If you drew a graph connecting every act in 1970s progressive rock, most arrows would point to King Crimson. Featuring then-present and future members of Yes, Asia, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer — and masterminded by its resident madman Robert Fripp — the band may be the prime nexus point of the too-brainy, ambitious genre.
With a sound ranging from teeming, multilayered rock to deep-space ballads, the band stayed potent for decades with classics like 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King, 1973’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and 1981’s Discipline. Now, their entire discography is on TIDAL, gifting prog fans of all stripes with an embarrassment of riches. For the uninitiated and/or curious, here are 15 essential tracks by King Crimson.
“21st Century Schizoid Man” (from In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969)
Featuring a sound like stampeding mammoths and agonized album art worthy of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, In The Court of the Crimson King is the first, best gateway into King Crimson’s universe. So many of its quirks still fascinate: Ian McDonald’s free-jazz woodwinds, Greg Lake’s bizarro, distorted vocal part courtesy of misaligned tape heads. Jam its opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” for the truest gateway to the band.
“The Court of the Crimson King” (from In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969)
In the Court of the Crimson King’s title track is like Prog 101: medieval acoustic arpeggios, jazzy interludes, dippy lyrics about fire witches, yellow jesters and funeral marches. Future rock progressors like Jethro Tull, Rush and Deep Purple were taking notes. It does what prog-rock should — shatter musical barriers, provide escapism, engage the brain — and King Crimson pulled it off better than almost anyone.
“Cadence and Cascade” (from In the Wake of Poseidon, 1970)
If Crimson King mostly sticks to a lurching, lumbering vibe, its follow-up, In the Wake of Poseidon, is an upgrade; the rockers cut deeper, the ballads float ever more like mist. “Cadence and Cascade” is one of the band’s most delicate songs; guest vocalist Gordon Haskell’s dewy tenor is the opposite of Lake’s acidic snarl. This was where their range became obvious.
“In the Wake of Poseidon” (from In the Wake of Poseidon, 1970)
In the Wake of Poseidon’s head-in-the-clouds mood is typified by its lovely, oceanic title track, an eight-minute psychedelic ballad engulfed in spindrifts of mellotron. Leave it to Fripp to invent 1990s indie rock 30 years before the fact; there are glimmers of Elliott Smith, Wilco and the Flaming Lips in this foggy soundworld.
“Lizard” (from Lizard, 1970)
If you prefer the more brain-twisting side of prog, 1970’s Lizard may be your speed. On its sidelong title track, a gorgeous, piano-led intro sung by Yes’ Jon Anderson starts it off, then the composition shifts from mood to mood with effortless grace. Despite its 23-minute runtime and the paint-peeling free jazz explosion near the end, “Lizard” is engaging and enveloping.
“Exiles” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973)
King Crimson went through a whopping five personnel changes by 1973, when they released the mystical Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Fripp, the only remaining original member by this point, assembled a new lineup — Yes’ Bill Bruford and John Wetton, later of Asia and more. The renewed Crimson developed a gentler, more acoustic sound that owed itself to Eastern European classical music — and the exquisite “Exiles” is the best of the bunch.
“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973)
A twitchy, mercurial jam that foreshadowed thrash metal, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2” is a masterclass in unpredictable composition that never runs off the rails. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic was the beginning of a classic Crimson period — and its title track displays Fripp, Buford and Co.’s unbeatable chemistry at full bore.
“The Great Deceiver” (from Starless and Bible Black, 1974)
On the live/studio hybrid Starless and Bible Black, King Crimson seemed to incinerate all their styles together and leave only the ashes. “The Great Deceiver,” a song about Satan and health food, kicks off the program disorientingly; its unprintable opening line matches the convulsive, clobbering music. File “Deceiver” under their darker side.
“Red” (from Red, 1974)
After pushing their music to extremes on Starless and Bible Black, Fripp dialed the lineup back to a trio for Red. The music within is bluesier and more primal, especially the lumbering title track. If you prefer heavy rock a la carte, turn this one up loud. The DNA of stoner metal acts like Sleep, the Melvins and Kyuss was partly encoded here.
“Starless” (from Red, 1974)
The band returned to the dreamy, narcotized feel of their early work on “Starless,” the magisterial 12-minute closer of Red. But while early Crimson sounds like the province of backlight posters and lava lamps, “Starless” sounds patient, wizened and aged. Rather than flip signatures on a dime, Fripp and soprano saxophonist Mel Collins are squarely in a stoned, exploratory mode.
“Matte Kudasai” (from Discipline, 1981)
Taking inspiration from sleek new wave, pulsing dance-rock and other early-1980s genres, Discipline may have aged the best of any King Crimson album — and marks the debut of singer Adrian Belew. Every song is worth seeking out, but the most beautiful track may be “Matte Kudasai,” a jazzy ballad that seems to cite ECM Records and invent the Blue Nile.
“Thula Hun Ginjeet” (from Discipline, 1981)
Or, “Heat of the Jungle,” scrambled into an acronym. While early Crimson sometimes struggled to keep their wide-scale experiments reined into legible songwriting, “Thula Hun Ginjeet” combines 4/4 and ⅞ time signatures into bizarre, relentless motorik. It’s their Talking Heads or Slits moment, a costume they never tried on before or since — and it’s thrilling.
“Heartbeat” (from Beat, 1982)
A gated, processed album themed around Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and all things Beat Generation, Beat is a strange, wonderful curio in King Crimson’s latter-day catalog. The Shadowfax-sounding “Heartbeat,” named after a book by Neal Cassidy’s wife Carolyn, is full of era production trappings, like weeping-willow lead guitar and pulsing synth bass. Instead of ending up a cheesy pastiche, “Heartbeat” is sleek and sophisticated, dressing a crotchety old prog band in crew-cuts, turtlenecks and Day-Glo.
“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Pt. III)” (from Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)
After Beat, King Crimson’s new wave phase began to wane, with offerings that didn’t quite hold a candle to XTC, Duran Duran or Talk Talk. But Three of a Perfect Pair’s final track is a burst of electro-pop brilliance. Coming off an exhausted-sounding album, the song concludes the “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” trilogy with a fevered, disjointed instrumental that stands among their headiest jams.
“Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With” (from The Power to Believe, 2003)
After the peaceful Beat era, King Crimson headed in a teeth-gnashing, industrial direction with 1995’s THRAK and 2000’s The Construktion of Light. Their final album to date, The Power to Believe, is the best distillation of this sound, a collection of pounding metal anthems that foreshadows the Mars Volta and Coheed and Cambria. If you like your hard rock bizarre, winding and theatrical, these masters nail it best.