Easy Money: King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic at 50
Looking back on the band’s greatest album
Despite dropping their earth-shattering debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, just a few short years earlier, King Crimson were on arguably their second permanent line-up by the time they released Larks’ Tongues in Aspic on March 23rd, 1973.
The original lineup disbanded shortly after the release of their debut and the group’s longtime mastermind Robert Fripp trudged along with makeshift groups for the albums Lizard, In the Wake of Poseidon and Islands. While those albums certainly shouldn’t be dismissed, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic feels like the true successor to In the Court of the Crimson King.
While the group already specialized in sidestepping conventional expectations, the new lineup Fripp assembled for this record showed his intentions to lean further into the avant-garde and free improvisation which had always existed as important elements in the group’s sound. Bringing on David Cross on violin and keyboards added to the group’s textural palette while vocalist/bassist John Wetton proved to be both a powerhouse instrumentalist and frontman. They also managed to entice one of progressive rock’s greatest drummers to defect from Yes in the form of Bill Bruford. Perhaps most telling was the addition of Jamie Muir on percussion. Deeply steeped in free improvisation, Muir had already worked with such luminaries as Evan Parker and Derek Bailey. In Crimson, he employed a staggering arsenal of found instruments, including but not limited to a bicycle frame, various toys, chimes, bells, and even the occasional drum. A master of his craft, Muir starts with the group’s innate sense of otherness and elevates it to the alien.
Fittingly, the album begins with “Lark’s’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 1”, a piece that derived its structure from various live improvisations that took place on the road before the recording. Muir begins the piece hammering out an odd rhythm on what sounds like a kalimba, instantly signaling that this recording would be a unique experience. A labyrinth of sounds and styles follows, a paradoxically cohesive mess. Fusion and free improvisation, often seen as incompatible branches of the jazz tree, bounce back and forth off each other regularly. The main guitar riff that anchors the piece wouldn’t sound out of place on a Black Sabbath record. Cross employs the violin regularly to lay a foundation to build upon while Wetton’s bass playing is spectacular, often employing a wah-wah effect. When Fripp isn’t laying down metal riffs his guitar cranks out complex, spidery jazz shapes. Bonus points to anyone who notices the muffled snatches of dialogue that sometimes bubble up from beneath the music. At nearly fifteen minutes in length, the music proves utterly enthralling.
King Crimson must’ve figured the only way to follow up such an epic instrumental was by taking a completely different approach next. “Book of Saturday” is a short ballad featuring a jazzy approach from Fripp’s guitar and a tender vocal from Wetton. The chord structure is unique but the tune still feels simple, especially compared to what had just come before.
“Exiles” maintains the subdued tone of its predecessor but is a much longer and more expansive track. It almost feels like a glimpse into an alternative history where Pink Floyd were virtuosos on their instruments but aimed to create the same atmosphere with their music.
Speaking of Pink Floyd, Crimson’s “Easy Money” bares a slight resemblance to Floyd’s own “Money”, both released in 1973. Obviously, Crimson’s tune is much more adventurous, an almost piecemeal structure that includes an almost dirge-like feel in the beginning and rhythmic explosions from Bruford and Muir later in the track. But there are many times one can almost here Floyd’s cash register groove haunting in the background. Even the maniacal laughing that closes the track seems to find a distant echo in the chortles that arrive at the end of Floyd’s “Brain Damage”.
“The Talking Drum” returns to more fusion-oriented territory. With Cross’s violin dueting with Fripp’s guitar, one can’t help but think of Mahavishnu Orchestra. But any semblance of the influence of Indian music is traded in for a sense of the surreal, with the first few minutes given to barely audible abstract sounds, presumably with Muir being the prime contributor.
The album is then bookended by “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2”. Another instrumental piece, it primarily mines a couple of themes with the band following various tangents throughout. While more cohesive than the album opener, it is no less adventurous. One of the primary motifs sees them mining rhythmic territory that seems to presage both Tool and Primus, if not the King Crimson’s own music in the ’90s. The other primary theme is more melodically based and wouldn’t have been out of place on their debut.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic may have been influenced by a myriad of styles but the music is not so much a hybrid as it is singular. All is in service of their vision, and this might explain the group’s longevity. Many might forget that Robert Fripp wasn’t the primary songwriter for In The Court of the Crimson King debut. So while working with various lineups on In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizards and Islands, Fripp wasn’t only trying to find a permanent band but was also trying to tap into what made that first record so special. He succeeded on Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.
It is telling too that he has often stated that King Crimson possesses a spirit separate from himself or any band members on any particular lineup. Fripp found the spirit and has remained in communication ever since.
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