08 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #8

King Crimson, Lizard (Island Records/Atlantic, 1970)

Say! Do you want to hear a band that has absolutely no idea what it wants to express musically and artistically flailing around in the dark? If you do, this is the perfect album for you!

This album is sort of routinely held up as a great example of what bad progressive rock sounds like: insanely complex music that's completely up it's own ass, incredibly pretentious attempts to fuse about a thousand genres into one with stupefying results, almost no actual songwriting going on, absolutely wretched lyrics so awful that they can be genuinely cited as logorrheic crimes against the English language - oh, it's all here. Yet, I always find myself drawn to this album in some way. If it's a failure - and it definitely is - it's a really fascinating one, one that isn't without merit. Lizard is a panicked and nobly deluded attempt to do far, far, far too many things at once. On this album, a lineup of King Crimson so transitional and unstable that it fell apart before it could even tour the record tries to put together Third Stream jazz (there is a heavy Miles Davis-circa-Sketches of Spain influence on the whole record), free jazz, contemporary classical, ultra-British progressive rock as defined by King Crimson on it's first two records, faux-medieval folk music, idiotic tenth-rate Lewis Carroll ripoff drivel (the lyrics), and just utter dementia, and, well, it fails. But it fails in very interesting, though I believe most people would say unspeakably annoying, ways. (For the record, the King Crimson album that followed this - Islands - is a total artistic failure on all levels and almost certainly one of the worst and most insufferably crappy albums I've ever heard in my life.)

The new King Crimson lineup was comprised of a new saxophonist/flautist named Mel Collins, a new drummer named Andy McCulloch who can't stop hitting his snare drum (he makes Grant Hart sound restrained), a lyricist and occasional synthesizer player named Peter Sinfield who tossed godawful splotches of verbiage on a page and called it writing, a bassist and vocalist who we'll get to shortly and guitarist/mellotron/keyboard player/head honcho in a state of artistic panic Robert Fripp. They were joined by a clutch of British session musicians - pianist Keith Tippett, trumpeter Mark Charig, trombonist Nick Evans, who all played free jazz in Tippett's jazz group, and classical oboist Robin Miller. Almost every person I just listed (that would make about eight or nine people in all depending on the track) plays on nearly every track, and there are five tracks here. And there are sections in four of the five songs where the session musicians and the prog rockers in the actual band all improvise at the same time. However, their approaches completely clash with each other. The prog rockers generally try to stick to the structure of the song while playing somewhat "jazzy" stuff, but since they aren't as advanced musically as the free jazz musicians and can't swing rhythmically to save their lives, they just end up sounding like they're trying to play "far out" noise when they aren't playing half-assed attempts at Gil Evans melodies. The free jazz musicians, meanwhile, are so advanced musically that they play extremely atonal free jazz improvisation on top of what the band is playing in the jam sections. Robert Fripp probably directed them to play this way, of course, but no one seems to have thought about whether these approaches would go together. The short answer is that they don't. At all.

So there's a ton of varied instrumentation on every song, which only gets more complex with Fripp overdubbing mellotron and other keyboards on every track. The album's also less powerful than the Crimson of the past because Fripp basically refuses to play distorted electric guitar on nearly the whole album. He often sinks his own clean, jazzy guitar parts in the mix - he's nowhere near being the musical focus most of the time - and emphasizes his flamenco-inflected steel-string acoustic guitar playing on three of the five songs here. It makes you wonder if he was deliberately ignoring his own strengths during the recording of the whole album, because it's really ironic that the most abrasive early Crimson album didn't feature any evil and vicious electric guitar playing on it.

You may be wondering how an album with almost no distorted guitar could be the most abrasive early Crimson album. Well, there are sections during the album where screaming saxophones, oboes, trumpets, trombones, guitars, pianos, keyboards, bass and drums all improvise at the same time and practically fight with each other in order to establish musical dominance. There's even one extraordinarily harsh, but perversely enjoyable song here called "Happy Family," where the lead singer's voice is electronically manipulated and distorted by a VCS3 synthesizer in the most cacophonous manner possible over this unholy racket. He sounds like a robot coughing his circuits up after smoking a blunt laced with cleaning solvent. It's horrible and sort of awesome at the same time.

I told you it made for an interesting sound. Or an unspeakably annoying sound depending on your mileage.

Lizard also suffers for being continually compared to the first two King Crimson albums. Patchy as the second one was, it was still mostly sung by Greg Lake, who was one of the great prog singers then and never sounded nearly as good with any other band since. His replacement was a British folksinger, bassist and R&B/Motown/traditional jazz fan named Gordon Haskell who took on the lead singer/bassist position held in every Crimson lineup until the '80's only as a favor to Robert Fripp, who begged him to do it after Crimson's first lineup imploded. Fripp happened to be a childhood friend of Haskell's.

