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King Crimson


Review by Julie Knispel

King Crimson’s Islands album (1971) marked two milestones. On one hand, it was the band’s return to live performance, as Crimson had not played any live shows since December of 1969. On the other hand, it marked the end of the first phase of the band’s career, as stresses and interpersonal conflict would cause the group to break with lyricist Peter Sinfield (who had been with them since their founding) before finally imploding from differing musical directions and influences prior to a final US tour (which the band did out of contractual obligation). The Islands band has always been seen in a poorer light than other Crimson lineups. While bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell was not incredibly skilled on bass when compared to Greg Lake or John Wetton, one must remember that he was just learning the instrument at the time, being taught by Robert Fripp out of necessity. Ian Wallace was a strong drummer, adept at light jazz drumming and more solid rock beat as well. Mel Collins has always been, for this reviewer, the most solid sax/flute player in Crimson’s history, while Fripp began moving toward more of an individual take on what Crimson music would evolve into. Throughout this lineup’s brief time on the stage, the band would radically reinvent earlier catalogue material, while jams (more rock/blues based than future improvisations) would develop material that saw fruition on later albums such as Larks Tongues in Aspic.

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Track by Track Review
Formentera Lady
String bass and flute open “Formentera Lady,” a gentle piece which gives us our first opportunity to hear future Bad Company member Burrell singing on a Crimson record. His vocals are serviceable if not spectacular. Ian Wallace locks in easily with Burrell’s bass line (which is essentially a 2 or 3 note pulse), while we hear more of the elusive Fripp acoustic guitar on this piece. The song builds to an extended instrumental section with soprano vocalise and loads of horn work. As the instrumental section develops, motifs that would build the core of “Sailor’s Tale” begin to develop, and the two tracks intertwine nicely, creating one “suite” nearly 18 minutes in length.
Sailor's Tale
“Sailor’s Tale” is perhaps this lineup’s signature piece. Building thematically from material on the previous “Formentera Lady,” the song starts with brushes on choked hi hat before Robert Fripp’s keening, tortured fuzz guitar harmonizes with crying sax lines from Mel Collins. This composition offers some of Fripp’s most inspired guitar playing on any Crimson album to this point, and is a signpost pointing toward what future Crimson listeners would hear as the band reformed and reconstituted itself.
The Letters
Long time Crimson listeners will recognize in “The Letters” musical themes that the band worked with live in 1969 on their track “Drop In.” Musically much the same here, albeit more restrained and less rock-based, the song is a tale of love and betrayal, with some of Peter Sinfield’s strongest lyrics to date.
Ladies of the Road
Where “The Letters” was restrained despite its bitterness, “Ladies of the Road” is full on misogyny, a verse by verse recognition of the groupies that “sustain” certain physical needs for travel-weary musicians. While the sleazy beat, raunchy horns and vocal delivery perfectly match the song, it’s a piece that shows a side of King Crimson perhaps better left unexplored. Despite its inclusion on a large number of King Crimson compilations (perhaps due to its shorter length as much as any other factor), it is not a composition indicative of the best of what King Crimson has to offer.
Prelude: Song of the Gulls
The band proper gets a breather on this short classical composition. Fairly simple in construction, it is a fragile and plaintive piece offering Fripp’s extensive list of guest musicians (Keith Tippett, Paulina Lucas, Robin Miller, Marc Charig, Harry Miller) an opportunity to shine on a pretty chamber piece. It serves as an excellent opener for the epic that follows.
The album’s title track is the final epic of the “symphonic” era of King Crimson, and is for this reviewer their most solid effort. Burrell’s fragile, broken vocals suit the song well, with lyrics from Peter Sinfield positing that man is, in fact, an island, cut adrift and often totally alone in a sea of humanity and society. Gentle washes of mellotron, horns and piano, and a pulsing beat allow the song to build and develop in a natural, almost organic manner. It ends with an elegiac cor Anglais voluntary and sustained organ chords, fading gradually into silence. A minute or so later one hears studio chatter, as an unlisted “bonus track” of a conductor (Fripp) counting time and musicians rustling around breaks the silence and the mood.
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