like notes played from underwater and the sound of a distant whale (to my ears). A low drone from Cross introduces the theme. Wetton’s voice is more distinct than those of previous KC vocalists, though I feel an outside producer, especially on this song, would have kept his singing more focused. (Of course an outside producer, in my opinion, would have ruined everything else that makes this such a brilliant album.) There are places that he almost hits the note, but doesn’t quite. It’s a little frustrating. The violin work is essential to the success of the song – one could probably argue that it’s essential to the success of the whole album. David Cross still has it as a centerpiece of his live shows. (The guy on the horns in this video is David Jackson from Van Der Graaf Generator. I was at this gig and absolutely baffled that there were only about 150 people in the audience. Two absolute legends and the Netherlands says ‘meh’.)

Side 2 opens with Easy Money – it’s got the heavy guitar lines we’ve come to expect from the rockier pieces on previous albums, but the song features greater dynamics. This is another track where the violin is key to the whole tune.

After Easy Money, The Talking Drum’s quiet introduction marks it as the odd song out on the album. It only really picks up about two minutes into the action. Along with the other instrumentals on the album, it really marks what become the King Crimson style – the odd time signatures, the intertwining repetitions. The thing is, there’s nowhere else to put it on the album because its conclusion leads right into the opening notes of Larks’ Tongues Part II. It’s one of the great song pairings in rock and roll.

There’s still no describing LTIA Part II – I’ve heard versions by multiple King Crimson lineups and several versions by Stick Men and Crimson ProjeKct as well.Yeah, I know, those other two are just variations on KC, but the song always has a surprise to offer. For me it perfectly rounds out an almost perfect album. 5 stars? Pretty much.

Next? Starless and Bible Blackkclt

Island Records, 1971

Released almost a year after Lizard, Islands is a somewhat mixed bag of very interesting music. As you might have guessed from my previous reviews, I haven’t seen the inside of the Sailor’s Tales box set which gathers up (on 27 discs) almost all the extant studio and live work from the period from In the Wake of Poseidon through Islands. I’m sure has a lot of interesting background material on both those LPs and this one. (I’ve got the follow-up box sets of the ‘72-’74 lineup with their long informative booklets of, so I have some idea of the material included.) So this too is a review of the album as released at the time.

king-crimson-islands-cassetteThe album’s opener, Formentera Lady is introduced by Harry Miller’s double bass theme. Mel Collins’ flute and Keith Tippet’s piano weave around one another behind Boz Burrell’s vocals. (KC’s third vocalist in four albums, Burrell had previously worked with Fripp and other Crimson members in Keith Tippet’s Centipede project.)

This song’s almost stereotypically Asian flute work that introduces the third verse has always led me to confuse Formentera with Formosa (the former English name of Taiwan). Looking it up now, I learn that Formentera is near Ibiza and is part of Spain, and was a popular hippie destination in the late 60s. I obviously didn’t pay that much attention to the lyrics until recently, as its references to Odysseus and Circe in the fourth verse place it in a squarely Mediterranean setting. For a couple of minutes after the last verse, the song moves into a now familiar jazz improvisatory realm, anchored by Burrell’s bass lines, eventually coming back to square one for the final verse. I’m pretty sure the soprano vocals that overlay this section of the song are unique in the KC canon. It’s amusing to note that Joni Mitchell was living on Formentera in 1971 and working on her album Blue, leading one to wonder if she’s who Pete Sinfield is referencing in the title.

The soprano is faded out behind some sax before the mellotron introduces Sailor’s Tale, an almost Philip Glass-like workout for drums, horns, and keyboards. Well, it feels minimalist until some honks from tenor sax take the front of the song. As is becoming familiar in KC territory, the song takes a couple of turns in tempo and instrumentation, increasing in intensity before an oddly long fade. This seems an appropriate way to bring the listeners to the next track.

The Letters, a 16-line story of infidelity and death. closes side 1. The first letter from a husband’s lover to his wife informs her that she’s pregnant, the reply to which seems to indicate the wife has killed her husband (‘What’s mine was yours is dead’) and is about to take her own life (‘I take my leave of mortal flesh’). The opening verses are very quiet but lead to several turns with the sax taking the lead. The middle section of the song is all emotional turmoil until the wife takes up her pen. Collins comes back on flute and in the final lines the instruments leave all the work to Burrell’s bass.

