For over a half-century, London, England rock pioneers King Crimson have been innovating within the medium with their unique brand of grandiose soundscapes and elaborate songwriting, displaying a form of technical mastery and prowess that rivals that of any musician you would care to name – regardless of genre.
One genre which is undoubtedly heavily indebted to the ambitious works of King Crimson is heavy metal, and in particular, the prog-metal sub-genre. Bands like Opeth and Dream Theater often tip their hats to these eccentric sound wizards, wearing their KC influence on their sleeve like a badge of honor. Rightfully so too considering just how groundbreaking the group were in the context of late-’60s rock music.
Delving into the King Crimson discography can be like entering an elaborate maze in the sense that, there are so many diverging musical paths, it can be tricky to find something that suits your taste. Take time to dig into it and you’ll find that the band not only influenced metal, but they’ve also full-on dove into it at several points throughout their 50+ year career. Fear not though metalheads! We’ve done the scouring for you.
So get your thinking (and headbanging) caps at the ready – here are the 10 heaviest King Crimson songs.
10. VROOM VROOM (THRAK, 1995)
Don’t be fooled by the mellow beginnings of THRAK album opener “VROOM VROOM” – the capitalization of the title should give you an inkling that group spearhead Robert Fripp & co. aren’t going to continue along that serene path. Instead, they ratchet this one up to 11, hammering home the main refrain repeatedly while expertly incorporating new elements and textures throughout their precarious climb towards the top of the musical summit. It’s the kind of frenzied framework that King Crimson operates so effortlessly within – sounding erratic and manic while expertly maintaining restraint and control. Every instrument gets special care and attention on “VROOM VROOM,” whether it be the rickety drum patterns that pepper it or the ominously looming baseline that underpins it. What a way to open an LP, but as you’ll find out later in our listicle, it wasn’t the only heavy banger to emerge from this steely ‘90s record…
9. Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With (The Power to Believe, 2003)
Released a whopping 34 years after their debut album rocked the soundsphere, The Power to Believe was a return to a much harder King Crimson sound. “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” is a prime example of this more punishing sound – even if it is poking fun at the conventional songwriting template in the same breath. Hard industrial beats and nu-metal turntable flourishes permeate this thunderous free-for-all, laden with the group vocally dissecting the monotonous nature and sterile simplicity that many acts adopt. The boys don’t mind diminishing their own simplified approach to songwriting on this one, humorously belting out “We’re gonna need to have a chorus” at every chance they get. Very few bands could get away with this kind of musical snobbery, but luckily, King Crimson just so happens to be one of those elite groups.
8. Red (Red, 1974)
Speak with any King Crimson fan and they will most likely tell you that 1974’s Red is the heaviest album ever spawned by the band. One listen to the title-track and you’ll quickly hear why there is certainly credence to this sentiment. It came off the back of a change in the lineup with David Cross being let go prior to the album’s recording. Reduced to just three members, the band decided to outrageously attempt to make their most hard-hitting album to date, and somehow, they pulled it off. Incredibly, it proved to be their lowest charting album at the time, only reaching No.66 on the Billboard 200. Make no mistake about it though, Red remains a critical milestone for the band and proof positive that the group could get hold of any genre of music and make it work.
7. THRAK (THRAK, 1995)
We did warn you earlier that harsher sounds were yet to sprout up from 1995’s THRAK, and nowhere is this better exemplified than on the clanging title-track itself. The group enters the domain of the experimental here, bringing to mind the harsh dynamics and unconventional instrumentals of groups like Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten. The industrial elements are very much prevalent but so too are the abstract textures more synonymous with the Krautrock genre. The free-flowing way the band weave in and out of moments of chaos and moments of serenity is second-to-none, ultimately creating a track that keeps the listener on their toes thanks to some ingenious forks in the road. Make no mistake about it, this stuttering stomper certainly is bonkers – but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. Facts Of Life (The Power to Believe, 2003)
There’s no grandstanding in this powerhouse of a track featured on The Power to Believe, in fact, it’s unapologetically direct and to-the-point. The band certainly doesn’t mind delving into abstract lyricism, here, however, vocalist Adrian Belew chooses to basically preach to the listener about his idea of the facts of life. “Nobody knows what happens when you die, believe what you want, it doesn’t mean you’re right” is just one of the pearls of wisdom bestowed upon the listener here. Don’t let this refreshingly simple philosophical lesson overshadow the fractured instrumental backdrop at play though. Scattered electronics seamlessly merge with Fripp’s space-bound guitar riffage, powerfully backed up by a driving drumbeat that is determined to bore a hole in the mix before all is said and done with its sheer brute force. Powerful stuff from start to finish.
