Larks’ Tongues

A new beginning. The reconstituted King Crimson now included David Cross (violin, viola, and Mellotron), John Wetton (bass and vocals), Bill Bruford (drums, just out the door of Yes), and Jamie Muir, a free-jazz percussionist. Robert Fripp remained on guitar and Mellotron. Noticeably, the instrumentation turned its back on saxophone and moved into a semi-classical sound with lots of percussive color. This Crimson resumed the dark intensity of the original quartet, but without the burden of history, or of trying to bring interim studio conceptions like “Cirkus” et al to life. Wetton was clearly the best bassist KC had yet had, while Muir gave the group a free edge. Bill Bruford would become one of the most important Crimson members in history next to Fripp.

Crimson also had a new lyricist in Richard Palmer-James. Instead of Sinfield’s overreaching poetics, or Belew’s future wordplay, Palmer-James exuded maturity. Anything written first-person sounds lived and reflected upon; anything descriptive is put into an assimilated context. He’s thoughtful yet realistic - just like much of the music. In my opinion, the marriage of words and music is more solid in ‘73-4 Crimson than in any other.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic

Along with In the Court and Discpline, this formal fountainhead is one of the most significant albums in the Crimson catalog. It’s not a definitive performance album, despite the fact that the material was road-tested prior to going into the studio; the three tunes on the last half of the album (side 2) are all bettered on future live albums. And it’s not the greatest sounding KC album - the bass and drums get slightly distorted when playing at full volume, although the violin, guitar, and Muir’s percussion are pristine. However, in the nature of the compositions, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is the source for so much to follow, not least Fripp’s increasingly unique guitar work.

The musical forms are brand new this time around. As Gunther Schuller wrote, if form changes, it must be due to content changing. Or, material dictates form, instead of being poured into an existing structural mold. In progressive rock, as in ‘60s jazz, form expanded in order to support the growing creativity and techniques of the given musicians. So, on Larks’ Tongues, you get a couple of slightly skewed rock-styled songs, but also plenty of absolute music (as the classical enthusiasts call it) that either borders on classical scope (“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. 1”) or avant-jazz (“The Talking Drum”). Sure, you’ll find strange forms on the earlier Crimson albums like Lizard, but that material had a damning artifice about it, at least to my ears. From here on out, the music sounds necessary, chiseled out of an uncommon stone that knows how it wants to be formed. Along with the aesthetic streamlining, Larks’ Tongues is the first album since the debut not to feature any extra guest musicians. The compositions are all by two or more members of the group save for “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two”, which is by Fripp alone.

“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One”: We could call this instrumental piece “chamber-rock” in that it’s a refined structure of visceral components - tense riffs, hard metal, counterpoint, percussive white noise, etc. The structure of “LTIA pt.1” breaks down like this:

Prelude - percussive soundscape
Chorus I (2:53) - 5/8 riff and 7/4 refrain
Chorus II (3:55) - same
Chromatic Development (4:53) - gtr lines over groove, short tag
Thrash Improv (6:14) - Fripp, Wetton, Muir
Violin Duets and Solo (7:43) - Cross w/Fripp then Muir
Chorus III: 5/8 Recap (11:22) - gtr plays 5/8, vln on top
End Plateau (12:25) - G maj/min, suspended cadence, voices

The piece begins with thumb piano tinkling in A dorian, with light metals building up in the background. Enter a violin staccato riff in 5 that stretches dyads (beginning on C - E flat) chromatically, counterpointed by bass/guitar lines and fidgety percussion. As the intervals reach a dissonant peak, a crunching power-chord riff in 7/4 provides some measure of relief. This moment is as powerful as the signature riff of “Schizoid Man”, although the context is very different. I call this one-two part the Chorus, and it’s repeated again with variations.

