This page collects my reviews of King Crimson studio albums. As a bonus, we’ll start with my review of the proto-King Crimson band Giles, Giles and Fripp’s one and only album. But I’m not including all the ProjeKct records because I don’t have the time or interest.
1968: The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp (7/10)
This bonkers album is probably only known because Michael Giles and Robert Fripp went on to form King Crimson. Without Crimson, I cannot imagine too many people would be aware of this record.
The music, which is ostensibly divided into two suites – that, or the record’s sides are merely named – is all over the place. Sometimes it’s relatively straight ahead pop rock, sometimes its heavily influenced by art music. (You can imagine which is more immediately accessible.) But all the songs are pretty damn short – not Red Krayola short, but very short – so that even the weirdest ideas are here and gone fast enough that if you don’t like it they move on to something else.
The lyrics are surprisingly above average, and frankly I am pleasantly surprised. I suspected that members of this band, who had later relied on professional lyricists to write their lyrics, would have written terrible lyrics. That seems not to be the case. No, they’re nothing special, but they’re definitely better than your average 1968 lyrics, especially from a band so consciously quirky. (Sometimes they are funny!)
The arrangements and performances are what you come for. All three musicians are excellent, as you know. Fripp is already very much Fripp, showing off his incredible technique – if not quite yet his willingness to be different – on a couple songs. Also, some session musicians are here to liven things up. (Fripp and Nicky Hopkins have a neat little duel at one point.) The vocals are less consistent, with spoken word parts appearing multiple times.
The songs aren’t consistent enough but, on the whole, this record is far better than most of the other one-off records made by failed groups in the 1960s. It’s full of interesting, often not entirely fleshed out, musical ideas and it’s mostly free of the terrible “freak out” style of production that psychedelic bands felt compelled to cover their songs in at the time.
1969: In the Court of the Crimson King (10/10)
Progressive rock had existed, to some degree or another, for well over a year. Perhaps it had existed for two years, if you’re willing to pretend that some psychedelic rock interspersed with some orchestral bits qualifies as prog rock. Either way, it was a very nascent genre, conventions were just being established and nearly every band that put out music which could be labeled “progressive” also included clearly psychedelic music (and sometimes other genres) on that same record. You might say that progressive rock could still be thought of as a spin off or even a subgenre of psychedelic rock at this point.
This record changed that. Five tracks in just over 40 minutes – find another rock album from this time with five long tracks – all but one with distinct sections just arbitrarily inserted. A heavy use of non-rock instruments (jazz ones, particularly) with nary a sitar to be found. And an electronic keyboard used as a lead melodic instrument on the title track. From this point on, progressive rock was a distinct genre from psychedelic music – it was more ambitious for sure but it also far more indebted to classical music and jazz than “eastern” musical ideas.
Other bands invented prog; King Crimson defined it.
King Crimson albums from 1970:
In the Wake of Poseidon (9/10)
Full disclosure: King Crimson is one of the bands that “changed my life” on a musical level and they remain among my favourites. I have trouble being objective about them. I’m trying, but it’s probably not possible.
We should remember that this album was made by a band that wasn’t really a band at all: Michael Giles and Lake were essentially getting pay checks, as was Peter Giles, and Collins and Tippett were only seemingly involved; almost all of this is Fripp (and Sinfield), and Fripp before he abandoned his tendency for shitty ballads.
The decision to split up the ballads from the more chaotic music here may have made sense at the time, but it sort of hurts how the album aged, I think. “Peace” doesn’t so much unify the album as remind us that we’re not listening to the angrier, more violent side of the band. Those pieces are still a lot easier to take than “Cadence and Cascade” and don’t really weaken the album I’d just prefer more “rock”, if you know what I mean.
I understand the criticism that this is kind of repeating the debut, but I’d argue that the best tracks here are superior to the best tracks on the debut, even if they are retreading the same space. “Pictures of the City” is my candidate for the best thing this version of the band ever did – if you can even say this is the same lineup as the debut – and “The Devil’s Triangle” remains one of the most daring rock adaptations of Romantic music that I’ve ever heard. Also, they never recorded anything like “Cat Food” ever again. It’s for those three things – and the title track, I guess, even though I like it less – that I would recommend this and say it’s still pretty essential prog.
