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King Crimson - Lizard CD (album) cover

LIZARD

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

4.12 | 2008 ratings

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Frankingsteins
3 stars The third album by progressive rock pioneers King Crimson is the band's most demanding, patchy and deservedly obscure. If nothing else, fans of avant-garde music should admire it for those very reasons. The band's debut, 'In the Court of the Crimson King,' is a landmark of experimental rock, a brilliant fusion of modern (1969) technology and Medieval influence that acts as a dingy counterpart to the happy psychedelia and pastoral prog played by Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes around the same time. The second album, 'In the Wake of Poseidon,' disappointingly repeats exactly what the first album did, but with less impressive results. For 'Lizard,' released later the same year, Fripp and the other musicians created a record that stands apart in the Crimson discography for its basis in experimental jazz, which ultimately leads to the band's first (and only) side-long song, the 23-minute eponymous 'Lizard.'

This emphasis on jazz style lends the album a free-roaming, unsettling sound that is heavy on the horns. For listeners unaccustomed to the style, it can be a little off- putting, especially in the album's second half. There are enough recognisable structures in the first four songs to avoid deterring newcomers, but fans of long epic prog rock songs, Pink Floyd's 'Echoes,' Genesis' 'Supper's Ready,' Yes' 'Close to the Edge,' Rush's '2112' and, more recently, Porcupine Tree's 'The Sky Moves Sideways' and Dream Theater's 'A Change of Seasons,' won't necessarily appreciate the length granted to 'Bolero' and 'The Battle of the Glass Tears' in the second half. Lizard is a challenging and demanding album, even for prog fans who pride themselves on having what it takes to handle everything the seventies can throw at them.

Former vocalist Greg Lake departed to form one third of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (in which he starred as the 'Lake' one), and Greg Haskell was recruited as the new voice to ethereally spout the dark, fantastical, unusual lyrics written, as usual, by non- performer Peter Sinfield. Haskell had appeared on 'Cadence and Cascade' on the previous Crimson album, and his vocals impress as much as Lake's on that album, although don't approach the level of the debut. For some reason, Jon Anderson of Yes makes a guest appearance half-way through the album, lending his androgynous angelic voice to the opening part of the album's 'epic' composition.

The single stable element in King Crimson is influential guitarist and keyboard player Robert Fripp, as even at this early point in the band's history, all other performers were subject to change. Fripp's co-founders Giles and Giles have now both departed, bass guitar duties handled by vocalist Haskell and drums by Robert McCulloch, both of whom would depart before the next release. This temporary line-up appears to be a studio- necessitated phenomenon, and would never tour or exist in any form thereafter.

King Crimson, 'Lizard' (Atlantic, 1970)

1. Cirkus (including Entry of the Chameleons) 2. Indoor Games 3. Happy Family 4. Lady of the Dancing Water Lizard: 5. a) Prince Rupert Awakes 6. b) Bolero - The Peacock's Tale 7. c) The Battle of the Glass Tears ____i) Dawn Song ____ii) Last Skirmish ____iii) Prince Rupert's Lament 8. Big Top

If any single song from this overlooked album deserves to appear in at least one King Crimson live set or compilation CD, it's the opener 'Cirkus.' An unforgettable yet simple guitar-and-sax riff looms ominously between Haskell's soft-spoken verses, all of which taper to a louder vocal assault not dissimilar to Lake's on the first album's title track. At six and a half minutes, 'Cirkus' is the closest to perfection that this album attains, although it's still in a radically different league than 'In the Court of the Crimson King.' 'Indoor Games' and 'Happy Family' take a disappointing refrain from this nightmarish darkness, opting for a more melodic mood, the latter of which sounds similar to early Genesis, circa 'Nursery Cryme.' It's a problem common to King Crimson that by changing line-up so often, and veering off in such drastically uncharacteristic musical directions, is it still the same band we're listening to? It's certainly not typical of the distinctive Crimson sound, or rather what I imagine that to be amidst all this evolution.

