10 King Crimson Songs Loved By Fans

King Crimson Songs

Feature Photo: Distributed by Atlantic Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Formed in London in 1968, King Crimson emerged as a seminal force in the progressive rock genre, blending an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, folk, and more into their innovative soundscapes. Their broad musical palette, encompassing everything from heavy metal to electronic and experimental music, set them apart as pioneers, influencing not only their 1970s contemporaries like Yes and Genesis but also a diverse array of artists in the decades that followed.

The founding members, Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, and Peter Sinfield, established the band’s distinctive sound with their debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King” in 1969. This album, marked by its fusion of jazz, classical, and experimental elements, became a landmark in the progressive rock movement and secured the band’s commercial and influential success.

However, the band’s journey was not without its challenges. The departure of McDonald and Giles, closely followed by Lake, led to a period of transition marked by the albums “In the Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard,” both released in 1970. Despite these changes, King Crimson continued to evolve, with Fripp steering the band towards new directions in European free improvisation and increasingly complex compositions. The mid-1970s saw what many consider the band’s creative zenith with the albums “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” “Starless and Bible Black,” and “Red,” thanks to the contributions of members like Bill Bruford, John Wetton, David Cross, and Jamie Muir. Yet, by the end of 1974, King Crimson had disbanded.

The silence was broken in 1981 when Fripp reformed King Crimson with a fresh lineup and a new sound influenced by African rhythms, post-punk, and minimalism, leading to the creation of “Discipline,” “Beat,” and “Three of a Perfect Pair.” The band’s ability to reinvent itself continued into the 1990s and beyond, with the formation of “The Double Trio” and later “The Double Duo,” each incarnation exploring new musical territories from industrial sounds to complex, multi-layered compositions.

After a series of hiatuses and a period where Fripp was believed to have retired, King Crimson re-emerged in 2013 with a novel lineup that included three drummers and a new guitarist and vocalist, Jakko Jakszyk. This version of the band, known for its formidable live performances, toured extensively until 2021, further solidifying King Crimson’s legacy as progressive rock innovators and musical trailblazers.

# 10 – Fallen Angel

We open our King Crimson songs list with the track “Fallen Angel,” This is a powerful piece. The narrative within “Fallen Angel” unfolds through the mournful verses sung by John Wetton, articulating a man’s deep sorrow over the loss of his younger brother, who tragically falls victim to gang violence on the streets of New York City. The emotional weight of the lyrics, coupled with Wetton’s heartfelt delivery, imbues the song with a profound sense of tragedy and lamentation.

Musically, the track is anchored by a distinctive arpeggio crafted by Robert Fripp, which originated from an improvisational session during the recording of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” in 1972, involving five members of the band. The song also features contributions from guest musicians Mark Charig on cornet and Robin Miller on oboe, both of whom had collaborated with King Crimson on earlier projects such as “Lizard” (1970) and “Islands” (1971).

Notably, “Fallen Angel” marks the last appearance of the acoustic guitar in a King Crimson studio recording played by Robert Fripp, a detail that underscores the song’s unique place within the band’s discography. Despite its significance, the track remained absent from King Crimson’s live performances until it was finally brought to the stage in Chicago in 2017, offering fans a long-awaited live rendition of this emotive piece.

The personnel on “Fallen Angel” includes Robert Fripp, who contributes his expertise on the guitar and Mellotron, John Wetton, who provides the poignant vocals and bass, and Bill Bruford on drums and percussion. The ensemble is rounded out with the Charig as mentioned earlier and Miller, together creating a layered and richly textured musical composition that stands as a testament to King Crimson’s innovative approach to progressive rock.

# 9 – In The Wake of Poseidon

The title track off the band’s second album, In The Wake of Poseidon, is the last record featuring Greg Lake on vocals. Receiving mostly positive reviews, the album was, however, often accused of being almost a song-for-song copy of their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. For many, Poseidon may have been too reminiscent of Epitaph off that first record but considering the strength of that song, who cares?

# 8 – Islands

The closing and title track to the band’s fourth studio album features a softer, mellower side of King Crimson.  Distinguished as the sole studio recording to encapsulate the unique synergy of the 1971–1972 touring ensemble, “Islands” brought together the talents of Robert Fripp, Mel Collins, Boz Burrell, and Ian Wallace. This album marked a pivotal moment in King Crimson’s discography, serving as the final chapter before the band, with Fripp as the sole constant, embarked on a new journey with a completely revamped lineup to create the renowned trilogy: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” “Starless and Bible Black,” and “Red” between 1973 and 1974. “Islands” also holds the distinction of being the last King Crimson album to feature the lyrical contributions of co-founding member Peter Sinfield.

