King Crimson - Lizard
Island Records
Progressive/Jazz Rock, Avant-Garde
5 songs (42:30)
Release year: 1970
King Crimson
Reviewed by Goat
Archive review

Shooting forwards into sounds then unknown, King Crimson’s third full-length would leave the first two behind as main writers Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield embraced Avant-Garde Jazz. It has something of a mixed reputation amongst the band’s typically fickle fans and critics, and whilst praised at the time of release as being a genuinely progressive step forward in musical history, now is generally dismissed as ‘an acquired taste’ (although Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson has described it as possibly one of the most experimental rock records ever made). Those who follow the band chronologically will have recognised the increasing Jazz elements in their sound, especially on In The Wake Of Poseidon’s Cat Food, and the band’s joyous experimentation here never fails to please my ears. The opening piano tinkles of the fantastic Cirkus soon lead to menacing mellotron dirges, vocalist Gordon Haskell switching from hushed singing to outright yells, backed by everything from intensely technical acoustic fingering from Fripp to a extended saxophone solo from Mel Collins. It’s strangely melodic and aurally pleasing if you’re at all into Progressive music, yet relentlessly difficult to ‘get’, tending to wander off by itself as three or four instruments play superb flourishes all at once, dips into near-orchestral ambience not helping you find your footing at all.

From then on, the album gets only stranger. The off-kilter melody of Indoor Games is backed by mind-blowingly impressive drumming from Andy McCullouch (now a professional yachtsman, bizarrely), and has a distorted vocal performance that immediately put me in mind of some of The Beatles’ more out-there material when I first heard it – there’s more dextrous acoustic guitar work from Fripp, and a nice little Jazz workout which fits the mischievous lyrics well. After some disturbing laughter, the chaotic Happy Family follows, lyrically (in code) and musically mocking The Beatles (who had just split up) in an Avant-Garde collage of sounds that will almost definitely try your patience on first listens, but when you’re more used to it has a cunning humour and charm of its own. One brief (two-minute) flash back to pastures folksy with Lady Of The Dancing Water, and then it’s epic time, the twenty-three minute plus Lizard.

This is, of course, the main attraction here, and it’s worth going through briefly for historical value alone. It’s the longest piece ever composed by the band, a concept about a medieval battle containing the sort of subsections and sub-subsections that would, according to some, hasten the arrival of Punk as a cleansing force for all this overly-complex nonsense – yet it’s a musical journey like few others. Yes vocalist John Anderson contributes to the first section, a singalong Folk-influenced piece with Jethro Tull-esque verse and hand-clapped accompaniment. The following section, titled Bolero, is a showcase for several guest musicians including Nick Evans (trombone), Robin Miller (oboe, cor anglais), Mark Charig (cornet) and Keith Tippett (piano), building up to a crescendo as it gathers various instrumental threads and weaves them in and out of each other, the sort of compositional feat that defies most so-called musicians these days. Switching seamlessly from Classical to Jazz and back again, the players meander through carefully constructed corridors, wavering on the edge of chaos but never falling over.

The following section is one of the better ones to depict battle in Prog Rock as a whole. Subtle, calm beginnings build into ominous troop movements, bursts of melody from a Jazzy flute fluttering in the background contrasting with the stiff and heavy repetitive mellotron stomps in the foreground, building in drama and chaos as the piece progresses. It ends on a funeral note, the aftermath of battle portrayed by a simple rhythm section and gentle guitar wailing melancholically in the distance, and the track as a whole ends with a fairground melody gradually sped up. The album’s fallout was immediate – Haskell and McCollough quit the band before it was released, the former upset at the music’s distance from his own Rhythm n’Blues-oriented tastes and at the requirement for his vocals to be distorted. You can understand why he was upset, looking back – the album is an oddity even within the King Crimson discography. Without a doubt, this is not an ideal starting point for those new to the more out-there Prog Rock bands, and especially is not a good place to start with King Crimson if you’re new to the band – as instantaneous and compelling as I found Cirkus and Indoor Games, Lizard itself takes time and patience to appreciate. I suppose it is, in the end, an acquired taste, but certainly one worth savouring for all fans of forward-thinking music, and one that, in the end, all will agree deserves each point that it is scored.

Killing Songs :
Cirkus, Indoor Games, Lizard
Goat quoted 90 / 100
Other albums by King Crimson that we have reviewed:
King Crimson - Red reviewed by Bar and quoted CLASSIC
King Crimson - Islands reviewed by Goat and quoted 65 / 100
King Crimson - Discipline reviewed by Crash and quoted 95 / 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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