KING CRIMSON Albums Ranked

KING CRIMSON Albums Ranked

In October of 1969, a group called King Crimson emerged, fronted by the flamboyant guitarist Robert Fripp. Coming from the instrumental pop background of Giles, Giles & Fripp, and adding some new members in Greg Lake, Ian McDonald and, crucially, Peter Sinfield; they turned the corner with a vastly experimental way of composing songs, while keeping their habit of mostly improvized playing.

The result was none other than In the Court of the Crimson King, a record that, as time would later have it, made history. Fiercely opening with the hard rock riff of Schizoid, the band travel over a multitude of sonic landscapes, mellotron-induced eerieness and strangely structured passages. The music is diverse, never giving you what you expected, but boggling your mind with its twisting and whirling – sometimes orchestral and ambiental, other times bizarre and challenging. Surprisingly or not, always with perfect attacca.

King Crimson went through a number of line-up changes over the course of time; the band put out 13 studio albums under its name. We look back at their opus and rank the albums below.

13. The ConstruKction of Light (2000)

King Crimson has remained the most consistent classic progressive band up to this day. They never became overambitious as Yes did, or disowned their original sound for pop flavour like Genesis. This consistency is only a greater achievement considering their (especially in the ‘70s) ever-changing formation. Their fourth album Islands, the last with Peter Sinfield as a lyricist, is the most obvious candidate for worst Crim album, but still had its unique transcendent style despite being poorly improvised. Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair were also quite the disappointment after the superb ‘80s comeback Discipline, but really, really, who can rightly claim a single King Crimson record is not worth at least one listen for the seasoned progressive fan?

Those would be the people having had to deal with The ConstruKction of Light.

It was inevitable, of course. Virtually no musical groups can put an end to their career without having put at least one spot of shame in their discography, and King Crimson are no exception to this rule. 11 studio albums, they prevailed, their work ranging from relative lows “slightly disappointing” to as high as “an uncanny masterpiece.” The ConstruKction of Light, however, is not just slightly disappointing. It is a incredibly poor record, especially by the standards this compelling group has set throughout their career.

The issue at hand here is that King Crimson has become too caught up in the dense and heavy sound set with THRAK. So much, in fact, that they sound drained of all sorts of emotion and passion: mechanical. Such is the word to best describe The ConstruKction of Light, a record that feels uncomfortably cold and empty. It still has many things Crimson, of course: the piercing riffs varied with lighter tones, continuing tempo changes, the works. The way those are carried out, however, is lifeless. This record lacks a heart, and with the exception of the minor standouts “Into the Frying Pan” (saved by Belew‘s charisma) and closer “Heaven and Earth” (a more ambient piece), the 56-minute ride is like being caught in a bad dream; a bleak world where everything keeps revolving and nothing really feels warm or familiar.

12. Beat (1982)

If Discipline proved anything, it was that King Crimson may have adapted themselves to the infamous ‘80s, but not given in to the decade. It was an album with a new vibe, and yet distinctly Crimson. And with the group being busy, busy, busy and therefore very productive as usual, follow-up Beat was released less than a year later. This time around, however, we get to hear that ‘80s influence more and more as the Fripp-Belew-Levin-Bruford foursome shifts to a slightly more accessible territory. The main musical theme Discipline set is still intact, however, although Beat contains significantly less compelling material than its predecessor. Also notable is the fact that the record is Crimson’s sole concept album, dealing with various icons of the Beatnik generation, or perhaps even more so, the fact that this is the first ever consecutive album by the group with an unchanged line-up.

Beat inevitably stands in the shade of the fantastic Discipline. Overall, it is less inspired and while it contains a few excellent tunes, none of them are as great as the best material found on the album’s predecessor. Despite all that, the ninth King Crimson album doesn’t fall into very deep holes either. Beat is fairly consistent, and while nowhere near the first King Crimson album one should acquire, fans of Discipline will be still eager to get it.

11. Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)

Just like Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red are often seen together as a trilogy of albums, the three ‘80s works King Crimson made can be easily seen as such as well. Discipline, Beat and this third and last entry of a finally stable formation, Three of a Perfect Pair, would forego a second breakup of King Crimson, which would re-emerge for a second time in the 1990s. The interesting feature about Three of a Perfect Pair is its division into two sides. The first Left Side continues the trend of the more accessible tunes of Beat, while the Right Side picks up old habits and ensures a more dominant reappearance of old-fashioned Crimprovisation of the Larks-era.

Three of a Perfect Pair is just that album most groups run up against at some point in their career: the so-so album. King Crimson’s tenth just lacks enough either really good songs or really bad songs to weigh it up or down, and it really depends what side of the band you love most that will decide what half of this record is most enjoyable (if you love both though, Three of a Perfect Pair will score some bonus points for you). Though any more-than-casual Crimson fan will undoubtedly find their share of enjoying material on it, they’re not bound to play this over too many times.

10. Islands (1971)

Islands keeps a slow pace with its classical influence, Fripp making “that old people music” with his Mellotron, rarely leaving the lumbering keyboard to contribute guitar to the album. From the beginning track “Formentera Lady,” the influence is strong as the song begins slowly with the flute, piano and string bass playing aimlessly but subtly forming a melody to mix classical with jazz. “Prelude: Song of the Gulls” shows the most classically influenced, and is also the most coherent song. Its tightly-knit arrangement dominated by the Mellotron, it sounds like the only song that was composed fully beforehand and doesn’t lead off into rather poorly planned improvisations.

In songs like “The Letters,” and not necessarily restricted to the more jazz driven songs, the instrumentals are drawn out, as if meant for filling up space. They go nowhere, improvisation really isn’t a problem, but it sounds like a bunch of jazz musicians just gathered up and started playing pointlessly for a long time. After a while of jamming they all scramble to get the song back on track, to get back to a rambling and slow one. Even more unfortunate is for fans of Robert Fripp‘s guitar improv, as mentioned before, doesn’t make much of a dent into the album, letting the Mellotron, horns, and strings attempt to create spontaneous mania.

“Sailor’s Tale” is the only song that creates a coherent instrumental through a series of quirky rhythms and has Fripp‘s guitar jamming out. Sounding much like “21st Century Schizoid Man,” it’s a fast paced jam with swift, jazz infused drumming, and horns that almost take over the song until the guitar bursts in with a unique tone. Going into a bluesy guitar breakout then an epic sounding Mellotron ending like the closing track on In the Court of the Crimson King, “Sailor’s Tale” is the only song to incorporate a idiosyncratic, tough edge, like Crimson‘s earlier work.

The result of it all is an awkward, uneven sounding album. Half of the album is split between well-crafted, innovative, yet somewhat restrained, and the other tracks (the bigger half unfortunately) are sprawled, half-baked and awkwardly pretentious works. Because of the original three remaining members, it’s considered as one of the albums in the King Crimson’s first era. Because of its bi-polar-like inequalities, the album isn’t really a good jazz album, neo-classical album, or progressive, and can’t blend the three well.

09. THRAK (1995)

King Crimson‘s second re-emergence after their parting of ways following Three of a Perfect Pair was again as an odd ensemble: the so-called double trio. Chapman stick player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto were added to the four remaining members of Crimson’s ‘80s era, and as such, there were now two guitarists (Fripp/Belew), two bass/stick players (Levin/Gunn) and two drummers (Bruford/Mastelotto) in the group. The only studio outcome of this particular ensemble is 1995′s THRAK, which logically carried the potential to open up new possibilites for King Crimson.

Although the whole double trio concept is great, it doesn’t show throughout the record as we would like it to, but neither does it feel as if there’s too many musicians for one record. What is a direct result of the larger occupation is that THRAK is Crimson‘s heaviest and most dense record up to that point. Opener “VROOM” is an immediate example of this. With its menacing riffs and clanging percussion, it is another instrumental that is uniquely King Crimson, but even heavier than usual. Instrumentals are abound here, and THRAK both starts and ends with two of them, the two closing parts “VROOM VROOM” and “VROOM VROOM: Coda” being similar in title and style to the opener. These instrumentals are for the most part quite satisfying, but he two minute-long interludes “Radio, Pt. 1” and “Radio, Part 2” don’t make so much as dent in the album. When it comes to instrumentals, however, the prime moment for this record is “B’boom,” a drum duet which most effectively shows the idea of the double trio.

