Classic Rock Review

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King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)


The trio of Giles, Giles & Fripp (see the review of their only album in the Appendix) happily dissolved after their weird, almost crazy album flopped badly, but this actually led only to the departure of Peter Giles; brother Michael and friend Robert somehow stayed together. Even so, the change of direction was incredible: Cheerful Insanity didn’t offer us even a single hint at what they’d become in just about a year.

That record was funny, almost hilarious, displayed a typical British-style optimism and was also highly eclectic – I think I’ve mentioned the immense variety of style. This one is sad, almost tragic, displaying a sort of bitter Medieval pessimism, and is all dominated by sweeping, mastodontic arrangements of a cathartic character. In the whole history of rock music there’s never been witnessed such a radical change of direction.

Oh, okay, this is not Giles, Giles & Fripp, really. Three factors contribute to the general sound of the record, all three of them people, all three – new members of the band, now called King Crimson for sure. Ian McDonald brings us the new musical sound of the band – his keyboards, Mellotron, saxes and woodwinds dominate the tunes, bringing them a grandeur previously unheard of. Greg Lake brings us The Voice – being one of the most powerful male singers in rock, he emphasizes that grandeur and makes the theatrical, artificial songs almost come alive.

Finally, Peter Sinfield brings us the Lyrics – meaningless, but fascinating half-fairy tale, half-Tolkien-inspired images that fit in with the music one hundred per cent. On top of that, add Fripp’s manic guitar and Michael Giles’ precise and tasteful drumming, the glimpses of which we already witnessed on the previous record, and you get yourself a masterpiece.

In fact, if King Crimson had never recorded anything but the opening track on the album, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, they would still earn themselves an eternal place in the pantheon. Written, sung, and played with a staggering level of brilliancy, it is one of the most powerful apocalyptic songs in rock. The lyrics are good, and Lake manages to sing them with enough venom to be convincing; moreover, his voice is encoded by some kind of electronic gadget that makes it all the more scaring (I must add, though, that even the clear, untampered with vocals, as heard in concert on Epitaph, are just as captivating).

The main rhythm track, booming and crashing, rivals the Who in volume and power; and the lengthy instrumental passage in the middle (called ‘Mirrors’) is simply awesome. It borrows a lot of elements from jazz, mostly courtesy of McDonald’s Mellotron, but they rock; and Fripp’s Hendrix-style soloing also fits the song well. Along with Genesis’ ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ and a couple Jethro Tull tunes, this is my favourite creation in the whole prog rock genre.

The other tracks don’t fall short of the standard, though, because the record manages to contain all of my Top Three King Crimson songs. The beautiful, oh so incredibly beautiful ‘Epitaph’ beats lots of classical music chef-d’aeuvres for the title of ‘The Grandiose Epic’, and it features Lake’s most stunning vocal delivery on the whole album. Of course, you might also consider it highly theatrical and insincere, but who cares? This was the first true prog rock album in the full sense of the word; are we speaking sincerity when we deal with prog rock albums? Certainly not. So forget that and just let yourself be swept away by this ‘storm of emotions’; and the opening guitar notes (are these guitar notes?) are just as moving as Eric Clapton’s solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (which is a very high compliment, in case you doubt it).

Finally, the title track, the most ‘pretentious’ one on the album, is just as good, this time punctuated by the band’s celestial vocal harmonies. Who is the ‘crimson king’, I wonder, and why does the song activate visions of some kind of underwater fairy kingdom in my mind? Anyway, that’s the good thing about Sinfield lyrics: they always mean something different to everybody. Which means they don’t mean anything, of course, but that’s just a game, isn’t it? Yup. The song is fantastic.

Finally, we have the ultra-overblown, almost ridiculously so, artsy ballad ‘I Talk To The Wind’; its pomposity and almost sickening flatulence used to drive me crazy, but since then I’ve come to realize that the melody is awesome. I just don’t pay much attention to the lyrics. Try to imagine it’s a love ballad, for Chrissake, and you’ll be able to enjoy it as much as I do.

The only mishit on the album is another ballad, the deceiving ‘Moonchild’: it starts close in style to ‘I Talk To The Wind’, but later on is transformed into a dull, avant-garde collage of keyboard noises that seems to drag on forever. Maybe it was inspired by Pink Floyd’s experiments on Ummagumma? Even so, these guys, unlike Pink Floyd, never knew where to stop: ‘Moonchild’ is, funny enough, the longest track on record. To tell you the truth, I should have deprived it of one point for this load of dreary crap.

But I won’t. Just because the other songs are so darn incredible. No wonder it made the band big stars overnight, and they were never able to top their effort – neither artistically nor commercially. Ah, but that don’t matter, really. The record still holds up as one of the most monumental, important and enjoyable creations of prog rock, and this is certainly the most natural and evident place to start with King Crimson. If you don’t have this record, you basically… never mind.

Just think how much impact the record must have had in 1969. Virtually, it spurred all of the major prog rock bands – ELP, Yes, and Genesis among them – to further and unexplored heights. But few of these further records were able to beat the original.

May 4, 2013 - Posted by | King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King |

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