Following the breakup of the original lineup, Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield remained attached to King Crimson. Greg Lake was less convinced about continuing the name, and was in fact getting ready for ELP at the time. Even though there was no more working band, Fripp and Sinfield decided to make another Crimson LP, something the record company was pushing for regardless. Lake agreed to contribute vocals, former Fripp bandmate Peter Giles was drafted to play bass, and brother Michael Giles, strangely enough, returned as a session drummer. Avant-jazz pianist Keith Tippett and reedist Mel Collins were hired guns. After Poseidon, Lake and the Giles brothers were gone for good, and Fripp was left struggling to get any working lineup in order.
This post-Court KC phase has a lot of artifice about it. Clearly, Fripp and Sinfield were coasting on the reputation of the original group, and in some ways, the first two albums below were buying time until Crimson could return to real action.
The ghost of the original band/album looms large. Not only is the album title grammatically similar, but the first half of Poseidon replicates the first half of the debut, the second half’s “Devil’s Triangle” is a studio portrait of the original lineup’s “Mars” set-piece, and two ex-members help record it all! Yet as shameless as all the redundancy is, In the Wake of Poseidon is a very good album and at least as effective as its predecessor.
Introducing and closing the album are two subdued Lake vocal soliloquies entitled “Peace”. In the middle of the order (beginning of Side 2 in LP terms), a short acoustic guitar “Peace” states the same tune as Lake’s verses. Obviously, these are all intended to give the album a thematic framing, but they are so slight as to be inconsequential, at least to me. Here are the main tracks, as they come:
“Pictures of a City”: Following In the Court’s first-half sequence, “Pictures of a City” is the bravura blues-metal equivalent of “Schizoid Man”, almost comically so. The power chord riff, angst-ridden vocal, and fast middle section (including another stop-time demonstration!) are all of Schizoid pedigree, while the guitar crescendo/solo goes in a different direction. This studio version lacks the fire of the older live take from Fillmore East (back when the song was known as “A Man, A City”, and when Ian McDonald was around to blow it silly), but new details have emerged. Also, in making up for McDonald’s absence, Fripp comes to the fore with overdubbed guitar cacophony. The chromatic scales and riffs of this piece sound like Mingus done hit Crimso in its soul.
“Cadence and Cascade”: A disinfectant E-major reverie, with piano (Tippett), flute (Collins, talking to the wind), soft drums, and celeste. Fripp has a nice touch on acoustic guitar - not quite comping, not quite the standard strumming of rock. Fripp’s old chum Gordon Haskell sings in Lake’s place; the lyric is a precious Sinfield ode to a couple of, er, groupies? Pleasant but very lightweight.
“In the Wake of Poseidon”: This weighty Mellotron dirge carbon copies “Epitaph” and, to some degree, “In the Court of the Crimson King”. The opening fanfare hints at what Genesis would be doing very soon, as does the chord rise underneath the “Balance of change / World on the scales” lyric, while Fripp flutters on acoustic here and there. Sinfield’s poetry leans toward the excessive, and I’m not drawn toward investigating it beyond the surface, though Lake’s delivery is convincing.
“Cat Food”: Really the only new item on the album’s menu, “Cat Food” is a rock-jazz piece with a dark-humor lyric. The Giles brothers conjure a neurotic groove, Keith Tippett adds piano, and Fripp fills the gaps, including a fluffed solo overdub where he vocalizes his dismay. A sense of humor in Crimson? “Cat Food” has it, and even Lake cackles.
“The Devil’s Triangle”: In which “Mars” is stretched out, broken down, sped up, and torn to shrapnel. Fripp lays hellish Mellotron textures over the familiar Holst march beat; toward the end, Giles breaks loose on drums and Tippett freaks out on piano. It all reeks of desperation, particularly the fast-tempo part, as if Fripp is trying to give CPR to the 1969 Crimson dream. In the final moments, a snippet of “Court of the Crimson King” is heard amidst the din - as if we hadn’t collected enough clues already.
In the Court may be the more consistent record, and it is the first, after all, yet Poseidon is a worthy aesthetic steward, and a shade more dramatic, too.
Welcome to the Fripp-Sinfield show. Lizard exhibits a lot of the surface trappings of progressive rock, a genre Fripp later explicitly disassociated himself with, and it’s also a most studio-intensive Crimson record, going against Fripp’s grain as well. The music shoots in umpteen different directions, the arrangements and production are haphazard, and the lyrics (and artwork) are overly ornate. Into the bassist/vocalist vacancy comes Gordon Haskell, who fills neither role very well. He was basically a folk/blues artist beforehand and he sounds awkward in this setting. Andy McCullough takes over the drums, and like Haskell, his tenure would only last for the making of the album. Mel Collins gets the call again on saxes, Keith Tippett plays more piano, and Fripp lassoes a few extra horns into the mix, along with Jon Anderson as guest vocalist on one track.
