Tuesday, January 11, 2011
King Crimson - Islands (1971)
King Crimson is a little more mainstream than I like to get on this blog. However, I feel the need to defend this wonderful album from its many detractors.
"Islands" is the most heavily maligned of all of King Crimson's 70's studio albums, and based on its reputation, I took my time in acquiring it. When the fortieth anniversary remaster of it was released, I saw it as an opportunity to complete my collection and boy am I glad that I did! It has since become one of my very favorite records from the group, second only to their debut and maybe "Lizard."
"Islands" is the fourth studio album from the continually disintegrating band headed by Robert Fripp. Given the fact that the personnel vary so frequently, it's remarkable that Fripp was able to get anything at all recorded, let alone something of such high quality. The album consists of six generally lengthy songs and maintains a somewhat more laid back atmosphere than King Crimson is known for, but the record is not without its intense moments. I find both the title and the cover art to be extremely appropriate; the theme of little spots of color surrounded by emptiness is embodied perfectly in the music here.
The opening track, "Formentera Lady," begins with brooding cellos which gradually give way to a rather pastoral song without much drama. This all changes with "A Sailor's Tale," an energetic and orginal piece recalling the bombast of "21st Century Schizoid Man." However, unlike King Crimson's second album, "In The Wake of Poseidon," "Islands" avoids simply rehashing earlier material and all of the songs have a personailty of their own. "The Letters" is extremely powerful both musically and lyrically and "Ladies of the Road," while admittedly somewhat crass, is saved by the Beatles-esque vocal harmonies in the chorus. Finally, we are treated to an orchestral piece and the expansive melancholy of the title track.
The musicianship is excellent all around, especially considering that Fripp, lacking a bass player, had to teach all the parts to the singer note for note. Fripp's banjo influenced solo on "A Sailor's Tale" is unlike anything I've ever heard on an electric guitar. The drumming is universally great.
With regard to the remixing and remastering on the fortieth anniversary edition, it seems to me to be very fine. Stephen Wilson of Porcupine Tree has handled all of the engineering here and while I am no fan of his music, his capacities as a technician are impressive. Graciously, the previous thirtieth anniversary version (as well as numerous bonus tracks) has been included in its entirety for comparison and the new version is much more dynamic and engaging.
I am not sure what has prmpted listeners to reject "Isalnds" over the years, but as far as I am concerned it is one of King Crimson's finest works and deserves more recognition than it gets. Any fan of the group owes it to themselves to pick up a copy at their earliest convenience.