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Anniversaries

45 Years Later: King Crimson — Larks’ Tongues in Aspic

Considering the range of King Crimson’s discography, one of the few constants for the legendary progressive rock band is change itself. Over the years, the band has featured a rotating cast of twenty-one musicians with Robert Fripp, guitarist and founding member, as the pivotal point. In fact, the members that produced King Crimson’s first four critically acclaimed albums left in large part because Fripp was very particular about the sound, mood, and elements he wanted the group to incorporate, and he dismissed ideas from fellow early members Peter and Michael Giles (the rhythm section of the band’s predecessor: Giles, Giles, and Fripp) and keyboardist Ian McDonald. Fripp’s control was a double-edged sword; the instability inherent in an erratic line-up made the future of the band often unsure, but it also forced each new album out into a fresh, unexplored place. The resulting body of work that the rotating group produced was not only groundbreaking for 1970s rock music, but the groundwork for contemporary progressive rock, and it still influences musicians who approach the outer limits of the modern rock music.

There are three main eras of King Crimson. The first period generated four albums: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), In the Wake of Poseidon (1970), Lizard (1971), and Islands (1971). These works were heavily influenced by jazz, with Fripp internalizing an improvisational approach after seeing Clouds, and McDonald taking up the Mellotron as persuaded by the Moody Blues. Islands in particular was heavily impacted by collaborations of jazz greats Miles Davis and Gil Evans as well as Homer’s Odyssey, the classic narrative epic. After the band’s fourth effort, Fripp began to pull away creatively from his bandmates and began making a pointed effort to remove any pop sound from the group’s compositions.

The name King Crimson outlasted the influence of Peter Sinfield, who coined the moniker, and it refers to the traditional definition of the phrase: a monarch whose reign is characterized by civil unrest and copious bloodshed. It also happens to be a  synonym for Beelzebub, but more directly protests the US involvement in Southeast Asia. The dark connotation of the demonic reference was incidental, but likely pleased the band leader who was keen to move away from light-hearted fantasy themes, baroque influence, and romantic leanings toward darker stuff.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is a key album in the band’s evolution, because it boldly steps away from a formula that was working well and took a risk by incorporating free jazz improvisations, Eastern European classical influence, and proto-metal harshness. Fripp asked Sinfield (lyrics, lighting, and synthesizers) to leave after Islands, who conceded as Fripp’s harsh and dramatic approach was not congruent with Sinfield’s brand of textural jazz-folk. The rest of the band took Sinfield’s side and left Fripp to pull an all-new lineup together. The effort would prove fateful, and Fripp gathered a group of musicians who were uniquely capable of delivering on the mysterious and experimental inclinations he had for the project.

The new band comprised Jamie Muir (percussion), Bill Bruford of Yes (drums) John Wetton (bass and vocals), David Cross (violin and Mellotron), and Richard Palmer-James (lyricist), a friend of Wetton who sent lyrics by post from Germany to the vocalist.

Music journalist Richard Williams recommended Muir to Fripp, who was immediately impressed, and Bruford was recruited to play complement and antithesis to Muir’s willfully eccentric unpredictability. Bruford had been interested in King Crimson previously, because he felt he had learned all he could from Yes. Regardless of the fact that Yes were on the verge of a big break, he had approached Fripp about joining King Crimson but was initially turned away. The new manifestation of the group naturally required Bruford’s skills, and he was excited to be brought onto the edgier project.

Bruford was in awe of Fripp’s creative process, and suspected Fripp to be versed in the occult. Fripp and Bruford agreed that the serendipitous accumulation of members for the second era of King Crimson was guided by a “fortuitous, benevolent spirit.” This same spirit guided Wetton, a college friend of Fripp’s that had previously chosen Family over King Crimson, to seek Fripp out at the crucial time. Wetton drove in the general direction he believed Fripp to be, not knowing his exact whereabouts, and they just happened to lock eyes as he drove by Fripp’s cabin. The addition of Cross was equally synchronistic: Fripp walked in on Cross’ band (Waves) practicing in one of King Crimson’s old practice spaces in London and asked him to jam.

The new line-up debuted at the Zoom Club in Frankfurt, Germany on October 13, 1972. The band became a live sensation, in large part due to Muir’s stage presence and creative selection of percussive accents, which included objects such as bicycle parts, bird calls, alarm clocks, a bullroarer, and a joke laughing bag among other oddities. Muir’s on-stage antics surprised not only his bandmates but even himself. Lost in the moment and enjoying the inventive freedom, Muir later admitted, “I had no plans to do any of that.” While performing Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Muir edged toward the line between musical performance and conceptual art happening.

