Frame By Frame: A King Crimson Song Countdown

by Benjamin Ray

kingcrimson_-icon_200As the epochal In The Court Of The Crimson King celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the brilliant, noisy, frustrating, and always interesting career of one of the great progressive rock bands of all time. Very little in the Crimson oeuvre is accessible or radio-friendly by conventional means, but those who want something a little deeper, a little more intricate, a little more challenging and rewarding, have often come back to the mighty Crim’s albums. A full portrait of the band must include the live show, which frequently incorporates improvisation, to the point where some studio albums featured improvised live tracks as finished pieces, and fans are encouraged to seek one some of the many live releases from their favorite period of the band (trust me, there are plenty).

The band went through numerous lineup changes – with guitarist Robert Fripp the only constant – and spent much of 2016-19 (and counting) touring the world with a seven-piece lineup, making equal parts beauty and noise and bringing the band’s entire catalog to life. Now that the band’s music is finally available on streaming services, this countdown looks at the studio outputs and ranks the songs, from the mundane and irritating to the profound and amazing.

A couple notes: This list only includes songs released on the original 13 albums, plus a couple of stray studio cuts here and there, but does not include remixes, live cuts or the ephemeral bonus cuts on the reissues (so, sorry, no “King Crimson Barbershop Quartet” here). That said, for fans of an era, seeking out the corresponding live album(s) is worthwhile for gems like “Asbury Park,” “Peoria,” “Daniel Dust” and other improvised tracks that were, in some cases, better than what made it onto the albums.

103. “Radio II,” THRAK: Not even a song, just one minute of ambient and unredeeming noise designed to transport the listener to the next song.

102. “Radio I,” THRAK: Same as above, but shorter.

101. “We’ll Let You Know,” Starless And Bible Black: After sitting through these four minutes of pointless improvisation, I’m still waiting to find out whatever the band was trying to tell me. I think it’s that they had an LP to fill and so took four random minutes from a live show and stuck it between two better studio songs.

100. “Peace: A Beginning,” In The Wake Of Poseidon (ITWOP): A short a cappella introduction to the band’s second album, just to set the stage for what was to come.

99. “Peace: An End,” ITWOP: Same as the previous track, a means to bookend the album, but not really a composition of lasting value.

98. “Facts Of Life (intro),” The Power To Believe: A minute of ambient keyboard swooshing

97. “The Power To Believe I,” The Power To Believe: A short a cappella introduction to the album, inconsequential on its own, really only present to establish a theme that would be repeated three more times in different ways on the album.

96. “Industry,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: A low-end instrument repeats the same note three times, over and over, for seven minutes. Some keyboard and guitar effects come in and out. Nothing happens. Move on.

95. “Dig Me,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: Clatters and clanks along for three interminable minutes, with occasional spoken words from in-demand session guitarist and singer Adrian Belew. Although he had cut his teeth playing with David Bowie and Talking Heads, when allowed to front King Crimson, Belew showed he had equal parts avant-garde weirdness and Beatles-inspired pop smarts. Many of his songs with the band would marry both of these to great effect. This is most definitely not one of those songs.

94. “VROOOM VROOOM: Coda,” THRAK: The inverse of “Marine 475” at the album open, it follows a similar structure but slows the tempo to a crawl, making it just a barrage of chords and noise for what seems like forever. It’s the worst “song” on the album, but also the last one, so you can just stop before it and not lose this time in your life.

93. “No Warning,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: Tries for a sort of electro-art-New Wave improv, but other than Bill Bruford’s sporadic attempts to keep the thing together, this is just noise. Bruford would return to form on THRAK after Crimson broke up again between this album and 1994, a full decade.

92. “The Letters,” Islands: Boz Burrell, in his only Crimson album appearance, sings inaudibly (an annoying Fripp tic on the early albums that he eventually rectified) for a full minute, then the band jacks around for a few minutes with some irritating sax, then nothing, then Burrell shouts “Impaled on nails of ice!” and things continue to devolve. The entire band, including lyricist Sinfield, would be let go after this album. I think the song was reworked from an earlier mishap due to the need to fill up an album; they needn’t have bothered.

