Petrology 101

Petrology 101: King Crimson

This may be the most difficult yet rewarding lesson of the 101 course level. No matter how familiar we are with a subject, we must always be ready for surprises – the mind, like a door, must be kept slightly ajar. Oh to be young and idealistic! Your intrepid professor does not believe in surprises.

Therefore, raise your hand if I’m not making myself perfectly sparklingly clear – this will be on the final exam. It goes without saying, you must be able to identify album covers; videos are mandatory and must be watched in their entirety; if you get sleepy, put your head down on the desk; no snoring; release dates are obligatory; pay attention to notable personnel; and don’t skimp on pertinent production details.

In the Court of the Crimson King is King Crimson’s debut studio album (1969). The album reached number five on the British charts, and went gold in the United States. The album is generally regarded to be a defining and seminal moment in the progressive rock genre; avoiding blues-based cliches while embracing jazz and classical symphonic influences, In the Court… is universally considered a “classic” and must-have record of any collection. The album is also the only studio recording which features the original King Crimson line-up of Robert Fripp (guitar); Ian McDonald (flute, clarinet, saxophone, vibes, keyboards, mellotron); Greg Lake (bass, vocals); Michael Giles (drums, percussion); Peter Sinfield (lyrics, illumination).

Soon after the recording sessions were completed, it was discovered that a stereo tape recorder used to mix the album had recording heads that were misaligned. A loss of high-frequencies and undesired distortion affected some parts of the album. Kanye West sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in 2010 for his song, “Power.” In Lexington, Kentucky there is a street called Crimson King Court.

Initial reception of In the Court of the Crimson Kingran the gauntlet. Noted critic and curmudgeon Robert Christgau called it “ersatz shit.” Allmusic called it “a darker and edgier brand of post-psychedelic rock” as well as “definitive” and “daring” in its current review.

Track listing

Side one

  1. 21st Century Schizoid Man” (including “Mirrors”) – 7:21
  2. “I Talk to the Wind” – 6:05
  3. Epitaph” (including “March for No Reason” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”) – 8:47

Side two

  1. “Moonchild” (including “The Dream” and “The Illusion”) – 12:13
  2. The Court of the Crimson King” (including “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets”) – 9:25

NBC’s Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen covered “In the Court of the Crimson King” on his 1970 album, Doc Severinsen’s Closet. It’s fucking awesome!!!!!!


In the Wake of Poseidon is the second studio album (1970). By the time this album was released, the band had already undergone their first line-up change, however they still maintained much of the style of their first album. In other words, it’s pretty much In the Court of the Crimson King II.

The original line-up played its last show in San Francisco at the Fillmore West in December 1969. Ian McDonald and Michael Giles then formally left, because that’s what English musicians did back then. McDonald went on to be a founding member of Foreigner while Giles became a session drummer. Greg Lake left in early 1970 after joining what would become Emerson, Lake & Palmer. At this point, King Crimson was basically Fripp, the mellotron, and Sinfeld.

Lake agreed to sing on the recordings for Poseidon. At one point, the band considered hiring Elton John [major citation needed]. Other former members and associates returned – as session players, which becomes a recurring theme as we move along – for the Poseidon recordings, with all bass parts by Peter Giles. Michael Giles on drums. Mel Collins (formerly of the band Cirkus) contributed saxophones and flute. Another key performer was jazz pianist Keith Tippett, who had the most influence on the band’s sound for the next few records.

The longest track on the album is the instrumental, “The Devil’s Triangle”, which borrowed heavily from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Album cover is a work called The 12 Archetypes or The 12 Faces of Humankind, painted by Tammo De Jongh in 1967.

In the Wake of Poseidon was well received on release, but was criticized as an imitation of the debut album, which it was, frankly. More of the same, across the board. Robert Christgau liked the album better than the debut, commenting that “they’re not afraid to be harsh, they command a range of styles, and their dynamics jolt rather than sledgehammer.”

