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King Crimson - Islands CD (album) cover


King Crimson


Eclectic Prog

3.81 | 1691 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars It was always a point of some concern for me that I was not as familiar with King Crimson's discography as I was with some of the other so called "classic" bands of progressive rock. About a year ago, I set out slowly collecting and listening to their albums, and while that undertaking is far from complete, there was one album that almost from the first listen lodged itself firmly in my musical consciousness.

Surprisngly, though, it wasn't Red or Lark's Tongues In Aspic or even In the Court of the Crimson King. While those are all of course excellent albums, none of them grabbed me in the way that this one did. Islands sounds tremendously different to me than most other Crimson albums, with a restrained, jazzy sound that I haven't again encountered in my voyages through their discography. Furthermore, despite the rather mixed response that this album has received (especially in comparison to many of those above), it is my opinion that this album is no less than a masterpiece, with the drastic differentness in style serving only as a boon to its charm. Every moment of this album feels perfectly put together, with nary a note out of place or a flaw in composition or performance. Islands is a stellar album that shows a side of King Crimson which was never fully realized before this release and was (unfortunately, in my opinion) never seen again after.

Before I go further, I'll note that I have the 40th anniversary edition. I don't have the original so I can't compare, but I'll certainly say that I have no complaints about the sound of this version of the album.

"Formentera Lady" begins the album with some low, rumbling, almost grating strings before delicate piano and flute enter as well. As album introductions go, this is about as far from the crashing of "21st Century Schizoid Man" as you can get, but it's equally effective in establishing an idea of what the album is going to sound like: where In The Court surged forward, brash and bold and ignoring consequences, Islands will be a more meditative affair, soft and deliberate and far more content to sit back and let the music develop rather than let it all burst forth at once. The vocals show this distinction as well; rather than distorted wails courtesy of Greg Lake, we get the far more restrained croonings of Boz Burrell. In fact, everything about the song feels restrained-but certainly not in a bad way. Melodies intertwine and develop in a way that feels incredibly organic while at the same time pain- stakingly deliberate. Of course, the quirkiness of playing that always appears on King Crimson albums is available here in spades; with a huge variety of instruments and of course stellar performances on all backing up the lyrics. An amazing composition and a great opener.

The instrumental "Sailor's Tale" starts with some minimalistic percussion before an extremely jazzy bass and horn line enter. Mel Collins demonstrates his amazing chops on the saxophone, freaking out on his instrument like a madman before the track falls into a different theme, this time dominated by Fripp's guitar. There's a bit of jazzy jamming (if you can even call something this tight jamming) before the track again changes course, launching into a heavier, darker section dominated by string sounds and some furious bass and percussion. Intensity builds going into the last minute before falling off to an ominous, low rumble that slowly fades out as the track concludes.

"The Letters" is, in my opinion, one of King Crimson's most intense songs. This intensity, however, comes not from any kind of sheer driving force such as could be found on "21st Century Schizoid Man." Rather, it explores the vein that Crimson would return to on "Starless," creating a somber, menacing atmosphere over which restrained but powerful vocals are free to lurk. This atmosphere is juxtaposed with a definitely jazzy section in the middle of the track, with more stellar Sax playing courtesy of Mr. Collins and of course stellar support by everyone else as well. The song returns to its original mode with the (perhaps infamous) wailed lyric "Impaled on nails of ice" which manages to come off sounding appropriately sinister but manages to toe the fine line between drama and melodrama, coming off fortunately on the side of the former. From there the track fades out to nothing, leaving the listener with a sense of mystery and unease that works brilliantly within the flow of the album.

"Ladies of the Road" again allows vocals to come to center stage, with a slinky, bass-driven melody and perfect lyrical delivery. The saxophone is again a highlight, laying down some wonderfully raw solos and managing to drive itself into the listener's memory despite its relatively spare use. Interestingly, all of this is contrasted against the chorus, which makes use of a much lighter atmosphere and almost Beatles-esque vocal harmonies. A stellar guitar solo from Fripp followed by an equally blistering sax outing by Collins are the final pieces in the puzzle, and "Ladies of the Road," if not an epic like the opener or closer, ends up being a remarkably satisfying, eclectic track that only adds to the album.

"Prelude: Song of the Gulls" is the album's second instrumental, and it sees the group trying out a much more classical style, with orchestral strings and airy flute weaving wonderful melodies together. It's really very impressive how many different styles the band was able to put together on this album without losing any sense of cohesion, and "Song of the Gulls" certainly serves to highlight that fact. Besides that, of course, it's very beautiful in its own right, and it serves as a wonderful prelude to the album's final track.

That is, of course, the titular closer, and what a closer it is. I would argue that "Islands" is one of if not the most beautiful King Crimson songs ever written, with emotive vocals and a plaintive piano part that all but tears your heart out as you listen to it. There are no instrumental gymnastics here, but the song is no way lacking for it: despite the fact that it makes use of more or less the same motif throughout its 10 minute length, it's developed so beautifully that it's impossible to find a dull moment in the song. I really can't stress enough just how "put-together" everything sounds-"Islands" finds King Crimson more nuanced then they've ever been before. Though "Starless" may be held up as the quintessential Crimson song, in my mind this one is just as good, and it's an amazing closer to what has become my favorite King Crimson album.

I don't know if there's much more I can say about the album other than what's written above, but I really just want to stress the near-perfect cohesion of this release. There is not one single moment that feels forced or out of place, not a single decision that makes me think "I wish they had done that differently." This is one of those rare albums that seems to me to be perfect exactly as it is, and if that's not deserving of a perfect rating then I don't know what is.


VanVanVan | 5/5 |


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