Friday, 9 March 2012
The Maningrey Review # 2 - Larks' Tongues in Aspic
By counterfieter at 10:58
An informal series of reviews of prog/psych/weirdness for the drug crazed and incontinent...
Does anyone else have the thing where you KNOW a particular album is the best creation by a band but time and again you read reviews where inferior albums by the artist are recommended in magazine reviews and blogs?
Well with KC you will be told that their debut album or "Red" or "Discipline" or "Starless and Bible Black" are the first port of call to get into the band...They are not...the pinnacle of the Crim's catalogue, and possibly prog rock in general, is "Larks' Tongues in Aspic".
Don't get me wrong I love a lot of KC's previous albums, I love the weird culty appeal of liking such stodgy over ripe fair as "Lizard" or " Islands". Yes they are easy to mock for the pretension and opulence of the arrangements, hell "Lizard" practically defines the word "rococo" with more folds and ruffs than a King Charles II portrait, but they are bold, imaginative and unique. In a world of Starbucks and X Factor such strangeness and exuberance is almost shocking when rediscovered on dusty old vinyl.
But early Crim suffered as much as any band of the era from the flaws that bedeviled prog and still keep it as the music you hide in a cupboard when a girl comes to visit. In fact with their massive debut album "In the Court of the Crimson King" they more or less defined the genre in both the positive and negative aspects. Hideous "poetic" lyrics, hilariously overblown chest beating vocals (by Greg Lake later of the god awful ELP) and aimless jamming.
Following the collapse of the original band guitarist Robert Fripp led a motley crew of ever changing sidemen and drifted further and further into complete abstraction, nothing wrong with this of course, but it was by way of a particularly weedy form of light jazz which reached it's nadir in the terrible track "Formentera Lady" as bland as "21st Century Schizoid Man" was fiery. Fripp was at a cross roads and he made the first step towards a brave new world by jettisoning the horrible lyrics and influence of Peter Sinfield and sought out a younger hungrier set of musicians to reclaim the fury and promise of the first line up.
Having poached drum prodigy Bill Bruford from mega successful Yes, former Family bassist John Wetton and deranged free jazz percussionist Jamie Muir the band's first shows created an instant stir. Gone were the flourish and ornate orchestration of old, replaced by a brittle sound based on improvisation that foreshadowed both obvious progeny such as Tool and more unlikely bands like Public Image Ltd and This Heat.
The new units first record together is a culmination of all the varied strands that Fripp had been attempting to weave together but until now a firm alloy had always eluded him. Serene violin reminiscent of Vaughan Williams (by David Cross) abruptly switches into spasming Teutonic riffing. Dark swathes of mellotron glower over bubbling Gamelan percussion. Sludgy Wah bass straight from a Sly Stone record rumbles against percussion which sounds like scurrying cockroaches after a nuclear fall out...and that's just the first track, the mighty "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part 1"!
The seemingly ridiculous title of the album actually sums up the twin obsessions of impossibly gentle pastoral and terrifying bludgeoning which have always been a KC trademark. Except this album combines both poles within tracks rather than the traditional "heavy track" vs "ballad" split on previous albums. This schizophrenic quiet/loud arrangement trick was later turned into a cliche by bands like The Pixies and Nirvana. Oddly Kurt Cobain was a fan of the follow up album "Starless and Bible Black".
One of the features of the album is how Bill Bruford's elegant drumming is prevented from the fussiness which permeated his work with Yes by the thuggish brutality of Wetton's distorted bass and Muir's scatter gun approach to percussion. I still have no idea how Muir creates half the sounds that squirm throughout the music. Scurrying insects, buzzing flies, ripping suspenders, laughing clowns, Muir has a whole menagerie of creatures at his disposal. There is a crawling sense of unease in even the gentlest tracks, a Gothic crepuscular tension as the instruments fight for space amid the sound effects.
The second track is also the weakest, "Book of Saturday" is a gentle ballad with terrible lyrics in the tradition of older tracks like "Cadence and Cascade". A pretty tune but bland after the fireworks of the previous title track. One positive is that it shows Wetton to be a much stronger singer than previous members although I tend to think of KC as an instrumental unit who happen to sing the odd song.
However the next track more than makes up for it, "Exiles" is possibly my favourite track by the band. Massive and mysterious it drifts in on a swirl of dissonant mellotron, not unlike something by Tangerine Dream. Delicate verses are interrupted by this returning storm cloud of sound at regular intervals preventing the melody becoming saccharine. This track shows off the melody of Wetton's bass playing and the restraint in Bruford's percussion. Few guitarists have such an ability to match exquisit lyricism with brute force as Fripp and this track is a web of fluttering Spanish guitar and liquid soloing. Despite the technique the solo at the end is simple and melodic, completely servicing the song. This is the reason Fripp had a concurrent session career with such artists as David Bowie and Brian Eno.
The next track "Easy Money" could not be more different and is the most dated song. An uneasy mix of jazzoid chords, funk and power chording anthemic chorus the track is let down by rank lyrics about a prostitute. KC were unable to find a good lyricist until Adrian Belew joined the 80's line up with his Talking Heads inspired word play. After the song part of the track it breaks into a elongated jam with some inspired minimalist funk between Muir and Bruford before Fripp's dense tangle of notes brings the track home. This track shows the influence on bands like Rush and Voivod.
The last two tracks are brilliant as they are released from the restraint of supporting lyrics and charge headlong into the music pure and simple. "The Talking Drum" starts with a simply drum patten and the sound of buzzing flies before being joined by a repetitive bass line, so far it sounds a bit like Neu. Gradually the track moves up a gear as first David Cross with his violin and then Fripp start playing variations of a riff which crosses dervish intensity with a sitar drone. David Cross was an often overlooked member who eventually left due to being reputably drowned out by the Wetton/Bruford axis in concert. Live sound systems of the day were simply not up to capturing all the nuances of this band so perhaps inevitably it was the harder heavier material which won out in concert. Fripp was an admirer of the Mahavishnu Orchestra so perhaps Cross was added to mimic that band's mix of instruments? On this track though he plays like a demon and the track finally explodes as Wetton steps on his fuzz pedal and the music grinds to a halt amid a scream of feedback.
The intensity does not let up as the second part of the title track comes in like Godzilla destroying Tokyo. One of their most violent pieces of music "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part 2" starts with a simple hacking chord which is then slice and diced by Wetton and Bruford. A hall mark of this album is the way the rhythm section play with time signatures, juggling the "one" about, while still keeping a hard pounding groove. Fripp plays with punk like abandon, he is the only guitar player of his generation who could play with such dirty jagged fury in such a complex context, assimilating the brute force of a garage punk Les Paul with the bare wire harmolodics of Derek Bailey. Cross rips into the music with a shrieking solo before the song rumbles to a halt with a blaze of thrashing chords that sound like a dentists drill.
If you want to get into a truly unique band then this is the place to start.
Thanks for reading.