Review Summary: LTIA still stands as a daring, experimental effort, a step in a bold new direction and, ultimately, the album that saved King Crimson from becoming an anachronism like so many other classic 70's prog bands.
Though frequently credited with “inventing” the genre, King Crimson never fitted into most of the common progressive rock clichés. No cheesy concept albums, no sci-fi escapism, not too much overblown soloing, no horrible “rock” renditions of Pictures At An Exhibition (*coughcough*). In fact, starting with guitarist/mellotron player/leader Robert Fripp’s first from-scratch lineup rebuild in 1973, they turned into an increasingly strange beast, marrying brain-melting heavy rock to European-free-jazz-esque playing disciplines and souping it up with plenty of exotic influences and instruments. In retrospect, the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic album, released that same year, established them as one of the most idiosyncratic rock formations of all time, abandoning the commercial platinum mine their peers were stuck in for artistic integrity and relentless experimentation and ultimately saved them from becoming an anachronism like so many old-school prog bands.
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic isn’t an accessible album and it makes you know right from the start. The opening (instrumental) title track’s quiet, exotic-sounding intro, played entirely by new percussionist Jamie Muir (an associate of improv guitar legend Derek Bailey) on African thumb pianos and sheet metal lulls the listener in and then, all of a sudden gives way to an eerie bridge of violin (bowman David Cross was a full-time member of the band then) and bass, before Robert Fripp kicks in with a nastily loud, distorted guitar riff that makes Tony Iommi look like a sissy. The rest of the song is no less scary, herking and jerking between what sounds like a metal version of Mahavishnu Orchestra, with Fripp’s jolting guitar aided by ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford’s percussive clatter, John Wetton’s loud, funky bass and Jamie Muir banging on everything that’s currently around (including your mama), a long (and boring) violin solo and strange, unintelligible voices. To me, it sounds like a musical version of twisted, disturbing dream logic. Or just a bunch of guys playing whatever they currently feel like? Or a mix of both? It’s absolutely daring and downright great (‘cept for that violin solo) either way.
Unfortunately, the following three “vocal numbers” are nowhere near as gorgeous, Book Of Saturday being the best of them. A two-minute pop(!) song about the unfaithful lover you just can’t let go, driven by David Cross’s beautiful violin, complete with two backwards solos and John Wetton’s (another bassist/singer!) sweet voice. Even if it sounds unlikely, it really does work! Exiles, however, is a real stinker, a pale, sugary version of KC’s Court Of The Crimson King era mellotron balladry. Wetton tries to sound “dramatic” but miserably fails and has trouble hitting some of the higher notes. The odd, chaotic instrumental interludes are the only redeeming quality. Easy Money is a cool, funky rocker that trips over its own ludicrous lyrics (written by new writing-only member of the band, Richard Palmer-James). A terribly failed attempt at a “satire” of modern commercialism accompanied by “sound effects” to make things even more embarrassing. Example: “You could never tell a winner from a snake” (*hiss noise*). The improvised, instrumental middle section is pretty sweet (and long) though, so it ain’t really all that detracting.
But however solid the “songs” may be, the instrumentals are the real meat here. The new KC just look (or rather sound) a lot better as weird avantgarde-improv rockers than as a conventional 70’s rock group. Hence, the two closing tracks are pure gold. The Talking Drum takes a central rhythmic motif and wraps eastern-tinged violin and rumbling guitar around it, krautrock style. The track gets increasingly louder and more tumultuous halts before Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part 2, which seems completely unrelated to the first part, but is a jazzoid, repetitive, technical heavy rock, with Fripp’s nasty, angry guitar colliding with a madly screeching violin and clamoring free-form percussion, dissolving into a total chaos.
An appropriate ending for a weird, disorienting, engrossing and just downright great album that stands a singular achievement in the development of what would later be referred to as “avantgarde rock”. (On a side note, Japanese noise artist Merzbow cites these guys as influence).