The album cover for Larks’ Tongues in Aspic further contributes to the esoteric undertones of the album, employing Hermetic symbolism; the sun and moon art illustrate the concept of yin and yang as well as correspond to appropriate themes in tarot. The Moon represents change and new beginning, and The Sun symbolizes strength and energy — both cards are very fitting for the rebirth of King Crimson.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic reached #20 on the UK Billboard and #61 US. The album managed to bring the experimental, openly curious attitude of psychedelic rock while stripping the blues away from underneath it, and thus created the first true progressive rock project.

A defining characteristic in progressive rock is a narrative approach to songwriting — the music has emotional direction and guides the listener through a transformative quest. The content dictates the direction of the music, and this approach gives rise to motifs that work together synergistically, but don’t necessarily tell a story. The talent and strong backgrounds of the musicians allowed them to experiment with free jazz, which is not to be confused with the more common approach to improvisation where individual soloists take turns creating melodies over a preconceived background composition. King Crimson stretched instrumental sections of their albums long to allow for continuous improvisations where all members were empowered to make spontaneous creative decisions.

The highly-varied approach on Larks’ Tongues in Aspic makes the album dynamic and complex, featuring rhythmic and polyrhythmic motifs that gradually build and weave in and out of sync. Subtle atmospheric and mellow lyrical sections alternate with harsh and heavy proto-metal grooves, showcasing an exemplary application of diametric musical themes. The primary strength of King Crimson lay in their ability to read each other and react to ad-libbed suggestions in real time. Together, they navigate both horizontal and vertical layers with semi-fixed themes and structures that lend themselves easily to spur of the moment adaptation. As for the lyrical content, Palmer-James supplied more contemporary and existentialist material in contrast to Sinfield’s romantic whimsy.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic sees Cross’ violin replace the Mel Collins horns and winds of previous albums (In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, and Islands), but Collins would later return as a guest on Red in 1974. Fripp also succeeds in removing Sinfield’s lingering jazz influence last heard on Islands. Some elements from the first incarnation of King Crimson persist, including: heavy implementation of point and counterpoint, power chord based riffs, integrated form and expression, and a wide pallet that manages to remain coherent. In its courageous exploration of Eastern European classical approaches and introduction of experimental jazz and proto-metal perspective, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic moves past whimsical bombast and pretentiousness in a creatively progressive way. It combines elements of Hendrix with classical music theory and structure gleaned from Stravinsky, effectively creating a distinctly non-Western sound that is both innovative and classically-rooted.

“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” is a two-part instrumental song that bookends the album. Because of the temporal distance between the two halves, it is easy to hear them as distinct and unconnected, but they do in fact share and develop themes. “Part One” is a thirteen-and-a-half minute long outset to a poetic journey. It opens with subdued, yet chaotic percussion and jangling keys. The violin sings softly yet energetically in a slightly discordant and polyrhythmic rhapsody.  The guitar sweeps in and out, leaving a sinister impression that prefaces each repetition of the proto-metal riff. The song alternately builds tension toward the heavy-hitting, distorted riff and relents to frenetic breakdowns. The swarming, convoluted percussion of Muir’s creative insanity relays his experience as rapturous convulsions and seismic euphoria, snapping, rattling, and shaking under the stomping bassline and schizophrenic guitar. The song serves to introduce us to the free jazz inclinations that color the rest of the album.

Some of the musical devices used to achieve the highly textured, yet loose and free, landscape are symmetrical scales, dissonant chord structures, odd time signatures, and polymeters. “Larks’ Toungues” was written by Fripp alone, and he was directly inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring: Mystic Circles of the Young Girls.” The melodies are written in 5/4 and 11/8 time signatures with a 3-3-2-2 rhythmic pattern, and are pictured below.

Fripp used an octatonic, whole-tone scale (called “diminished” in jazz vernacular), which is symmetrical (the whole- and half-steps between notes are evenly distributed: WHWHWHW) and only has three unique transpositions (as opposed to more commonly used diatonic scales which have twelve transpositions and are asymmetrical: WWHWWWH). Fripp expanded the classical range of Stravinsky with chromatic notes and and power chords (the parallel fifths common in rock music), and he pulled out triads, which added intensity to the tonal palette. Whereas other rock bands from the era used blues and minor pentatonic scales, Fripp’s election to drop the blues stylistic influence lends Larks’ Tongues in Aspic a mystical, fantastical feel.

