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

LARKS' TONGUES IN ASPIC

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

4.39 | 1883 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
5 stars The last couple of Crimson albums might have more-or-less stunk (not that everybody agrees with me on that), but let's be fair to Fripp - he wasn't exactly surrounded with the mightiest of talent. Compounded with the fact that Fripp's bandmates weren't really on the same conceptual page as him - he wanted weird, they wanted more conventional jazz and blues modes - and it's no wonder those albums weren't quite up to par. So Robert fixed these problems - he surrounded himself with people with more playing talent than the band had yet fathomed, and (more importantly) who were able to share a common goal with Fripp. The result was the band's best album yet, and an album that (in many ways) served as the foundation for all King Crimson to the very end.

The new direction for the band, as defined on this album, can best be described (in my opinion) as "Heavy Avant-Prog." If we accept Robert's description of the initial King Crimson as "Hendrix plays Bartok," this new version can be described as "Hendrix plays Eric Dolphy plays Bartok." This album is prog rock, but rather than pushing the stylistic boundaries of the Court formula, like seemingly most bands in the genre were doing at the time (not that I'm putting those bands and albums down, you see), it instead seeks to totally break down and rebuild the genre from its very foundation. Combining the already established manner of "Schizoid" jamming with elements of avantgarde jazz, and framing these jams within a tight mathematical setup of climaxes, rises and falls, it's little wonder that some critics of the day referred to this as "outer limits" music. NOBODY was making music like this, and no wonder - nobody else had a combination of people conducive to making this sort of art, and it's doubtful that many others would have even if they could.

The new KC lineup included six people, counting a replacement lyricist for Peter Sinfield (who went off to join ELP), one Robert Palmer-James. Palmer-James, for better or worse, doesn't really have any impact on the album whatsoever - three of the six tracks contain lyrics, and while they're not blatantly icky, there's not much in the way of consistent imagery contained within. "Easy Money" does have some amusing anti-capitalist rantings, but I've heard better. Still, there's something to be said for the fact that there's no "Stake a lizard by the throat" to be found here.

Now, the lyrics may be irrelevant, but that obviously can't be extended to the rest of the players. The bass and vocals void is filled by one John Wetton, previously a member of Family and later of Asia fame. He's not a great vocalist, but he's unquestionably the best the band has had since losing Lake, and his bass-playing skills are simply superb. He's not afraid to play at a higher volume than normal, or to put different effects on his bass, and he's able to both create a solid foundation and to augment the general sound well.

The most novel part of the sound of this lineup comes courtesy of David Cross, master of violin and viola (and mellotron, as needed). The modern cynic might feel a bit uncomfy at the idea of a fulltime violin player in a rock (ha) band, given that history hasn't shown this can produce consistently tasteful results, but such fears should most definitely be laid to rest. Cross shows an amazing ability to accentuate the dark mood that permeates so much of the album, yet is also able to create occasional stretches of surprising loveliness. There are also a number of passages that show him playing his instrument in such a way that definitely doesn't match anything I've heard anywhere else - it's hard to be innovative in playing a violin in a rock context, but he definitely pulls it off.

The biggest coup for the band, however, came in the percussion section. First, Robert managed to snatch up a maniacal eccentric by the name of Jamie Muir. His percussion style was WILD, a kind suited to total avantgarde improvisation, and very different from almost anything previously found in prog rock. He's responsible for many of the most exciting and unexpected moments on the album, throwing in a useful enough dose of instability to really give the album an edge. Yet as interesting as this is, his brand of insanity is the kind that is much more effective in either a distilled fashion, or even better, a kind useful in a mentor-student relationship. In other words, Muir needed a student...

...and who should need a teacher but Bill Bruford. Bruford, by his own admission, had peaked with Yes' Close to the Edge - he believed that any followup by Yes could only be "Son Of Close to the Edge," and he did not see what else he could do within a Yes context. So he tendered his resignation from the band before that album's tour; Fripp was all too happy to snatch him up, and Bruford was all too happy to have a new start. In my opinion, Bill had proven within Yes that he was one of the top three or so drummers in the whole rock world, but he did have one slight weakness - his style tended to be a bit too anal at times with his precise, jazzy rhythms. Under Muir's tutelage, Bruford took his previous style and crossed it with healthy doses of spontaneous, instinctual power, and in the process made himself (in my mind) the king of all drummers. His drumming on this album is nothing short of spectacular, combining the best aspects of his Yes work with stretches that defy all possible expectations of quality.

This bizarre mix of players and ideology introduces itself to the world in a big way with the opening 13-minute title track (part one - part two closes out the album). The first 2:50 or so is devoted to a relatively quiet marimba improvisation, with bits of chimes here and there, and also with occasional bits of violin (I guess... it's hard to tell what exactly is what on this album) chiming in to increase the ominous effect. About halfway through, Bruford begins slowly riding his cymbals, gradually increasing their volume as the marimbas fade into the background, raising the apprehension and feeling of expectation of the listener to very high degree. Then the main piece begins - Cross begins playing an INCREDIBLY spooky violin line while Fripp plays some distorted notes here and there, then disappears for a couple of seconds, then builds it back up again, and then there's a MONSTROUS distorted heavy riff played a few times (with some soloing overdubbed). Then it's violin again, the distorted guitar notes come back with heavy bass in tow, the tension builds again, and then there's that riff again! Fripp throws in a very brief typical guitar line for him, and the band breaks into a weirdass jam, featuring Muir creating rhythmic woodblock noise in the midst of it all. This goes on for about a minute, the groove slows down, and then they break into another even wilder jam (app. 6:15-7:35). Fripp's guitar and Wetton's bass are most prominent here, but take special care to notice the absolutely INCREDIBLE drumming from Bruford here. The combination of power and speed here, oh man, this has few, if any, analogies in the rock world, I can tell you that.

