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Thursday, February 8, 2018

King Crimson: Islands

KING CRIMSON: ISLANDS (1971)

1) Formentera Lady; 2) Sailor's Tale; 3) The Letters; 4) Ladies Of The Road; 5) Prelude: Song Of The Gulls; 6) Islands.

General verdict: No focus, no energy, no cohesion, too much Sinfield, too little Fripp, and a guy from Bad Company.

I will probably not offend anybody's senses by saying that this album, closing out the first big chapter in King Crimson history, is the least «Crimsonian» album ever made, even if all the tracks on it are still dutifully credited to Robert Fripp. Naturally, this does not mean that it is unrecognizable as a King Crimson album or incompatible with all other King Crimson albums; it is just that it seems to digress very much from the vaguely firm core set of values we typically associate with King Crimson. And, of course, it has to be understood that in 1971, there was as of yet no core set of values associated with King Crimson, simply because King Crimson had only existed for three years as a band, and as a revolving-door band at that. But now that we are in a comfortably located retrospective position, I think it is a fairly safe bet to say that Islands, like it or not, sticks out worse than a sore thumb on Robert Fripp's right hand after ten successive hours of rehearsing ʽDisciplineʼ.

Granted, the band was in really poor shape at the time. The new lead vocalist and bass player, Boz Burrell, was a poor bass player (they had to pick him on emergency notice due to their previous bass player jumping ship all of a sudden) and a half-decent singer, more suitable for tender balladry than adventurous prog-rock. Fripp was still doubling on guitars and keyboards, torn between the two and not doing his best at either. Sales were dwindling, and so was critical and fan interest after they'd failed to up the antes on In The Court twice in a row. Most impor­tantly, there was a growing rift between Fripp and Sinfield on whether the band should go in a harder or softer direction — with a resulting compromise that, as it often happens with compro­mises in art, ultimately satisfied no one.

Like Lizard, Islands is not horrid, but it is even more shapeless. Most of the songs have very little by way of backbone — typically, they are presented as atmospheric pieces, without any memorable main themes and without any inbuilt sense of development. The bulkiest pieces are, in fact, more of a cross between mood jazz and impressionist classical, with heavy emphasis on pianos, saxophones, and woodwinds, exploring a variety of modes and styles: ʽFormentera Ladyʼ putting a folksy / medieval spin on the proceedings, and the title track, with its chamber introduc­tion (ʽSong Of The Gullsʼ), a slightly more baroque one, eventually transitioning into full-on impressionist mode.

Honestly, I do not know what to make of either of them. Notwithstanding some grinning double bass experiments on ʽFormentera Ladyʼ, this is some of the softest and nicest music in the KC catalog, and, frankly, for soft and nice I would rather go to a band like Renaissance, to which this style comes so much more naturally. As a symbolist-romantic crooner, Boz Burrell is even less impressive than Haskell — his singing is generic and stiff, and it hardly feels as if he really liked or understood Sinfield's convoluted imagery. The wordless siren soprano of Paulina Lucas on the first track (ʽFormentera Ladyʼ clearly refers to Sirens) is much better, but at the precise point when the track slips from light to dark mood and the strings, woodwinds, and vocals conspire to make you feel lost and confused in a creepy magical environment, you realize that their touch is just too soft to reach that goal. Like, where's the guitar, man? Why is Mel Collins impersonating Coltrane in the background? Does Boz Burrell ever take more than two notes on his instrument? And why the heck should we even bother when we have, oh, I dunno, Amon Düül II's Yeti, for instance, if we ever feel the need to take a trip through a somber, threatening landscape?