In “Part Two,” we hear the themes from the opening track restated in a more straightforward, aggressive way. Overall, the composition is more succinct than its counterpart, and spreads itself over the landscape in concentric circles. The bass beats a heavy theme, and the band builds the relief melody up to meet it, staying low and intense. The musicians fall in and out, sharing the opportunity for developing themes and allowing the violin to add intricacy without moving away from the integrated form. At one point the violin seems to float up and away, but really never leaves the ground, which is reminiscent of the paradoxical phenomena called a Shepard tone, or the triad illusion. The unique scales, time signatures, and free improve make this two-part eponymous song quintessentially progressive-rock.

“Book of Saturday,” “Exiles,” and “Easy Money” populate the middle of the record and feature Palmer-James’ lyrics. The former two tracks are ballads, with lyrical tendencies and baroque proclivities. “Easy Money” features a throbbing groove, and is a sequel to Islands’ “Ladies of the Road.” Its slightly sleazy, tongue-in-cheek attitude caters to the rock-and-roll aesthetic without forfeiting musical integrity. The bass builds the song up from underneath, and the progression from elegant to powerful is not only natural, but unavoidable, like a mossy boulder slowly beginning its inevitable descent. The group manages to explore substantial ideas without losing the delicacy and spontaneity of Muir’s percussion, which is more central in the following track. “The Talking Drum” is a provocative instrumental composition with lysergic soul and an Afro-psychedelic vibe. With its sweet chaos, building tension, and hammered rhythmic and highly syncopated riff, it transitions the listener away from the more straightforward songs in the middle of the album and prepares them for the ensuing second half of the album’s magnum opus.

After the release of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Muir, who was a practicing Buddhist, experienced a spiritual crisis and joined a Scottish Monastery. The band’s management attempted to cover the truth of the situation and turned down Muir’s offer to finish out the current tour. After Muir’s exit, Bruford attempted to incorporate his textural rhythmic techniques into his own style. The band held together to produce Starless and Bible Black (1974) and Red (1974). After which, Fripp himself retired to pursue his own spiritual journey. King Crimson reformed one last time in 1981 to enjoy its third and final incarnation.

Although Red is more often cited as an influence by heavy underground bands, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is the beginning of a new life for Fripp’s musical project that allowed him to evolve unique ideas against the creative genius and otherworldly abandon of Muir and Cross with the dynamic support and highly adaptable rhythm section of Wetton and Bruford. The album comprises a collection of weird sounds and unique textural compositions that have room to breathe and develop, seeming to lead a life of their own. The ecstatic frenzy and a visceral experience of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic are cornerstones on the strange and magical journey into a free-form fantasy-land.

King Crimson, especially this second manifestation, can’t be clearly classified as jazz, blues, classical, or rock. It stands by itself as a member of progressive, experimental, or possibly math rock genres. The progressive metal pioneers inspired a host of metal, avant-garde, noise, psychedelic, and indie artists, including: Primus, Black Flag, Mastodon, Yob, Dillinger Escape Plan, Neurosis, and Merzbow. King Crimson created a legacy by consistently defying categorization with fresh and contemporary ideas, layered and free-flowing thematic evolution, and artistic rigor paired with the right amount of curiosity and playfulness.

Download/stream:

  1. Archive.org

References:

  1. King Crimson.” (Accessed 2018, March 21). Wikipedia.
  2. Pettersson, Johan. (2017, July 5). “King Crimson — Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.Death Metal Underground.
  3. Riccio, Gabriel. (2014, March 14). “Rock Meets Classical, Part 4: Classical Concepts in King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.” Art Rock Tendencies.
  4. Riccio, Gabriel. (2014, March 14). “Symmetrical Scales Explained.” Art Rock Tendencies.
  5. Hussey, Neil. “Aspic of Love.” Record Collector, #455, July 2016. Published by Brian Eno, More Dark Than Shark.

Photo sources:

  1. Featured: Robert Ellis, TheRockLibrary.com
  2. Group: Uncut
  3. Cover art and timeline: Wikipedia
  4. Muir: RockBoar.com
  5. Music notation: Art Rock Tendencies

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