Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Tournament for the Court of the Crimson King Semi-Finals: Lark's Tongue in Aspic v Red

So just to get everyone back to speed I have revised the bracket.   Because of my terrible art skills it still looks modestly like garbage, but this is the tier of quality equated with Riff 'N Ralk Music Tock
Before we begin with our semi finals I wanted to share a quote from someone who has been reading this feature since I started it in September (thanks!)
"While I disagreed with a couple of the first round results, I like your final four and based on that bracket setup mine would've ended up the same. "

I think that this is a sentiment that could be shared across most Crimson fans.  While I know some would disagree with my first round choices I think we have the best four albums here at the end.  Each showcases Crimson at its peak in for one reason.
In The Court Of The Crimson King for its quintessential progressive rock nature.
Lark's Tongue in Aspic for its encapsulation of their improvisational nature
Red for being the final evolution of the British progressive invasion
Discipline for showing that progressive means more than 15 minute songs about fighting dragons

Let us begin the finale
File:Larks tongues in aspic album cover.jpg  VS File:Red, King Crimson.jpg

Red and Larks's Tongue in Aspic are two sides of the same coin; the beginning and end of the same era.  Considering this it is miraculous that these two sides are so astoundingly different.  While some overarching themes progress throughout this line-up of King Crimson the albums here showcase how drastically the goal of the band had shifted in such a brief time.

There are few concessions to make in light of that statement, however, mainly the fact that by the time the band had recorded Red Jamie Muir had left the band to become a monk and David Cross was kicked out because fuck it why not.  Right off the bat then, we are dealing with a quintet and a trio; a trio with an endless array of guest musicians, but a trio none the less.

As I mentioned last time, Red is surprisingly focused for a progressive album in the 70s.  The songs are deliberate and do not venture out into orbit.  Rather, everything is grounded, in a mad scientists experiment kind of way.   Dr. Frankenstein planned out his monster, he did not just throw some organs in a bag and swish them around like a shake 'n bake.

Lark's Tongue in Aspic, however, is pure madness, and like I have also said (I feel like that may be a trend at this point), is easily their most difficult album to process and conceptualize.  Despite its' high difficulty curve it is essential listening when getting to know this band.  So much of their future would rely on the use of improvisations, wayward time signatures (although this had already been common for them by this point), and fits of complete chaos.  You would also be daft to not mention that Lark's Pt. II would forever remain in the bands live catalog, and would spawn two more parts in later albums.  It retained so many classic Crimson tropes, while at the same time inventing endless new ones that hold true today.

This was the golden line-up of King Crimson, and it could do very little wrong.  Starless and Bible Black did not get past the first round not because it was a bad album, but because it was packaged and promoted in the wrong way.  If you listen to the The Great Deceiver box set you get a clear picture as to why this line-up arguably one of the best not just in the context of King Crimson, but in the context of 70's rock bands.

With all that gushing said, however, I can not state that either album is perfect.  Lark's and Red have some of the greatest songs put together by the group, and some that have rotated in and out of their set-lists ever since their creation.  Bear in mind at this point I am splitting the finest of hairs to reach a conclusion for the sake of creating one.

The mid point of Lark's Pt. 1 the jam of Easy Money and the beginning of The Talking Drum all suffer from being washed up in nothingness.  On one hand you gotta kneel down and pray to the studio gods that an album not compressed to kingdom come is being presented to your ears, but on the other you are sometimes left wondering if your ipod accidentally stopped since you haven't heard anything in the past two minutes.  The album's subtleties are domineering when the album is at full throttle, but when it wants to pull back those moments are lost.  The strange squeals in Pt. II are clear as day, but the slight clatter in the beginning of The Talking Drum is barely audible.  Fripp's guitar also sits in an odd place in the mix like a large chunk of his frequency was mixed out.

This is all in stark contrast to Red which pummels you with sound and fury.  Red stands atop the studio mountain screaming "Can you hear me?"with a megaphone in hand.  This may allow for a more audible experience, but some are rightfully annoyed by how loud Red is.  Even Fallen Angel, which is intended to be the soft ballad of the album pummels your auditory senses.  For an album as aggressive as Red it is not exactly a problem, but for an album with as many intricacies as Red...it is a problem.  Stylistically this works better for Red as the album is designed to be menacing and unpleasant.

