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Friday, February 23, 2018

King Crimson: Larks' Tongues In Aspic

KING CRIMSON: LARKS' TONGUES IN ASPIC (1973)

1) Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 1; 2) Book Of Saturday; 3) Exiles; 4) Easy Money; 5) The Talking Drum; 6) Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2.

General verdict: An unsurpassed lesson in combining innovative complexity with gut-kicking awesomeness.

And here comes the creative rebirth. As much as I respect the opinions of certain loyal fans claiming to love Lizard and/or Islands as much as any other Crimson release, there can hardly be any doubt that with those records, Fripp was largely riding the waves, as much of a follower as he was a creator. But having reached the end of his rope, and having parted ways with every single other member of the Crimson team, Fripp finally took about half a year off his frantic schedule — and re-emerged with a radically new vision, in what might have been the single most revolu­tionary move in the musical world of 1972-73.

The first three years of King Crimson were all about synthesizing: pop, rock, jazz, and classical influences came together in a package where the classic notions of melody and harmony still ruled supreme, and the atmosphere of romanticism, sometimes even romantic pathos, was nearly always dominant. Larks' Tongues In Aspic chuck all of that out the window: on this album, Robert Fripp invents what would later become known as math-rock — music that is thoroughly ruled by sophisticated geometric patterns, convoluted crossings of unusual time signatures and uncommon musical modes, while at the same time strictly sticking to fierce, stable, and perfectly disciplined (poly)rhythmic structures. And when I say «invents», I am not exaggerating: many progressive musicians had previously done bits and pieces of this style, but it took Fripp to put all these ideas together and concretize them in the form of rigid musical science.

The big difference, though, the one making it possible to describe Fripp as a genius and his crowds of math-rocking followers as (at best) craftsmen — the still amazing difference is that much, if not most, of King Crimson's math-rock never feels like a hollow technical exercise in musical complexity. Such a thing, after all, would not be worthy of a man who had earlier come up with progressive rock's most kick-ass, aggressively terrifying anthem. Larks' Tongues In Aspic, like every other KC album that followed it, has a weird sound, but behind that weirdness always lurks (larks?) some genuine, and not particularly esoteric, emotion. Anger, frustration, sadness, depression, even some vulnerable sentimentalism — Fripp never rejected any of these things; he simply took it upon himself to think up some very special forms in which he could present them to his audiences so as not to insult their presumed intelligences.

The newly assembled band was all but perfect for the task, too, despite featuring two as-of-yet completely unknown members — violinist David Cross and wildman percussionist Jamie Muir, the most Dionysian element of the band that, predictably, did not last long within its discipline-oriented environment, but is allegedly said to have been the main visual attraction of the KC live show during his brief stint with them. John Wetton, the new bass player and singer, had already built up a bit of a reputation with Family, but it took the KC transition to properly uncover his talents. And the major acquisition, of course, was Yes' own Bill Bruford, who had become just as disillusioned with the «symph-prog» style as Fripp himself and was eager and willing to try out something completely different.

One interesting thing about the various stages of King Crimson is that, while the music is almost always wildly original, it always shows perfect awareness of contemporary trends. In the early Eighties, that trend would be New Wave; in the mid-Seventies, that trend was heavy rock — and Fripp is definitely not above employing guitar tones and chords typical of such «plebeian» artists as Black Sabbath, for instance. As the lengthy, slightly mystical-tinged percussion solo played by Muir on various types of exotic chimes fades away and is replaced by Cross' alarm-raising violin motif, Fripp «pours in» one of the most evil-sounding riffs in King Crimson history — it's 21st century schizoid man time all over again, only now he seems even more intent on ripping out your guts and stuffing them back down your throat, rather than just pompously announcing his imposing presence. That's ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Iʼ for you, a track largely overshadowed by the second part (because only the second part persisted in the band's setlist until 2016, due to technical difficulties in reproducing it on stage), but as awesome an announcement of the new look King Crimson as humanly, or inhumanly, possible in 1973.

If I were ever to produce a musical video for that 13 minute long opus, it would probably be something like a long, exhausting crawl through a set of underground tunnels — or maybe a journey to the center of the Earth in a heatproof elevator, with various elements, elementals, and terrifying forces of nature encountered along the way. The feeling of heavy pressure is very much persistent throughout the track, even when it segues into one of David's quiet violin solos: it is all about suspense — you never know when the entire band is going to kick in with the next atomic bomb explosion, and this element of cunning musical intrigue is something that would, from now on, forever remain a key part of King Crimson magic.

The second part of ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ is much better known, but for subsequent tours it mostly survived on its own, without the preceding ʽTalking Drumʼ — although the two of them, in my opinion, are an integral complex: ʽThe Talking Drumʼ is basically just another suspenseful seven minute build-up before the shit hits the fan. Here, the emphasis is on relative simplicity: almost the entire instrumental rides on Wetton's quietly trotting bass riff, with Cross and Fripp taking turns or joining forces to solo across it, gradually climbing higher and higher up the scale — essentially, this is another elevator ride to Hell, only this time, faster and not bothering to take any detours or sight-seeing stops along the way.

Then, once you have arrived at your destination, old guy Satan gets to business with you imme­diately: ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2ʼ has very explicit sexual overtones, and even courteous gentleman Robert Fripp himself has always acknowledged that its bumpy, punchy riff is as much inspired by The Rite Of Spring as it is by elements of intercourse (little-known, but funny bit of trivia — the track was illegally appropriated by the creators of Emmanuelle to accompany one of the more brutal sex scenes). This is one of the most perfect syntheses of primal wildness and total control in progressive rock history — every move is calculated, each note is in its right place, all the sections rigged for geometric perfection, yet it all translates into breathtaking, fiery passion that gets you right in the feels (too bad Stravinsky never lived to hear this — I'd actually be interested in hearing his reaction).