I mean look at the year this came out. Prog was still barely a thing. ELP was an idea, Genesis didn’t know what they wanted to do, Tull were still essentially making hard rock, the Floyd were still including psychedelia and folk on their records and Yes was just getting started. I mean, aside from Crimson, I can think of maybe two or three other bands releasing music in 1970 that could be truly considered to be this “progressive.”
The third Crimson record is the second straight without a proper band, with Fripp and Sinfield relying on session musicians. (And two of those musicians did not like the music.) But a number of the shorter tracks are still early Crimson classics (save the ballad), especially “Cirkus,” which features incredible acoustic guitar playing by Fripp.
The biggest problem is the title track, Crimson’s one and only stab at that prog rock staple/requirement, the side-long piece. “Lizard” just feels like a couple of different pieces stuck together. And the final one goes on way too long. It’s certainly not up to the standard of contemporary efforts by the Floyd and Van Der Graaf Generator.
The other problem is this sort of feels like the same old album, for yet a third time, albeit with weaker material.
But given all that, it’s still pretty good, albeit definitely for fans only.
1971: Islands (7?/10)
Review lost to time but among my least favourite of their records. Read my other reviews for 1971 albums.
1973: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (10/10)
Like listeners of the day, I heard this record after first listening to earlier Crimson releases, and it was shocking. In hindsight, it’s clear that this was Crimson’s first sign that they weren’t like the other prog bands, they would actually evolve.
The result of this evolution (a completely new band) is a dramatic left turn into modernism, hard rock, funk and free improvisation, harder and more “rock” than just about any other prog rock being made at the time and harder than all but the hardest early Crimson. It’s the beginning (or nearly the beginning) of Crimson’s inspiration for math rock and it’s likely one of the founts of progressive metal as well.
As the only record with Muir, it’s also got a weirdness to it – and a dense percussive sound world – that is unlike any other Crimson record.
Their best album or very close to it, and one of the great progressive rock albums ever.
Albums King Crimson released in 1974:
Starless and Bible Black (10/10)
Despite the sudden departure of Muir and the lack of material this record is even better than the previous one. The lack of prepared material forced them to mine their live performances and the decision ends up working wonders, as they are vibrant and even more forceful than what this band had managed in the studio previously. Even the softest, slowest peace feels inspired.
And then there’s the influence: I don’t know when exactly math rock was born, but if it was born in the 1980s, as it likely was, then this record can be counted as one of the forefathers, particularly on “Fracture,” the mathiest thing Crimson had yet recorded, but on some other tracks as well.
This is loud, forceful, expertly played prog rock that managed to be both louder and more daunting than the vast majority of other prog being made at the time. One of the essential prog rock records.
This has long been my favourite King Crimson album. For so long that when I read reviews of it on Allmusic way back when I would get apoplectic not understanding how it was considered their least good of this era. (I believe their biographer feels differently, as do many fans.)
As usual, the band was falling apart and, as usual, they managed to make magic despite that (or because of it). Cross is still here on one track – despite quitting – and former members join in as well as former sidemen. Overdubs are used aplenty. The result is a sound far bigger than a trio could conceivably produce, featuring plenty of star turns from the guests.
This record features two of my favourite Crimson songs, er, compositions, “Fallen Angel”, perhaps my favourite “song” of theirs, and “Starless”, which features one of my favourite moments in their catalogue and one of my favourite Fripp performances. (Also, the story of Starless and Bible Black and its title track and “Starless” is really bizarre and gives you a glimpse into how arbitrary their process was.)
Though I have long been a fan of prog, this is one of the few prog rock albums I can listen to over and over and over again without getting bored and without at least thinking about skipping tracks. (I don’t do that as a rule, but there are plenty of prog rock albums, including more than a few King Crimson albums, where I at least think about it.)