Some folks assume the gaggle of horns continues Crimson’s “jazz-rock” sound, but horns in themselves do not make jazz. All of the instruments, even Collins’ passionate playing, follow a tight design, even though they give a surface jazz impression, especially in the likeable “Bolero”. The real story of Lizard is the temporary Fripp lobotomy that all this ephemera represents. There’s no real band behind it, nothing except the forced imagination of someone who would go on to profess a distrust of recording studios and insist on playing material live before recording it. I wonder why?
The first half is plain bizarre. “Cirkus” has a sinister air and some lacerating acoustic guitar work, but Haskell’s vocal falls below the challenge of Sinfield’s verses. Nice instrumental portions with the sax and Mellotron, though, and I like the fact that they again let us hear Robert scream as he fumbles a guitar passage. “Indoor Games” is like “Cat Food Part 2”, what with the lyric (perversity behind closed doors) and even an acoustic guitar turnaround. However, the production and arrangement serve as disguise rather than enhancement, and the cheeky instrumental section kills the song’s momentum. “Happy Family” refers to the breakup of the Beatles, not that you’d know it without a lyric sheet, since Haskell’s voice is distorted by a synth filter. The “jazzy” jam section of this song is boxed in by a schizophrenic mix. “Lady of the Dancing Water” returns to Crim-ballad preciousness, albeit without much substance, and Haskell’s voice remains difficult to stomach.
The second half all falls under the main title of “Lizard”. If it’s supposed to be a suite, it’s not a very coherent one, even though the tracks lead into one another. Jon Anderson temporarily saves us from Haskell in “Prince Rupert Awakes”, a not-too-bad tune with an honest hook in the chorus, yet the production again takes some queasy turns. “Bolero” clears the air with a beautiful oboe melody (Robin Miller) and eventual jazz-like horn dialogue. “The Battle of Glass Tears” returns to the blues-scale riffery of “Schizoid Man” and “Pictures of a City”, albeit in a dramatic setting with horns and piano depicting a battle scene. It’s not bad, it’s not great, it’s just there. What’s truly marvelous is the guitar solo “Prince Rupert’s Lament” that emerges at the end of the battle, in which Fripp uncovers his infamous fuzz-sustain tone. This short solo (over a sparse bass pulse) is the album’s purest musical moment, and our first real sample of what would become a major part of Fripp’s guitar style. “Big Top” closes the album with a dizzy snippet of circus music.
Lizard’s quirks and unintentional comedy distance it from “real” Crimson albums, yet it has a few interesting moments, like “Bolero” and “Cirkus”, Haskell’s vocal on the latter notwithstanding. I enjoy “Indoor Games”, too. The downfall of the album is in the studio conception. At the time, Fripp said they were trying to construct a detail-rich listening experience. I guess that’s why instruments randomly pan around, or get shrouded in reverb, or sound like they were recorded down the hall, or why the levels shoot up and down, or why cartoonish synthesizer appears here and there, all for no musical reason. So Lizard is a strange artifact of its times.
Despite the fact that there was a new touring band afoot - including Mel Collins, Boz Burrell on vocals and bass, and Ian Wallace on drums - Islands has less impact than any other Crimson album. Adrift in an uncertain sea of pseudo-jazz, amateur classical, folk, and euro-blues, Islands lacks intensity to say the least. The kaleidoscope production of Lizard is gone, but that only makes the emptiness of the material more apparent. Fripp and Sinfield are again the sole composers.
Good news first: a quality Crimson vibe is summoned in the impressive “Sailor’s Tale”, a strutting instrumental with a Collins sax squall and a classic Fripp solo on phased, slapback guitar. Novice bassist Burrell barely strays from his assigned lines, while Wallace swings like a pattern-based Mike Giles. Mellotron haunts the air, too. Later, “Song of the Gulls” presents a diversion for strings and oboe, much more consonant and banal that we might have expected from Fripp, who was so enamored with Bartok’s string quartets, but it sets the tenderness for the title track. “Islands” muses on isolation and ends with the tireless ebb and flow of the sea, captured in droning pedal harmonium (Fripp) and cornet (Marc Charig). Very poignant, hopeful music. Unlike the solitary confrontation with the horrors of “Devil’s Triangle”, the “Islands” protagonist is cushioned by nature, and perhaps the gulls even reappear after the fade.
The rest of the album, however, is half-hearted. The opening “Formantera Lady” begins with Harry Miller’s arco bass serrating a downward melody, upon which Collins (flute) and Keith Tippett (piano) hang faint ornaments. The track has little else in store once Burrell starts reciting an extremely dull vocal. The chorus is basically a children’s tune - is this what the mighty Crim has been reduced to? Boz’s “heartbeat” bass pulse continues through the aimless ending, where vocals, sax, and sundries weave in and out. The only good part of “Formentera Lady” is the entry of the strings with the “Sailor’s Tale” theme. “The Letters” updates the Fripp oldie “Drop In”, with a new melodramatic lyric. I’ve personally never been on the “Ladies of the Road” bandwagon, a disjointed rock-blues mudpie about writhing young limbs. Sinfield can’t just take notes on the whole groupie scene; he has to reference “marron-glazed fish bones.” At least “Cat Food” and “Indoor Games” had creative humor. “Ladies” is tasteless.
