King Crimson - Islands
Island Records
Progressive Rock, Jazz
6 songs (43:57)
Release year: 1971
King Crimson
Reviewed by Goat
Archive review

One of, if not the most listener-unfriendly releases of the King Crimson stables, Islands has been frustrating people since it was released in 1971. The fourth album from the band in just two years of existence, Islands builds upon the Jazz aspects of Lizard to an almost obnoxious degree. Apparently Miles Davis was a major influence, and those more knowledgeable in Jazz than me will doubtless have more to say on the issue, but it’s clearly several miles away from the expert avant-garde prog of Lizard. Instead, Islands tends to float about aimlessly, an oddly relaxed, laid-back album that mostly avoids real technicality or catchiness in favour of mild-mannered instrumental meander. It wanders around confusedly like a vagrant with concussion, rarely making sense although you can often work out what it’s trying to say.

You can hardly blame the band, considering the circumstances in which Islands was born – losing their rhythm section and vocalist from Lizard, replacement vocalist Boz Burrell had to be taught the bass by Fripp especially for the recording, and tensions began to arise between the drug-free Fripp and the decadent rock-n-roll lifestyle that his bandmates were living. Fripp would kick writing partner Peter Sinfield out of the band altogether after this album, claiming musical differences and a loss of faith in his ideas. It seems harsh, but considering that the next three King Crimson albums that Fripp made were the amazing trio of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black and Red, he may not have been wrong! That there was a growing discontent with the band’s direction to date is impossible to doubt – allegedly, one unnamed band member described the lightest parts of Islands as “airy-fairy shit”, and even for a fanboy like me it’s hard to disagree.

Opener Formentera Lady is a strange morass of noodling, half-approaching structure with some of the vocal patterns but never letting them develop, fading into strange high-pitched female crooning and scissoring instrumental meandering. Remember, Pink Floyd took a female operatic vocalist and made The Great Gig In The SkyKing Crimson came up with this! Oddly, the most memorable moments are Burrell’s bass strums, his vocals just another random ingredient in the mess. The following Sailor’s Tale has a little more structure to it thanks to the near constant backing drums, a strange shuffle at first which turn ever more jazzy and complex in parallel with the other instrumentation. It picks up about halfway through, gaining tempo and aggression, and again thanks to those drums (a sterling performance from new man Ian Wallace) is quite an exciting listen.

The Letters, conversely, is verging on dullness, loud/quiet moments with seemingly little sense until Boz bellows ‘impaled on nails of ice!’ in one of the album’s few memorable moments. It’s a reminder that, being brutally honest, most of the album has very little to recommend it. I have no idea what the band – and Fripp, especially! – were thinking with Ladies Of The Road, a dreadful piece that sounds like The Beatles playing the blues with woefully misogynistic lyrics. There’s a decent bit of sax, but as a fan of the band you have to hold them to a far higher standard than this. Opinions will be far more mixed about Prelude: Song Of The Gulls, a dainty neoclassical piece of filler that sounds pretty for just over four minutes before vanishing... I much prefer the following title track, continuing in the classical vein but doing it well. Boz’s vocals actually fit in between the piano tinkling and gentle sax, the track as a whole effective as laid-back jazz that actually has discernable melody and structure, especially from the centre-point onwards.

So, two good tracks out of six, then! I wouldn’t recommend Islands as a must-purchase for any newcomer to the band, certainly not ones who haven’t heard the best that King Crimson have to offer. Even looking just at the band’s first two years, this is without doubt at the bottom of the pile in terms of quality. Yet it’s not completely without its charms, and the more you persist in obstinately listening to Islands the more it seems to make a woozy sort of sense. I couldn’t possibly give it a higher score, however, considering the masterpieces that came before and after.

Killing Songs :
Sailor’s Tale, Islands
Goat quoted 65 / 100
Other albums by King Crimson that we have reviewed:
King Crimson - Red reviewed by Bar and quoted CLASSIC
King Crimson - Discipline reviewed by Crash and quoted 95 / 100
King Crimson - Lizard reviewed by Goat and quoted 90 / 100
King Crimson - In The Wake Of Poseidon reviewed by Goat and quoted 85 / 100
King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King reviewed by Goat and quoted CLASSIC
To see all 7 reviews click here
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