The composition around which the song is arranged dates back to the Giles Giles and Fripp song Why Don’t You Just Drop In, performed on the early Crimson tours as simply Drop In. The lyrics to Drop In, however, are entirely different than those of The Letters.

Side 2 opens with possibly the oddest song for King Crimson to record. A couple of people responded to my assessment of Happy Family on Lizard to tell me it was actually about The Beatles. A case can be made for this, especially when listening to Ladies of the Road, a raunchy paean to groupies which sounds in places like either late model Beatles or early John Lennon solo work. To be honest, I was first turned off to Islands because of this song. It’s direct and explicit and almost glam in its presentation (not a problem for me in the grand scheme – one could hear it fitting in on the soundtracks to Almost Famous or Velvet Goldmine). The main issue I have with this song’s lyrics are not that they’re frank or sexually explicit, but more that the narrator is objectifying (‘[She] Said I’m a male resister / I smiled and just unzipped her’). The worse crime still, however, is that there’s no metaphorical content or lyric irony. This is uncommon both in Sinfield’s other lyric poetry for KC and in Crimson lyrics as a whole.

After the hardness of ‘Ladies’, Prelude: Song of the Gulls is oddly soothing. Its repetitive motif of flute against strings is almost baroque. And despite being a Fripp composition (recorded by Giles Giles and Fripp and also found on The Brondesbury Tapes), the recorded song doesn’t seem to feature him. I’m reminded of the credit given to Bill Bruford for the song Trio on which he doesn’t play (‘admirable restraint’).

Finally, the title track is a slowly built layering of instruments. Flute (or possibly alto sax), piano, and guitar are added to Burrell’s vocals. In the second half of the song, the vocals are faded and Collins switches over to tenor sax and Fripp adds a quiet harmonium as the song gathers in intensity. It’s one of their loveliest songs – up there for me with Matte Kudesai and Walking On Air.

The album works well as a whole, and taken on its own terms is mostly successful. Its production is more polished than that of the earlier albums. Combined with the the photograph on the cover, it’s a departure from how the band had earlier presented itself. I honestly can’t come up with a star rating for it – Islands simply needs to be experienced.

Next on the menu? Larks’ Tongues In Aspic!

In 1973, Skylab, America's first space station, was launched aboard a two-stage Saturn V vehicle. Saturn IB rockets were used to launch three different three-man crews to the Skylab space station.

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster. You’ve probably seen something in the news about it. I wrote this in the Summer of 2015 with the desire that some musician friend or other might set it to music, possibly in advance of the 30th anniversary. (One of these days maybe I’ll commission Unwoman when one of her Kickstarter bonuses is to arrange the poem of the funder’s choice.)

I Dreamt of Yuri Gagarin
Space Age Folk Songs #1

Gazing up at the moon
I dreamt of Yuri Gagarin (1)
Dreaming himself of lunar kolchazi (2)
The grand collective cocoon

This is the space age
And we are here to go (3)
Poyechali, Poyechali (4)
To the next rendez-vous

I dreamt of spinning space stations
Stepped from giants' shoulders
Through solar paneled portals
Of interplanetary migrations

Of Mars and of Titan and Pluto
I dream of Sirius and Centauri
Goldilocks' exoplanets
Of light speed and black holes

Of the ones who dared and knew,
Komarov (5) and Gargarin;
Gus Grissom (6), McAuliffe (7), McNair (8), 
The dream was bigger than any shuttle or Soyuz

1. First human in space, died testing a MiG jet fighter.
2. Russian: Collective farm
3. William S. Burroughs at the first Nova Convention speaking about the space program
4. Russian: Let’s go (Поехали – uttered when ground control indicated to Gagarin that Vostok 1 had lift off)
5. Soviet colleague of Gagarin – died in a crash after orbiting earth in a faulty ship
6. US astronaut who died in a pre-flight test of Apollo 1.
7 and 8. US astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster.