Thursday, November 26, 2015

King Crimson - 1971 [1989] "Islands"

Islands is the fourth studio album by King Crimson, released December 1971. Islands would be the last King Crimson studio album before the group's trilogy of Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red. It's also the last to feature the lyrics of Peter Sinfield.

The harmonic basis for the tune "The Letters" is derived from the Giles, Giles and Fripp song "Why Don't You Just Drop In," available on The Brondesbury Tapes compilation. The bridge section is also taken from the King Crimson version of the song, performed by the original line-up, titled simply "Drop In" and later released on the live-album Epitaph. The original basis for the song "Prelude: Song of the Gulls" is derived from the Giles, Giles and Fripp song "Suite No. 1". The first vinyl release of the album features a hidden track. At the end of side two there is a recording of studio chatter followed by Fripp saying, among other things, "...What we're going to do, umm... do it twice more, once with the oboe, once without it, and then... we finish." This was included on the initial CD release but was accidentally left off the first pressings of the 1989 Definitive Edition CD remaster. It was restored on all subsequent reissues.

The original United Kingdom and European cover depicts the Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius and displays neither the name of the band nor the title. The original United States and Canadian album cover (as released by Atlantic Records) was a Peter Sinfield painting of off-white with coloured "islands". This was used as an internal gatefold sleeve in the UK. When the King Crimson catalogue was re-issued by EG, they standardised on the "Trifid Nebula" cover world-wide.

I really enjoy this 1971 release by King Crimson in spite of the fact that it is neither as wildly virtuosic nor heavy as the first album and the trio of brilliant albums released during 1973-1974. In contrast, Islands is largely quiet and brooding, with dark, low tones played on reed, brass, and string instruments, woodwinds, along with moody mellotron pads here and there. With respect to the new band members, bassist Boz Burrell's lack of familiarity with the electric bass and his admittedly simplistic approach to the instrument might not have worked in any other setting but works well in this stripped down context. Fortunately, his lack of playing ability is more than compensated for by his great vocal abilities, superior acoustic bassist Harry Miller (his bowed and plucked parts are featured on the first piece), and superb drumming by Ian Wallace. Fripp of course is excellent as both a composer/arranger and guitarist, although his guitar playing is not featured prominently on this album - in fact, with the exception of a single, frenzied guitar solo on Sailor's Tale, the electric guitar is pretty much absent. Keboardist extraordinaire Keith Tippett is another person that I wish there was more of on this album. The pieces including Formentara Lady/Sailor's Tale, The Letters, and Islands are more or less similarly sullen, quiet, and acoustic, while the classically influenced instrumental Song of the Gulls is hauntingly beautiful and features a wonderful string arrangement written by Robert Fripp. In stark contrast to these five pieces is Ladies of the Road, which is a brash and vulgar song (with Beatle-esque undertones) that pays homage to groupies and is not terribly good, although Mel Collins sax solo is perfectly "brash and vulgar". Although this album may not be a fan favorite and the lineup was pretty awful live (listen to Earthbound for proof), I find great pleasure in the overall darkness and gloom of the recording. Although King Crimson would go on to greater things following this album, I consider this an excellent addition to any King Crimson collection.

When I first listened to 'Letters', back in 1971, I found myself shaking afterwards! When I listen to this song today, it has the same effect on me as back then! Nothing has changed, because this incredible album was eons ahead of its time, to begin with. It's no wonder that many Crimson fans do not place this gem where it belongs: It's too personal, too esoteric, perhaps fully accessible only to the "initiates" (let us not forget that Robert Fripp is a very spiritual person and a serious student/teacher of meditation. In fact, in his guitar school, meditation is an integral part of the student's training). This album certainly contains the best elements of King Crimson's music. The heavy (Sailor's Tale), the lyrical (Formentera Lady, Islands), the classical (Prelude..), the jazzy (Letters, Sailor's Tale), and the pop/humorous (Ladies of the Road). But most important, behind the real beauty of the music, comes a message of despair and agony: The cry of the contemporary man who tries to escape the crashing loneliness of this age. The need of us humans to escape our plightful, lonely "island" state of existence and merge into a collective consciousness (..Islands join hands 'neath heaven sea). Together with 'Red', this is not only my favourite Crimson album, but one of my five favourite albums ever!

Tracks Listing

1. Formentera Lady (10:14)
2. Sailor's Tale (7:21)
3. The Letters (4:26)
4. Ladies Of The Road (5:28)
5. Prelude: Song Of The Gulls (4:14)
6. Islands (11:51)

Total Time: 43:34

Line-up / Musicians

- Robert Fripp / guitar, Mellotron, Peter's Pedal Harmonium and sundry implements
- Mel Collins / flute, bass flute, saxes and vocals
- Boz Burrell / bass guitar, lead vocals and choreography
- Ian Wallace / drums, percussion and vocals
- Peter Sinfield / words, sounds and visions

- Keith Tippet / piano
- Paulina Lucas / soprano
- Robin Miller / oboe
- Mark Charig / cornet
- Harry Miller / string bass