March Through Time: King Crimson

I first discovered King Crimson in my freshman year of college. They had just reunited in their four-man configuration (Fripp, Belew, Bruford and Levin), and I found them thanks to my interest in Belew, who had been a Zappa sideman. I liked Discipline a lot.

Meanwhile, around that time a friend in my dorm hall spent hours seated on his bed studying, and while he did he absentmindedly peeled the paint off of the concrete wall. Doing that revealed a hand-pained image of a horror-stricken face, the image from In the Court of the Crimson King. That led me to check out King Crimson’s 1969 debut; I subsequently followed down a rabbit hole from which I’ve yet to emerge. I’ve interviewed quite a few current and former members, and seen the group twice onstage. I’m a serious fan, and – unlike most men – I can claim my wife as a fellow Crim fan.

The one consistent quality of all King Crimson releases (besides Robert Fripp, of course) is that – with the rare exception – they don’t repeat themselves. Nearly every album sounds unlike the ones before or after it. That can make it tough sledding for new fans. But the effort is rewarded.

  • In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) – The majestic debut, arguably the birth of progressive rock. Unlikely to ever be equaled. Here’s my more detailed analysis.
  • In the Wake of Poseidon (1970) – The band promptly fell apart, and Fripp soldiered on with almost completely different personnel. Weirdly – and flying in the face of what I’ve asserted in the introduction above – Poseidon is in nearly every way a carbon copy of Court. As such it comes in for criticism. But considered on its own merits, it’s quite nearly the equal of its predecessor. The overlooked album in the catalog.
  • Lizard (1970) – A strange one. The participation of Keith Tippett makes for an even more intriguing release, as does the guest vocal of Jon Anderson(!) More about Lizard here.
  • Islands (1971) – Again, a different lineup. This one is denser, less immediate and vastly less commercial. It also produced some of the group’s most enduring material. Go figure. I dig deeper here.
  • Earthbound (1972) – A bootleg-quality live recording documenting the Islands-era lineup. If you can get past the shoddy sound – and if you can find it – still worthwhile.
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973) – Perhaps the group’s most “serious” album of the decade, with a mien approaching classical.
  • Starless and Bible Black (1974) – Sonically of a pair with Larks, but darker. John Wetton’s presence takes things to a heavier place.
  • Red (1974) – One of the greatest albums ever created, Red established progressive metal. Achingly beautiful in parts, and it should have pointed the way toward the future. Instead, Crim broke up… again. Read more about Red here.
  • USA (1975) – A live document of the Red-era band, focusing on recent material. A gem.
  • Discipline (1981) Six years in the rock era could feel like a lifetime, and even though this lineup featured two musicians form the previous Crimson (Fripp and Bruford), it sounded like nothing else we’d heard. A desert island disc. Don’t miss the underappreciated instro, “The Sheltering Sky.” Further discussion about Discipline here.
  • Beat (1982) – A bit of a hipster vibe informed this one; not as groundbreaking as its predecessor – how could it be? – but still very, very good.
  • Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) – The third in a trilogy, this one seems to be missing a certain spark. Flawlesly executed but a bit short on visceral emotional content; a bit cerebral, even by Crim standards. The band broke up again.
  • Thrak (1995) – With a new, even more aggressive sound, this Crimson is darker, more musically malevolent, and fully back into art-rock territory. But Belew brings songs, too. More about Thrak here.
  • The Construkction of Light (2000) Darker still, more ambitious still.
  • The Power to Believe (2003) – To date, the final studio offering form King Crimson. And likely to remain that way. By this point the group’s focus seemed to be squarely on live performance and improvisation; that has been the best way to experience them.

And seeing as the most recent tour is widely assumed to be their last, for those who want more, there are nearly 50 live sets available from the King Crimson Collectors’ Club, plus other assorted live sets, boxed sets, expanded reissues and so forth.