(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
From the sounds of brilliance to the sounds of desperation in 1 album. This I dare say was one of the very few "close but no cigar" entries in the King Crimson saga.
After the rather messy dissolution of the Lizard lineup (with only Mel Collins and Fripp remaining), which didn't even make it to the stage, A hurt but yet very resolute Fripp set his sights on expanding his musical pallette, incorporating the classical and jazz strains that Lizard so bravely explored and largely succeeded at. Here, it turned out to be an experiment gone awry. Point being, Islands had a ton of potential, but that potential was sabotaged and derailed by two major villains:
1) Very over-extended ideas that went on longer than they should have
2) A very weak bordering on totally inept rhythm section, so much that even the extra musicians bought in could help overly much. In essence, with the exception of Collins and Fripp, they were in over their heads!
Add to this, Fripp was definitely under the gun to produce an album and tour in X amount of time. Days and weeks of frustrating auditions finally wearied him to the point that he would settle for anyone who would stick around long enough to adhere to a certain set of comittments. Enter one Boz Burell, who had never played a bass in his entire life, was handed a Fender P-bass and taught by Fripp from the ground up how to play. I guess in movies, it would be entertaining, but with a band as complex and creatively demanding as King Crimson, a recipe for disaster. While Ian Wallace might have been good in a setting similar to Led Zeppelin or any other heavy rock band, his plodding drumming just didn't fly here for the most part.
But in spite of that, there are some gems here.
"Sailor's Tale" actually turns out to be one of KC's best instrumental pieces, conveying the violence and uncertainty of the sea to its travelers, lots of spooky mellotron here to feast on, and a very unique type of Fripp guitar solo, instead of flurries of notes, he does what amounts to a "shards of metal" rhythm guitar solo spot, building to a dramatic frenzy for the mellotron to roar back in, and then the furious strumming at the end, somehow indicating the sailor got to shore with his very life and not much else.
"Islands" comes close here to being a masterpiece, if only it was shortened a bit, and with better vocals. What does make this piece oddly endearing though is for one, a beautiful cornet section by veteran jazzer Marc Charig over a mournful mellotron bed, and another just simply the way it builds from a spare piano/bass flute beginning.
The rest though is troubling. "Formentera Lady" starts off decently enough (with some help from Keith Tippett on piano and the late string bassist Harry Miller), but then it just wafts along lazily, not picking up any momentum at all. "The Letters" was based on a song called "Drop In" from the original Crimson lineup that was in development. It seems to be uncertain of itself, vacillating between piquant balladry and melodramatic nonsense and a pointless free-jazz section. It could've been a contender if given more thought. "Ladies of the Road" musically is a borderline Beatle-esque/Bluesy gem, but is utterly ruined by Pete Sinfield's obnoxiously sexist/mysoginistic lyrics, SHAME ON YOU!!! "Prelude-Song of the Gulls" comes off as more a textbook exercise on Classical/Romantic period string quartet writing than it does a real heartfelt musical thought (here, played by an uncredited string quartet). As much as I love Robert Fripp's musical concepts, I don't think he'll reinvent Mozart.
One last oddity comes after "Islands" ends, a long period of silence, and then a moment of the string quartet tuning up and Fripp giving some pointers. Many wonder why this was included. Your guess is as good as mine.
Thankfully, this lineup of Crimson didn't last long (only enough to fulfill contractual obligations), and it taught Fripp some valuable and painful lessons, ones that were gainfully employed with the next and best Crimson lineup.
Overall, an ambitious project that shot itself in the foot.
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King Crimson's 1971 album Islands is not quite as weird as it's immediate predecessor, Lizard, but it's also not nearly as interesting. Boz Burrell does not have a strong voice, and his bass playing here was merely serviceable. He and Ian Wallace were probably the weakest "rhythm section" Crimson ever fielded, but the other half of this lineup (Robert Fripp on guitar & Mel Collins on saxophone and flute) was great, as were the guest musicians.
"Formentera Lady" is a dreamy tune that would be nice to listen to while floating on a raft in some tropical paradise. Although the intro took some getting used to, I've come to love how this song gently unfolds like some kind of exotic flower - bowed upright bass yields to a chaotic but alluring mélange of delicate piano runs, fluttering flute lines, and shimmering wind chimes, all of which continue to dart nimbly in and around the vocal melody as Boz starts to sing. The effect is the aural equivalent of watching the dance of reflected sunlight in a fountain. When the vocal section is finished, the song begins to grow a little disquieting, with some agitated sax improv and wordless female vocals. Some may find the song drags a bit, but I think it fills out it's ten minutes nicely.
The instrumental "Sailor's Tale" is another highlight. It begins with a moody, driving section that's the only up-tempo music on the album, then shifts into slow blues mode for an utterly smokin', nasty...rhythm guitar solo (!) by Fripp, full of bent double-stops, stuttering slapback effects, and frenzied strumming. Finally, a chilling, flat line mellotron drone, which leads me to assume this tale did not have a happy ending.
"The Letters" is a schizophrenic song, including both a prissy, delicate vocal section that sounds like it should be playing on a Victorian music box, as well as a few bars of really loud & nasty sax riffing that underscores some sustained wailing from Fripp's tortured guitar. There's a heavy reprise of the verse, and for what it's worth Boz's histrionic vocal performance fits Peter Sinfield's melodramatic lyrics perfectly. This track is definitely not one of my favorites.
"Ladies of the Road" alternates verses of seemly odd-metered blues, well-suited to the song's infamous (in prog circles) love-'em-and-leave-'em lyrics, with a chorus that sounds like something John Lennon might have written in the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper days.
"Prelude: Song of the Gulls" finds Fripp trying his hand at orchestration, and while it's a pleasant enough piece of lightweight chamber music, I never thought it fit in very well here. I wonder if it would strike a knowledgeable student of classical music as anything more than the dabbling of a dilettante?
The title track is a pointless 9-minute dirge, a sleep-inducing wind-down to an album that was very low-key to begin with.
Overall, Islands is an uneven effort, but the first two tracks alone make it essential for any fan of early Crimson.
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