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King Crimson - Islands CD (album) cover

ISLANDS

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

3.78 | 1290 ratings

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KingCrInuYasha
4 stars Another year, another line-up, another album, another style for Robert Fripp and King Crimson to tinker with.

After the Lizard lineup fizzled with the departure of Gordon Haskell and Andy McCulloch, Boz Burrell and Ian Wallace were brought in to fill in on bass/vocals and drums respectively. Burrell and Wallace aren't terrible by any means, but they're underused for the most part. Wallace's drumming is kind of standard (though from I've heard, his drumming on the band's live performances have a bit more punch), though I don't think an aggressive style would have fit on most of these tracks. The same can be said with Burrell's bass playing - as for his singing, he's a step up above Haskell and could easily pull off the old and new material when the band finally went back on the road.

For this album, Fripp decides to dial back on the weirdness the permeated Lizard and go for a calmer, lounge jazz type of sound, with Keith Tippet and his crew returning to contribute to the opening and closing tracks of the album. Not surprisingly, this type of direction would rub the wrong way with some listeners and critics, not to mention the band members themselves. Like Lizard, it's not an album that's praised among the critics I like to visit, but given my fondness for the album, it leaves me scratching my head on how this is considered another dud. Oh well.

The opening "Formentera Lady" effectively sets the mood for the album. I like the intro to this one, it sounds like something from the original Star Trek (1) and the song portion is quite good, with Tippet and Fripp delivering some tasty piano and acoustic guitar lines. For the second half, Fripp appears to have taken some inspiration from his production of Centipede's Septober Energy, incorporating bells, violins, random acoustic guitar, saxophone and vocalizations. Some say it drags, but I've heard worse in that department (including the aforementioned Septober Energy); at least the above elements keep things interesting. Sinfield's lyrics about a stroll on the island of Formentera are decent and Burrell singing is pretty nice.

After the final wails and chimes, the song then segues into the more energetic "Sailor's Tale". It's not as aggressive as most other Crim rockers, but at least the band successfully builds an aura of tension around it, particularly Mel Collins' saxophone freak out in the start and Fripp's guitar in the middle, where it punctuates the eerily quiet portion of the piece, like a bolt of lightning briefly turning night into day. The ending has the band abruptly returning to the main theme from the start and the band builds and builds, with Wallace's drumming becoming slightly more agitated, the humming of a synth (mellotron? VCS3? I'm not too sure) rapidly growing louder, like an oncoming storm threatening to overtake a ship (probably why the song is called "Sailor's Tale"). Just as the cacophony is about to overtake the listener, it stops and Fripp's guitar sends the whole thing into a free fall, ending with a distant, haunting synth rumble.

"The Letters" was based on the Court-era song "Drop In", and has the band going into some of neat beatnik jazz, going from quiet guitar into stomping blues as the piece progresses. The music is good, but I can't say the same for the lyrics, sounding like something you would read in a third rate romance novel. I wish Fripp had kept his original "Drop In" lyrics for this one, which would have fit the music much better.

The slightly misogynistic groupie tribute "Ladies Of The Road" opens the second side. (2) Burrell's voice is at his most aggressive and Collins and Fripp deliver some delightfully raunchy solos. Blues was never King Crimson's specialty, but when they dove into the genre, they've shown to be quite capable and this song is no exception. They even manage to throw in a little twist with the slightly carnival-esque bridge that sounds a bit like Queen.

In yet another curve ball, the next song, "Prelude: Song Of The Gulls", doesn't feature the main band at all, but a string quartet and Robert Miller on oboe during a classical rearrangement of the second part of Fripp's Giles, Giles & Fripp era composition "Suite No. 1". It's kind of weird that the rest of the main band didn't participate, but with Fripp, stuff like this is to be expected. At least he manages to successfully give the tune a new arrangement and fully flesh out the piece. The results are quite beautiful.

The somber mood continues on with the title track. I agree with John McFerrin's (aka Tarkus1980) view that this is an excellent pre-bedtime ballad, but my impression of "Islands" is somewhat darker and more depressing; whenever I listen to this one, I sometimes look at the album cover full of stars and feel how isolated we are and, given the vast distances, man will never travel to those little islands of light, at least nowhere near our lifetimes (not to mention the whole thing with the Sun expanding and frying the Earth into a crisp several billion years from now). If you're not interested in philosophizing, at least the music is nice, going from piano to harmonium to mellotron, while Burrell delicately delivers Sinfield's lyrics (probably the best on the album) of island metaphors. Chraig's horn is a nice touch, especially the triumphant solo at the end. It's a very beautiful way to close the album. Oh and there's a clip of Fripp giving the "Gulls" orchestra some instructions about a minute after the album proper ends.

Judging by my rating, I admit I'm probably being a little too enthusiastic about this one, but I can't rate this one lower than Court, especially with the whole "Moonchild" thing. On the other hand, I can see where some might have a problem with this. It's certainly the most low-key of Crimson's output, but at least it's not boring, at least to me.

Final rating: 4/5

Personal favorites: "Formentera Lady", "Sailor's Tale", "Ladies Of The Road", "Prelude: Song Of The Gulls", "Islands"

Personal dislikes: none

Notes:

1. A bit of Trekkie trivia: The nebula shown on the album cover is the same one shown in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Alternative Factor" whenever Lazarus has one of his freak outs.

2. On a personal note, I find it amusing that a lot of critics would disapprove of this song's lyrics, yet have no problems when The Rolling Stones do similar stuff on a similar level with their lyrics. Granted, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were better at writing about this type of subject, but I still find it funny.

KingCrInuYasha | 4/5 |

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