It’s certainly not their most important record, and it would probably be hard to make a case for it being their best – unless you made an argument about the consistency of the material – but it is my favourite.
1981: Discipline (10/10)
At one point, the idea of progressive rock wasn’t just a particular genre of music, it was the idea of moving rock music forward into new areas. But by 1981 most of the Big 6 prog rock bands had long stopped trying to do that. To wit:
- ELP barely existed as a functioning band
- Genesis had fully embraced pop music
- Jethro Tull put out the same album over and over again
- King Crimson didn’t exist any more
- Pink Floyd was in the process of drastically altering their sound to the extent that they would soon nearly break up
- Yes had gone through so many lineup changes as to be a totally different band, and were trying to make their sound more accessible.
So for Discipline to decide to carry on the moniker of King Crimson with this radical, “progressive” record, that takes New Wave to new places, incorporates gamelan and just generally sounds like nothing before it, is something really cool. (Is this the birth of Math Rock? Probably.) King Crimson always played around with the limits of their sound, but this is not something that sounds like the same band. (Of course, it really isn’t the same band at all.)
An incredibly inventive combination of new wave and prog rock without equal, I say. Also, possibly the birth of math rock.
1982: Beat (8/10)
Beat really does feel like a retread of Discipline to me. I don’t quite mean that as a criticism as nobody else was making music like this at the time and it’s still very, very well performed, but it sort of feels like Discipline 2. ’70s Crimson gets you used to the idea that every record will be different.
I still like this a lot, it just feels like it’s not quite breaking new ground.
1984: Three of a Perfect Pair (6/10)
Listening to this record, it’s no wonder they broke up for nearly a decade. I can hear the strain.
On the one hand we have Belew songs, one of which is alright, but most of which are really subpar, and on the other hand we have the improvisations. They are at war. Worse, they are mostly divided by side, so that we start with what feels like a borderline Belew solo album as performed by ’80s King Crimson, followed by what we think Crimson might actually want to sound like.
These competing tendencies were well combined on Discipline and Beat (and when they reunited in the 1990s) but here they don’t work.
My favourite song is literally the joke barbershop quartet bonus track. Everything else feels like a pale imitation of a formerly great band.
That being said: would I rather listen to this than Hair Metal or Synth Pop or the New Romantics or Yacht Rock? You’re damn right I would.
[Editor’s note: that rating should feels too high for this review, doesn’t it?]
1995: Thrak (7/10)
The first proper King Crimson studio album in a decade once again shows the band as unwilling to rest on their laurels, as unwilling to just keep playing music from their past. (Unlike, say, Yes.)
Gone are most of the influences from the various iterations of the band in the ’70s. (I mean, for the most part, as this is still a prog rock band playing prog rock, but there’s no obvious influence from Romantic music or Third Stream, for example.) And gone is the heavy new wave influence from the ’80s version of the band. These influences are replaced by some alternative rock influences – perhaps a light NIN-style industrial influence too – art rock influences, electronic influences and some other more contemporary things.
And the whole thing is combined in the bizarre “double trio” stew where sometimes half the band is playing one thing and the other half is playing something else, and sometimes they both play the same thing (and sometimes it just sort of sounds like it…)
As late-career reinventions go, this is pretty good: it still sounds vaguely like (’80s) King Crimson, but it doesn’t sound like they are trying to relive their past (unlike its sequel).
2000: The Construkction of Light (6/10)
I initially liked this album a fair amount – I felt it was more proof of their willingness to try to stay current (musically, at least), unlike the other Big Six. I didn’t really get bothered by the super self-referential lyrics.
But as I got older, those lyrics started to bother me. As did the “sequels” to “Larks’…” and the reimagining of other old material.
The band can still play extraordinarily well but, with reflection, this feels like the first time they’d run out of new ideas since, say, 1972. And that’s too bad.
2003: The Power to Believe (???/10)
I haven’t listened to this! Sacrilege!