Forget a linear career; there’s nothing stable or logical about the way King Crimson have conducted themselves since forming in 1968. This most exhaustive and exhausting of prog bands have had nearly two dozen full-time members across five decades.
Their mid-70s drummer Bill Bruford once called Crimson “a terrifying place”, and that’s perhaps the best description of the band started by guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles, when their previous band Giles, Giles And Fripp ceased to be of interest to them.
The pair abandoned that trio’s whimsical pop in the pursuit of more headstrong and head-fuck music, and brought in multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, bassist/vocalist Greg Lake and lyricist Pete Sinfield. Since then Fripp has remained the sole constant.
It’s easy to suggest that it’s Fripp’s vision, his drive, that has kept Crimson at the forefront of pioneering yet idiosyncratic music. But he’s done more than that. Understanding that creativity is often born out of turmoil and disagreement, he has often brought in highly talented, strong-minded people.
This has led to a body of work that is not only the envy of many of their peers, but has also become hugely influential. Bands such as Tool and Porcupine Tree have cited Crimson as major inspiration, but they have reached far beyond the progressive world – Kanye West sampled 21st Century Schizoid Man for his 2010 hit Power, and British techno band Opus III covered I Talk To The Wind in 1992.
It’s no wonder the tentacles of Crimson have touched so many disparate artists. They have never stood still and developed in a single direction, instead reaching out through all corridors and textures within music. This has taken them on a journey not only through the usual pastures of jazz, classical, blues and folk, but also across the globe in terms of their reach.
Yet against the odds they have also had some considerable commercial success – eight of their albums have made the UK Top 40. But the band’s success truly lies in the fact that they are best described simply as King Crimson.
In The Court Of The Crimson King (DGM, 1969) (opens in new tab)
Their debut has left an indelible mark on the prog genre. There’s an eerie beauty about the title track and Epitaph that reflects the way Crimson could capture emotion in the small detail of their musical excellence.
Skating away from the usual blues inclinations of the time, the band bring together disparate idioms such as jazz and folk, and give the results their own virtuosic sheen. This records shines with a brightness that makes it one of the most outstanding albums of the era. The care and vision marked out Crimson as occupying their own musical dimension. Nothing else sounds like this.
Red (DGM, 1974) (opens in new tab)
In some ways, it’s astonishing that Crimson’s seventh album was recorded at all. The band were in the throes of breaking apart, and would split up shortly after it was released, ending the first phase of their career.
Red is arguably the heaviest KC album, the title track possessing a driving, agitated force – perhaps because Fripp was rather withdrawn, leaving drummer Bill Bruford and bassist John Wetton to direct the sessions. The result is primitive and, at times, violent. Starless is an epic that twists like a tornado but is always anchored to a brutal ambience. The triumph of Red is the schizoid relationship between civilised freneticism and stark sophistication.
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (DGM, 1973) (opens in new tab)
The birth of the band’s third incarnation marked a change of attitude, as Fripp determined to take Crimson into a more free-form existence. Violinist David Cross was a lynchpin of this new approach, while Jamie Muir’s eccentric percussion expanded opportunities for the musicians to be vividly experimental.
This was most obvious on Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part One), a lengthy instrumental that butts jazz fusion against 20th-century classical excursions and added heavy metal embellishments. It would be the blueprint that would define King Crimson for years to come.
Starless And Bible Black (DGM, 1974) (opens in new tab)
The band faced a writing crisis when percussionist Jamie Muir retreated into a monastery. They solved this dilemma by giving free reign to their musical reflexes.
The resulting album was essentially improvised, and largely recorded live. The title track is taken from a session in Amsterdam. The only two tracks fully laid down in the studio were Only The Great Deceiver and Lament; the former dealt with the march of commercialism, while the latter dealt with fame. The overall impact of the album was refreshing, with the musicians emphasising the revelry of instinct over discipline.
USA (DGM, 1975) (opens in new tab)
A live document of the band’s 1974 US tour, released as Crimson split for the first time – in fact, Fripp ended his sleeve notes on the original version with the stark ‘R.I.P.’ But USA captured the essence of one of their most essential periods.
It opens with the catatonic drone of Walk On… No Pussyfooting, leading into the aggressive jolt of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part Two). The rest of the set underlined the magnitude of Crimson’s superiority as both musical magi and a primal force. Some of David Cross’s violin parts had to be overdubbed in the studio by Eddie Jobson, but that
THRAK (DGM, 1995) (opens in new tab)
The band’s first new album for more than a decade was created by a line-up that Fripp dubbed a “double trio”. The result was very dense, but never alienating.
It’s fascinating to hear how the six musicians would set themselves up in varied ways. At times, as on the title track, it sounded like a battle between two trios, playing off against each other in a musical war. But on Dinosaur they all worked in a restless unison. Here, the percussive instincts of Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto set up a dark structure within which Fripp played a freaky, outlandish guitar solo. It’s an intensely charismatic recording.
Lizard (DGM, 1970) (opens in new tab)
An oddball KC album. Not only did the line-up that recorded it never play live, but also bassist/vocalist Gordon Haskell later admitted he was uncomfortable with the way the album turned out. Maybe part of the reason was because Indoor Games concludes with his uncontrollable laughter, because he thought Sinfield’s lyrics were ludicrous.
Elsewhere, Happy Family is about The Beatles (opens in new tab)’ break-up, even nodding towards the Fabs’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Jon Anderson (opens in new tab) guests on the title track, which is the longest studio track Crimson have ever recorded. The album’s jazz feel and its perverse idiosyncrasies alienated some fans, though.
Discipline (DGM, 1981 (opens in new tab)
After a seven-year hiatus, King Crimson returned with a revamped line-up. Only Fripp and Bill Bruford remained from the previous era, joined by former David Bowie (opens in new tab) guitarist Adrian Belew and bassist/Stick maestro Tony Levin.
Fully aware of the way music had changed while they’d been away, Crimson adapted to modern tastes, mixing jazz rock with a new-wave approach – something best encapsulated in the way Fripp and Belew’s wildly differing guitar styles complemented one another. The result was 70s prog meets 80s art rock, and as such it seemed to be a linear extension of what Fripp had done the previous year with his short-lived League Of Gentlemen (opens in new tab).
Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With (DGM, 2002) (opens in new tab)
This is an EP that’s more than just something to fill in time until the next album. It has a self-contained individuality, highlighting the relationship the band enjoy with contemporary icons. The title track pinpoints the way Crimson have inspired modern artists such as Tool, yet also shows Fripp’s ability to soak up influences from them.
There are also strangely contemplative narratives from Belew on Bude and She Shudders, which use an effect to make his monologues sound eerily robotic. Eyes Wide Open is vulnerably poignant, while Mie Gakure is a sharply
And one to avoid...
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Three Of A Perfect Pair (DGM, 1984) (opens in new tab)
No King Crimson album is bad, but this one is worth leaving until you’ve indulged in the rest of their back catalogue. Here the band did try to make their sound more palatable for the mainstream, although claims at the time that they were looking for pop success were hardly true.
While the more obvious melodic leanings are offset by some brusque experimentation, nothing works quite as well as it did on its predecessor-but-one, Discipline (they were separated by 1982’s Beat). The soundscape instrumental Industry is worth considering, but the album is strained. No wonder they split, for a decade, shortly afterwards.