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King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic CD (album) cover


King Crimson


Eclectic Prog

4.41 | 2950 ratings

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5 stars REVIEW #6 - "Larks' Tongues in Aspic" by King Crimson (1973), 06/07/2018

King Crimson is by far the most illustrious band in progressive rock, having spearheaded the genre since arguably creating it in 1969. Headed by the eccentric guitarist Robert Fripp, the band has gone through numerous personnel changes and musical periods ranging from eclectic mellotron-driven jazz fusion to heavy and industrial metal. Crimson's presence is felt throughout all the sub-genres of prog, and odds are any other prog band you're listening to was inspired by Fripp & Co.

Today we will be examining Crimson's fifth album, and the one which marked the beginning of the band's second generation, which has a heavy metal feel. Previously from 1969 to 1972, the group had released four albums which experimented with several different sounds, and featured several different musicians. Whether it be the late frontman Greg Lake who would reach the mainstream after leaving Fripp, or Boz Burrell who would go on to be the bassist for American rock supergroup Bad Company, it was obvious that Robert Fripp had a knack for selecting musicians who would become successful in the future. However, by 1972 there was a falling out between Fripp and lyricist Peter Sinfield, and an ensuing power struggle over their "Islands" album had prompted Fripp to fire the rest of the band and start anew. By the next year, Fripp had successfully pried drummer Bill Bruford from prog giant Yes, and sourced bassist John Wetton from Family, violinist David Cross, and percussionist Jamie Muir to form the "new" King Crimson. Their first offering was the album "Larks' Tongues in Aspic", considered to be one of prog's greatest albums.

"Larks" starts off with a thirteen-minute title track instrumental. The initial impression is almost unimpressive, as we are faced with a very quiet three-minute build up, beginning with the soft percussion of the second drummer Muir. King Crimson has made it known that they intended to take influence from Eastern European classical music for the album, while subsequently making use of improvisation. Muir satisfies the latter very well; an abstract percussionist, he was known for his wild stage persona, utilizing fake blood and running around his giant collection of instruments like a madman. Furthermore, he would make use of unconventional objects as instruments, such as small toy cars or shards of sheet metal in order to get very precise and unique sounds. While Muir's influence on the band was not so profound, as he randomly left the band in the midst of the album's supporting tour to pursue a monastic lifestyle, this album contains a great deal of his techniques and styles. Three minutes in, we meet the violin and a brutal Frippian guitar sound that had only been previously heard on "Prince Rupert's Lament". What ensues is perhaps the greatest introduction in the history of prog, as the band spontaneously erupts to counter the silence, blowing the listener's socks off with a brisk and heavy sound that had only been partially expressed through the music of Black Sabbath or Blue Cheer. King Crimson's sound is much more refined and electronic, and in my opinion is an obvious pioneer of the sound which would eventually transform into heavy metal. Following two salvos of pure noise, the group ventures off into a trademark dissonant improvisation section, where all the band members take off in different directions while still retaining the same motif. Throughout the middle portion of this song, we get a taste of every single thing the band can offer - a preview of what would be to come following our first impression. From the fleeting bass line to the powerful drumming of Bruford which drove the golden age of Yes, the listener can immediately extrapolate how monumental this album is going to be - not only is the music progressive, but it showcases the best of all worlds of rock. One may criticize the inclusion of a violin given it is often buried deep below the wall of sound created by both Bruford and Fripp, but the band takes time to include quiet passages where Cross can serenade the listener alongside the chilling sound of wind or wordless vocals which seem ripped out of a TV show, yet quiet enough to not be decipherable. As this piece comes to a close, King Crimson builds up towards a great climax, but unfortunately the band teases the listener by prematurely ending the song, and coming to a rather peaceful conclusion. Nearly fourteen minutes later, my mind has been blown, and King Crimson has etched itself into prog rock immortality - our journey has only just begun.

The minimalist album cover for "Larks" works very well. I personally am a fan of Crimson's album covers, whether it be the ornate medieval art of "Lizard", the iconic face of "In the Court", or the archetypes of "In the Wake", the bands cover art always seems to mirror the music. Back to the album, following the immaculate opening epic, the band throws a curveball and presents a three-minute ballad which warms us up to the vocals of bassist John Wetton. Wetton would go on to be the frontman for prog supergroup Asia in the 1980s, featuring on hit singles such as "Heat of the Moment", but on this album his voice sound remarkably green. It seems that he is still adjusting to becoming a frontman, but while some have criticized his voice as being a low-point of this album, it personally does not bother me. That being said, "Book" is a rather comfy breath of fresh air from the technical "Larks Pt. 1" while staying surprisingly progressive. This was the first song I ever learned on bass guitar, and it is uncannily diverse in sound and technique. Apart from that, it is a rather generic love ballad, but the placement on the album is pure genius to keep the listener on edge. Better yet it also serves as a warm-up to the next song "Exiles". This one is much more reminiscent of the band's previous incarnation, beginning with another long introduction but revealing itself to be a mellotron-driven ballad which once again makes use of Wetton's vocals. This song would fit in comfortably on an album such as "In the Wake" with its style, but even then there still seems to be an edge which that album was lacking in the instrumentation - Fripp's approach is much more striking as the wall of sound ranging from Cross's violin to the enthusiastic drums of Bill Bruford is much more exotic and enticing as it augments the mellotron. That being said, Wetton's vocals prove to be noticeably raw; it is obvious that he is not a natural vocalist, at least not in 1973. It personally does not bother me as the music is overwhelmingly instrumental on this album, but I can understand why another listener may be critical of this facet of the album. The music on "Larks" does not fit a specific concept, and even the music does not serve for much of an underlying meaning, even though some have speculated that "Larks Pt. 1" symbolizes the creation of the Universe and "Pt. 2" the Apocalypse. I personally do not see this being the case, although I could certainly see the monstrous exposition riff in the former being representative of the Big Bang. Otherwise, until Fripp acknowledges it, I'll view it as an urban legend.