91. “Man With An Open Heart,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: “Hey, how do we take the worst parts of Talking Heads and Scary Monsters and make them nearly unlistenable? Like this!”

90. “Model Man,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: An awful attempt at a new wave pop song. The chorus is decent, I guess.

89. “Facts Of Life,” The Power To Believe: Belew goes for the guttural vocal in a purported takedown of rich fat cats, and neither is a good look, while the song is the same sort of plodding rock that is the bane of this and the previous album.

88. “The Power To Believe IV,” The Power To Believe: Essentially a mix of part three and part one, a short coda to close out the album.

87. “The Howler,” Beat: Atonal, weird, unlikeable, and repetitive, especially the break after the first section that’s just the same bars repeated endlessly. Belew went for a Ginsberg-inspired vibe in the lyrics, but the music is just bad.

86. “The World’s My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum,” The ConstruKction Of Light: The title is the most interesting thing about this song, which sort of ambles around noisily without a point for six minutes. There’s a germ of an idea here somewhere, but the band just couldn’t harness it.

85. “Elektrik,” The Power To Believe: Bops along pleasantly for a while, then ends.

84-82. “Indoor Games,” “Happy Family,” “Lady Of The Dancing Water,” Lizard: You can feel the jazz vibe throughout Lizard, but the band still sounds like it’s not sure where it wants to go, and so some truly awful songs made it onto those transitional albums. There is almost nothing redeeming in these cuts, unless you enjoy obscure ‘70s British prog like Gentle Giant or jerky, head-scratching music in general. Zappa did it better.

81. “Two Hands,” Beat: Tries for a sort of slow Police vibe in another attempt at a love song, and falls short of the mark. Belew would later say the album would have been better without this song, if that’s any indication.

80. “Starless And Bible Back,” Starless And Bible Black: Oh good, more uninteresting live improv, just longer. Skip it and move on to “Fracture,” and thank me later.

79. “The Mincer,” Starless And Bible Black: And still more uninteresting live improv, the third such song on the album. If we could just do away with inaudible instrumental noodling, SBB would be much shorter but much better.

78. “The Power To Believe III,” The ConstruKction Of Light: Takes its cues from Aphex Twin, Nine Inch Nails and other electronic industrial groups that did it better. Crimson as ever is adept at technology and creates something that is at worst mildly compelling, but it never comes together as a true song or a memorable series of passages.

77. “Heaven And Earth,” The ConstruKction Of Light: Credited to ProjeKct X, the splinter groups that various incarnations of the 1994-99 band formed after THRAK, the piece is marginally better than most of its parent album due to a frenetic midsection. One thing this band circa 2000 could do was make noise. One thing they could rarely do was write memorable song, which is why this album is consistently near the bottom of most fan lists.

76. “Requiem,” Beat: A loud, pointless instrumental jam, with plenty of flailing about and no real point. How far the band had fallen after releasing the uniformly excellent Discipline just one year prior. The instrumental “Absent Lovers,” recorded around this time but not released, would have been a far better closer; fortunately, this cut has been restored to the digital version of the disc.

75. “Providence,” Red: Like “Moonchild” before it (see below), this is the one black mark on an otherwise phenomenal album because it is several minutes of aimless, semi-audible improvisation. In concert and taken from a longer piece, I suppose it would have been compelling, but you’ll repeatedly check your watch when you realize “Starless” is coming next and you have to sit through eight more minutes of this. Makes one wonder why the better improvs from this time period were not included; maybe it was to give David Cross prime position on an album, even though he had already left the group when Red came out.

74. “Into The Frying Pan,” The ConstruKction Of Light: The twinned vocal section reminds me of Alice in Chains, had they discovered tricky time signatures instead of heroin, but the song just kind of plods along without having much to say.

73. “Neurotica,” Beat: A frantic, paranoid number, inspired in part by Talking Heads and trying hard to create a sense of unease in the city. Fripp thought highly enough of this to rank it as an essential track and resurrect it for the 2019 band’s setlist, one of only two songs from this era to get that treatment, and don’t ask me why. The band would do the whole “paranoid in the city” thing better on other albums. That said, there are some inspired moments.