Lark's provides a complex listening experience, with very intense moments, and very relaxed ones as well.  The album breathes heavy breaths as it creates its musical dystopia.  Lark's Tongue in Aspic Pt. I sets the stage with it's unsettling build-up into headache inducing heavy rhythms which eases into some complex tempos and cooling into something sounds like an improvised jam.  The song has everything in it, which is both its strength and weakness.  Pt. I has an endless amount of great moments, but cobbled together it comes off as disjointed.  Those favorite moments all last barely ninety seconds before the song shifts again into another mode.  You never really get the chance to enjoy any of the grooves laid out by the band since they are hopping so quickly from one thing to the next.  It sounds like some sort of proto-math rock with the haphazard changing of time signatures and musical patterns.  It is strange that my biggest complaint for a fourteen minute song could is that it should be longer.  The movements need a bit more fleshing out and exploring.  Let the listener really enjoy the grooves and get into them before they move on to the next.

To make it even more peculiar the following The Book of Saturday and Exiles are easing and melodic.  David Cross's Violin is the epicenter of Exiles mixed with Whetton's raspy voice.  You soon forget that you had just spent so much time having your brain cells evaporated.  Both songs are excellent examples of how heart felt King Crimson can be while also avoiding cheesy song writing tropes.  Having both in a row makes you question if the band had inadvertently put in the massively aggressive Pt. I in at the beginning.

Easy Money is a staple for the band in their live shows at this point.  Live, the song was thunderous and plodding, reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but with less wayward psychedelia.  The studio version, benefits from the addition of Muir who adds some more percussion that is sorely missing after his departure.  His quirky bike horns and cards being shuffled add some humor to the ultra serious, which makes songs like Cat Food a bit more normal.

The Talking Drum utilizes a a concept of building off a single musical pattern, an idea that will be explored again and again in future albums.  At seven minutes you would think the song stalls out and creates nothing, but boring repetition, but you would be mistaken to think so.  Instead the song works wonders in evolving on the one simple theme.  Whetton's clever bass rhythm plays well with the bongos and Cross's slow violin build.  No other line-up could capture this as well as the studio version.  The song brilliantly leads into Pt. II, a classic Crimson song and a staple in their live sets ever since its inception.  It's iconic signature shifts create an unsettling feeling as it explodes over and over.  This and Red the song are the signature songs of King Crimson if you were to exclude 21st Century Schizoid Man for a brief moment.

While all brilliant, there is a constant feeling of not being quite perfect with Lark's. Robert Fripp, the controlled and stately Englishmen, does his best music when it is constraint, refined, or done with the assistance of someone else.  Not surprising is the fact that someone who wears a three piece suit nearly everyday does not do his best work when trying to create something explicitly out of control.  After listening to these albums over and over I started to realize this.  It is a strange realization, that the mad doctor of the progressive rock movement himself is in his prime when he implements focus and restraint on himself.  Despite his desire to create powerful improvisations and spur of the moment creativity you always seem to hear a rigidity in his music.  This is the key difference between Lark's Tongue in Aspic  and Red, by the time Red had rolled around it seemed like Fripp had realized this need for control and accepted that he was never going to be the off the walls mad man he never could be.  This is not to say he does not create truly off the walls music, but there is still a rigid Englishmen nature to it all.  I think Fripp would have a coronary if he tried to record with Nick Reinhart or a 2005 Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.

That's all ok though, and it just means Fripp began to better understand who he was a musician and really hone in on his strengths as he aged and matured.  Lark's Tongue in Aspic is the sound of the then young musician finding himself.  Red is the sound of someone who had a much better sense of this.  He finally had the line-up he really wanted at his disposal and was figuring out how to make sense of it.  Two years later and some lightening of the load he finally figured out how to master this line-up and play it to his strengths.

Winner:File:Red, King Crimson.jpg