The title track is even more disappointing. It is not that difficult to write a pretty romantic ballad that gradually rises to an epic climax — but apparently not if you are in free-form impressionist mode and, like Keith Tippett here, impersonate a Debussy on tranquilizers. Mark Charig's cornet solo, coming in to take the song towards a crescendo of sorts, is way too lively and disruptive in comparison. I can see where some people might like the effect, but every time I remember that the person responsible for this elegant slop is Robert motherfuckin' Fripp, my hand automatically stretches out to recover the query «Robert Fripp on drugs» from my Google search requests (no, allegedly he never did any, but come on, surely there must have been something... at least a minor sleeping pill addiction, no? really? come on!).

The three shorter tracks in between are a bit more reassuring. ʽSailor's Taleʼ, logically expanding on the Siren theme of ʽFormentera Ladyʼ, is the best of these — a seven-minute jam with some of the record's best guitar work (rather awfully produced, though); you only have to make your way through a couple minutes of more ugly saxes to find yourself in the middle of a nicely brewed Fripp thunderstorm (and the Mellotron support ain't no slouch, either); too bad this particular track could not have made it onto In The Wake Of Poseidon, because, honestly, it sounds much more like a real wake of Poseidon than the inferior ʽEpitaphʼ clone of the same name. ʽThe Lettersʼ is an odd murder ballad that needs more Greg Lake, but also needs to be less reminis­cent of ʽMoonchildʼ in terms of chords and tones. Finally, ʽLadies Of The Roadʼ is really the odd one out — a twisted blues-rocker about roadies, occasionally interrupted by waltzing sections, a song that rather belongs to the catalog of 10cc than King Crimson. (I'm sure Godley and Creme would have taken this one off Bob's hands in a jiffy).

In short, if there was ever a moment of total confusion in the King Crimson camp, this one's it. From pastoral landscapes to guitar thunderstorms to sexist rockers to baroque instrumentals, Islands does it all, and does it all poorly. Most importantly, this does not even sound like a real band getting their act together: more like an overdubbed collage where each musician does his own thing without paying any attention to the others — and it is not even clear what that own thing is in each particular case. In history, Islands has gone down as one of the most poorly rated King Crimson albums, and I have to join the consensus: I cannot imagine the situation where I'd want to reach for even a single one of its songs to satisfy my King Crimson fix. That this version of the (non-)band never survived the ensuing tour was, as far as I'm concerned, a historical inevi­tability — and a blessing for us all. Imagine Boz Burrell and Mel Collins staying in the band, and there'd never be a Larks' Tongues In Aspic. Never!

15 comments:

  1. funny thing is, this particular incarnation was really great live, as if they suddenly found some energy. also, Boz's version of Cirkus is absolutely amazing

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  2. Boz and Ian Wallace have been gone for years, but Mel Collins is present and correct in the current KC lineup.

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  3. Your new color-coded reviews are a lot harsher than the old ones lol. Everything okay, Georgie? Mostly agree on this album though I wouldn't call any of it bad. It's mostly pleasant with a few great moments.

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  4. I think this is pretty good, and a significant improvement on both Poseidon and Lizard. The only weakness is Sinfield’s awful lyrics; it’s a shame he wasn’t sacked a bit earlier. I can’t stand Lake’s voice, so Boz doesn’t really bother me in comparison.

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  5. This review is so bitter and frankly, poppycock! I saw this lineup on their last gig, Apr 1 1972, B’ham Alabama, at 16. I still remember it as though it occurred last week. It was magical.
    First of all you’re so wrong about Boz’ voice! It’s subtle and intimate but he was capable of heavier fare as well. The song Islands is a masterpiece, and one of the three greatest KC songs, for me, along with Epitaph and Starless. It’s gentle beauty is totally lost on you. Why the need to trash so harshly!? The peace it brings is so beautiful... and Boz is a big part of that.

    The soprano is the worst part on the record. Her voice is lovely and I’m all for sopranos getting a chance at rock as that’s what I did for a living (sing classical soprano and some rock music, and keys), but the note bending up that high is awful after about 3 hearings. Your review is so nasty that I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time with trying to respond to such a negative person.
    By the way Boz became a great bass player later on; as you’re aware he was NEW at it. But ask his band mates and they’ll tell you he had an impeccable ear and natural talent galore.
    Bah! Humbug! Islands and Lizard are two of my favorites but Islands is gentler. And better. Haskell is the weakest singer but he isn’t bad either. None deserve your pure nastiness!