72. “When I Say Stop, Continue,” VROOOM EP: A rare occasion of the double trio jamming, and about the only song that never made it into the live setlist or the THRAK album. Fun, but not worth seeking out unless you’re a completist.

71. “Moonchild,” In The Court Of The Crimson King (ITCOTCK): Look, if the song only consisted of the first three minutes, it would be much higher on this list, but it’s the large, dull, improvised chunk of the song that bumps it way down here. Lake didn’t even play on that portion. The band had to fill space on the debut, and this is how they chose to do it, so most people just press “skip” after that haunting fadeout and move on. Unfortunately, aimless noodling clogs up almost every Crimson album, as noted above, and this is where it started.

70-69. “Inner Garden I/Inner Garden II,” THRAK: A depressing but arresting pair of identical filler tracks, basically a repeated slow guitar arpeggio under a Belew vocal. The short solo at the end of part one is mournfully good, making one wonder what might have been if the two parts were joined and the song restructured a bit.

68. “Groon,” “Cat Food” B-side: Although jazz shows more prominently on the next album, there is a strong Bitches Brew influence that started with this song, and it’s an interesting snapshot (along with the live “Peoria” from Earthbound) into what could have been on Lizard if the guys had opted away from more traditional songwriting on the first side.

67. “Neal And Jack And Me,” Beat: Starts off promisingly enough, with interlocking “Discipline”-like guitars and an inspired lyric, evoking “On The Road,” the Beat generation and Neal Cassady/Jack Kerouac. About halfway through, the song abandons any sort of normal structure and awkwardly winds through some atonal passages while trying to stay in the framework of the pop song, with squealing guitar figures appearing from time to time. It’s weird enough to be catchy but hardly a good song.

66. “Peace: A Theme,” In The Wake Of Poseidon: A short instrumental acoustic piece that’s basically a Fripp solo showcase. Like the other “Peace” titles on the disc, it’s both meant to bridge longer songs and, I suspect, pander to the crowd at the time. It’s hard to have peace when you butt up against the harsh light of reality of “Pictures Of A City,” though.

65. “The Devil’s Triangle,” In The Wake Of Poseidon: An early effort in the inaudible-to-noise slow fade-in, succeeding in a slow-building mood of doom, but seeming to be stretched out and repeated a bit in order to fill the space. It’s anything but peaceful, which is at odds with the short “Peace” numbers scattered around the album.

64. “Ladies Of The Road,” Islands: Ah yes, the groupie song, and Crimson’s second attempt at humor that’s worse than their first. The raunchy sax playing is entertaining and the Beatles-esque chorus is very good, but the bulk of the song is just Boz Burrell whispering astonishingly rude lyrics like “Stone-headed Frisco spacer / Ate all the meat I gave her” while the band awkwardly lurches along. Maybe this was the invention of Motley Crue.

63. “Waiting Man,” Beat: Ending the first side/half of Beat, this underrated pop number is half a pop song and half a skronky instrumental, but Belew is in fine form, the guitars flit and weave and the song achieves an understated momentum. It’s less consciously weird than most of the album.

62. “Larks Tongues In Aspic, Pt. IV,” The ConstruKction Of Light: Probably the least essential of the five Larks numbers, simply because it doesn’t say much the others don’t say better, but as ever, the framework under the title gives the band plenty of room to astonish.

61. “Trio,” Starless And Bible Black: Although Bruford is listed as a songwriter on this slow, exquisite improvised number, he is not actually heard on the song. The reason is because he kept waiting for the right moment to come in and realized that the song sounded better without percussion, so he made an on-the-fly live decision to not play. The band was impressed.

60. “Cadence And Cascade,” In The Wake Of Poseidon: Fills the low-key ballad slot on the sophomore disc the way “I Talk to the Wind” did on the first, meaning it is pleasant, kind of pretty, and out of step with the true highlights of the album. Fripp’s acoustic guitar work is well done, of course, but Sinfield’s lyrics don’t do him any favors.