So where does this leave Islands? The discerning listener has to cut the losses: grab “Sailor’s Tale” for the compilations, bid a fond farewell to the last few minutes of the title track, and let the rest of it drown unceremoniously. The group would self-destruct yet again, and this marks Sinfield’s final creative efforts on behalf of the crimson king. Maybe Fripp’s music had been constrained by Sinfield’s overdone lyrics, or maybe Fripp just didn’t have the ability to write a full album’s worth of convincing music by himself. Whatever the case, the two men came to an impasse, to which the last couple of albums bear guilty witness. Islands stands for nothing except that it brings the post-Court hangover to a close.
The Islands lineup was ill represented by the studio record. Truth is, they were a funky jamming band with an outstanding soloist in Mel Collins, who could rip Coltrane-like in the right context. Meanwhile, bassist Boz Burrell had literally been taught the instrument by Robert Fripp, so he stuck with elementary rock-based lines. Ian Wallace fit his admirable drum capabilities around Burrell’s limitations. All of which left Fripp, during the jams, treading water in a less than flattering comp-and-riff situation. Part of their live legacy can be heard on the brutish, horribly recorded Earthbound, and there are a couple of clearer examples from the King Crimson Collectors Club series.
For the Detroit show, Pete Sinfield is still part of the live team, manning the boards and adding some VCS3 synthesizer. The set covers the usual blowout staples (“Schizoid Man”, “Pictures of a City”, a sloppy “Mars”) along with recent pieces like “Cirkus” (plodding heavily, all of its studio layers reduced to heaving Mellotrons) and “Sailor’s Tale”. The original Crimson burned with intensity and necessity; this group is more like a talented rock band playing at the material. For example, they’re not above turning “Pictures” or “Formentera Lady” into shuffling bluesy grooves. (Yet the jam that concludes “Formentera Lady” provides welcome relief from the awful song proper.) The old Giles-Giles-Fripp bopper “Groon” is funked up with scorching Collins; in moments like this, Fripp’s guitar sounds far away from its main course, but Collins is so compelling, it doesn’t really matter. One can hear Fripp toy with an upcoming “Larks Tongues” motif in the middle of “Groon”, and a snippet of “The Night Watch” appears at the end of it. Obviously, his head was in the future.
Excessive moments include Wallace’s “Groon” drum solo, partially processed by the VCS3, and the out-of-tune “Mars” with synthesized “bombs” falling about. And just for kicks, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is rendered as a brief Chicago blues, but some jokes are only funny once. The ongoing joke is Burrell’s vocals. When he’s not delivering Sinfield’s lines in a faceless monotone with zero inflection, he’s howling like a drunken roadhouse goon at open mic night. Greg Lake may have been a pompous arse, but at least his vocals had dignity. Burrell’s tenure as Crimson’s voice is shameful. In any case, the Motor City gig has ups and downs, and the ups, superficially groovy as they are, don’t sound very Crim-like.
A casual, live-in-the-studio broadcast; or, as the laid-back announcer says, “There’s still some beer left.” With Peter Sinfield gone, and no Mellotrons in tow for this one evening, Crimson becomes a de-mystified rock band. They deliver the expected “Pictures of a City” and “Schizoid Man”, banter with the small studio audience, and fall into comfy jams where Collins shines and Fripp sounds a little bored. “Sailor’s Tale” works fine, and “Groon” (nasty tenor solo) cooks. Meanwhile, the freer blows like “Summit Going On” and a takeoff on “The Creator Has a Master Plan” both wander into “this isn’t a formal concert-hall gig so let’s just indulge ourselves” territory. (This includes Boz’s impromptu “scatting” in one place - no comment.) The sound quality is great and the music, more often than not, is very enjoyable, yet firmer proof could not be had that Crimson was off the main rails. Fripp again crosspicks a future “Larks’ Tongues” riff in a down moment, almost impatient to nudge these bandmates out the door and start a new chapter for KC. He knew this lineup was wrong, and they probably knew it as well, but at Summit Studios, they have a laugh and get on with the jam.
All of the above is a difficult period in Crimson history because the identity of the King is absent. Poseidon works because it contains remnants of the original lineup’s playing and writing, but the other two studio albums are really just Fripp and Sinfield keeping up appearances. While the second working group has its performance moments, they sound exactly like what they are - a replacement band. The jettisoning of Sinfield wasn’t pretty, and neither was the bust-up with Collins, Burrell, and Wallace. Both were necessary for Fripp to discover the next step.
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