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    1. Btw I doubt you can sing or play as well as Bozzell could with half his brain tied behind his back. Read what his peers said. I’ll take their words and my own (excellent ;) ) ears and personal experience over your sniping. The need to bash and trash tells a lot about you; your near-vitriol is telling. You don’t sound like a very happy person. Negativity doesn’t get one far.
      And yes I’m a female Crimson freak. I know we are a bit scarce but I remember each album as they emerged; I lived this. Each record from 69-74 is brilliant and so diversely so!! You should be celebrating that not bashing. Boooooo!!!

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  6. "Your review is so nasty that I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time with trying to respond to such a negative person."

    God, that was beautiful. Thank you! You make me feel twenty years younger.

    Honestly, though, Ms. female Crimson freak, things are going to get better, I promise.

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    1. You think you’re so above everyone and that you’re so bright, so astute! You have your following so they’ll bolster you but somebody had to defend this lineup and I’m a good one to do so.
      I love this band because it made such a deep impression on me musically. You could hear a pin drop when they finished. It was the best concert of my life, and at my age that includes a huge variety. But it’s lost on you. If you can’t hear the beauty in the song Islands, you perhaps have no soul. 😂
      Boz became a first class jazz player BTW. But you don’t care. Fine. Enjoy your bashing! I mean, it’s so much fun to put down good work by others who pour their hearts and souls into their art.

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  7. Formentera Lady was done much better by the 21st Century Schizoid Band (alumns McDonald, Giles, Giles and Collins with Jakko Jakszyk).
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCGG2EXafEU

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  8. Ah, "Islands", the first KC album I ever finished. Through Deezer which unfortunately has devolved into yet another Spotify clone, but back then it had effing King Crimson of all things! Anyway I've got a bit of a soft spot for this although I still agree with most of your points. I still like to put this on every once in a while. Sophisticated if somewhat half-dead homework/background music, but it's got some pretty okay imagery and the sonic textures sure are unique, though based on the YouTube vids I've watched they unfortunately couldn't help but make them a bit of a directionless cacophony (though as others have mentioned they had surprisingly good live energy). Plus it does have "Sailor's Tale", and the middle two tracks have a kind of brooding menace which I appreciate from King Crimson. Especially "The Letters"; I like its passionate, menacing, sinister atmosphere. Very Crimsonian (compare "Cat Food") — I wish more bands had done stuff like this — as opposed to the rather silly though still relatively okay-ish "Ladies of the Road", which is also pretty good live.

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  9. The review sucks because of its predictable arguments and cliches. It is far from the truth. It downgrades an album which is packed with with tons of emotion, beautiful and sophisticated music.
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    One should never pay attention to critics, reviews and reviewers because they don't have more knowledge than you, to tell you what is good and what is not... what is weak and what is not. They do not have your taste to tell you what you should like or hate... or why the album X is inferior to the album Y.

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    1. But you do, apparently?

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    2. I love this album, but I love comments like this even more.

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    3. People can reply to whatever they wish and can still read what snobbish fools write, while not agreeing. The article was referred to me. I have a KC group and had to check this trollop out for that. !!! lol

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  10. This album is kind of lame compared to their first two or their next... six or so... but goddamn if I don't absolutely adore "Ladies of the Road". Never thought to compare it to 10cc before. Makes perfect sense, though, and it'll only make me love it even more. The sleaze in the first verse and that first dirty saxophone blast get me every time.

    Funny that this guy was actually considered to replace Roger Daltrey(!) back when he was briefly fired from the Who after an argument with Pete in late 1965, between the releases of the "My Generation" single and ensuing LP of the same name. That would have been even more of a mess than this, if you ask me.

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