THRAK shows that a group that broke up two separate times can still impress. This record, although quite good, does not have anything that makes it stand out between more essential entries such as Larks’ Tongues in Aspic or Discipline, but of course, King Crimson creatively peaked some time ago already. It’s a small miracle that even until the ‘90s, they could still deliver.

08. In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)

Riding on the wave of critical success caused by the all-time masterpiece that was In the Court of the Crimson King, the band had two options in 1970: they would either come up with something totally different, but equally revolutionary, or simply choose to make more albums in the vein of In The Court, with slight alterations and more accent put on their main strengths, perhaps. While the first option is obviously the more efficient one, the second could work as well in your average talented band. But, as I’m sure the members of the band would themselves admit, King Crimson is anything but your average talented band.

By choosing the second route, the band simply failed. It’s not because the album itself is bad (there’s actually plenty of essential stuff here), but it’s because it’s not an album that I would expect King Crimson to come up with. The best example I can give is the title track. The song works fine on its own, until you realize that it’s essentially “Epitaph” from the previous album. Maybe some things differ structurally, but the nightmarish, mellotron-driven mood is the exact same and therefore, nowhere near as powerful. One of the main things that made me love King Crimson in the first place is missing. Likewise, with “Cadence and Cascade” the band tries to continue the tradition of following a bombastic, riff-driven monster of a song with a moody, dreamy, flute-dominated ballad. While the first time it worked amazingly, now it’s just predictable. To make the effect even more apparent, we get introduced to the band’s new lead singer, Gordon Haskell and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that he’s essentially a close-sounding, but lesser version of the imposing Greg Lake (who quit the band in order to create his very own progressive “supergroup,” ELP).

That’s not to say that the whole album is a carbon copy of its predecessor. There are certain moments where the band is seen as trying new things. It’s just that the results are mixed. On the good side, “Cat Food” sounds unlike not only everything on In The Court, but also anything I’ve ever heard before—with those strident piano runs bouncing along in the background. It is an absolute winner, in all its absurdity. And so is “Pictures of a City.” Comparisons with “21st Century Schizoid Man” from the previous record are inevitable (same structure, with three shouted strophes and an effective jamming section thrown in the middle), but its guitar/sax riff is altogether different—more jazzy, more sleazy, yet just as interesting.

All in all, the year 1970 sees King Crimson faced with the task of following an influential debut, while also losing some key members on its way. The band releases an album that’s quite good, but unfortunately doesn’t add much to their legacy, nor does it really justify their image and attitude towards music-making. Later that year, they would adopt a completely different approach, so my take is that Fripp had finally realized that milking the same cow twice is not gonna do him any justice.

07. The Power to Believe (2003)

The band’s work in the ‘90s and beyond was often brave and powerful, sometimes diffuse and unfocused. But the seeds planted in the efforts of the dense and bewildering double trio and the improv explorations of the various spin-off Projeckts, have at last taken root and grown into King Crimson’s best work in years on The Power To Believe.

The cover, from a painting by P.J. Crook, sets an enigmatic tone: a naked baby is born into a smoky post-industrial world of gas masks, soldiers, thronging masses. Is the child a messiah? A medical experiment? Simply a normal child born into an urban world? This is the most disturbing King Crimson cover image since the famous screaming red face on their first album.

A Belew Haiku, sung gently through a Vocoder-like effect, is the recurring theme on the album. Heard alone and in various musical settings, it is a comforting presence throughout, helping to temper the doom-laden tritones descending in metallic crunch, the dislocated pounding rhythms, the menacing but strangely alluring ostinatos. Not that lyricism and beauty are left behind: Belew’s ballad “Eyes Wide Open” lopes through a landscape that is simultaneously yearning and hopeful; “The Power To Believe II” is a tour de force of grace and dignity that moves with the gentle flow of Javanese court gamelan and the tragic depth of Korean classical music. There are also nods to detuned testosterone rock, most notably on the good-natured but satirical “Happy to be Happy With What You Have to be Happy With.”