"Easy Money", one of Crimson's most-played and accessible works, picks us up on the second side. I am pretty sure the band makes it a priority to play this tune every concert given its appeal and room for improvisation. There is no build-up for this one, as we hit the ground running alongside Fripp's powerful guitar tone and some wordless vocals. The lyrical sections of this song contrast as being quiet, with Wetton performing at a quieter level than on "Book" or "Exiles". What I focus on the most on this rendition of "Easy Money" is the performance by the percussionist Muir. I consider this to be Muir's defining tune in his brief tenure with the band, as his abstract style is riddled throughout this song. To start, the drumming is very rich - you can easily define Bruford and Muir, as the latter mostly spends time making use of unconventional percussion which is extremely evident in the song's middle instrumental section. The resonance of what sounds to be a metal triangle or a chime being hit is prevalent, while some more bassy and hollow sounds permeate Fripp's backing guitar solo and Wetton's bassline. "Easy's" instrumental works very well in providing a succinct wall of music to the listener; it does not last overwhelmingly long, and as it gets closer to the end it begins to build up towards a satisfying climax that culminates in some epic Fripp guitar work which is supported by masterful use of Muir's percussion and the heavy Bruford drumming style that was event on Yes albums such as "Fragile" or "Close to the Edge". In a more conventional move, the song is concluded by a reprisal of the lyrical section, which gives a nice, solid ending to what is considered to be a solid highlight of the album.

"Easy Money" segues into "The Talking Drum" through the sound of wind. At first I was unimpressed with this instrumental, given that it is an extended build-up into the finale of the album, but over time I have grown to appreciate it. I suppose I was expecting too much out of a build-up track, but in retrospect I find that this piece does a great job prepping the listener for what is a much more dynamic and interactive instrumental. It opens up with a simple Wetton bass-line, which evolves over the course of seven minutes as the rest of the band progressively joins in and speeds up the tempo. By the end the band is in full flight, with Cross and Fripp dancing around Wetton's bass before coming to a full crash stop to signify the opening riffs of "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Pt. 2" which brings us back to the heavy metal motifs of the first part. While "Pt. 1" was wholly improvisational, this part signifies a much more concrete ascension towards musical insanity, as the band pushes the envelope of what was considered musically haram at the time. There are still some less energetic moments as we journey through the rocky crags of this instrumental, but Fripp's omnipresent guitar riffs give this song the edge necessary to close out the album on a high note. I always like to focus on the guitar, but the rest of the band deserves attention as well, as Bruford's heavy style of drumming fits in perfectly with the sound the band is pursuing here. Muir's percussion still makes itself known, but in a less important role than on "Easy Money" or "Pt. 1". The rhythm section on this album does a great job at establishing a very solid foundation for the rest of the band to build upon through the form of improvisation or solo. Even though we heard it on "Prince Rupert's Lament", this was the album where Fripp established his trademark guitar tone, and at a semi-climax near the four-minute mark, it is especially present. Even in 2018, amidst a sea of loud heavy metal this tone hits hard; I can only imagine how it sounded to the virgin ears of rock listeners back in 1973. Coming towards the end we get a menagerie of drums and vicious guitar which signifies the conclusion of the album, but King Crimson does not cease the album outright, giving listeners an extra minute of a true ending as the sound descends and drowns away into an infinitely deep ocean.

When I first listened to this album, when it ended I was speechless. King Crimson introduced me to a higher understanding of music, and this album was one of the contributing factors into me becoming a more devout prog listener. There is no question that this album deserves a five-star rating, and even at that, I have debated giving this album a perfect 100% in terms of being listenable. I consider "Larks" to be my favorite King Crimson album; my 1973 Japanese pressing of the album has an epic amount of depth compared to digital recordings, and when played on my stereo is absolutely awe-inspiring. Perhaps one of the interesting things about this album is that it does not have a distinct champion of a song that carries the album, rather it is supported by songs which have equal weight in being unique, technical, and progressive. I still cannot find such a successful and revered album which has this quality, and even then it still garners an insanely high rating. While the band would continue to produce masterful albums even after 1973 and into the 80's, I always come back to this album as being one of the definitive prog masterpieces. I absolutely adore this album and certainly recommend that you give it several listens in order to truly absorb the musical depth that "Larks" offers a listener. That being said, I will shy away from a fabled 100% thanks to "the Talking Drum", which I view as being slightly long enough to offset this from being a perfect album. Nevertheless, it will get the next best thing - my rating goes as (99%, A+). One of the best albums of the genre.

SonomaComa1999 | 5/5 |


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