Despite not garnering much attention from the mainstream music crowd over, King Crimson is the definitive progressive rock band. Created in 1969, their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King is considered to be the first “true” work of progressive rock. Crimson’s sound has evolved continuously, and the only consistent member of the group has been guitarist Robert Fripp. The absolute leader of the band, Fripp controls its direction, despite appearing as an ancillary character, not speaking and opting to sit in the background in live performances.
The first generation of King Crimson lasted from 1969 to 1972, beginning with the aforementioned debut album. The early years of the band were plagued by frequent lineup changes, with Fripp being the only original on-stage member by the third album. During this time, the band’s sound evolved from an eclectic fusion of psychedelic rock and early heavy metal to pure jazz fusion. By the band’s fourth album Islands, the band’s sound was much less striking under the control of lyricist Peter Sinfield. Fripp grew disdainful of this direction, and after firing the entire band, he formed an entirely new group – stealing drummer Bill Bruford from prog legends Yes, and recruiting bassist John Wetton, violinist David Cross, and a second drummer in Jamie Muir.
In 1973, King Crimson recorded their fifth studio album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic with this new lineup. Marking the beginning of the second generation of the band, King Crimson pursues progressive rock in the vein of experimental-ism, traversing multiple planes of musical styles, mainly drawing upon Eastern European classical music in this work. A favorite in the Crimson catalog, the band is at its heaviest, yet at its most delicate.
SONG #1 – “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part One)” The album opens quietly, with a soft percussion backing engulfing the entirety of the music for the first couple minutes. After a little while, the percussion fades out and the violin enters, slowly building tension. As it builds, Fripp’s electric guitar comes in and out with a unique distorted tone which would be a staple of the band’s sound for years to come. Finally, the instruments come together, and the music spontaneously begins, a dense wave of pure heavy metal augmented by the powerful drumming of Bruford. It is one of the greatest moments in progressive rock history, as the band makes a solid first impression to the listener that the quiet artsy sounds of the past are history. This hellish sound only appears for two brief moments, before the band breaks out into fast-paced yet sensible improvisation, changing time signatures and tempos to allow for the extraction of each band member’s individual talent. Finally, after a break of near silence, the band builds back up towards a climax, although tricking the listener by only going 3/4 of the way, never truly reaching the emphatic sound that caught the attention of the listener in the first place.
This song deserves extra attention in regards to the rest of the album, because it is really a seminal piece in the band’s catalogue. It solidifies Crimson as a heavy metal band, thrusting them out of the realm of jazz fusion – the break out almost three and a half minutes in is one that can startle a new listener, especially if he/she turned up the volume to listen to the incessantly quiet opening; it has been rumored that this track is supposed to symbolize the Big Bang, which is perfectly feasible considering the spontaneous explosion of sound which can be referred to as “the beginning.“ Immediately the listener is impressed, and this exposition prepares him/her for the album to come. If you want to experience the song yourself, the band has uploaded it to YouTube – please note that the band does not have any other tracks from the album on there, so if you like what you hear, consider purchasing the album. It’s totally worth it.
SONG #2 – “Book of Saturday” The band changes up the flow of the album with a short ballad, where we are introduced to the vocal style of John Wetton. Of course, Wetton would go on to become the vocalist of 80’s arena rock/prog supergroup Asia, but his performance on this album is rougher than his later work. The placement of this song is well-done by the band, as a means to move the focus towards something simpler after the complicated opener. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP1nsVL10Qk
SONG #3 – “Exiles” Another long-form track, this time fusing the vocals of Wetton with the mellotron keyboard. King Crimson made great use of the instrument on their first album, drawing comparisons to The Moody Blues and establishing the mellotron as one of the seminal instruments of progressive rock. “Exiles” is a beautiful ballad, where Wetton shows that he has the vocal range and power to supersede the former two Crimson vocalists, Gordon Haskell and Boz Burrell (yes, the Boz who would go on to be the bassist for rock supergroup Bad Company). Wetton does not show up the band’s first vocalist, Greg Lake (yes, the Lake in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) but the bassist does a fine job at holding his own in the role.
SONG #4 – “Easy Money” The most well-known track off the album, and one that is still played at King Crimson live shows to this day. It captures a slight bit of power while still allowing for the exposition of the band’s improvisation prowess. Here free-form drummer Jamie Muir makes his presence known, as he experiments with a variety of different percussion techniques and sounds which are very audible in comparison with the rest of his contributions from the album. Although the studio recording of this track is inferior to live recordings, this is one of the obvious favorites, and a song that the more casual listener can comprehend, on an album made up entirely of complicated musical arrangements which require multiple listens to truly understand.
SONG #5 – “The Talking Drum” This track is a long build-up towards the final closing track of the album. Beginning with the percussion and bass, the violin, guitar, and drums build up overtime to eventually culminate in a flurry of musical ecstasy, a climax which brings us into the second part of the Larks’ Tongues series.
SONG #6 – “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part Two)” Starting off at the climax of “The Talking Drum”, we are re-introduced to the powerful heavy metal we were exposed to at the beginning of the album. King Crimson uses this track as a built-up closer towards the final great ending, a move which has drawn rumors that this track, as a complement to the first part which is supposed to be the Big Bang, is supposed to symbolize the Apocalypse. Once again, it is perfectly feasible, as the dissonant myriad of distorted guitar and heavy drums ultimately culminates in a grand ending which fades out into the quiet to mark the end of the album.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is one of my undisputed favorite albums from the progressive rock genre. Many King Crimson fans laud albums like In the Court of the Crimson King or Red to be better offerings (surely those ones are also great in their own ways) but I have always loved this album specifically. Not only is the minimalistic album cover a good touch, but it seems like every song on the album is placed in the right position, and every arrangement seems organic and thought-provoking. The only drawback I could comprehend was the fact that “The Talking Drum” was a bit too long, and accomplished what a four-minute track could do succinctly. Otherwise, this is a quintessential album which you must listen to if you are truly interested in prog. It is by no means an introductory album to the genre, but one you should listen to once you are familiar with the intricacies and pretentious nature of progressive rock.
OVERALL: 98% – A+