Track listing

Side one

  1. “Peace – A Beginning” – 0:49
  2. “Pictures of a City” (including 42nd at Treadmill”) – 8:03
  3. “Cadence and Cascade” – 4:27
  4. In the Wake of Poseidon” (including “Libra’s Theme”) – 7:56

Side two

  1. “Peace – A Theme” – 1:15
  2. “Cat Food” – 4:54
  3. The Devil’s Triangle” (including “Merday Morn”, “Hand of Sceiron”, and “Garden of Worm”) – 11:35
  4. “Peace – An End” – 1:53


Lizard is the third studio album (1970). It was the second recorded by a transitional line-up that never had the opportunity to perform live. This would be the first (and only) album to feature bassist/vocalist Gordon Haskell and drummer Andy McCulloch as official members of the band.

The record is arguably King Crimson’s most jazz-influenced album, developing further in the direction of “Cat Food” on the previous album. Yes vocalist Jon Anderson sings on “Prince Rupert Awakes”.

Responses towards the album have been varied. Allmusic’s Bruce Eder wrote, “At the time of its release, some critics praised Lizard for finally breaking with the formula and structure that shaped the two preceding albums, but overall it’s an acquired taste.”

The opening track, “Cirkus” is the best-known track on the album.

Track listing

Side one

  1. Cirkus” (including “Entry of the Chameleons”) – 6:27
  2. “Indoor Games” – 5:37
  3. “Happy Family” – 4:22
  4. “Lady of the Dancing Water” – 2:46

Side two

  1. “Lizard” – 23:15
  2. (a) “Prince Rupert Awakes” – 4:36
  3. (b) “Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale – 6:39
  4. (c) “The Battle of Glass Tears” – 10:58
  5. (d) “Big Top” – 1:13


Islands is the fourth studio album (1971).

The last King Crimson studio album before the group’s epic trilogy of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red, it is also the last to feature the lyrics of Peter Sinfield and the last to feature the band’s ‘traditional’ progressive and symphonic sound.

The album received mixed reviews. There are four tracks with lyrics on this album, and three of them concern women. “Ladies of the Road”, has been singled out for perceived misogyny. Trivia: Robert Fripp taught Boz Burrell how to play bass so that he could perform the instrument as well as sing on the album. Burrell later became the bassist for the band Bad Company.


Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is the fifth studio album (1973), marking the debut of the band’s third incarnation, featuring original member and guitarist Robert Fripp and new members John Wetton (vocals, bass guitar), David Cross (violin, mellotron), Jamie Muir (percussion), and Bill Bruford (drums). Bruford left Yes after recording Close to the Edge. The album sees the band incorporate violin and various exotic percussion instruments, including sheet metal and marimbas.

The album opens with a long experimental instrumental piece titled “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part I)”, which has become one of the group’s signature pieces. There are three songs with vocals, “Book of Saturday”, “Exiles” and “Easy Money”, with lyrics written by former Supertramp guitarist Richard Palmer-James (who left that band after its first, self-titled album). These are followed by two more instrumentals, “The Talking Drum” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part II)”. The instrumental pieces on this album have strong jazz-metal fusion characteristics.

It is the only studio album with this five-man line up. Muir left the group while on tour promoting this album in 1973, never to be heard from again. No, seriously. Following the strict principles of Buddhism, which seems to be common among these wild-eyed, free-form percussionist types, Muir went off to pursue a monastic lifestyle in Scotland. Apparently, the gig at the monastery didn’t work out either, and in 1980 he returned to London where he did nothing worth mentioning. His Wikipedia page says he has withdrawn from the music industry and has devoted his energy to painting, which in the petrology world is codespeak for “fucking bananas.”

Allmusic’s retrospective review was positive, praising the band’s transition from jazz-influenced to experimental. They called John Wetton “the group’s strongest singer/bassist since Greg Lake’s departure.” Which he was.