One of the routine complaints about this album is that Haskell's vocals "suck," but that's untrue. (People also complain about his bass playing at times too - the guy just can't catch a break with Crimson fans, which is odd considering how often they give that idiot Sinfield a pass - but he's a restrained, competent player with good tone who did his job very well, especially under the circumstances.) His singing doesn't suck; it just doesn't fit the music, which isn't quite the same thing. If you listen to his vocals, you can tell he knows how to sing quite well - but he just was not a progressive rock singer. Progressive rock is not exactly a style you can just fall into and adopt. Haskell had been given an impossible task: he had to replace Greg Lake, who happened to sort of define how progressive rock as a genre was sung on this band's first two albums, and sing in a manner that was sort of like Lake, when his natural voice and, I suspect, pronunciation and accent were nothing like Lake's to begin with. Lake's accent was strictly Received Pronunciation, which helped with such cold and formal music; on Lizard you can sometimes hear Haskell straining to pronounce every word "properly," which works against his delivery. Lake's voice was clearer than water; Haskell's voice was grainy and gritty - which can work very well for R&B and traditional jazz singing, but didn't make for a traditional prog voice. Haskell's singing probably didn't play very well to a bunch of weedy prog fans who already lived in their parents' basement studying the I Ching while eating Cheetos and who probably wanted to hear Greg Lake Clone Numero Uno singing Lizard. Plus, Haskell thought quite correctly that the lyrics he had to sing were embarrassing trash (the ending of "Indoor Games" consists of him laughing for fifteen seconds because he thought the lyrics were so shitty), and had little to no faith in the songs he was recording with Crimson, since he was an R&B fan and had no appreciation for this ridiculous attempt at fusing about a thousand different genres that were never supposed to go together in the first place. When you put that all together, it's kind of remarkable that the dude stayed on to record the whole album.

It's also kind of remarkable that he stayed on to record the whole album because some of this music is garbage. At times, we're talking shit so fucking insipid that you wonder how a guy as smart as Robert Fripp is supposed to be could let himself write such complete horse piss and commit it to tape. "Lady of the Dancing Water" is an attempt to make a "pretty" acoustic ballad - there were already a few of those in Crimson's discography at this point - but it doesn't change the fact that Robert Fripp's never been especially good at writing pretty songs, or writing standard songs to begin with. So it sounds like sub-Renaissance Faire dogshit so effete that your balls could fall off just listening to it. "Lady of the Dancing Water"? That's not water, it's estrogen. Given the choice between retarded crap like this and "Happy Family," I'll take "Happy Family" every time. Large sections of Side B - a deeply incoherent 23-minute prog rock fuckfest of a suite entitled "Lizard" - are really terrible, messy attempts to fuse the free jazz playing of Keith Tippett and Company with quasi-classical themes and instrumentation, all played so stiffly that you'll suspect the drummer's rhythmic sense has ankylosing spondylitis. The "Last Skirmish" mini-section of the "Battle of Glass Tears" section of the "Lizard" suite (oh, they don't let you forget this is a prog rock album at any point, do they?) is particularly rank, repeating an unbelievably banal theme on the saxophones that's supposed to be, I don't know, scary or something. It sounds about as menacing as Patton Oswalt yelling "Boo!" in a gorilla suit. The directionless noodling in the middle of "Indoor Games" isn't necessarily bad (or at least it's not completely offensive), but it sure doesn't serve the song. It does, however, serve the impression that these cats have no idea what the fuck they're doing, because there's literally no need for it within the song. It's literally there to show how complex and technically advanced these guys' instrumental skills are. Playing music that would actually serve the song is not too high on the agenda. Then again, the main theme - you can't really call it a riff - of the song isn't too substantial to begin with.

I oddly tend to like Lizard at its' most abrasive and weird, because for the most part Crimson did abrasive and weird very well. "Cirkus" is a great opening number: a distorted, memorable, legitimately nasty-sounding two-note Mellotron theme helps to make this by far the most successful song on the album, because Fripp shreds like an absolute motherfucker on acoustic guitar, because it actually rocks - in an extremely cold, medieval, strange and British way - and because the extra players really add a lot to the song: the screaming brass-driven coda sounds very regal and yet deeply creepy at the same time. They achieved everything they were going for in this song, for sure. I also really enjoy "Happy Family" just because it's so unlistenable (and because the descending main riff is again sort of menacing, though mostly just bizarre). But "Happy Family" is also the song on Lizard that's closest to actual jazz - it's just an incredibly warped version of it. If Lizard had been this abrasive, this demented, and this jazzy all the way through, I might have a more positive view of the album as a whole. However, that might not have left room for the beginning section, really, a standalone song, of "Lizard": a really quite lovely little ditty called (sigh) "Prince Rupert Awakes." Yes's resident teapot Jon Anderson puts in an appearance on lead vocals here, and as much as I've tried to defend Gordon Haskell's singing, I doubt he could have done this song nearly as much justice as Anderson does. It rides the most immediately catchy and poppy melody of the entire album - it even features a beautiful chorus, albeit featuring laughable lyrics - and, you know, it's an actual song with an actual melody, which fully deserves to be played with such pomp and circumstance.

Lizard is really an interesting album to listen to, if not a successful one. It is a failure. But it is an incredibly ambitious, crazed, warped, abrasive and honest failure, completely wrapped up in its' own art-damaged aesthetic, and I genuinely respect that. It is trying to make a musical point and comes close to succeeding at times. It should go without saying that no one would have the balls to even try and make an album like this today - for one thing, most bands don't have the chops for it, and for another, most bands would be afraid to get laughed out of town for trying it. I've heard Lizard described as a failed soundtrack to Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," which really pins down a lot of its' qualities; however, at it's best moments it's great enough to give you an impression of what a successful soundtrack to that painting might have sounded like. At its' worst, however, it definitely lets you know why punk rock had to happen.

Oh, and if I forgot to mention this, forgive me - the lyrics are terrible. Thanks for nothing, Pete Sinfield. Jesus.

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