The first primary cell of “LTIA pt.1” is the expanding-interval riff in 5 above; the second is the “Larks chord” that Fripp introduces in the following section. Spaced thus, for example: G-D-G#. (Or G-D-A flat, if you like.) G is given as the root of this example because it’s the one most frequently used as a starting point in both parts of “Larks’ Tongues”. The Larks chord shape has the familiar root-fifth of a power chord, with the octave note bumped a half-step up, which tends to “pull” it outward, especially when quickly arpeggiated as Fripp does here. (He doesn’t actually strike all three notes simultaneously.) Anyway, after the two riff-metal choruses, the piece goes directly into a guitar break. Fripp cascades the Larks chord up and down the neck, exploding all the implied dissonances of the preceding parts, and Wetton and Bruford introduce a deft beat behind the guitar. The chromaticism of this part defies harmony and shoots beyond anything Crimson had done before. Shortly, the violin comes back in for a droopy tag of sorts.

Next up is a thrashing improvisation for Fripp (suspended chords, strummed rapidly), Wetton (fuzzy wah bass), and Muir (trap-set). This leads into a quiet middle section where Cross plays a violin cadenza and then duets with Fripp, who backs Cross with shimmering triads, and Muir, who plays an autoharp (or something similar). Cross and Muir eventually land on a slightly oriental sounding melody that rotates the A dorian mode of the introduction.

In the final stretch of the piece, Fripp builds up the main 5/8 riff from the lower register of the guitar. Cross plays a countermelody on top, and faint voices from a play Bruford recorded off the radio add to the ominous mood. At the peak of the crescendo, instead of going into the 7/4 metal riff, the group reaches a plateau of guitar arpeggios in G, a new melody from the bass and violin, percussive washes, and more voices squabbling unintelligibly. As the volume dies down, a light xylophone figure pulses away.

“Book of Saturday”: A mature ballad of “reminiscences gone astray,” featuring a good Wetton vocal over minor-key guitar accompaniment and decorations from Cross. The wisdom of the song comes from the lyric and also the restraint of the playing. Fripp’s rippling guitar work is wonderful, and John Wetton is a far more palatable singer than Haskell and Burrell were.

“Exiles”: Faint metal drones, string squeaks, and maleficent displacements of air (a digeridoo approximation from Muir? Turns out he was rubbing glass tubes) set the stage for “Exiles,” a gorgeous song. Over the quiet opening soundwall come some bass notes from the Mellotron, buffeted by distant cymbals. The violin etches the main melody over acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Then comes the song itself, simple and pensive, with another fine vocal and a tender bridge diversion. By the end, the drums return to their original hesitancy, and the D-C chord repetition - with a wandering electric guitar soon caught in this harmonic pen - gives a sense of inevitability to the song’s emotional arc. The heart of “Exiles” actually ends here, although a resolution to E minor follows, with etude-like acoustic guitar. “Exiles” offers more infomation and nuance than its half-blood elders “Epitaph” and “Poseidon”. Live versions are good, but this studio take has extra detail.

“Easy Money”: This is a stalking rock-blues-noir in obligatory E minor, with a lyric about cashflow. The accessible beat and modal blowing room made it a live staple, and the studio version pales next to almost every live version available. The first two verses are quiet, and the guitar solo never takes off, although Muir makes some amusing contributions, like tolling bells, squished clay, zipper rips, stretched tape, wood blocks, and so on. (The “allsorts” listing in the musicians’ credits is rather amazing; Muir had quite the inventory.)

“The Talking Drum”: Just as “LTIA pt.1” has a crescendo prelude in A, so does “LTIA pt.2” with “The Talking Drum.” Actually, the bass ostinato seesaws between E-flat and A, and the improv mode for violin and guitar has been noted by Fripp biographer Eric Tamm as A-A#-C-C#-D#-E-F-G#. There are a lot of “tendency” tones therein, and much potential for exotic phrases and ornamental trills. To put it more simply, “Talking Drum” is a straight bass/drums beat with modal solos by Cross and Fripp, decorated by Muir’s percussion. When the piece reaches its loudest level, the guitar plays a signal motif, and the group knows it’s almost time to head into “Larks’ Tongues pt.2”. As with “Easy Money”, the studio “Talking Drum” seems feeble in comparison to various live recordings, where this tune can become much more intense.