59. “Indiscipline,” Discipline: The lone track on the album that you don’t regret skipping, “Indiscipline” lives up to its name by just sort of flailing around musically, pausing twice for Belew’s spoken word observations about his thoughts on a painting. Granted, they’re mildly funny, but this is more a band letting off steam than a tightly written song, like the rest of the album.

58. “B’Boom,” THRAK: Drum solos on Crimson albums are rare, and this track makes the most of the double-drum lineup with a cranked-up dual solo. However, the first three minutes of the six-minute song are moody ambient introduction with no value. I’d rather hear Bruford play then some more keyboard whooshing that was old hat in 1974.

57. “ProzaKc Blues,” The ConstruKction Of Light: Fans are divided on this song. It’s a straight blues-rocker, something the normally off-kilter Crimson had never done. It sounds great and kicks off the album with style. But Belew makes the mistake of adding a shifter effect to his vocals that reduces them a pitch, and the affected growl that results is so jarring as to ruin the song at first. You get used to it, and the song improves, but it’s a gamble that didn’t quite pay off.

56. “VROOOM VROOOM,” THRAK: Essentially, the photo negative of “VROOOM,” with the same structure but different chords. Like reheating coffee grounds, it’s less successful the second time, but does just enough to satisfy.

55. “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With,” The Power To Believe: A fun dad rocker, with Belew making fun of the then-current trends in aggro-metal and rap-rock that were all the rage around the turn of the century.

54. “Lament,” Starless And Bible Black: There’s a lot going on here; what starts as a substandard studio track turns into a tricky, proto-metal instrumental, parts of which are a dry run for “Fracture,” parts of which seem to have chord changes that inspired bands much later. I can hear some Judas Priest in Wetton’s strained vocal and some Stone Temple Pilots in the power-chord transition between sections, for example.

53. “Larks Tongues In Aspic, Pt. III,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: I wonder if the only reason this song exists at the end of the album is to link back to previous Crimson albums, because little else on the album does. It’s subpar compared to part two, but its frenetic guitar work is a welcome throwback to the days of old and points the way forward to the “double trio” era of the band.

52. “Sartori In Tangier,” Beat: A bouncy instrumental that comes out of nowhere, hits hard with some nimble guitar work and gets out before four minutes is up. A forgotten gem on a bad album.

51. “I Talk to the Wind,” ITCOTCK: A massive downshift from the head-exploding “Schizoid Man,” this artsy, wimpy, very British folk number resonated with fans early on, who still love it to this day. I don’t get the appeal.

50. “Formentera Lady,” Islands: This one gets a languid groove going, shuffling along nicely for 10 minutes, continuing the theme of exploring other instruments than an electric guitar that was started on Lizard. It runs on far too long for what it offers.

49. “Book Of Saturday,” Larks’ Tongues In Aspic: A good song in the context of the album and the vocal introduction of John Wetton on a Crimson album, but on its own a rather mediocre number with no fire.

48. “The Great Deceiver,” Starless And Bible Black: One of the rare songs on SBB, as opposed to a jam, this one rocks ferociously in spots but also falls into the “Easy Money” trap of having almost no accompaniment during the barely-sung verses; what little music backs these sections is awkward and jerky, and the line “health food faggot” is cringeworthy in 2019, even if it meant something different in Britain in 1973.

47. “Eyes Wide Open,” The Power To Believe: Another lovely Belew ballad, but not on the same level as previous efforts in this vein, even if it draws on a broader worldview in the songwriting.

46. “Cage,” VROOOM EP: A brief, rapid-fire paranoid rocker bemoaning the state of American in the mid-90s. Shame the band didn’t revisit this further for THRAK, as they could have turned it into something more lasting and brought it into a wider audience.

45. “The Power To Believe II,” The Power To Believe: Adding electronics into Crimson’s sound had run through the shrieks on Larks to the drums on parts of Discipline to the beats and sounds of The Power to Believe, and this is one of the better examples of this new sound, even if it’s more style than substance.