This particular edition of King Crimson has been together for longer than any other, and I cant help but think that the lack of interpersonal rancor  along, of course, with the impeccable and inspired levels of musicianship  are a big part of why this mutation makes such a great team. You can hear the absolute precision, yes; but the head and hands have not left the heart and soul behind. Fripp, Belew, drummer Pat Mastelotto, and touch-guitarist Trey Gunn are equal in the clean, high-resolution mix: the crystalline sonics are perfect for this particular project.

King Crimson at its best generates a big and scary, but ultimately benevolent, force. And the power unleashed on The Power To Believe, whether bruising or healing, is impressive indeed.

06. Starless and Bible Black (1974)

Starless and Bible Black finds the band extending the progressions of Larks’ Tongues and shifts toward a harder rocking sound not often heard since their first album. Consequently, this album is more immediate and accessible than its predecessor. John Wetton asserts himself more vocally, notably on tracks like “The Great Deceiver”, “Lament” and “The Night Watch”.

Most of the album was actually recorded live, with the first two tracks the only cuts on the album constructed solely in the studio. The rest was performed live in concert, with the crowd noise removed, and some overdubbing in the studio in places. The live pieces have a moodier ambience to them, while the two studio pieces are almost straight-ahead rock.

This is a harbinger of things to come (Red) and inspiration for even later efforts.

05. Lizard (1970)

Hard to believe, but this is one of the least accessible albums by the band—and that’s saying something. Weird to a fault, with sinister lyrics penned by Sinfield, this is one of the most bizarre efforts to come out of the early ‘70s.

Repeated listenings are rewarded greatly as this album slowly reveals its hidden treasures. Sonically, Crimson has departed their previous two efforts and moved into even jazzier territories, with new instrumentals and electronic treatments. The vocals and lyrics are disturbing, who ever thought Jon Anderson could sound downright creepy. Certainly Crimson hits perhaps their most eerie mood here, almost to a suffocating degree. The sense of impending doom and insanity is palpable.

04. Discipline (1981)

Discipline captures the group at the crest of their artistic purpose, and is the definitive statement of the unit. Each track is filled with incredible guitar duets between Fripp & Belew (each maintaining his distinctive style at almost all times), incredible work in the low (and I do mean low) ranges by Levin, and frequently off-kilter work by Bruford. Furthermore, intellectual disciples of the group lacking in concrete musical performance skills could take comfort in the fact that each of the vocal tracks contained a puzzle of some sort.

Discipline features the band’s only big radio hit, “Elephant Talk”; the semi-spoken word/instrumental “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” a windmill interpretation of the fast paced insanity and crime of New York City; “Matte Kudasai,” a soothingly dreamy fantasy blues; and “Indiscipline,” a return to the punishing grooves that Crimson perfected in the past. Despite the brightness inherent in the trilogy’s overall mood, Belew’s signature sombre and eerie minor/sharp note vocal style would hold earlier fans from slipping away. Although sounding very ’80s, the latter two albums were quite separate from what normally ruled the airwaves at the time. One reversion to interlocking mathematical guitar melodia ensues on the occasion, but the lightly anarchistic nature of their pop attempts was simply due to the fact that nothing sounded formulaic. Levin and Bruford never fully exercised the potential of their talent like they did on Discipline, but their moments do come in the delectably dark and loose instrumentals such as “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part III” and “Requiem,” which almost act like complimentary Bizarro world versions of song that the quartet were otherwise writing.

03. In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

King Crimson‘s debut lays the blueprint for everything else that followed; long-form extended pieces, generally with two or more movements, a combination of several different genres of music including classical, jazz, blues, and world-beat, virtuoso playing, and lyrics steeped in mythology or otherwise attempting to tell a story. You’ll find all of that throughout King Crimson‘s history.

Yet, this album may be considered the most accessible in the progressive era. Sure, the music is dense and obtuse in places, but it’s a formative work, even for an influential album. “21st Century Schizoid Man” is their defining piece, even at this early stage in their career. “I Talk to the Wind” is a surprisingly gentle piece, and “Moonchild” ventures into free-form percussive jazz territory (much of this track being excised from later CD and vinyl releases; seek out the original vinyl for the full version). “Epitaph” and the title track are by-the-numbers prog-rock, but still lay down the form that other bands would follow well into the next decade.