Eventually, around 7:40, the jam ends, and the piece returns to Cross' hands. His playing over the next three or so minutes can't really be explained in terms of rock music, but ... have you ever heard the Camille Saint-Saens piece "Dance Macabre?" It has this whole creepy "dead people at dawn" atmosphere to it, and for whatever reason, I'm always reminded of it by Cross' playing here. But I digress. Eventually, this playing fades out, the initial violin lines pop back in (the ones before the "main theme" pop up), and we hear a bunch of really quiet voices mumbling things over the lines, before the violin and bass help fade things out. And that is how you build a brilliant introduction to an album.

The next three tracks aren't as brilliant, but part of the reason for that is that they have lyrics, and as such are closer to being "normal" songs than the exploratory opening track. Not that normalcy is inherently inferior to experimentation, of course - I usually consider prog tamed with "convention" to be superior, but let's face it, this incarnation (at this point) was better at experimentation than regular songwriting. Still, that hardly means these tracks are anywhere near bad. "Book of Saturday" is the weakest of the lot, a decent but thorougly unspectacular ballad with bits of weird guitar and violin sound to accompany an ok melody. "Exiles," on the other hand, is a major winner - the lyrics don't add much to the effort, but the vocal melody (and delivery) is terrific, and Cross' violin theme ads more than enough resonance to make up for the lyrical deficiencies. The song does have the drawback of a little too much meandering in the instrumental breaks, with Fripp messing with spacey feedback and ideas that have nothing to do with the rest of the song, but hey, at least he makes the song totally unique by doing so.

Flipping over to side two, we're greeted with a bizarre percussive rhythm, overlaid with all sorts of gritty guitar feedback and wordless syllabic vocals, serving as an introduction to "Easy Money." The song itself has a really cool vocal melody, with all sorts of neat percussion underneath that, and then it breaks into a really eerie, pretty quiet (yet suprisingly intense in its quietness, and I'd guess because of the quietness) jam, with Fripp leading the way with some absolutely terrific soloing. There's bits of mellotron here and there to augment it, but the emphasis is clearly on Fripp, until about halfway in, where Wetton becomes the highest instrument in the jam, not letting it down in the slightest. Not surprisingly, the song then closes out with another iteration of the verse melody, louder and more intense this time around, fading out with some VERY disturbing laughing sounds. It's hardly the best track on the album, but it's definitely a worthy inclusion.

So thus ends the sung portion of the album. But not the album itself! In fitting fashion, the band decided to close out the album with 14-and-a-half minutes of instrumentals, split over two tracks. The first, "The Talking Drum," is just about the textbook definition of how to properly work a lengthy crescendo. It starts off very, VERY quiet (with a buzzing fly sound, for some reason), with Muir randomly banging on bongos (I guess), until Wetton starts playing a simple bassline again and again about 1:40 in, with Bruford riding his snare in lockstep fashion. And then Cross pops up, working off a brilliant up-tempo (yet somber) theme and playing it every which way. Eventually Fripp joins the party, throwing in his own theme that he plays every which way. Slowly but surely, the intensity reaches an utterly feverish pitch, with all these seemingly disparate ideas working as one to drive the listener into a total frenzy. My brother and I once decided that, essentially, this is the music you'd hear on the elevator down to hell, and I still stand by that assessment.

Then out of nowhere, the piece grinds to a halt, there's a screech of guitar feedback, and we launch into "Larks' Tongues in Aspic 2," the best riff-rocker prog has ever seen. In some ways, I prefer later live versions to this studio original, but make no mistake, this original has an atmosphere and aspects untouched by later versions. Fripp manages to take his high quality riff and present it in (I count) three variations over seven minutes, with all sorts of cool interplay between guitar and bass and ESPECIALLY Cross' violin. The sound that Cross squeezes out of his instrument at the 4-minute mark of the song, over the heaviest riff, is just about the scariest noise I can imagine ever coming from a string instrument. I'll tell you what it sounds like to me - it sounds like a lark screaming (after all, the title is a recipe involving larks), and for whatever reason, the thought of a screaming bird just sends all sorts of horrid feelings through me. His soloing over the next minute or so shouldn't be forgotten either, though. In any case, after what seems like forever of building up the tension of the "softer" theme of the song, we hit the final climax, which has an apocalyptic sound not really matched elsewhere in music. It then seemingly fades out forever, and we end with a slow, slow slide until the last note of feedback disappears.

And there you are. If any significant general flaw can be expressed for the album, it's that it is most definitely music solely for ears and brain, and not at all for the heart. Even then, though, the band is excused by the fact that the music is so well constructed and planned out that, despite a dearth of actual heartfelt resonance, the band is able to simulate it pretty well by messing with your feelings of comfort and well-being. Point is, it's a friggin' great album, and one that NO prog fan worth a grain of salt can do without. Also, one last thing - do not try to judge the quality of this album after one or two listens. I tried to take that approach with it, and as a result I feared this album like nobody's business. Listen to it once, put it away for a while, listen again, put it away, etc until you start to get an idea of what's going on. One day, you'll find that the structured aspects of the album start to stand out from the chaos, and soon it will start growing on you until you wonder how you ever made it through life without it.

tarkus1980 | 5/5 |

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