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Thursday, January 25, 2018

King Crimson: Lizard

KING CRIMSON: LIZARD (1970)

1) Cirkus (Including Entry Of The Chameleons); 2) Indoor Games; 3) Happy Family; 4) Lady Of The Dancing Water; 5) Lizard: Prince Rupert Awakes / Bolero – The Peacock's Tale / The Battle Of Glass Tears / Big Top.

General verdict: King Crimson trying to be Yes or ELP does not work nearly as well as trying to be King Crimson.

At least Lizard nominally satisfies the definition of «progressive» — while it retains a lot of thematic links to the previous two albums, it also represents a conscious effort to shake up and rearrange the Crimson King formula. More complex and even more unpredictable than its elders, this is Fripp's bold attempt to drag the band into the as-of-yet unploughed fields of symph-prog and jazz-prog at the same time; and so, on one hand, you see Keith Tippett assuming a much larger role in the music-making process, and on the other, witness guest stars such as Jon Ander­son grace the studio with their solid mental presence. On the average, few progressive rock bands can be more dissimilar than Yes and King Crimson, but as late as 1970, Fripp was not completely sure about that himself.

In the days of my barely-tolerant-for-prog youth, I used to hate Lizard as one of the quint­essential examples of how progressive rock can go really, really wrong when experimental rule-breaking trumps over powerful melody and pleasant harmony. These days, I can think of plenty of records that commit that crime to a much higher degree than Lizard, and find that I am able to enjoy quite a few chunks of the album without much effort. But even so, looking at Lizard (and Islands, but we will get to that in its own time) from the contextual perspective of albums that surround it from both sides, I cannot get rid of the feeling that the whole thing was a tentative detour into territory where Fripp could find little inspiration — territory that should rather have been left for the likes of, say, Gentle Giant.

Because, like the stereotypical Gentle Giant, Lizard meanders between folk (including medieval folk and early folk-based classical) and modern jazz influences, but in a half-assed way. Once again, without McDonald Fripp is forced to play most of the Mellotrons himself, and he does not show the same love for the instrument as Ian did. And without Lake, the task of singing all the violent and all the tender bits falls to Gordon Haskell, and he does little else beside simply hitting the notes correctly. And without a clear-cut agenda, there is no feel of true musical passion flowing from this incarnation of the band: nobody seems capable of writing or recording even a single musical «theme for the ages».

On paper, the moods and themes of the compositions largely stay the same — epic-apocalyptic in the vein of ʽSchizoid Manʼ, tender-melancholic after the recipe of ʽI Talk To The Windʼ, and (latest addition) sneering-ironic in accordance with the formula of ʽCat Foodʼ. By 1973, they would pretty much scrap the tender-melancholic from the setlist, but the other two moods would remain; yet they would also be done with so much more fervor and dedication on Larks' Tongues In Aspic that I cannot help wondering if Fripp did not actually sleepwalk through much of these sessions. (Admittedly, Fripp himself seems to be wondering about the same thing: accor­ding to him, he did not really perceive the results as meaningful until the Steven Wilson remix of the album in 2009, and I am not sure if the statement was completely sincere or more of a pat on the back in Wilson's general direction).

The opening track, ʽCirkusʼ, is probably the finest of the lot, but that is not saying much: its main point of attraction is the ominous siren-like riff that oozes out of the magic box like an evil genie after each new verse-rant from Haskell. The piece features a complex arrangement that mixes folk rhythms, Spanish lead guitars, jazz saxes, and Sinfield's ever more convoluted poetic imagery in one big melting pot — this ridiculous world of ours as a circus arena — but as far as satisfying that ambitious goal is concerned, it is surprisingly inefficient. Mel Collins' saxes are just swirling around in soft improvisational patterns without making much of a difference, Spanish guitars buzz around like annoying insects, and the steady mid-tempo crawl of the song lulls and dulls attention. At their best, King Crimson jolt you with electric current or hold you in a tight grip of ever-rising tension; ʽCirkusʼ plods on smoothly and atmospherically, with little by way of peaks and valleys.