Musically, “Islands” represents an evolution from the band’s previous work, particularly “Lizard,” delving deeper into improvisational jazz territories. Despite its ambitious musical explorations, the album elicited mixed reactions from critics, but fans loved it.

# 7 – Larks Tongue in Aspic (Entire Suite)

“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” is a monumental suite by King Crimson, an English progressive rock band, unfolding across thirty years and encapsulated within four distinct albums. This suite, comprising five parts, weaves a tapestry of musical motifs that echo through each segment, creating a cohesive yet evolving narrative. The journey begins with the first two parts presented in the band’s 1973 album titled after the suite itself. The saga continues with part III in the 1984 album “Three of a Perfect Pair,” followed by part IV in 2000’s “The Construkction of Light,” which is uniquely divided into three segments bearing the same title. The suite’s narrative culminates with “Level Five” in the 2003 album “The Power to Believe.” Despite deviating from the naming convention, Robert Fripp, the band’s linchpin, affirms that “Level Five” seamlessly integrates into the suite’s continuum.

The inception of the suite in 1973 with “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” sets a dramatic tone, characterized by Robert Fripp’s intricate guitar work, David Cross’s poignant violin, and Jamie Muir’s eclectic percussion. This part is a journey through contrasting musical landscapes, from tranquil to tumultuous, enriched by unconventional sounds like breaking crockery and metallic clangs, with Muir’s innovative approach earning the suite its name. The creation of this piece, stemming from extensive band improvisations, was a testament to King Crimson’s collaborative spirit and experimental ethos.

In contrast, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two” hones in on Fripp’s guitar prowess, delivering a more focused and riff-driven composition. This part, emerging from a 1972 live performance, serves as a powerful conclusion to the album, celebrated for its compelling bass lines and Fripp’s compositional refinement. The suite’s initial two parts not only challenged the band’s creative boundaries but also received acclaim for their groundbreaking contributions to progressive rock.

Decades later, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III” heralded a stylistic evolution, mirroring the passage of time and the introduction of new members Adrian Belew and Tony Levin. This part retains the suite’s thematic essence while exploring new sonic territories, marked by a blend of electronic and acoustic rhythms.

The fourth installment, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic – Part IV,” further expands the suite’s musical dialogue, introducing fresh rhythmic patterns and melodic explorations. “Coda: I Have a Dream” serves as a reflective epilogue to part IV, weaving in lyrical elements that add a new dimension to the instrumental narrative. This segment, performed both vocally and instrumentally over the years, encapsulates the suite’s enduring legacy and King Crimson’s innovative prowess.

The personnel contributing to the suite’s evolution include Robert Fripp, David Cross, John Wetton, Bill Bruford, and Jamie Muir, among others, whose collective genius has cemented “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” as a cornerstone of progressive rock.

# 6 – I Talk to the Wind

The second track on In The Court of The Crimson King, this quiet number features the flute work of Ian McDonald. The idea of following a loud, harder edged song with something on the mellow side becomes a bit of a theme for Crimson throughout the years. In this case, “I Talk To The Wind,” acts as a calming palate cleanser after the madness of 21st Century Schizoid Man, which starts the album.

# 5 – Red

The first and title track off 1974’s Red, this 6:15 second instrumental sets the tone for Crimson’s heaviest album. While its polyrhythmic melodies and multiple time signatures give it that classic Crimson feel, the hard edge of Fripp’s guitar work stands out as the predominant sound on one of the heaviest King Crimson Songs in their catalog. The album’s rich, dense soundscapes were crafted by the synergistic efforts of just three band members: guitarist Robert Fripp, bassist and vocalist John Wetton, and drummer Bill Bruford.

The album’s layered complexity was achieved through extensive use of guitar overdubs and the contributions of key guest musicians, including former King Crimson members Ian McDonald and Mel Collins. Additionally, the album featured the talents of classical oboist Robin Miller and English jazz trumpeter Mark Charig.

Released amidst a period of tumult for King Crimson, “Red” arrived just two weeks before the band announced its disbandment. Despite its initial commercial performance, which saw the album briefly charting at No. 45 in the UK and No. 66 in the US, “Red” quickly garnered acclaim from both fans and critics alike. Over time, its reputation has only grown, with many recognizing it as one of King Crimson’s most significant and enduring works. The album has been reissued multiple times, a testament to its lasting impact and the high regard in which it is held within the progressive rock community and beyond.