“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two”: An incarnation-spanning Crimson anthem. This angular instrumental is a study in tension and relaxation...and tension, again. The clipped guitar chords that open the piece are straight out of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, while other elements hint at Fripp’s digestion of Bartok’s string quartets. Yet the whole piece is decidedly rock, unlike “LTIA pt.1”, which could have been arranged for a classical chamber group.

The main “chorus” involves a staccato guitar vamp in 5 that modulates around a Larks-chord pivot. There’s also a swaying section with rising harmony that appears three times; this forms the piece’s emotional release, and it uses accents similar to the staccato fives in “LTIA pt.1”. Toward the end, the violin solos over a lopsided power riff. (It’s easiest to hear it as five bars of waltz eighths, with an extra beat in the last bar, although it may be notated as two bars of 6/8 plus a bar of 4. In case you were wondering.) Cross fiddles an unholy rhapsody over double drumkit clangor, and in the final rising section, Bruford plays in four against the guitar’s five. The piece ends emphatically on D major. “LTIA Pt.2” is another tune that functions better in the live context, but the studio take is pretty good, too.

As a whole, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is seminal in concept; only the execution leaves a little energy to be desired. And if “Book of Saturday” and “Exiles” don’t exactly lead anywhere musically, they are two of the strongest Crimson songs on record. In re-listening to the album for review purposes, I’ve had the bridge of “Exiles” stuck in my head for about three days running. Can’t complain about that.

Live at the Zoom Club (Collectors Club)
Oct. 13, 1972

This audience tape (on two CDs) may not sound very good, but it is of historical interest, as it captures the live debut of the Larks-era quintet. The group breaks in new material, including a “LTIA pt.1” that isn’t yet fully formed, and an “Easy Money” that takes a folksy turn. “Talking Drum” and “LTIA pt.2” are pretty much settled but missing some authority, while “Book of Saturday” (then known as “Daily Games”) is sort of hard to decipher from the recording. (The quiet moments are muffled and indistinct. When the band is at full volume, it’s more listenable.) Some of the other snippets would provide seeds for later songs, such as the “Fallen Angel” riff that appears at the end of “Easy Money”, or the elements of “Doctor Diamond” and “Lament” that make up the hodgepodge “Zoom”. In fact, “Zoom” is a pretty interesting track, and it turns into a rocking song (with a balls-out bass solo), although the rhythm section’s tempo is sloppy.

The centerpiece is a charging 45-minute (!) improv called “Zoom Zoom” where Fripp comes unleashed. He sounds dangerous in a way he never did with the preceding Crim lineups, and everyone else has their moments as well. Bruford is heard shouting in excitement as he slams downbeats. “Zoom Zoom” rocks hard enough to render the recording quality irrelevant. We hear the power of the band, plain and simple.

Liner comments come from Jamie Muir, who remembers the experience with fondness. Just before going onstage, someone asked, “What are we going to play?” Muir: “Oh, let’s improvise. It’ll be absolutely fine.” Turns out the improvs are the best parts from this night.

The Beat Club, Bremen (Collectors Club)
Oct. 17, 1972

A single disc with three tracks: “Exiles” (a little uncomfortable), “LTIA pt.1” (still incomplete, yet funky in the middle section), and a half-hour improvisation entitled “The Rich Tapestry of Life” that proves to be the sole attraction. “Rich Tapestry” starts with a premeditated fanfare and then wanders through several free-form episodes. A lot of it is groove-based, but unlike the bar-band pockets of the Islands Crim, the new quintet’s grooves have a nervous energy, as if Bruford and Wetton and whoever is playing atop them are hanging on for dear life. It does wonders for Fripp, and Cross even adds a flute solo. (That was the one moment that stopped me in my tracks when I first heard this, one of the earliest Collectors Club releases.) Like the Zoom Club, it’s mostly of academic interest, with some rollicking improvised moments. And the mono sound quality isn’t bad.

The LTIA studio album was recorded in early 1973, and in February of that year, Jamie Muir left the group for personal reasons. Crimson lost a colorful character but they were able to continue; Bill Bruford took on extra percussion, and the Starless quartet settled into the night watch.

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