KING CRIMSON – ” Must Have Six Albums “

Posted: October 3, 2021 in MUSIC
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Up until this month, King Crimson were among the final streaming-service holdouts from the classic rock era. And it made sense. Robert Fripp has famously stated that his pioneering prog outfit isn’t simply a band but also a “way of doing things.” Often, that way of doing things involves resisting the obvious path sometimes at the expense of the band’s stability. The past 50 years of Fripp and King Crimson have been defined by restlessness, thanks to an ever-changing line-up and a sound that’s always searching (typically in odd tunings and time signatures). In one song, they’re a gnarly rock trio with tritone riffs; in another, they’re a gorgeous folk outfit with flutes and fantastical lyrics. Combine that tendency with their myriad spin-off projects (referred to as ProjeKcts), collaborative releases, and elaborate box sets, and you have one of the more intimidating bodies of work in rock history. But now that the majority of their catalogue has finally arrived on Spotify, Apple Music, and others, it’s never been easier to join the Court of King Crimson.

Start with these six albums, and explore the rest at your own pace.

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In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

King Crimson’s debut album presents their most recognizable face. It’s there on the cover—the iconic painting by Bary Godber—but it’s also in the restless, symphonic music. Songs like “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “The Court of the Crimson King” have lost none of their paranoid energy, and ballads like “I Talk to the Wind” and “Moonchild” remain among their most memorable deep cuts.

The defining sounds of the record Ian McDonald’s Mellotron and the passionate vocals of Greg Lake would soon be phased out, as Fripp began experimenting more. But it would take years for the rest of the world to catch up to the vision of In the Court of the Crimson King.

If you like this, consider listening to: King Crimson’s 1970 follow-up, In the Wake of Poseidon. It essentially recreates the formula of this album, to varying degrees of success.

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Islands (1971)

The title is fitting: These jazzy, string-accompanied tracks are somewhat disconnected from King Crimson’s larger body of work, but they’re worth a visit. Their final album to feature the lyrics of Peter Sinfield, Islands is a transitional work, showing a band on the way to a tighter, bolder sound. While this exercise in jazz fusion was a brief phase, it was also an essential one.

The album’s gorgeous story-songs, like the title track, and psychedelic saxophone parts courtesy of Mel Collins show the band at its most escapist. A minor work for King Crimson, Islands would have been the highlight of many other acts’ discographies. If you like this, consider listening to: the “Sailors Tales” box set, from 2017. It collects every existing live show from this era, building a completist shrine out of what may have seemed like a curio.

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Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)

This marked the beginning of King Crimson’s most consistent line-up of the ’70s. With the assistance of bassist/vocalist John Wetton and virtuosic drummer Bill Bruford, along with violinist David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir, Fripp was able to conjure a deeper, darker sound. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” spans relatively straightforward highlights like “Easy Money,” to classical-influenced set pieces like the two-part title track. With it came a period of King Crimson’s career in which composition and live improvisation shared equal billing.

Essentially, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is the sound of a band figuring out how to incorporate the chaos around them into the songs themselves. Consider listening to: the live recordings from this era. They are just as essential and there’s no shortage of them to choose from. From the half-live follow-up album “Starless and Bible Black” to massive box sets like The Road to Red, you can hear King Crimson evolving with every performance.

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Red (1974)

For an act often defined by its uncontainable adventurousness, “Red” is a window into the sleeker side of King Crimson. At this point, the band was essentially a trio Robert Fripp on guitar, Bill Bruford on drums, and John Wetton on bass and vocals and its songs were newly direct, both musically and lyrically. The title track is an instrumental proto-metal megalith, and the imagistic ballad “Starless” though 12 minutes long aims straight for the heart, with Wetton’s poignant vocal delivery and Fripp’s slow-building guitar solo. While most King Crimson albums are notable for signalling rebirths, Red is alone in feeling like a grand finale: the gripping conclusion to a half-decade of work, with not a note wasted. It’s one of King Crimson’s undeniable masterpieces.

If you like this, Fripp’s other work outside of Crimson. From his collaborative ambient masterpieces with Brian Eno (1973’s (No Pussyfooting) and 1975’s Evening Star), to the daring art-pop album he produced for Daryl Hall (1980’s Sacred Songs), Fripp’s ambition kept him busy outside of the prog world he inspired.

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Discipline (1981)

After a seven-year hiatus during the second half of the ’70s,  the eighth studio album by English progressive rock band King Crimson, released on September 22nd, 1981 by E.G. Records .King Crimson marked their return with a new line-up, a new sound, and, if Fripp had had his way, a new name. “Discipline” was slated to be the moniker for this endeavor, featuring new recruits Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals and Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick. But after an early rehearsal, it became clear that this was no mere side project it was the future of King Crimson, with a knotty, new wave sound that imagined if Talking Heads had met at music school instead of art school. 

Discipline” was the first in a trio of releases that found the band flirting, however hermetically, with the pop world in the form of music videos and dance remixes. Centered on the inventive guitar interplay between Fripp and Belew, the ever-cerebral material proved that King Crimson’s DNA could sustain even the most dramatic reinvention. Check out “Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal”. The ’80s incarnation of Crimson did their best work in concert, and this retrospective release captures their final show of the decade, held in 1984.

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THRAK (1995)

Thrak” (stylised in all caps) is the eleventh studio album by the band King Crimson released in 1995 through Virgin Records. It was preceded by the mini-album Vrooom in 1994. It is their first full-length studio album since Three of a Perfect Pair eleven years earlier, and the only full album to feature the 1994-1997 line-up of Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Trey Gunn, Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto.

THRAK succeeds by doing exactly what you don’t expect a King Crimson album to do: sound like King Crimson. Their sole studio full-length from the ’90s is their most self-referential work (“Dinosaur” quotes the riff from 1970’s “Cirkus,” while “VROOM” calls back to the title track of Red). It’s also among their most accessible. Adrian Belew is an unabashed Beatles fan, and these songs showcase the pop craftsmanship lurking beneath King Crimson’s best work, from the quietly psychedelic “Walking on Air” to the jumpy, philosophical “People.” 

Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire, U.K. The recording presents the group in a series of unique ways. With the band consisting of two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers, the opening track begins with all six musicians in the centre of the audio mix. As the album progresses, they are split into two trios, with one guitarist, bassist and drummer heard in the left channel and the other guitarist, bassist and drummer heard coming from the right channel.

THRAK was also a structural reinvention, introducing the “double trio” formation of the group, with two of each instrument. Bigger in both sound and scope, it’s the ideal late-career prog album. Listen to: 2003’s The Power to Believe, which remains King Crimson’s most recent album of new material. It continues in THRAK’s path, led by Belew’s nervy vocal style and familiar motifs from throughout the band’s discography.

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