44. “Heartbeat,” Beat: Crimson had written short songs before, and “Matte Kudasai” from Discipline showed Belew’s sensitive side, but “Heartbeat” was a straight-out pop love song, though more on the Talking Heads/Bowie side of pop in the early ‘80s. It’s also the best song on the album, which isn’t saying much.

43. “Elephant Talk,” Discipline: Crimson as you rarely hear them; loose, funny, pop, but with an arty edge in keeping with modern times (in 1981, anyway). This was the first track from the new Crimson, which is why it’s fondly remembered, but it’s actually one of the less ambitious tracks from the album and doesn’t have the staying power of the others.

42. “Lizard,” Lizard: The band’s lone sidelong suite – thankfully a path they never went down again – is far more padded and incoherent than it needs to be. But there are sections that seem almost like individual songs that can stand on their own as some of the most interesting work of the band’s early days. Yes singer Jon Anderson guesting on “Prince Rupert Awakes” gets all the press, but the hard jazz-rock that starts about 10 minutes in is compelling, so much so that the current lineup plays this second portion of the song in concert as “The Lizard Suite.” Fripp himself never thought much of the album until Steven Wilson’s remix brought the sound into better focus. Not the song to start with for the casual listener, but longtime fans know this one has its periodic values.

41. “Easy Money,” Larks’ Tongues In Aspic: A clanking rocker with a good midsection and intro, but made worse by its lurching, nearly a cappella verses and nonexistent chorus. Better in concert.

40. “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream,” THRAK: One normally doesn’t think of Crimson as being loose, funky or horny; the one time they tried was the regrettable “Ladies of the Road.” Much later, this song redeems that earlier track, a welcome breath of air before the plodding riffage that closes THRAK.

39. “Cat Food,” ITWOP: For proof of how out-there this band was in 1970, check out this track, which somehow landed the band on Top of the Pops. It’s lyrically either a put-down of consumer culture or a slam on someone’s terrible cooking, which makes it one of the few recorded attempts at humor on a Crimson album (note: The rare humor on the first few Crimson albums was dry and British; it wasn’t until Discipline that the band loosened up a bit).

38. “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds),” Three Of A Perfect Pair: Difficult to describe this mopey instrumental. It’s electronic, with bass throbs, a lead guitar that cries out and dense feedback. I don’t know to what extent Frippertronics made it into the band’s albums of this period, but I think this one comes the closest.

37. “Level Five,” The Power To Believe: The fifth and final entry in the “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” series, it recalls the brute force of part two and the staccato riffing of part three, but with updated sound and back-and-forth speaker battling, not to mention some tricky Fripp fretwork around the four-minute mark.

36. “The Night Watch,” Starless And Bible Black: A mostly-studio cut (you can tell where the split is) that is one of the more affecting slow songs from this period of the band.

35. “Fallen Angel,” Red: A blues-prog number from Red with some great sax work, an insistent electric riff with an acoustic guitar underpinning and a bluesy vocal from John Wetton. There’s a lot to unpack in the tune.

34. “THRAK,” THRAK: The monster of a riff rocker from the album of the same name recalls “Red,” but not quite as well, and “VROOOM” did it better anyway at the outset of the disc. Still, the chunky riffs bludgeon the unsuspecting listener; Fripp, at one point, said his band could flatten ear hairs within a mile. Songs this like this prove why.

33. “Prelude: Song Of The Gulls,” Islands: A gorgeous baroque classical number, maybe a bit long in the midsection, but nevertheless a fine lead-in to “Islands.”

32. “Exiles,” Larks’ Tongues In Aspic: Not quite as famous as the other tracks on the album, this one is an overlooked gem that is closer in spirit to the band’s debut than anything else on Larks. The Mellotron rears its head, the mood is alternately hopeful and doomy, and the song ends on a spooky chord (a great Crimson trick). It’s probably the one song on the album that doesn’t actually progress, which maybe is why it’s not as beloved, but it’s well worth the journey to see how far the band’s sound had come in just 4 years.

31. “Matte Kudasai,” Discipline: A beautiful, languid love song that roughly translates to “please wait” and conveys that feeling in the music, which is as warm as Crimson ever got. Note the sound effect of seagulls, made by the guitar, to establish the mood.

