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.
I think we all, at one point or another, whether we knew what it was or not, have all seen the screaming face that adorns the cover of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. This face, in many facets, describes the innovation, sound and intensity of this album.
Crimson’s music is not to be taken lightly. Nearly all aspects of it are creative, whether it be the touches of mellotron added to the melody, or Robert Fripp’s blistering guitar solos. This sole album, as King Crimson’s very first, basically defined the genre of what we call ‘prog rock’. Ironically enough, the band has always denied allegations that they are slapped with the ‘prog’ label. But on the contrary to what the band may think, this stunning five song, forty-five minute album is by all means, the true definition of the progressive rock genre.
It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint their music with two words, as their lyrics tend to focus on darker, creepy subjects, but the combination of classical instrumentation, as well as 7-minute plus suites, and interesting percussion, make this one of the most interesting, and well-respected albums of all time.
From the moment that the very first song, the staple of Crimson’s catalogue, ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ hits you, you are in for a very intense and provocative listen. Between the heavy guitar riffs and eerie voice of Greg Lake (whom we all know to be the front man of later progressive icons, Emerson, Lake and Palmer), ‘Schizoid’ proves to be a very worthy intro tune. On the subject of dark lyrics, you’ll get the jist of it when you hear Lake’s voice combined with the words ‘Blood rack, barbed wire. Politician’s funeral pyre.
The combination of various woodwind instruments, mellotron, and distorted guitar carries the eerie ambience, but only before a 3 minute jam between the three. Lake, being a multi-talented musician, provides a creamy bassline, as well as an exotic staccato rhythm during the jam session. The waves of monstrous feedback from Fripp are just another benefiting factor, letting you know what is yet to be heard. As you may have noticed, Crimson is responsible for some very interesting sounds, as well as unique instrumentation and choice, for that matter.
Therefore, it should not come as any surprise to you when you hear a wistful flute play a piece that depicts memories of the film ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. For the entirety of ‘I Talk to the Wind’, you will feel relaxed. The mellotron tastefully plays a few stray notes between lyrical phrases, but it’s Greg Lake’s voice that welcomes me. As opposed to the previous song, where his voice was raspy, throaty with lots of attack, now his voice is soothing and subtle, taking you into a deep feeling of subconscious, as if you were floating. The most bombastic section is the flute solo, which is easy to connect to where Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull found his inspiration.
It is always necessary to have a powerful, yet slow paced song on a progressive album. What that song is about is not relevant, whether it be love or death, happiness or depression, rich or poor. The next piece showcases the latter of the many subjects, touching up on darker matters. But there is no precedent saying which you must choose, and that is what sets ‘Epitaph’ apart from other ballads in the genre of rock music. Mellotron, as well as keys, and a rich orchestral string section, provide a tender foundation on which Lake’s voice soars above. His voice is easily one of the best in rock music.
The highlight for me is undoubtedly the string etude, which provides a classical spin on a jazzy song. Fripp’s acoustic work is utterly picture perfect, and everything just seems to be top notch before the song comes to a closing. Progressive music wouldn’t be progressive music if it didn’t have an ambient theme to it. ‘Moonchild’ fills that gap, being an electronic and synth jam session. One thing that grabbed my attention was the cymbal hits during the verses. As stupid as it may sound, a mere three taps on a hi-hat could never have sounded more appropriate and attentive. Clocking in at merely 2:30, ‘Moonchild’ is nothing more but a relaxing, ambient interlude, taking you toward a nine-minute suite that will prove to be the epitome of the word ‘epic’.
I’m guessing that a title track for this album would be quite a listen, and I was right. I’d expect a song that lasts nine-and-a-half minutes to have separate movements, and mood swings. Once again, that is the case for this title track. ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ is a medieval, epic movement that displays nothing more than sonic brilliance. Between the classical, finger-picked acoustic guitar, string arrangements, dark piano, choir etudes, flute solos, Greg Lake’s soaring voice, and without a doubt, the best drumming on the album, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ sprawls a melodic, yet heroic sound.
The shift from lyrical verses to instrumental choruses is nothing short of uplifting, and the strings combined with the choir are brilliant and rich in sustain. The drumming is superb and rhythmically stunning. They really outdid themselves with this medieval suite. I’d like to ask yourself what you define as ‘epic’. Chances are, that your definition is totally crushed by this song.
Those wanting hard rock and great guitar work will take a liking to the music of King Crimson. Those who like progressive music and enjoy in-depth arrangements will like it even more. My point is, you don’t have to like only one aspect of a genre of music in order to enjoy King Crimson’s music. Whatever suits your tastes will probably find a home on this album. Every bit of this album was brilliant, intense, and epic. And who knew all of that could happen within 45 minutes?
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.