Side one

  1. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part I) – 13:36
  2. “Book of Saturday” – 2:53
  3. “Exiles” – 7:40

Side two

  1. “Easy Money” (Fripp, Wetton, Palmer-James) – 7:54
  2. “The Talking Drum” – 7:26
  3. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part II)” – 7:07


Starless and Bible Black is the sixth studio album (1974). The title is a quotation from the poet Dylan Thomas’s play, Under Milk Wood.

Several songs from the album were recorded live, with applause edited out. The only songs recorded entirely in the studio were the first two tracks, “The Great Deceiver” and “Lament.” “We’ll Let You Know” was an improvisational piece recorded in Glasgow. “The Mincer” was another improvised piece, recorded in Zürich and overdubbed with Wetton’s vocals in the studio. “Trio”, “Fracture”, and “Starless and Bible Black” were recorded in Amsterdam, as was the introduction to “The Night Watch” (the remainder was recorded in the studio).

The lyrics were composed by Palmer-James. Only four tracks actually have lyrics. The majority of the album’s lyrical themes are corruption, sleaze, and materialism of society. An exception is “The Night Watch”, a short essay describing Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, as an observer sees it and attempting to understand the subjects.

Even though there are no drums on “Trio”, drummer Bill Bruford received co-writing credit because the piece was improvised in concert, and Bruford’s decision not to add any percussion was seen by the rest of the band as a crucial choice. “The Great Deceiver” refers to The Devil and commercialism. The lyric was co-written by Fripp.  The album’s final track, “Fracture”, is similar in both style and melodic phrasing to “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II”. Fripp has stated that “Fracture” is the most difficult guitar piece he has ever played.

Rolling Stone said the album was “stunningly powerful,” praising Bruford’s percussive style and the successful integration of David Cross’s violin. Allmusic also praised the album, saying the second side “threw the group’s hardest sounds right in the face of the listener.” Robert Christgau’s review was more ambiguous, deeming it “as close as this chronically interesting group has ever come to a good album.”

Side one

  1. “The Great Deceiver” – 4:02
  2. “Lament” – 4:00
  3. “We’ll Let You Know” – 3:46
  4. “The Night Watch” – 4:37
  5. “Trio” – 5:41
  6. “The Mincer” – 4:10

Side two

  1. “Starless and Bible Black” – 9:11
  2. “Fracture” – 11:14


    Robert Fripp – guitar, mellotron, devices, electric piano

    John Wetton – bass, vocals

    Bill Bruford – drums, percussion

    David Cross – violin, viola, mellotron, electric piano


Red is the seventh studio album (1974). It was their last studio recording of the 1970s and the last before Fripp put the group on indefinite hiatus. The title track was ranked #87 in the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs list of Rolling Stone.

David Cross “left” in 1974, reducing the group to the trio of Fripp, Wetton and Bruford. Like the majority of previous albums, “former” members contributed to the recording. Red features Cross, Ian McDonald, and Mel Collins. Fripp disbanded King Crimson on September 24, 1974, and the album was released later that year with no accompanying tour.

While musically similar to Starless and Bible Black, the production of Red was remarkably different from previous albums. For instance, Red features extensive use of guitar overdubs. 

The fourth track, “Providence”, was recorded live in Providence, RI, on June 30, 1974, and is the album’s only live recording. The original lyrics and melody for “Starless” were written by John Wetton. He intended the song to be the title track of the previous album Starless and Bible Black. Fripp and Bruford initially disliked Wetton’s idea. Instead they chose an instrumental as the title track. However, “Starless” resurfaced, its lyrics altered and a long instrumental section (with a bass riff by Bruford) added, and was performed live between March–June 1974.

The record spent one week on the British charts, at No. 45, whereas all the band’s previous studio albums had reached the Top 30. In the U.S., it reached No. 66 on the Billboard 200.

