Marathon Packs asked: King Crimson (formatting weird due to the vagaries of Tumblr—it would only let me respond privately)
King Crimson had a lot of distinct phases over the life of the band, and my first impulse it to try to represent each of them, but I guess there were really more than four, so I’m just going to go with my overall top four.
1. “Starless.” This song closed the book on the band in the 1970s; it was really a different band when it re-convened in the 80s. It sums up everything that was so fantastic about them so neatly, that it seems absurd to pick against it. It has the Mellotron-soaked ballad and restrained lead guitar of the initial song, the sweaty-palmed terror of the slow, painstaking build-up, and finally, the explosion of wild energy and manic aggression they occurs when they finally complete the climb. the way it recapitulates to the opening theme at the end, but in a completely different arrangement, with a starkly different feel will always make me pump my fist a little.
2. “Waiting Man.” I love the early 80s version of the band. They weren’t exactly peerless—if anything, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew were taking cues from the work they’d done with Talking Heads—but no one did gamelan rock with as much precision. “Waiting Man” is one of the subtlest things that lineup of the band did, and I love the way it sets the mechanical precision of Fripp’s intricate picking patterns against the nakedly emotional imprecision of Belew’s vocal. That stretched-out melody against those tight, short patterns make a heavenly contrast. Then the drums come in.
3. “Happy Family.” This pick is way off the beaten track. It comes from side one of Lizard, which is one of the band’s most neglected albums. I really like that album side, though. Gordon Haskell’s weird baritone holds an odd charm for me, and on this song, we get to hear Pete Sinfield run it through electronics to weird things up even more. “Happy Family” really has all the elements that make the early incarnations of this band so strangely captivating, from the sudden bursts of horrific dissonance to the strange way with rhythm, to the bizarre lyrics. It’s not as in-your-face or heart-stopping as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” but I think it’s a little deeper.
4. “The Night Watch.” The mid-70s version of the band is known for its facility with complex interplay, improvisation, and bone-crunching heaviness, but the band could also produce songs of uncommon beauty. “The Night Watch” quivers into existence as though the band didn’t realize it was making a song, but then it finds a chord progression, and John Wetton starts singing, and it coheres into something with a definite rhythm. Richard Palmer-James wrote the lyrics about a Rembrandt painting, and that’s kind of what the music evokes: dark corners with a burst of light at the center.
If I stretched things out to a top ten, the next six would go something like: “Epitaph,” “Lament,” “Elephant Talk,” “Neal & Jack & Me,” “One More Red Nightmare” and “Walking on Air.”