This attitude prevails for the rest of the album, except that most other tracks do not even have that spooky siren turn-on. Ten minutes on the first side are given over to post-ʽCat Foodʼ social criticism, with jazzy time signatures and distorted saxes taking on the figurative role of punches at bourgeois values — I am amused, actually, at how closely the vocal melody of ʽIndoor Gamesʼ trails the one of the Stones' ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ (amazing if this were just a coincidence), but the track on the whole is just too soft and quiet throughout to register in memory: more about the groove than any solid melodic theme. ʽHappy Familyʼ is better, as it actually picks up steam towards the end, with some fairly hot interplay between Tippett and (surprise) Peter Sinfield him­self on the VCS3 synthesizer. But still, on the whole everything goes on in murmury-grumbly mode: the tracks slowly shuffle on with all players and singers holding back, almost as if they were trying not to offend the sleeping neighbours or something. Appropriately, the side ends with ʽLady Of The Dancing Waterʼ, a pleasant and utterly forgettable folk ballad where acoustic guitar, flute, and Gordon "I Know How To Sing" Haskell briefly meet, tip their hats to each other, and part ways even more nonchalantly than they did on ʽCadence And Cascadeʼ.

For the second side, Fripp and Sinfield have reserved their one and only stab at a side-long epic: ʽLizardʼ is King Crimson's ʽTarkusʼ, ʽClose To The Edgeʼ, and ʽSupper's Readyʼ at the same time, and it sorely loses to all three of those. Again, the only part of it that somehow clings to memory is the opening art-pop section where they invited Jon Anderson — the singalong-style chorus, about staking a Lizard by the throat, is catchy, though arguably one of the least King Crimsonian things in King Crimson history, perhaps more suitable for the Bee Gees or Bob Welch's Fleet­wood Mac (I can just picture Robert, hands above the head, going: "ALL TOGETHER NOW! SING IT! WAKE YOUR REASON'S HOLLOW VOTE!..."). After that, the suite goes through a variety of sections — jazzish, rockish, folkish, there's even a bit that is melodically reminiscent of ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ and prescient of ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspicʼ at the same time — and I cannot even accuse it of a lack of cohesion; on the contrary, there is perhaps too much cohesion, and too little contrast and development, not to mention a thorough lack of energy.

I am not saying that under different conditions Lizard could not have been done right. The underlying ideas and concepts are okay — so in the future, Fripp and Co. would cut out most of the folk / classical components of the formula, but on Court, the formula worked perfectly with these components. But King Crimson is primarily the brainchild of Fripp, and even though Fripp is credited with all of the songwriting, I discern surprisingly little of Fripp himself in this music: for one thing, his decision to cut down on guitar parts and play a lot of the keyboards was horren­dously wrong, and for another thing, Lizard is unjustifiedly democratic — too much space given over to Collins, Tippett, Haskell, and Sinfield's poetic ramblings (some people like to spend time decoding the symbolist meaning of his lyrics, but even if it turned out that they all represent one bigass anagram of The Book Of The Dead, I doubt that would influence my, or your, subcon­scious reaction to the music). All in all, a fairly common opinion is that, at the time of recording of Lizard, Fripp himself had very little understanding of where he wanted King Crimson to go, and while sometimes music made in a chaotic-transitional period can reflect a certain confused charm of this period, Robert Fripp is not Keith Richards, and he works best when his mind is perfectly well-oiled, rather than hazy and disconcerted. I mean, no offense, but you'd really have to be under the influence to invite Jon Anderson to sing on a King Crimson album. That's like, having Paul McCartney sing on a Stones album.

4 comments:

  1. You've certainly mellowed toward Haskell over the years!

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  2. I'm surprised to read that there is *no* memorable musical theme, since I think that the 'Bolero' section of the title track, just after the Anderson part, is transcendent! The main theme is gorgeous and the brass/woodwind players and Tippett are outstanding. It has that quintessential Crimson movement of vulnerable beauty to tension and back.

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    Transitional is right. Fripp breaks away more from the formula of the past and seems slightly more comfortable in the ringleader role, orchestrating the others into place. I agree about the lack of direction, though. It doesn't feel like a group album (and indeed no live shows for this line-up).

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    The album cover is fun, and I like the marbled look of the interior.

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    Very acquired taste. I like the feeling of chaos, even if it is rather mannered chaos.

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    1. I would say that the first half of 'Bolero', while pretty, would later be redone with much more tension and efficiency on 'Starless'. But after two minutes, it just disintegrates into free jazz noodling - which might be pleasing, but hardly memorable.

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  3. Used to like to get high and listen to this one. Pretty mellow trip for Crimson.

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