10 KING CRIMSON — Islands
Perhaps the most misunderstood album in the King Crimson catalogue, Islands signalled a change in direction for Robert Fripp’s merry band. With Keith Tippet on piano and compositions that took elements of the band’s live improvisational style into the studio, the pieces on Islands stretch and search, incorporating woodwinds and orchestrations dancing with the Crimson rhythm section. Yes, there are jazz elements here, but none that should deter fans of adventurous, accessible progressive music.
When they regrouped for 1973’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic King Crimson were a far more muscular rock outfit, and produced some of their best work. But that is certainly no reason to skim over this gem which—with the exception of the of-its-time-and-really-cringe-worthy-now “Ladies of the road”—is a deep, mysterious album that work that richly rewards attention. For those seeking further adventures in the Islands archipelago, the anniversary boxed set is a feast of gargantuan proportions. [Released December 1971]
9 TRAFFIC — Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys
After the stripped down beauty of John Barleycorn Must Die and the stop-gap live album Welcome To The Canteen, the core Traffic membership of Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood expanded their membership and made their most musically accomplished and progressive album. With both rollicking rockers (“Light up or leave me alone”) and wistful excursions (“Many a mile to freedom”), Low Spark was characterised by a laid back groove that reached its pinnacle with the twelve minute title track. From the hypnotic bass line to the enigmatic lyrics, this epic captures not just a fine band at their peak, but also the adventure and cross-genre exploration of the era.
I’d heard and liked earlier Winwood efforts, but when I first sat down to immerse myself in Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys I was transfixed. I still love it, all these years later, from the moment I am drawn into the marvellous alt-universe of the album’s cover to the final haunting strains of “Rainmaker”. [Released November 1971]
8 MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA — Inner Mounting Flame
What do you do when you’ve helped create jazz-rock?
After playing on Miles’ Bitches Brew and the extraordinary Jack Johnson (here and again here), mercurial English guitarist John McLaughlin conjured the Mahavishnu Orchestra into existence. Recruiting violinist Jerry Goodman from Flock and fellow Davis alumnus and drumming power house Billy Cobham, McLaughlin completed the first Mahavishnu line-up with two relative unknowns. Keyboard player Jan Hammer had toured with Sarah Vaughan and was playing jazz in NYC, while Irish-born bass player Rick Laird was a highly respected session and touring musician.
The delicately balanced alchemy of these musicians produced a work of spine-tingling energy and complex beauty. Following a jazz model of soloists over a tight rhythm section, Goodman’s violin and McLaughlin’s fiery guitar are super-charged by Laird, Cobham, and the pulsing keyboards of Hammer. Best don your asbestos underwear; this one will hit your fire chakra hard. [Released November 1971]