Whether you like progressive rock or not, it’s hard to argue the influence of this album. Even bands like Yes, Genesis, Van der Graff Generator, and a multitude of would-be prog-rockers were taking notes from this record. And a new genre was set to rule rock in the first half of the ‘70s.

02. Red (1974)

Red, the final Crimson album of the ‘70s, finds the band disintegrating presumably beyond repair this time. Yet, in the midst of the meltdown, it’s surprisingly their hardest-hitting, most cohesive album they released up to this point. Bringing back players from their past, including David Cross (who left during the initial sessions for this album but returned briefly to do more violin work), Mel Collins, Ian McDonald and Mark Charig. John Wetton sings on three of the five tracks here, and the basic trio of Wetton, Robert Fripp, and Bill Bruford put on an incredible ensemble showcase displaying one of the most immediate, up-front instrumental attacks since their debut. Side one of the original vinyl configuration plays like a 19-minute extended piece that nearly leaves you breathless by the time the final notes of “One More Red Nightmare” play out. And “Starless” almost seems like an elegy to the band as it winds down for the final time (or so everyone thought at the time).

After disbanding, John Wetton would never play with King Crimson again. He would go on to be integral members of the bands UK, and then the prog supergroup Asia. Bruford would join Wetton in UK, and also was Genesis‘ touring drummer for a time after Phil Collins became that band’s lead vocalist. Fripp would stay busy with side projects, including collaborations with David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and even Daryl Hall. Fripp would finally reconvene with Bruford to form a new iteration of King Crimson in 1981 with Adrian Belew and Tony Levin.

01. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)

While this period of progressive rock had several groundbreaking efforts, this stands tall among the best, and is a unique statement even in the Crimson catalog. There has never been anything quite like it ever since, and King Crimson has continued to draw from its influences to this day. This is truly where everything gelled, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic could not be a better title.

Bill Bruford straight from his stint in Yes had something to prove, having been fed up to his neck in the spiritualism of the other side of Prog. Jamie Muir was an absolute wildman, adding even more percussion and other worldly sounds to an already brilliant drummer.

John Wetton, fresh from Family brought a weird mixture of funk and rock to Robert Fripp‘s fractured, insane, otherworldly guitar pyrotechnics. The mixture was at once jazzy, funky, and totally, completely bizarre. What makes this brilliant is everybody was still not on the same page, and the freshness, individuality and vitality is simply off the charts. This is because they had chemistry, inspiration and drive. In spite of their different backgrounds they worked together to create something entirely new. They certainly made their point. The sum is greater than the already amazing parts. While I could say King Crimson produced more consistent or accessible efforts after this, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is a true classic. Without peers.

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7 Comments

  1. damo

    May 13, 2017 at 12:34 am

    “This is truly where everything gelled” OH PUH-LEASE!

  2. Michael Boivin

    May 13, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Did I miss something, or were Requiem and Larks Tongues in Aspic Part III both praised in the review as excellent instrumental tracks from Discipline? Maybe if they were credited to the right album (Beat) then it could have been higher on the ranking!

  3. Tony Rubbo

    May 13, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    As good as all the Albums are . In the Court … Is 1st and its not even close. The band themselves know it. The fans know it. I’m sure everyone has their favorite …Islands is for me. I understand why its ranked lower than others so I wouldn’t put it 1st because I feel other Albums are outright better.

  4. simon aylward

    May 13, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    By the numbers Prog Rock on Court? Whose numbers were they following?

  5. Al

    May 15, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    DId Dianne Abbot do the numbers? I completely disagree with this ‘chart’, and I have been listening to Crimson for over 40 years.

    • Nicci

      May 16, 2017 at 8:33 am

      Well noone said that you should agree with this chart. If one likes to consume pot, it doesn’t mean that someone else enjoys it hehe.

  6. Robbi Cox

    May 21, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    My favorite wasn’t mentioned: the EP, Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With… even Adrian was quoted as saying that it was better than Power….

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