“Formentera Lady” begins with a lengthy string bass solo (played with a bow). We hear saxophone noodlings, soon joined by more bowed stringed instruments that eventually find common ground, as a woman moans wordlessly above, occasionally sounding like Peter Gabriel from one of his ‘80s soundtracks. There’s a seamless transition to “Sailor’s Tale”, which would appear to be a musical portrait of a storm at sea. The sax and guitar wander about before finding a part to play in unison, then separate. The 6/8 time gets less frenetic, giving Fripp a chance to explore another guitar tone. The rhythm picks up again, heralding the return of the Mellotron. Things turn particularly sinister, before everything gets swallowed up by a rapidly strummed guitar, slowly decelerating to resolve on a major chord, though the final fade is given over to a minor-key drone. Unfortunately “The Letters” is particularly melodramatic lyrically and musically, and taken at such a slow speed it’s clear the two elements aren’t matched at all well. If you’re a fan of skronky sax for three straight tracks, you’ll love this.
Having ended side one with the sad tale of women involved with the same man, side two begins rather strangely with—and don’t say you saw this coming—an ode to The Groupie. “Ladies Of The Road” follows a fairly standard rock path with little subtlety, complete with a sax and drums combo right out of a typical movie scene in a striptease club. Only the chorus, decorated with what sounds like a backwards guitar, sounds unlike a parody. Luckily, the rest of the album rises above this. “Prelude: Song Of The Gulls” is a lovely chamber music piece for strings and oboe. Sure, it’s fairly basic, but it’s a nice setup for the title track, which begins with a mournful piano and vocal, ending with seven minutes of soft harmonium underneath trumpet, piano and sax solos, occasionally finding a slightly more major key.
Islands is a better listen than Lizard, and even the second album, but still not quite up to the standard of the debut. The fact that they were on their fourth lineup after four albums is probably the easiest culprit. Still, the better parts of the album outshine the lesser elements, making it a worthy representation of the band. The advent of digital technology makes it easier to skip those below-par segments. However, there have been several versions of this album, beginning from the different covers for the US and UK. The first CD, despite being labeled “THE DEFINITIVE EDITION”, starts “Sailor’s Tale” five minutes early (in the middle of “Formentera Lady”) and doesn’t include the hidden studio glimpse at the end of the title track.
King Crimson Islands (1971)—3