Friday, March 22, 2013

After 40 Years, King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic Is Still a Delicacy

One of my favorite albums of all time is one that I bought in error. One summer, I had served an apprenticeship of sorts. It was 1978, I was 15 years old, and I was working at a summer camp where I became friends with a guy named David Kaplan. He was a few years older than me and a very good guitarist, shy but also very funny. And he had exceptional taste in music: jazz, fusion, progressive rock. I expressed interest and he was happy to school me. It is thanks to him that I am a fanatic about Gentle Giant. It was through him that I first heard the music of Chick Corea. And it was because of him that I became introduced to King Crimson.

If memory serves, he only had one King Crimson album, but it was one that I liked very much. The album was called Starless and Bible Black and it had been released in 1974, back when I was listening to the Monkees, the Osmond Brothers, and the Jackson Five. What struck me most was the first song, a barnstormer called “The Great Deceiver,” which began with the startling couplet, “Health food faggot with a bartered bride/Likes to comb his hair with a dipper ride.” I found it funny but the music itself was relentlessly exciting, aggressive, and surprising. I didn’t know it at the time, but much of it was improvised and recorded live in concert, though the applause had been edited out so it appeared to be a studio-recorded album.

The musicians were Robert Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, David Cross on violin, and Bill Bruford on drums. David told me that if I liked this album, then I might like the debut album by a new group called U.K., which featured both Wetton and Bruford. This would prove a pattern for me. As I became more sophisticated about music, I would be drawn to bands already defunct or decaying and ignore the music scene that existed around me currently. In 1978, I was ignorant of the emerging New Wave, except for local heroes The Cars. But I couldn’t be bothered because I had nearly a decade of prog history to catch up on.

When camp was over, I went on a shopping spree. I bought Gentle Giant’s Free Hand and U.K.’s eponymous album. Next, I went searching for the King Crimson album with the funny lyric and ferocious music. Trouble was, I couldn’t remember the name of the album or even the cover image. I could, however, for whatever reason, recall the typography (it would be a full decade before I found myself actually working for a digital font company). In one store’s rack, I scoured the King Crimson section and found what I thought was what I was looking for. I bought it, took it home, unsealed it, and put it on my turntable.

Immediately, I knew I had purchased the wrong album. Where Starless and Bible Black had opened with a bang, this one opened with a kalimba, an African thumb piano. Soft percussion builds over the first minute until a violin enters and then fades, reappearing at the three-minute mark, where soon it is joined by Fripp’s guitar. Violin dominates until about 4:30, when all hell breaks loose, and for the first time I am assured that even if I had the album wrong, at least I got the group right.

The album I purchased was Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, released 40 years ago today, on March 23, 1973. It was the first edition of the group to feature the lineup I detailed earlier, and in fact included an additional musician, percussionist Jamie Muir, who left shortly after the album was recorded to join a monastery. The lineup was responsible for the two albums already mentioned, as well as 1974’s Red (the follow-up studio release to Starless and Bible Black, which featured the much-reduced presence of violinist Cross), and a live album, USA, released in 1975 but recorded prior to Red.

For the next 46-and-a-half minutes, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic beat me into submission. It was an overwhelming experience. It began, I suppose, with the cover, a striking sun/moon image that had no words on it at all. The 13:36 opener, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 1,” went through various sections, alternately fast and slow, incorporating at one point dialogue from a television drama. In later years, when I first heard Arvo Pärt’s “Miserere,” I likened it to this track as it repeatedly goes from hushed tones to full-throttle chaos in an instant.

The opening track is followed by a short but lovely ballad. “Book of Saturday” clocks in at just under three minutes and features guitar, bass, and violin, along with a nice vocal. It is as calming as the previous track was unnerving. Side 1 ends with “Exiles,” another vocal number; that and the three songs on Side 2 all range between just over seven and just under eight minutes long. “Exiles” is a mostly gentle song featuring the full band, a minor mellow epic that seems to suggest that the opening track was an aberration; that the tunes, short or long, are ambitious but soothing. The opening to Side 2 quickly dispels this notion.

“Easy Money,” the Side 2 opener, brings back the dark dissonance in another multi-part piece that has no trouble balancing a near-a capella opening verse with full-band, full-throttle musical mania. Bruford is a master at repelling any attempt on the listener’s part to tap their foot along with the beat. Just when it seems you have it, it changes and as much as it may initially seem that he’s hitting his snare at random intervals, you realize there’s a logic to it and that he’s in complete control at all times, sometimes making his statement with a crack of the snare and sometimes making it with utter silence. The song ends with the rather frightening sound of a laugh box.

This is followed by a mesmerizing instrumental called “The Talking Drum,” which very slowly and gradually builds from a barely audible groove to a revving turbo charge of energy that must soon be ready to release – yet it doesn’t. It stops on a dime with the metallic opening riff of the album’s closer, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2.” Very unlike “Part 1,” this one is a straight hard blast of immense electric power, a roiling instrumental that takes no prisoners and shows no mercy.

Thus it was that I ended up instantly loving this album that I bought in error, which only served to propel me back to a different store to find Starless and Bible Black and explore the King Crimson catalogue thoroughly, just as I began to do with the prog and fusion artists mentioned earlier and others that I and my friends were yet to discover. Forty years after Larks’ Tongues in Aspic was released, 35 after I first heard it, it remains a remarkable work that is always in power rotation on my home stereo.

1 comment:

CraigM said...

Ah, Larks' Tongues and Discipline (which i know you wrote about elsewhere) are all-time favorites of mine, too. I'm glad you used the word "unnerving" to describe Larks Part 1 -- very apt. Part 2 gets all the attention, but Part 1 was very different and a real accomplishment. Great stuff.