5. 21st Century Schizoid Man (In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969)
What King Crimson list would be complete without this jewel in the prog-rock crown? It’s one of the most heralded songs in the history of rock and it’s not hard to see why. Despite serving as the band’s first offering, “21st Century Schizoid Man” is a complex mammoth of a track, showcasing early on just how high of a level these boundary-breaking innovators were able to work at. It’s also a precursor for the heavier sounds that would some come in the form of heavy metal, thanks largely to a wall of sound production that almost washes the listener away with its own bombasity. This musical smorgasbord is simply proto-metal by its very nature – just another milestone etched in the history books for KC.
4. One More Red Nightmare (Red, 1974)
If anyone ever questions you on the technical capabilities of drummer Bill Bruford, please do them a favor and direct them in the direction of this jaw-dropping percussion spectacle. Bruford lets rip throughout this magnificent composition – showcasing some of the most inventive beat work heard up until that point. It serves as the perfect linchpin for Fripp and John Wetton to riff over and connects the whole piece together due to some scintillating fills. Drooling over the drumming aside, “One More Red Nightmare” also utilizes a menacing bassline that seems to engulf the mix with its dark aura, not to mention some doom-laden swathes of KC’s tried-and-tested mellotron. Of course, this is King Crimson so expect to hear a ribcage rupturing saxophone solo thrown in for good measure too, rounding out what is arguably one of the best and most well-rounded songs the group has ever composed.
3. Dinosaur (THRAK, 1995)
“Dinosaur” happens to be a bit of a rarity in the King Crimson catalog, mainly due to its (mostly) straightforward structure. Of course, I say mostly in brackets as the band never doing anything completely by the books, with the song seeing them randomly insert a long mellotron passage just as it starts to get into its groove. Besides this detour, the rest of the track is a delicious delight for those into the heavier aspects of music. An impassioned vocal performance courtesy of Belew is the highlight here. Never to be outdone though, Fripp delivers a spellbinding guitar solo before the group reconvenes one last time to drive home the chorus before fading out as it began. From a vocal and instrumental standpoint, “Dinosaur” delivers the goods – culminating in a track that definitely shouldn’t go extinct any time soon.
2. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic – Part IV (The Construkction of Light, 2000)
Despite a revolving line-up and cast of characters, Fripp is the one vital constant that has held the group together since its initial incarnation. Admirably, the outfit have still managed to remain true to themselves despite these changes, with their classic formula of yesteryear simply being injected with more modern techniques and advancements. The mind-altering “Larks’ Tongues Aspic, Pt, IV” suite is case in point. This trudging stroll across the many different esplanades of the King Crimson sound was the highlight of the band’s somewhat patchy 2000 LP, entitled The Construkction of Light. The track also happened to be the heaviest cut from the record too. The album is commonly dismissed by critics and Fripp himself as a misstep in the group’s body of work, however, there’s much to be said for this epic cacophony of sound. Say what you want about the album, but in my opinion, this song is an unmissable rollercoaster ride through the complex minds of musical maestros doing what they do best – battering listeners into submission with their uncanny skill.
1. Level Five (The Power to Believe, 2003)
Batten down the hatches for this stunning tour de force in extreme music-making. “Level Five” immediately transports the listener to another dimension thanks to its otherworldly sounds. Whether it’s the mechanical drum work or the electronic glitches, KC’s sheer attention to detail is astounding on this stellar album cut. This sonic shockwave teeters on the brink of utter devastation, largely due to a seriously sinister recurring riff that refuses to die, ominously emerging throughout until the song’s dying embers. It was always easy to see why the band was so influential for the prog-metal genre, but on “Level Five,” that noticeability is hammered into your face with the heaviest work ever concocted by these trailblazers. All in all, it’s intricate, brutal, and mesmerizing in one swift blow. “Level Five” is downright stunning even by King Crimson’s standards – and that’s saying something.