'Indoor Games' isn't very impressive, but 'Happy Family' at least manages to be more complex; Haskell's vocals are all over the place, playing around with a weird staccato style rather than the excellent pseudo-singing of the first track, and the middle of the song seems fairly directionless. The final song on side one of the album's vinyl pressing is 'Lady of the Dancing Water,' which again doesn't sound particularly Crimson-esque, despite obviously being this album's continuation of the flute-ballad trend that began with the excellent 'I Talk to the Wind' and continued with the less excellent 'Cadence and Cascade.' 'Lady of the Dancing Water' is the least impressive of the three, despite Mel Collins' pleasant flute work, and is too short at under three minutes to actually go anywhere.

Side two is dominated by the 'Lizard' suite. Floyd fans should think more along the lines of 'Atom Heart Mother' (released the same year) than 'Echoes,' as this is predominantly a brass-led instrumental extravaganza with minimal focus on coherence. The exception is the first section, an airy sing-along piece with soft piano by Ken Tippet, and Jon Anderson's pleasant vocal cords. Strangely addictive and compelling, this couldn't sound more dissimilar to the rest of the piece. 'Bolero' is jazz for people who are scared of jazz, although it can still be pretty intimidating. More jazz-rock than prog-rock, it's nevertheless well performed and emotionally confusing to jazz newcomers. I think I quite like it. At seven minutes, it's not the most concise instrumental offering, but it could have been a lot worse; despite evidence to the contrary, I believe that Fripp seeks to avoid overindulgence in King Crimson.

'The Battle of the Glass Tears' is likely the most intriguing and rewarding part of the entire album upon repeated listens, and I haven't even come close to fully appreciating it. A lengthy piece that opens with dialogue and proceeds to more instrumental fun, the horn section trying to recreate the sound of a battle and its aftermath, this is truly a twentieth-century answer to classical compositions in the same vein. The album ends with the brief 'Big Top,' an unnecessary instrumental reminder of 'Cirkus' that seems more like a desperate attempt to add structure to a crazy album. It may have been more wise and pleasing to end with the final notes of 'Lizard,' but this isn't a major criticism of the album.

Lizard was an overlooked King Crimson album right from the start, released the same year as their eagerly-anticipated sophomore effort and featuring an almost entirely different line-up and musical direction. It would take two more albums for Fripp and friends to finally settle on a direction, and even that brief solidarity would be gone by 1975. The band's first live album, 'USA,' overlooks this album's contribution entirely, although that's forgivable at only six tracks in length. What's more surprising is the complete absence of choice cuts, admittedly few, such as 'Cirkus' and 'Prince Rupert Awakes' being excluded from the numerous official 'best-of' compilations released over the decades, and listed on this site: 'The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson' (1976), 'The Compact King Crimson' (1986), 'The Abbreviated King Crimson' (1991), 'The Concise King Crimson' (1993) and 'A Beginner's Guide to the King Crimson Collector's Club' (1999).

Even the 1999 update of 'The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson,' entitled 'Cirkus' of all things, fails to feature that track. The only appearance of Lizard material outside the album itself comes with the addition of an edited 'Bolero' in the four-disc boxsets 'Frame By Frame: The Essential King Crimson' (1991) and '21st Century Guide: Volume 1' (2004), sneaking its way into the end of disc two. It's perhaps not surprising, given Fripp's own alleged disappointment at the direction of Lizard, but there's enough impressive material here to feature occasionally, rather than endless re-releases of '21st Century Schizoid Man.'

Lizard is a strange and not completely remarkable album in a fairly zany discography, but dedicated prog rock fans should certainly try it out as, chronologically at least, it's one of the genre classics. Jon Anderson's cameo hints at a direction the band could have headed, and indeed seemed to try with the next album, the melodic 'Islands,' before abandoning such leanings completely for the grinding, beautiful noisiness of 'Larks' Tongues in Aspic.' 'Cirkus' is a good song, and the title suite is fun too. The lyrics are intriguing in their customary lack of meaning, and the cover art is nice. I quite like this album.

Frankingsteins | 3/5 |

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