London progressive rock band King Crimson is name-dropped more than actually heard. For years, critics describing edgy, instrumental-heavy, guitar-forward “progressive” bands would cite King Crimson as an influence. While Crimson has spawned many imitators, many somehow overlook the band’s music.
Well, let’s use the term “band” lightly. King Crimson is an idea, a revolving door of cutting-edge performers from the English scene, mixing contemporary rock music with the eclectic, multicultural and downright weird. The constant at the forefront of every iteration of King Crimson (or Krim, as the band is colloquially known) is Robert Fripp, progressive rock’s resident mad scientist. At Fripp’s direction, Krim has enjoyed a long and eclectic evolution spanning from the ʼ60s to today.
King Crimson is not the typical progressive rock band. In the brief, strange period of history where fur-coat-clad, keyboard-toting, utterly extravagant progressive rock acts like Emerson, Lake & Palmer played in packed stadiums, King Crimson sat outside the limelight, quietly blazing a future for prog after flash-in-the-pan peers wore novelty thin. Fripp differentiated his group from other progressive rock bands by incorporating jazz influences and opting for self-seriousness, while counterparts looked to classical music and campy eccentricity. Whether conscious or not, this choice diminished the initial popularity of King Crimson in exchange for music that would later hold up to modern sensibilities.
The band’s debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King” (1969), is legendary for arguably creating the genre of progressive rock. “Court” brought a refreshing edginess to the English music scene after the saccharine British Invasion, birthing a dissonant, jazzy sound King Crimson would soon drop in favor of commercial obscurity. The group’s sophomore album, “In the Wake of Poseidon,” is likely King Crimson’s most creatively bankrupt—a thematic retread of “Court,” even down to track structure and naming conventions. Third time proved not to be a charm with “Lizard,” a height of weirdness for an already weird band, infusing rock with the strange world of chamber music.
Although I love these first three albums, especially “Lizard”’s wonderful peculiarity, in objective terms King Crimson had two stumbles after its artistic breakout. Introspection was in order. The band’s first generation dissolved, making way for a new, powerful lineup and a pivot in sonic direction. Rather than borrowing influences from other genres and splicing them into rock music’s genetic code, King Crimson’s next foray into the outer limits would be deconstructive—breaking down rock’s double helix and shuffling the genes therein. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” was born: rock music at its most dissonant and dynamic.
Last year, King Crimson finally decided to release its discography on streaming services for the band’s 50th anniversary. Let’s take a tour of Krim’s defining album, 1973’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” and discuss what makes the music special.
The opening drama of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” captures the work’s totality. The album starts at the volume of a whisper while Gamelan-inspired percussion slowly builds. Fripp’s acerbic guitar enters with a jagged and dissonant riff, which then spills into a thunderous guitar hook sure to rattle some headphones. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” is a study in wild extremes that will have listeners enraptured—or rushing for the “off” button. It’s rock, but stripped of sentimentality and taken to jarring extremes.
The quiet and contemplative ballad, “Book of Saturday,” is another shock, drenched in melancholy that is distinctive and unexpected after the extreme noise of the opening track. And John Whetton has one of the saddest voices, which beautifully intertwines with David Cross’ violin and Fripp’s melodic guitar.
Speaking of beauty, next is the album’s stunning song, “Exiles.” The lyrics evoke the melancholy of travel—”Spring, and the air’s turning mild / City lights and the glimpse of a child.” Mellotron, acoustic guitar and violin-led harmonies flow like a tapestry of emotion sprawled across the lyrics’ pastoral scenes, bursting out in wistful explosions of melody and simmering into arresting quiet.
“Easy Money,” the next track, is the most straightforward rock song on the album. The verses depict effigial structures of avarice—“We could take the money home / Sit around the family throne / For two weeks we could appease the Almighty,” painting a harrowing image of urbanity. However, sound effects throughout the song—hissing snakes, crinkling cash and a disembodied zipper—create a black comedy tone, making light of the absurdity of its setting and characters. “Easy Money” is classic rock with none of its swagger. It embodies dissonance and deconstruction, the polish and bluster of rock n’ roll ripped away, only retaining the structural viscera of its original form.
Every King Crimson album has the “instrumental” track, a flex of Fripp’s auterial power, conveying use of dynamics and evident jazz influences. “Larks” uses the “The Talking Drum” as a carefully calibrated transition to create tension. The track begins on the distorted cries of horns and slowly builds into a frenetic percussion rhythm created by a double-sided West African drum. The song ramps up into a breakbeat race, flying over David Cross’ wailing violin and the moaning of distorted electric guitar into an abrupt ending of literal screaming strings.
With no gap to take a breath, the listener slams into the final track, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two,” bookending the album. There is only one way to define this track: epic. Fripp’s guitar sound has radiant energy; the drums provide frenetic texture and violin screeches over the entirety, oscillating between an impending ambulance siren and a Greek chorus. The sound implores the band members to play worse, lest they be cursed with the Sisyphean task of making material as good. A handful of progressive music’s defining moments come from this track alone, including a diabolical guitar riff that bisects the song into two wholes: progressive metal followed by complete insanity. If “Part One” was the album’s thesis statement—“We’re King Crimson and we’re going to make some really weird music”—“Part Two” is the grandiose conclusion, drawing together every element from the project into a complete statement. It is the perfect album closer—the catharsis of six tracks of discipline uncuffed and sliding into a chaotic coda.
There are many other worthy albums and eras to discuss in King Crimson’s lineup—the dark masterpiece “Red”; the New Age-inspired, Talking Heads-adjacent “Discipline”; or the postmodernist capstone project “The Power to Believe,” stuck between meaningful societal critique and unashamed thrash metal. I haven’t even mentioned 1971’s “Islands,” my personal favorite from Krimson, a cosmic-jazz masterpiece weaving ethereal soundscapes and hard-hitting instrumentation into a conceptual tale reminiscent of Homer’s “Odyssey.” Even still, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” best embodies the caustic examination and destruction of popular rock music that is central to this band, and something new on top of the remains—the virtuoistic creation of some really, really unconventional music.