30. “Three Of A Perfect Pair,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: Continuing the run of new wave art-prog-pop from the previous two albums, the title cut from 1984 is another great, weird pop song. It’s successful because it’s not what you expect, and Crimson is always great at delivering the unexpected.

29. “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Pt. I,” Larks’ Tongues In Aspic: Nothing sounded like this in 1973 except maybe “Tubular Bells.” With a completely new lineup, Crimson roared back to life, with this multipart song that covers a lot of ground in 12 minutes. Parts of it drag too long, especially the introduction and fadeout; some compilations will offer a condensed version that cuts these unnecessary five minutes out of the song, reducing it to its noisy, arresting elements. For many people, Crimson represents the pinnacle of progressive rock because of this album.

28. “Cirkus,” Lizard: Matches the creepy Mellotron and truly scary guitar riff to lyrics about circus folk, a rare example of Sinfield’s off-kilter lyrics befitting the subject matter and the music. Lizard gets a bad rap, as noted earlier, but this is the best song on the album and one that the 2019 band felt compelled to add to the live show.

27. “FraKctured,” The ConstruKction Of Light: Yes, it explicitly calls out the name of another, better Crimson song from 25 years prior, but it’s also a case where the sequel is nearly as good as the original. As with the first one, after a languid introduction, Fripp unleashes one of the most technically difficult, tricky cross-picked guitar figures of his career, an astounding display of dexterity and musicality.

26. “Walking On Air, THRAK: Belew wrote some absolutely beautiful songs during his long tenure with the band, and this is near the top of the list, a dreamy love song that still carries a hint of melancholy in the chorus.

25. “People,” THRAK: A loose, funky pop-rock track, one of the most accessible songs from the band, but up so high on this list due to the instrumental coda to the song proper. It’s a minor-key six-note riff, repeated, with keyboard flourishes and both drummers trading off spots, and it’s completely unexpected after what came before.

24. “Dinosaur,” THRAK: Cool intro, heavy riff, great offhand lyrics from Belew about old age and irrelevance, not afraid to poke fun at himself (“Ignorance has always been / Something I excel in / Followed by naiveté and pride”). Where other rockers strain to remain relevant, Belew is smart enough to understand his commercial status in 1995. However, Crimson never once succumbs to commercial pressures, or changing their sound to fit the times, or playing the oldies circuit; even in 2019, their playlist is a mix of new music and album cuts from 1969-2003, and it sounds as vital as ever. That said, this is one of the stronger cuts from their only album of the ‘90s.

23. “Pictures Of A City,” ITWOP: Similar to “Schizoid Man,” the band’s second album kicks off with another overdriven tale of urban decay, with screaming guitars, guttural saxophone and Lake’s vocals, where he spits out snapshots of urban life (“Concrete, cold cage / Cased in steel”). The jazz-prog breakdown in the middle isn’t among the band’s best transitions, but it works in the context as a breather from the oppression.

22. “The ConstruKction Of Light,” The ConstruKction Of Light: Rather than go for novelty value, recalling the past or wringing endless solos out of his guitar, the band coalesces its new quartet format (post-ProjeKcts) into a defining song. Like much of the album, it looks backward for inspiration, but pushes forward in a dense knot of interlocking guitars and time signatures, with the lyrics only coming about halfway through the piece.

21. “Sleepless,” Three Of A Perfect Pair: Purists might howl that a pop song is so high on this list above other doom rockers from the early ‘70s, but “Sleepless” is a darn good song; Levin’s slap bass is phenomenal, and would only become more impressive in concert. Belew’s paranoid lyrics capture the subject matter well (“It’s alright to feel a little fear,” he notes). Not much about this album is good, but this song stands well above the others.

20. “In The Court Of The Crimson King,” ITCOTCK: Although beloved by fans and a cornerstone of both the album and the development of progressive rock, the lyrics and twee midsection of this track take it down a notch from the better songs on the first half. But it’s still an integral part of the band’s history.

