Island Records, 1973

Recorded over a year after Islands and with a completely new lineup, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic takes King Crimson in an entirely new direction. Not only had Robert Fripp dismissed Collins, Burrell, and Ian Wallace, he also parted company with lyricist Pete Sinfield who had provided the words for all four previous Crimson albums.

The new lineup, mad percussionist Jamie Muir, drummer Bill Bruford nicked from an unsatisfying stint in Yes (here he is with Yes in ‘71), violinist David Cross and bassist/vocalist John Wetton (longtime friend of Fripp’s who had declined an invitation to join KC in two years before). Violin? Those strings on Islands and their possibilities possibly sent the band in an interesting new direction with the choice of Cross. And taking over lyrics, poet Richard Palmer-James who would continue to provide words for the next two albums as well. The album consists of three instrumentals, the first part of the title track opens the album followed by three songs with words, Book of Saturdays, Exiles, and Easy Money and closes with Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II. Palmer-James’ lyrics don’t seem to be thematically linked the way Sinfield’s were, especially on the first three albums. One should also note that there’s no embarrassment listening or quoting the words from this album. They’re penetrable or impenetrable as good poetry most of the time.

I got into this album in the 90s when it was recommended by my wife’s violin teacher. KC had a fiddler? Who knew? (At the time, I probably had Red, Court, Discipline, and Beat, but I wasn’t a collector.) Since then, it’s been my go-to perfect King Crimson album. It didn’t hurt that live recordings from the early Adrian Belew period also feature LTIA Part II, which along with Red and occasionally Talking Drum are the only Wetton-era songs that made it into the set lists when he fronted the band. One of the joys of the current line-up is that they’re not only playing LTIA Part II, but also Easy Money and LTIA Part I. (Not to mention several goodies from the first four albums which benefit from Mel Collins’ return to the fold.)

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I announces that a new KC is in town. On the one hand, it’s a multi-part epic of uncompromising, unrelenting noise, but midway through, Cross steps up with no accompaniment at all to deliver an elegy in four strings to which Muir adds bells and some noise and then the song turns again into something else entirely before the opening theme reasserts itself. Fripp and company continue to play with jazz structures, but it’s not jazz that’s found anywhere else. (Yeah, I know, save for in the Crimson Jazz Trio.) There’s something spoken in the back of the song near the end, but for the life of me I can’t make it out.

Following the crashing conclusion of the opening track, Book of Saturdays pulls the mood into almost love song territory. The instrumentation starts with some mellotron which blend really nicely with the violin, and Wetton uses his voice to very good effect. The vocal harmonies at the end of the song are oddly the only musical accents that place this album in its time. The music for the first time in the KC journey is only KC and not folk or prog or jazz. It’s like few other albums in that regard. Wish You Were Here, maybe? Bitches Brew?

Exiles starts with what sound like notes played from underwater and the sound of a distant whale (to my ears). A low drone from Cross introduces the theme. Wetton’s voice is more distinct than those of previous KC vocalists, though I feel an outside producer, especially on this song, would have kept his singing more focused. (Of course an outside producer, in my opinion, would have ruined everything else that makes this such a brilliant album.) There are places that he almost hits the note, but doesn’t quite. It’s a little frustrating. The violin work is essential to the success of the song – one could probably argue that it’s essential to the success of the whole album. David Cross still has it as a centerpiece of his live shows. (The guy on the horns in this video is David Jackson from Van Der Graaf Generator. I was at this gig and absolutely baffled that there were only about 150 people in the audience. Two absolute legends and the Netherlands says ‘meh’.)

Side 2 opens with Easy Money – it’s got the heavy guitar lines we’ve come to expect from the rockier pieces on previous albums, but the song features greater dynamics. This is another track where the violin is key to the whole tune.

After Easy Money, The Talking Drum’s quiet introduction marks it as the odd song out on the album. It only really picks up about two minutes into the action. Along with the other instrumentals on the album, it really marks what become the King Crimson style – the odd time signatures, the intertwining repetitions. The thing is, there’s nowhere else to put it on the album because its conclusion leads right into the opening notes of Larks’ Tongues Part II. It’s one of the great song pairings in rock and roll.

There’s still no describing LTIA Part II – I’ve heard versions by multiple King Crimson lineups and several versions by Stick Men and Crimson ProjeKct as well.Yeah, I know, those other two are just variations on KC, but the song always has a surprise to offer. For me it perfectly rounds out an almost perfect album. 5 stars? Pretty much.

ETA: 23 March 2018 marks the 45th anniversary of the release of this album and there’s a great article on its creation over at dgmlive. Check it out.

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