Classic Rock Review

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

cover_493961992009From amazon.com

The original King Crimson band– Robert Fripp (guitar), Ian McDonald (keys, reeds, vocals), Michael Giles (drum kit, backing vocals), Greg Lake (bass, vocals), and Peter Sinfield (lyrics) was a group positioned to do something great– when Ian McDonald joined Giles, Giles & Fripp (an off kilter pop band and the prototype for King Crimson), and eventually the arrival of vocalist Greg Lake, the band’s former pop sensibilities were largely replaced by a neoclassical form and a love for improv. The only resulting document of this group in the studio is this album.

I’m going to briefly jump into the sound before talking about the music– if you’re not interested, skip to the next paragraph. Fripp has remastered the album for what seems like the millionth time– this time from the original session tapes. The result is stunning– there’s a clarity here not present on previous editions, the production seems to have slightly changed, Lake often sounds like he’s singing right in your ear, the vocal harmonies, always for me one of the things that separated this album from similar achievements (the stunning playing of Fripp and Giles being the other) are clear and distinct. And for an album of dynamic, it has long gone without any clear hearing– “Moonchild”, which often sounded like unfocused tinkling, finally sounds coherent on record. From a sonic standpoint, this is finally the treatment the record deserves.

The music is this album is breathtaking– the sound is in some ways very 1969– mellotrons abound, lead playing splits between reeds and guitars, and a unique, high tuned drum sound, but there’s a certain timeless quality to some of the tracks that make it stand out, even when seeped in the technology of the time. The album’s opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, is the closest thing to a hit the band had– a group composition, the song opens with a whisper, mellotron effects, before exploding into power chord guitar and wailing sax– Lake’s voice, never a favorite of mine, takes a powerful and harsh edge and runs through two verses before the song breaks into a syncopated rhythm over which McDonald (on sax) and Fripp both take brilliant solos before coming back around to the verse again. By the time this ended for the first time, I was hooked. The level of playing on here, in particular hearing the four musicians playing complex lines in unison, will grab hold of anyone. Combine that with a great metal hook, and you’ve got something in many ways overwhelming.

The following track, “I Talk to the Wind”, is quite the opposite– delicate, with quiet guitars, reeds, a brilliant flute solo, and soft harmonies, makes you realize this band is not a one trick pony. This may be the finest lead vocal Lake has ever sung– he sounds relaxed, confident, and without that air of pretension that so often dominates his singing. Again, simply breathtaking, but in its own way. Skipping ahead a bit to “Moonchild”, the first two minutes are similar– quiet musical performance and a great lead vocal from Lake before meandering into an extended guitar, vibes and drums improv. While the trio improv is a bit overlong, it does (at least on this edition, not nearly as well on previous ones), work without having a feeling of draggin.

The other two tracks on the album are really the only ones that lack a timeless quality, largely in part because they’re dominated by the lush mellotron strings that clearly point to their era. “Epitaph” is probably my least favorite track on the album, dark, building, boiling, with some great guitar work from Fripp, I find it (and to a lesser extent the album closer) marred by Lake’s overblown vocal delivery. The album closer, again dominated by the string sounds and Lake’s vocal, is also washed in vocal harmonies, features a really incredible reed bridge, and some great distorted guitar interplaying with the mellotron– while it feels dated, its one of those period pieces whose performance is so brilliant and whose composition is so strong, it gets past its sound.

The album was one of a kind– while Crimson would continue and produce many stunning albums, McDonald and Giles abdicated leaving Fripp to continue. This is an effort that would never be repeated– it also, unfortunately, established King Crimson as a progressive rock band, a sound that, by the mid-70s, they largely abandoned, and by the 80s, they totally turned their back on. Nonetheless, its a great record, and definitely should be heard.

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January 26, 2014 - Posted by | King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King |

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