Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One
"What if Hendrix was playing Bartok?" This is how Robert Fripp summarized his fundamental musical aim of the period. This first piece gets as close to that as we’re likely to see. A truly collaborative piece that came together throughout rehearsals and via play-ins on the road. Each member’s talents are given room to shine and stand-out here.
One of the most inventive and dynamic opening pieces on any rock album anywhere begins with Jamie Muir picking out a simple, child-like melody on an African thumb piano. Soon other percussion joins in, glass bottles, chimes, a xylophone. A whining violin enters and leaves. The thumb piano disappears into a rain shower of sound. On the other side of this shower a foreboding staccato violin pumps out Stravinsky-esque accented chords and a menacing guitar sustain comes sweeping in.
Before the listener knows what’s happened a wall of power chords, bass, drums, guitar attacks with two heavy volleys interspersed with manic drumming and bicycle horns.
The piece takes off with an impossibly fast demented arpeggio line from Fripp on guitar and joined in a kind of odd dance by Bruford’s drumming and Wetton’s bass line. All the while Muir’s percussion thrashes in between. The piece transitions to a Bruford/Wetton groove with Fripp’s right hand slashing faster and faster at his guitar.
It finally collapses and Cross’s violin emerges from the dust of this first seven minutes of rock into a beautiful solo and duet with Muir on autoharp.
A grand pause is broken by the staccato chords recurring from Fripp’s guitar. Barely audible panicked voices are heard underneath the rising lines of Cross’s violin. The piece ascends to a final punch followed by an ominous coda dominated by Wetton’s wide bass and Cross’s baleful violin.
Book of Saturday
The cacophany, thunder, and chaos of Larks’ Tongues Part One gives way to one of the most achingly beautiful ballads in 70s rock. The Crimson ballad is a tradition which had started with I Talk to the Wind. Crimson music has always been a study in contrasts, shifting dynamics, and moods. It attacks you and pounds you one second, and caresses you the next.
Here Fripp’s delicate guitar melody accompanies Wetton’s smoky vocal. The first lyric penned for King Crimson by someone other than Peter Sinfield. This Richard Palmer-James poem wonderfully delivers the Crimson world from Sinfield’s archaic medieval imagery, imbuing the album with a sense of romance, and modern-world mystery.
The song is suitably restrained with a wonderful violin solo and bits of backwards guitar and mellotron flute.
A beautiful, timeless little tune that wouldn’t be out of place alongside the songs from Fripp’s favorite album of the period, Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The track clearly differentiates Crimson from acts like the Mahavishnu Orchestra who could go toe-to-toe with Crimson in terms of instrumentals tour-de-force, but lacked the range to attempt something as delicate as Book of Saturday.
The mid-point of the album begins with the distorted sounds of Muir’s trombone, an effected violin, and bowed cymbals. This surfaces into Fripp’s Mantra theme from the mellotron’s cello setting.
Cross introduces the main pastoral theme on violin, a melody that the violinist developed in early rehearsals. Fripp’s acoustic guitar and a subdued rhythm section (something that would become a rarity with this outfit) introduce the first verse of a lyric filled with longing, separation, and resigned peace.
Like Book of Saturday, Exiles imagery marks a significant departure from previous Crimson with its focus on evoking a raw emotion rather than emphasizing layers of arcane imagery. There’s also a maturation of perspective. No longer is the subject matter of the songs devoted to the observations of very young men. These are the lyrics for people who have lost their naiveté, but still long for innocence.
Fripp’s acoustic guitar work, always inventive, and never given over to pointless strumming does not disappoint here, setting the perfect tone.
The delicacy of the piece is further established with a contribution from Cross on flute and Wetton on piano. And a gorgeous and muted electric solo from Fripp takes Exiles to its serene conclusion.
The second side of the album begins with a piece that in its recorded state is much more tame than the aggressive live monster it would become. Opening with the sounds of the band members clomping their fists into buckets of mud, the song tells the tale of an empty life dedicated to the pursuit of riches, with more than a few passing references to vapid musical celebrity and the lecherous-ness of artist management.
After the first two verses the band descends into an atmospheric space. A simple trio of Fripp, Bruford, and Wetton is underpinned by Cross on mellotron. Muir dances around adding percussive color (xylophone, baking sheet crashes, whistles, guffaws, etc.). The instrumental section moves through some rise and fall, constantly teasing the rise out of the atmospherics. Bruford begins to hit things faster and faster. Fripp’s playing becomes more frenetic.
The band comes rushing out of the bridge for the final verse Bruford and Wetton hold down a groove with an electric piano comping on top of it to a groove that is almost funky.
Of all the pieces on the re-mastered version of the album, this is the one that has had the most punch restored by Steven Wilson’s re-mix.
The piece ends with Muir’s demonic laughing box toy cackling away as bolo whips and wind sounds emerge to signal the album’s finale.
The Talking Drum
An instrumental born out of studio and road improvisations, The Talking Drum opens with Muir’s hand drumming in a windy landscape. The overall piece takes on the form of a demonic Indian raga. Wetton establishes a steady line from the start supplying a dance-able groove for the rest of the players to move around.
Cross, Fripp, and Muir imbue the track with a sense of tribal Eastern music, evoking imagery of a turkish sufi dance, or a late-night fire dance.
Another piece that belies the monster it became in live performance, it’s notable that this track became one of the staples of Crimson live performance for the next three and a half decades, serving as a slowly building piece of wonderful, terrifying madness into Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two with the screeching of the tongues of the larks that never fails to set one’s hair on end.
It’s also worth noting that the piece typifies Crimson’s approach to musical fusion. Crimson always drew on wide, varied influences for its music from straight-up hard rock, jazz, classical, folk and Eastern music. But rarely took the approach of simply including an orchestra as a backing instrucment and calling it classical. Or playing jazz standards with a rock set-up and calling it fusion. The effort was always towards a musical sound that was more than the sum of its parts and honored its traditions by presenting something new.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
With more than a passing nod to Bartok’s string quartets the album ends with a piece that is the strongest piece of work by Fripp to date as a composer.
LTiA II is an orchestral piece with each member of the band performing as a section of the orchestra.
Along with Talking Drum, this is another piece that formed the staple of the band’s live set for the next three decades. It would grow and expand to accommodate a fantastic menagerie of organized noise and sound.
The main theme is introduced and revisited throughout the piece, building intensity with each passing. A middle bridge is reached with Fripp exchanging metal chords with Bruford and Wetton before making room for a jarring and discordant violin solo from Cross ahead of the final rise to the fantastic ending flourish.