Retrospective reviews were positive. Allmusic declared Red to be weaker than its two predecessors, but nonetheless a superlative work: “few intact groups could have gotten an album as good as Red together. The fact that it was put together by a band in its death throes makes it all the more impressive an achievement.” Robert Christgau also praised the album, calling it “grand, powerful, grating, and surprisingly lyrical” and commenting that “this does for classical-rock fusion what John McLaughlin’s Devotion did for jazz-rock fusion.”

In 2001 Q magazine named Red as one of the “50 Heaviest Albums of All Time”, and Kurt Cobain has cited the album as a major influence. Musicologists Eric Tamm and Edward Macan both consider Red, and particularly the track “Starless”, to be the highlight of King Crimson’s recorded output.

Track listing

Side one

  1. “Red” – 6:16
  2. “Fallen Angel” – 6:02
  3. “One More Red Nightmare” 7:07

Side two

  1. “Providence” – 8:09
  2. “Starless” – 12:16


Discipline is the eighth studio album (1981). This album was King Crimson’s first album following a seven-year hiatus. Only founder Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford remained from previous incarnations. The rest of the band was Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals) and Tony Levin (bass, stick). The album resulted in a more updated 1980s new wave sound mixed with the previous dark and heavy elements of the band’s 1970s experimental output.

“Matte Kudasai” (Japanese: 待って下さい) literally means “please wait.” The original release of Discipline featured only one version of “Matte Kudasai”, with a guitar part by Robert Fripp that was removed from the track on a subsequent release of the album.

The lyrics of “Indiscipline” were based on a letter written to Adrian Belew by his then-wife Margaret, concerning a sculpture that she had made.

“Thela Hun Ginjeet” is an anagram of “heat in the jungle”. When it was first performed live, some of its lyrics were improvised around an illicit recording made by Robert Fripp of his neighbors having a vicious argument when he was living in New York; this recording is featured on the track “NY3” on Fripp’s solo album Exposure. While the track was being recorded for the Discipline album, Adrian Belew, walking around Notting Hill Gate in London with a tape recorder looking for inspiration, was harassed first by a gang and then by the police. On returning to the studio, he gave a distraught account to his bandmates of what had just happened to him. This account was recorded by Fripp without Belew’s knowledge as well, and is featured on the Discipline version of the track (as well as almost all live versions), in place of those earlier lyrics that were based on Fripp’s New York recording.

“The Sheltering Sky” is named after and partially inspired by the 1949 novel of the same name by Paul Bowles. Bowles is often associated with the Beat generation, which would be an inspiration for King Crimson’s subsequent studio album Beat.

The back cover features the statement, “Discipline is never an end in itself, only a means to an end.” King Crimson purchased the rights to use a variation on a copyrighted Celtic knot on the LP cover. In later releases, it was replaced by a knotwork designed by Steve Ball on commission from Robert Fripp. Ball’s design is also used as the logo of Discipline Global Mobile, the music label founded by Fripp, which has become the label for King Crimson, Fripp, and associated artists.

Track listing

Side one

  1. “Elephant Talk” – 4:43
  2. “Frame by Frame” – 5:09
  3. “Matte Kudasai” – 3:47
  4. “Indiscipline” – 4:33

Side two

  1. “Thela Hun Ginjeet” – 6:26
  2. “The Sheltering Sky” – 8:22
  3. “Discipline” – 5:13


    Adrian Belew – guitar, lead vocals

    Robert Fripp – guitar, devices (Frippertronics)

    Tony Levin – Chapman stick, bass, backing vocals

    Bill Bruford – drums, percussion

Suggested reading and external links:

Discipline Global Mobile – home of all things King Crimson.

Elephant Talk – aka ETWiki, claims to be “exactly what you’d expect it to be: the number one site for information about King Crimson and Robert Fripp.”

The Accidental Diarist” by Christian Adams, Black Sunshine Media – an article which discusses Robert Fripp’s online diary.


By Noel Bancredi

A delightfully good time!

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