[Review] King Crimson: Islands (1971)

Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield harness some leftover Septober energy for this jazzy excursion.

Kronomyth 4.0: Scolopendra subspinipes.

The band’s fourth album is their noisiest, jazziest and darkest album to date. Islands boils down to quasi-classical/jazz plasma orbiting around the creative forces of Peter Sinfield and Robert Fripp. King Crimson had been completely overhauled in the wake of Centipede, an orchestral jazz collective led by pianist Keith Tippett and produced by Fripp. Boz Burrell, Tippett, Mark Charig and Harry Miller had appeared on Centipede’s Septober Energy along with most of Soft Machine, and that energy carried over to King Crimson’s fourth album. As such, it’s an anomaly in the Crimson catalog, although each of the band’s first four albums had its distinctive personality and lineup changes.

The opening Formentera Lady feels loosely structured and, as I’ve noted earlier, gives the impression of a listing ship. The instruments never quite fit together but seem to exist in their own space, a problem that plagues the album in general and is likely attributable to both the appearance of piano and saxophone as lead instruments (in lieu of the guitar) and the weakness of the current rhythm section. Burrell has a lovely voice, a sort of cross between Greg Lake and Gordon Haskell, that adds a certain genteelness to the music (with the exception of the ribald Ladies of the Road).

Fripp again juxtaposes light and dark elements together, nowhere more effectively than in the transition between “Formentera Lady” and Sailor’s Tale. Yet his handling of the pro tempo orchestra is less assured, leading the music dangerously close to the precipitous rocks of progressive jazz-rock that have sunk so many ambitious musical sailors in the past. That said, there are many things that even a misguided Crimson venture can achieve: moments of blistering fury, soft pockets of artful imagery, a fleeting command of orchestral elements that oozes pretty thoughts. Islands has all of these, while testing the patience of less resolute adventurers with digressions into squalls of saxophone, dissonant clashes and limply handled passages.

There’s no getting around the fact that Islands is artfully conceived, from the unspeakably pretty Prelude: Song of the Gulls to the hushed majesty of Islands. Even The Letters, a dark tale of betrayal, is nothing less than poetry set to elevated music. My only complaint is that Fripp and company seem to have drifted off course into strange waters where words are caught up in the winds of oboes, saxophones, cornets and pianos. An interesting excursion, to be sure, but Larks’ Tongues in Aspic marked a welcome return to what the band does best.

Original elpee version

A1. Formentera Lady (9:55)
A2. Sailor’s Tale (Robert Fripp) (7:20)
A3. The Letters (4:25)
B1. Ladies of the Road (5:29)
B2. Prelude: Song of the Gulls (Robert Fripp) (4:14)
B3. Islands (9:14)

All songs written by Robert Fripp/Peter Sinfield unless noted.

The Players

Boz (Burrell) (bass guitar, lead vocals and choreography), Mel Collins (flute, bass flute, saxes and vocals), Robert Fripp (guitar, mellotron, Peter’s pedal harmonium and sundry implements), Peter Sinfield (words, sounds and visions), Ian Wallace (drums, percussion and vocals) with Mark Charig (cornet), Paulina Lucas (soprano), Harry Miller (string bass), Robin Miller (oboe), Keith Tippett (piano). Produced by King Crimson; engineered by Andy Hendrikson.

The Pictures

Cover design & painting by Peter Sinfield. Photographs by Robert Ellis.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and 8-track in December 1971 in the UK (Island, ILPS/Y81 9175), the US (Atlantic, SD/M8 7212) and Germany (Island, 85806IT) and in 1972 in South Korea (Academy Record Co., DNA 9011) with lyrics innersleeve. Reached #30 on the UK charts and #76 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1977 in the UK (Polydor, 2302 060) and Japan (Atlantic, P-10348A) with lyrics innersleeve.
  2. Re-issued on Collector’s Edition elpee and cassette in January 1987 in the US (EG Records, EGKC/EGKCC 4) with lyrics innersleeve.
  3. Re-released on remastered 30th anniversary edition compact disc in 1999 in the UK (Virgin, CDVKC 4) and the US (Caroline, 1505).
  4. Re-released on expanded remastered high-quality compact disc + DVD on November 3, 2010 in Japan (WHD Entertainment, IEZP-22) with bonus DVD material.
Islands album cover
US 1971 Atlantic SD 7212 album cover

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