19. “Islands,” Islands: Mel Collins’ saxophone work is excellent throughout this album, a claim Fripp would back up in the liner notes to a KC compilation a few years back, and this song is one of the examples. This languid ballad is lovely, effectively capturing the feeling of being lost and pensive, slowly building to a climax and then fading away on a long, sustained keyboard note. There are those who don’t rate Islands highly in the band’s catalog, and they are wrong; to wit, this song still shows up in the 2019 touring band’s current live show, and Jakko Jakszyk nails it.

18. “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” Discipline: The backing track for the song itself doesn’t have a lot of structure, by design, which allows Levin’s swooping bass and Fripp’s agitated guitar to underpin Belew’s spoken-word story about being accosted by muggers at night while walking the streets. It’s an entertaining story with some great guitar work. The title is an anagram of “Heat In The Jungle,” if that’s any indication of the storyteller’s state of mind.

17. “One More Red Nightmare,” Red: Surprisingly, it turned out that Red was a more influential album on rock music (at least in the States) than other Crimson efforts. Bands as diverse as Phish, Tool and Nirvana (yes, Cobain called out this album in particular) all drew from the powerful rock and offbeat sensibility the album. Although not as good as the title track or “Starless,” this track is one of Wetton’s better vocal performances with the group and part of the overall fabric of what makes Red so good.

16. “VROOOM,” VROOOM EP: Roaring back after an 11-year absence, this instrumental plowed ahead with “Red”-like force, but with the added benefit of a “double trio” format. This really was the song that used Fripp’s conceit of two different power trios playing at the same time, and even if the end result was unsustainable and unworkable in Fripp’s eyes, the best of it yielded a pretty great Crimson album.

15. “Coda: Marine 475,” THRAK: The conclusion to “VROOOM” is a great song on its own, a falling-down-the-stairs instrumental where various instrumental pieces fly and in and out while the rhythm section continues the trudge downward. It’s the necessary second part of the opening one-two punch on the album.

14. “In The Wake Of Poseidon,” ITWOP: Nobody wrote doom rock like Crimson in 1969-1970, and the title track from their second album is nearly as good as the twin peaks of the debut. Lake sings the with gusto throughout but the songs gets even better in the final three minutes during the wordless tri-part “ahh” vocal cascades, which the Mellotron then duplicates.

13. “One Time,” THRAK: An absolutely gorgeous song, made better by the midsection where the drums drop out and only the keyboards, guitar noodling and the cold wind of fate boom in the background. If that doesn’t make sense, listen to the track.

12. “Dangerous Curves,” The Power To Believe: The band’s final album (as of 2019) was conceived to be a showcase for the four-part title track and the heavy instrumentals like “Level Five,” but it is actually this track toward the end of the album that steals the show. Using a time-honored Crimson trope dating back to 1970, the song starts inaudibly and slowly fades up in volume until ending on a dissonant power chord, almost as an homage to the past. The track itself, though, is an urgent electronic number with spooky sustained keyboard notes and a rubbery bassline, and like any other good Crimstrumental, it transports the listener into another place.

11. “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Pt. II” Larks’ Tongues In Aspic: Part one was more ambitious, but also twice as long and twice as dull. Part two closes the album with a monster one-note power chord, an eight-note riff to break it up and then an ascending section that repeats twice before the flurry of chords to close out the track. Oh, and it’s loud as hell, not to mention one of the few pre-1981 songs the Belew-led lineup would bring into their live show.

10. “Frame By Frame,” Discipline: Although “Elephant Talk” brought the new Crimson to the world in 1981, the next song on the album was a better showcase for the twin-guitar approach of Fripp and Belew. The riff alternates between being doubled and being delayed so the guitars can snake in and out of one another, which is cool in and of itself. However, it’s also a testament that the song swings a bit and ends at just the right time, showing that a looser, half-American version of Crimson was the necessary next step in the band’s story.

9. “Fracture,” Starless And Bible Black: You may see this as a display of ego or proof of his genius, but Robert Fripp has cited this as perhaps the most difficult guitar parts he has ever written; so tricky, in fact, that he practiced it during off-hours on the 1973-74 tours to get it right. Why write a rock instrumental so tricky? This is the sort of question progressive rock could never answer. That said, the song itself is a long, mostly-improvised instrumental with Fripp’s written guitar part anchoring the piece. It’s astounding, really.

