Monday, June 14, 2010


King Crimson/1970

It’s usually referred to as a “career killer.” You know, that album. The one an artist would release – the wacky, incomprehensible and (most importantly) unlistenable album. Leaving even the most hardcore fans scratching their heads in utter confusion, while fair-weather fans simply said “Heard enough” and moved on, never to return. Which brings us to Lizard, the third album by King Crimson. But first, some background. King Crimson burst onto the scene in 1969 with a debut album considered the iconic template for progressive rock at the time. With doom-and-gloom sci-fi/fantasy lyrics about 21st Century Schizoid Men, sung amidst a darkly orchestral, spooky atmosphere thanks to an instrument called the Mellotron, In the Court of the Crimson King became an instant classic. Sadly, the original lineup suffered a meltdown after the first U.S. tour and by 1970 guitarist Robert Fripp was pretty much on his own. However, this also provided the opportunity to mold King Crimson into his own vision. Now, he could hand-pick the personnel and lead them into uncharted musical territory, deep into a murky concoction of rock, classical and most predominantly on Lizard, jazz. Thus, Fripp assembled a horny jazz section (or would that be a jazzy horn section?); probably the first oboe player ever to get credited on a rock album; a mad avante-jazz piano pounder named Keith Tippett; and a core lineup consisting of Gordon Haskell (bass, lead vocals, laughing) and Andy McCulloch (drums). The lead-off track “Cirkus” sets the stage for Lizard’s oddly detached strangeness, a musical journey through a circus from hell – based around an ominous Mellotron riff, sung with Haskell’s deep, ghoulish voice and featuring some of lyricist Peter Sinfield’s most mind-pummeling lyrics:

“Night: her sable dome scattered with diamonds,
Fused my dust from a light year,
Squeezed me to her breast, sowed me with carbon,
Strung my warp across time.”

Try singin’ that one to yourself whilst strolling in the sunshine. Things continue with “Indoor Games” and “Happy Family,” two quirky, meandering, and strangely entertaining tracks, and the serene and pretty “Lady of the Dancing Water,” until we get to the epic, sidelong “Lizard” song suite. The first section, “Prince Rupert Awakes” is sung by guest vocalist Jon Anderson (Yes) and his angelic, choirboy voice belies the usual perversity of Sinfield’s warped lyrics:

“Wake your reasons’ hollow vote
Wear your blizzard season coat
Burn a bridge and burn a boat
Stake a Lizard by the throat.”

Hmmmmm. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lizards might have a problem with that. What follows is a long, jazzy bolero section where the horn players get to “do their thing” and blow their brains out (bookended by Robin Miller’s pretty oboe melody) which segues into “The Battle of Glass Tears.” Here, all heck breaks loose and the album succumbs to a cacophony of musical warfare and dissonant chaos (not unlike “The Devil’s Triangle,” the epic from their previous album In the Wake of Poseidon) where mighty Mellotrons moan, horns blare and bleat in a free-form jazz orgy, while the listener…just wants it all to mercifully end. Which it does, eventually. The battle is over, the smoke has cleared, leaving us with Fripp’s solitary, eerily sustained guitar lines played over a somber drum beat…almost as if his guitar is the vulture, slowly circling the dead on the battlefield. Not a pretty thought, but then Lizard is not a pretty album (though it does have its moments of dark beauty). And things got even uglier after it was recorded. Haskell refused to go on tour because he hated the lyrics. Both he and McCulloch bolted, and Fripp was once again a King without a Crimson. He would regroup (excuse the pun) and form yet another lineup for the next album, Islands, hopefully undoing the damage to his kingdom inflicted by the evil Lizard.

Essential tracks: “Cirkus” “Indoor Games” “Prince Rupert Awakes” “Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale” “The Battle of Glass Tears”

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