Of course, it is not as if King Crimson were complete strangers to carefully built-up nightmarish soundscapes in the past: ʽThe Devil's Triangleʼ is one thing that immediately comes to mind, among others. But with all those Mellotrons, that track still had a symphonic feel to it; nor did it feature any funky interplay in the rhythm section. This here is something completely different: a near-perfect merger of the African-American tradition with an academic / classicist disciplinary approach, something that many, if not most, people would probably think of as an impossibility, a stark contradiction in terms — in fact, most «white funk» recorded in the 1970s tends to sound drab and boring precisely because it tries to groom and tame an ungroomable style of music. The sheer intellectual genius of King Crimson is in that somehow, someway, they made it work. Larks' Tongues In Aspic rocks and grooves — you will tap your foot to it (as hard as it is to do so in 5/4), you might even want to headbang to it, and yet at the same time it is complex, intellec­tually challenging and rewarding music with deep, sometimes scary, Freudian overtones.

And so far, I have not even mentioned any of the vocal numbers squeezed in between the instru­mentals — not because they suck, but because they feel inevitably inferior to your lengthy rides in express elevators to Nibelheim. However, they are also important, in that they add a more human (humanistic?) side to the band — the epic-romantic ʽExilesʼ is an atmospheric carry-over from early King Crimson, even with the Mellotron dutifully returning, and both Cross and Fripp contributing some beautifully sad instrumental passages, while Wetton steps forward as the best singer since Lake that this band ever had. On the other hand, ʽEasy Moneyʼ, taken from the ʽCat Foodʼ type of songbook, is a jazzier piece dripping with sneer and sarcasm — somewhat ironi­cally, it had to appear in the exact same year that Pink Floyd had their own ʽMoneyʼ out, and the themes and moods of both songs are somewhat similar; King Crimson's song is, of course, far more ambiguous lyrically and far more tricky and complex musically, meaning it could never achieve the same level of popularity — also, it is somewhat tame here compared to the much louder and aggressive live versions.

A very special mention must be made of Jamie Muir, though. Despite his presence on only one King Crimson studio album, and despite his «madman» image created by the biographical narrative (culminating in his leaving to join a monastic cult, of all things), he seems to have been very actively engaged in the creation of Larks' Tongues — contributing tons of ideas and playing just about any type of percussive sound source he was able to lay his hands on. Because of that, Larks' Tongues holds a very special place in the catalog: its textures are richer and arguably even more psychedelic than the comparatively austere production on Red, and, predic­tably, it has a more openly tribalistic / ritualistic sound than whatever followed. It is literally a «talking-drum» type of record, and despite all the magnificence of Bill Bruford and his pet poly­rhythms, one might argue that not until the overkilling 3-drummer lineup of the 2010s would percussion play such a heavy role in KC history again. And since drums are Satan's tools of choice, as every God-fearing person knows, this should pretty much make Larks' Tongues In Aspic into Satan's favorite King Crimson album, too. Just how much more of an endorsement does one really need?

16 comments:

  1. No mention of the best song on the album, Book of Saturday?

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    1. Why is it that every time I don't mention Song X the first comment usually is "No mention of Song X, best song on the album?".

      No, it is not the best song on the album. Not by several miles of larks' tongues.

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    2. Because it ruffles your glorious head of white, fluffy feathers.

      On a more serious note: for me, one of the more intriguing aspects of Lark’s Tongues is the way it meticulously bifurcates the band’s musical identity between the harsh but formalist ‘math rock’ of the bookending instrumentals and the amiable traditionalism (relatively speaking) of the vocal tracks. The first two tracks basically present the opposite- and some might say opposing- poles of KC’s style, and for that reason it’s a mistake to neglect BoS. It’s just as integral to the master plan as anything else.

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  2. What would be earlier examples of a math-rockish approach? Starship Troopers maybe?

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    1. I would say Gentle Giant's "Knots".

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    2. Hmm... definitely Tarkus. By volume it's probably the most rhythmically angular rock composition I know that was released before Larks'.

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    3. Trout Mask Replica/Lick My Decals Off, Baby

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  3. This one and "Court." The only KC you need to own. Wait... maybe Red too.

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    1. And Discipline, Thrak, Absent Lovers, and much else besides.

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    2. Eh, THRAK is kind of a dud, especially compared to VROOOM VROOOM, from its tour.

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    3. The vocal tracks on Thrak are the best songs Belew ever wrote.

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  4. Tarkus, beefheart, yes, gentle giant are all goodgexamples for early math rock. All Crimson up to 1974 are monumental.

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  5. I associate "angular guitar" with The Allman Brothers, and with West Coast bands like QMS and BBHC. Maybe Can is another good predecessor.

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  6. Thanks GS. Fabulous, erudite and spot-on review. Great stuff!

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  7. Mr Only Solitaire your reviews mean a lot to me - transferring me into another world where I am happy ....

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    1. "Mr Only Solitaire"...

      Wow, I never thought in all my years of following these reviews I'd run into a Jon Daily situation, but here we are...you know what this means, right George? You're finally breaking into the big time! Time to pop some large bottles of bubbly while the pulse of math-rock blares out of the speakers behind you!

      (And of course, this whole album rules with the tight strike of the King's burning, red fist, but we knew that already, didn't we~?)

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