8. “Discipline,” Discipline: The song that brought math rock into the ‘80s, the title track from the reconstituted Crimson is a knotty guitar workout, a wordless journey through interlocking fretwork, polyrhythms and tricky time signatures. It’s also consistently entertaining, catchy and gets out in about four minutes, the final track on what could be the band’s finest album (or at least top thre).

7. “Sailor’s Tale,” Islands: If “Formentera Lady” lulled the listener to sleep on the band’s fourth album, “Sailor’s Tale” jolted them out of their slumber with one of the best instrumentals of the band’s career. The pulsing bassline alone is worth the price of admission, but the insistent sax work drives the piece over the edge; rarely did Crimson play so fast or so confidently on record during their early years. Docked a few places for the clanking guitar tone in the middle section, which really grates after a couple minutes, but the beginning and ending portions are worth it.

5. “Red,” Red: Although not highly thought of at the time, Red would go on to become a critically-acclaimed album and a very influential one, more so in the U.S. than in Europe. As far as Fripp is concerned, the second iteration of Crimson reached its apex on the Red tour, and this album is the one where the power of the Wetton/Fripp/Bruford era could finally be heard (plus, tritones!). This instrumental title track is confident, muscular guitar riff rock, deceptively simple and thoroughly bracing. Bruford didn’t love it, but had confidence in Fripp that it was worthy; safe to say the guitarist won that argument, as bands like Tool, Nirvana and Phish would attest years later when they discovered this album.

5. “The Talking Drum,” Larks’ Tongues In Aspic: The best example of the Crimson trope of a long fade-in that culminates in a noisy finale and, to me, the best evidence of the double-percussion attack pioneered here on a Crimson album. Gradually, the layers pile on and the song builds in intensity, eventually ascending with howling guitar patterns and increasingly urgent drums, but locking into its groove and keeping a singular focus until the abrupt screaming end. The best Crimson is challenging and rewarding, intense and accessible, and this track is all of the above. Larks’ wouldn’t be the same without it.

4. “Epitaph,” ITCOTCK: Rarely has doom rock sounded so appealing. The epic song takes you off the cliff into madness, Lake’s keening vocals providing the soundtrack on lines like “The fate of all mankind, I see / Is in the hands of fools / Confusion will be my epitaph … If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow, I’ll be crying.” Depending on your mood, this rivals “Schizoid Man” as the best track on the debut and consequently does not suffer from being overplayed.

3. “The Sheltering Sky,” Discipline: You could make a case for nearly any Discipline track to be up this high, but I give the edge to this long instrumental because of the mood it sets. No lyrics, just a quietly disconcerting guitar pattern and Bruford’s wood-block drumming, set to swoops from the bass and, eventually, Fripp’s angular guitar patterns that arrive in fits and spurts. Halfway through, the song takes a more melodic turn with some shimmering guitar work (that the band never really replicated in concert; seek out the studio version). It’s a fantastic and overlooked song ripe for rediscovery.

2. “Starless,” Red: A fitting epitaph for the 1969-1974 incarnations of the band, “Starless” is alternately sad, hopefully and skull-crushingly epic. The Mellotron sets the stage with the two-chord introduction, Fripp’s personal guitar line is moving and mournful, and the song moves from a somewhat-standard pop/rock to a long climactic buildup to an explosion of sound to a more insistent restating of the opening theme. It’s the second longest Crimson song on record and one of their finest moments.

1. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” ITCOTCK: The first song on the band’s first album remains the touchstone for their career, a song that gets played 50 years on and has been played by pretty much every incarnation of the band, a song whose guitar solo ranked in the Rolling Stone Top 100 and that is as heavy metal as anything else from 1969 you care to name. The howling distorted lyrics, the sax solo, the noisy onslaught, the catchy riff, and the jazzy interlude all combine into an indelible whole that stands among the great progressive rock tunes of all time.

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