# 4 – Starless

The last track on the last King Crimson record of the 1970s, Starless, stands as a 12-minute musical epic initially intended to be the title track of Starless and Bible Black, the band’s sixth studio album. Wetton wrote the initial lyrics and melody, but Bill Bruford and Fripp didn’t feel it was good enough for the album. After some alterations to the words and melody, the song was recorded six months later during the Red sessions. As the third track off that album to make this top 10, Red is an absolute must for any Crimson listener.

# 3 – Epitaph

Perhaps not the most recognizable song nor the most driven on the Top 10 King Crimson songs list, “Epitaph” captures something special from Crimson. Sinfield’s lyrics, sung by Lake’s powerful voice, often stand alone, giving them a haunting feel. McDonald’s Mellotron and flute work makes a strong argument that he may have been the most underrated member of the band over the years. Fripp’s delicate acoustic guitar work fit so perfectly beside it all that one wonders why he gave it up five years later. An emotional journey, Epitaph stands as one of the band’s most powerful moments and one of the greatest King Crimson Songs of all time.

# 2 – 21st Century Schizoid Man

The opening track of their debut, “21st Century Schizoid Man” features a Fripp guitar solo that has been rated one of the top 100 guitar solos of all time by Guitar World. The solo comes during a heavy, instrumental middle section with Lake’s bass, Michael Giles drums, and McDonald’s saxophone filling out this musical mash-up of prog rock, jazz, and heavy metal. Schizoid Man isn’t so much a song as it is an experience that leaves you breathless a mere seven minutes later.

Penned by lyricist Peter Sinfield, the song’s textual fabric is woven with a series of vivid, disjointed images that deliver a potent commentary on the socio-political tumult of the era, particularly the Vietnam War. Sinfield’s masterful use of imagery, such as “Politicians’ funeral pyre” and “Innocence raped with napalm fire,” evokes the horrors of the conflict and the insidious impact of Agent Orange. The allegorical “Cat’s foot, iron claw” further enriches the song’s tapestry of symbols, drawing from the fable “The Monkey and the Cat” to critique manipulation and deceit.

The musical landscape of “21st Century Schizoid Man” is equally compelling, characterized by Greg Lake’s distorted vocal delivery and the complex instrumental segment known as “Mirrors.” The song traverses various time signatures, predominantly in 4/4 and 6/4, culminating in an avant-garde outro devoid of a conventional meter, reminiscent of the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s experimental endeavors. The track’s genre-defying nature, straddling heavy metal, jazz-rock, and progressive rock, has left an indelible mark on the evolution of progressive metal and industrial music.

It’s hard to pin down exactly who King Crimson is or what style they encapsulate other than Robert Fripp’s musical vision. It is, however, easy to say that King Crimson is as unique as they are prolific. To this day Fripp and some combination of musicians are out playing a new version of an old song or a new one altogether and they don’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.

# 1 – The Court of the Crimson King

Everyone knows this one. “The Court of the Crimson King,” also known as “In the Court of the Crimson King,” stands as the iconic closing track of the British progressive rock band King Crimson’s debut album with the same name. This seminal piece marked King Crimson’s bold entrance into the music scene and achieved a notable milestone by reaching number 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a unique achievement for a King Crimson single.

Characterized by its mesmerizing four-bar mellotron riff, the song unfolds across four distinct stanzas, punctuated by an instrumental passage titled “The Return of the Fire Witch.” The composition reaches a climactic fusion of intensity and complexity around the seven-minute mark, momentarily pausing before transitioning into an instrumental section known as “The Dance of the Puppets.” This segment leads into a final reiteration of the main theme, concluding the track on a resonant note. Ian McDonald crafted the musical framework, while Peter Sinfield penned the evocative lyrics.

Critics of the time recognized the track’s distinctive qualities, with Cash Box highlighting its “unusual lyric imagery and instrumental impact,” likening its mesmerizing effect to that of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles. Record World also praised the song, noting its blend of hard rock with sophisticated jazz elements, underscoring the band’s innovative approach to music composition.

The personnel behind this monumental track included Robert Fripp on guitars, Greg Lake handling bass guitar and lead vocals, Ian McDonald contributing with Mellotron among other instruments and backing vocals, Michael Giles on drums and percussion as well as backing vocals, and Peter Sinfield as the lyricist.

Top 10 King Crimson Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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