While KING CRIMSON took the world by storm only a year previous in 1969 with their game changing debut, their follow up “In The Wake Of Poseidon” has always felt to me like a collection of B-sides from the leftover bin of tracks from the initial sessions that created them. With LIZARD, the second album of 1970 and third album overall, it feels like Robert Fripp and company took the whole project to a new level of complexity by not only keeping the previous elements that came before but also by upping the ante in pretty much every way. While not the only top class album to take complexity to new levels in the year 1970 (to my knowledge only Marsupalami, Soft Machine and Magma were contenders at this level), Robert Fripp steered his KING CRIMSON project into new grounds a mere fourteen months after the extraordinary “In The Court Of The Crimson King” was unleashed on an unsuspecting public and proved that he was a serious force to be reckoned with. LIZARD is a testament to a focused individual driven to evolve light years above the newly aroused competition nipping at his heals. LIZARD hasn’t always been a bonafide masterpiece in my world but i can happily say that i’ve reached a point of understanding where it all makes perfect sense.
Only two years into the band’s formation, Fripp was already seeing a rotating door policy of musicians who just couldn’t jive with his ambitious visions. In only a year since the debut that ignited the progressive rock powder keg, vocalist and bassist Greg Lake jumped ship to join Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Drummer Michael Giles and wind instrumentalist Ian McDonald would jump ship together to create a lighter version of KC called McDonald And Giles (but McDonald would reunite on “Red”) leaving Fripp as the only original member on LIZARD. The new KING CRIMSON circa last half of 1970 featured Fripp on guitar, Mellotron, synth, organs and other sundries, Mel Collins (Circus) on sax and flute, Andy McCulloch (Manfred Mann, Fields, Greenslade, Crazy World Of Arthur Brown) on drums and Gordon Haskell (Les Fleur de Lys), a long time school friend of Fripp who had contributed one vocal track previously on “Poseidon” and now took the role as lead vocalist on side one. Jon Anderson of Yes would join in for the long behemoth title track that encompassed the entire second half of the original LP release. Also on board were the phenomenal Keith Tippett who also played as a session keyboardists on “Poseidon” as well as other session musicians who added oboe, cornet, trombone and extra vocals.
Everything about LIZARD is more ornate than anything before starting with the album art cover itself. The original LP release was graced by two sides of medieval art with one side spelling KING and the other CRIMSON. While the music doesn’t exactly lead to anything medieval per se save a few classical guitar workouts by Fripp, the album does display a sense of Renaissance in the music scene with its relentless fusion of classical, rock and jazz with the greatest emphasis on the latter. The jazz elements on here are off the hook with saxophone solos, jazzified song structures within the tracks and even segments of progressive big band interaction in full swing. Therefore if you don’t haven’t gotten an A in your jazz appreciation course you probably won’t enjoy this as much as the full-blown jazz fusionist lovers. Miles Davis appears to have been a major influence on this one since the very same year as the KC debut, Davis himself was adopting rock into the jazz world. A year later and following in the footsteps of other rock to jazz fusionists like Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Prevention, KING CRIMSON was gracefully taking it on to create equally complex and sophisticated music.
Just to give you a sense of how complex this album is, most of the lyrics are actually represented in the art work itself. For example, the “I” in CRIMSON is a caricature of The Beatles and is a direct reference to the track “Happy Family” which referred to the breakup of the band. The lyrics get even more detailed about certain aspects of the band. The artwork and lyrics go hand in hand to create a much larger story as does the music thus creating a never ending level of complexity that the listener can delve into as deeply as the listener wants. The downside to all this complexity including the hardcore jazz aspects is that it is a bit alienating for the uninitiated and non-adventurous listeners especially following much more digestible tracks like “20th Century Schizoid Man” that had put KING CRIMSON in the eyes and ears of a totally new generation of music lovers only a year prior. LIZARD perhaps had gone too far too fast for many fans, however this album is not without its instant gratification. There are melodies aplenty to be savored albeit with allusions to all kinds of obscurities in the mix, both lyrically and musically. The music literally has taken decades for fans to catch up with.
The album seems to be as divided musically as it is divided from the front and back side of the album cover. Side one sporting Haskill’s vocals is the jazzier of the two sides which focuses more on the jazz meets rock aspects fueled with dissonant yet melodic hooks and horn heavy segments with occasional avant meanderings, whilst side two is much more in the symphonic prog world with Jon Anderson displaying sublime vocals and a glimpse into his future solo career projects. It also has a propensity to delve into the world of free jazz and the avant-garde including warped time perception and utter detachment from the musical world altogether. While the two album sides are clearly delineated by style, they somehow form a cohesive mood and feel after many listens. The prog behemoth that constitutes the title track includes four segments with the third being subdivided into three subparts and successfully manages to create a frenzied prog workout that takes the listener on a true musical journey very much in accord with classical music symphonies, operas, concertos and sonatas. The transitions from one style to another are somewhat subtle as they never just jump into each other’s turf. The transitions are gradual like gentle sand dunes slowly changing the topography of a vast desert where mirages from a camel ride slowly merge into each other. It’s really hard to grasp upon just a listen or two how much was put into this one.
The simple truth is that LIZARD is one of the very first progressive rock albums that is like climbing Mt Everest. You need to acclimate yourself to comprehend its sheer intensity. For the uninitiated this is the equivalent of a sea level dweller accustomed to an ample air supply gasping for air in an oxygen depleted environment and thus will come across like an atmospheric hypoxia induced sleepless night at the base camp where only groggy faded memories of what occurred will semi-percolate into the consciousness. This is an album that is a true 10 on the progometer scale. A code red, 3rd degree progressive jazz/classical/rock behemoth of the ages. That means that it requires several stages of musical development to truly “get it.” You must not only have your rock and classical musical sensibilities in top shape but you will go nowhere until your jazz appreciation skills have been fine tuned and honed to the point that mutli-genre fusion is like second nature. A true work of art that was perhaps overly ambitious for its era but sophisticated enough to evoke a sheer sense of timelessness.