Review Summary: While "Islands" isn't the strongest effort by King Crimson, it is one of their most underrated records, overshadowed by its successors.
The year is 1971, and with vocalist Gordon Haskell and drummer Andy McCulloch quitting the band, King Crimson is once again down to three members, guitarist Robert Fripp, writer Peter Sinfield, and flautist/saxophonist Mel Collins. Auditions were set to take place later that year.
Possible prospects of the band included future Roxy Music frontman Brian Ferry, KC's manager, John Gaydon and Elton John, who nearly got the job until Fripp listened to John's albums. Fripp even approached Mogul Thrash and future Crimson bassist John Wetton to join, but declined in order to join the band Family. In those auditions, they gained the late Ian Wallace and Raymond "Boz" Burrell (Wallace died in Feburary of 2007, Burrell in September 2006.) on drums and vocals. They also acquired a talent in Rick Kemp, but an early rejection at the last minute left Crimson frantically searching for a bassist to fill the vastly empty gap. This led to Fripp and Wallace teaching Burrell to play the bass, with Burrell once having played the rhythm guitar, making the learning process much easier. King Crimson once again was complete. For how long would be the hot topic.
Another rarity in the Crimso camp is the blues-flavoured "Ladies of the Road", the best example of the group live in 1971 and the song the entire group liked. Dislike for the material on the album grew to such an extent that a member of the group described the lighter parts of the album as "airy-fairy ***." It would even be known that Burrell, like Haskell before him, greatly hated Sinfield's lyrics and found them to be overblown and pretentious. "Islands" is usually bashed for the shortcomings of bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell, who isn't quite up to par with Greg Lake in terms of both, but a step up from Gordon Haskell. Mel Collins shows an improvement, playing at his best in "Sailor's Tale", alongside Fripp, who tears it up with an odd banjo-inspired guitar technique, making for one of the highlights of the album.
Another criticism of the album is the percieved misogony of the songs "Formentera Lady", "The Letters", and "Ladies of the Road", alongside with the criticism of Peter Sinfield's songwriting for the album being described as his weakest effort with Crimson by some. "Formentera Lady" is one of the songs that, in my opinion, debunks that criticism, especially with the opening verse: "Houses iced in whitewash guard a pale shore-line/cornered by the cactus and the pine/here I wander where sweet sage and strange herbs grow/down a crumpled sun-baked stony road." With the descriptive lyrics and the influence of Homer's "Odysseus", makes for a good opener. "The Letters", previously known as "Drop In", a song written by Fripp during his "Giles, Giles, and Fripp" days in 1968, is dominated by Mel Collins' saxophone, is dulled by the overblown melodramatic lyrics, which is unfortunate. "The Letters" has the potential to be a great song, but with the outburst by Burrell near the end, which is admittedly a great vocal by Burrell, makes the song overall far too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
"Ladies of the Road", described as one of the misogonystic pieces of the album, is a fun romp and most likely a satire of the average groupie, and was even cited as an influence for the lyric by Fripp. Oddly, the chorus is very beatle-like, a very un-Crimson thing to do on a King Crimson record. The title track follows the very skippable "Prelude: Song of the Gulls", makes up for the silly film soundtrack sound of the previous track, by having one of Burrell's best vocals supporting a nice, but saddening lyric. Like "Formentera Lady", the lyric is vastly descriptive: "Beneath the wind turned wave/infinite peace/islands join hands/'neath heaven's sea."
After the release of the album, Crimson would go through with another tour by the orders of E'G, with 3/4ths of the group in open defiance of Fripp. (see the title track of Earthbound and Peoria) By the end of the tour however, Burrell, Collins, and Wallace offered to keep on working with Fripp, unknown to them that Fripp had been planning the third incarnation of Crimson, who'd create three landmark albums, beginning with the iconic "Larks' Tongues in Aspic." Fripp would get the last laugh in this situation it seems.
"Islands" makes for a relatively enjoyable experience, and while it's definitely not the best Crimson album, it can be seen as the prog giant's most underrated effort.