Friday, May 25, 2012

King Crimson 1: In The Court Of The Crimson King

King Crimson has been an on-and-off-again entity for over forty years, with multiple lineup changes and exactly one constant: guitarist Robert Fripp. The band often gets lumped in with the genre known both reverently and derisively as prog-rock, and that’s just one assumption Mr. Fripp himself does not appreciate. Then again, considering that the band took its name from another word for Satan’s chief minion, and even Fripp has stated that King Crimson music is a nearly tangible presence, maybe it’s best not to question anything lest we rankle any demons who can do some serious damage and not have the courtesy to grant us a quick death.
Because they’ve had so many incarnations, most of their albums don’t remotely sound alike. The best place for anyone to start would be their debut, as it features the majority of the music more likely to have been played on mainstream FM radio. In The Court Of The Crimson King (helpfully qualified as “an observation by King Crimson”) isn’t really prog, though many of the elements within would eventually be adopted en masse by the genre. There are the woodwinds, prevalent in so many Moody Blues records. There’s Greg Lake, soon to join Emerson and Palmer. The Mellotron had a fairly busy life in the Beatles, before being adopted later by Genesis. And there are the multiple time signatures with poetic attempts at lyrics written by a guy who doesn’t otherwise play or sing a note.
Whatever one’s opinion of prog—and this album provides a good barometer—it can be agreed that the music works best when the song supports it. For the most part, that’s the case here. “Moonchild” is the exception, with a truncated main section that turns out to be longer than it seems, followed by nine minutes of badly mixed improvisation that becomes background music to be ignored. (No wonder Fripp and Eno got along so well.)
But this departure is framed by some striking compositions. “21st Century Schizoid Man” begins with a sound suggesting a robot meandering through a desolate wasteland, before a truly nasty riff sets up the distorted vocal. After two verses, the same instruments play a jazzier version of the riff, and the precision is tight. It all winds up in organized cacophony, giving way to the pastoral “I Talk To The Wind”, an anomaly on the album both in presentation and its lack of subtitles for the implicit elements within the track. “Epitaph” is more of a grand statement, heavy with arpeggiated acoustic guitar, Mellotron strings, an anguished vocal and saxes blasting a car horn symphony over the fade.
All the best elements come together on the last track. After a few snare hits, “The Court Of The Crimson King” blares in with a four-note, three-chord fanfare and a more sinister variation on the sound of “Epitaph” with the evil nursery rhyme approach of “Whiter Shade Of Pale”. Just when you think it’s over (leaving the characters in the song to carry on with whatever they’re up to, most likely a human sacrifice) a few cymbal taps allow a wind-up toy to play the theme, which soon comes back in (in a different key, but still) to ensure that there is no escape, swallowing up the sound into silence.
That song is probably the one thing most people associate with the band, outside of the album cover, which was allegedly often displayed proudly on a T-shirt by Fripp’s mother on her walks to the market. In The Court Of The Crimson King is a remarkable album for its time, a slab of hard rock to rival such big guns as Tommy and Led Zeppelin II. They even got to play at the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert that summer.
The album casts a long shadow over the band’s legacy, for better or worse, and has been personally remastered and reissued by Fripp three times. The 40th anniversary version was available with a bonus DVD of alternate mixes, a two-CD set with some of those bonus mixes, or a mega-box including all that plus more alternate tracks, B-sides, and contemporary live recordings. This was supplanted ten years later by yet another new mix of the album, plus instrumental mixes, early takes, isolated vocals, and a Blu-ray loaded up with all that and then some. Meanwhile, the current streaming version boasts only three extras: a “radio version” of “21st Century Schizoid Man”, a “duo” instrumental version of “I Talk To The Wind”, and a live version of “A Man, A City”, which would morph into something else on their next album. (In fact, the KC live legacy is something so daunting we’re not even sure we should approach it. Time will tell.)

King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)—4
2009 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1969, plus 15 extra tracks (DVD version adds only 5 extra tracks plus DVD; limited edition box set adds 27 tracks plus DVD)
2019 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1969 plus 24 extra tracks (plus Blu-ray)

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