Review Summary: In the Court of the Crimson King is the classic seminal King Crimson debut which I've reviewed below. Please note that this is about as much a commentary as a review, hence the length. If you're after a brief album review, well there are hundreds of those
Now before jumping into the deep end, let's take a trip back in time to the second half and the close of the 60s. This was a fairly experimental period on many fronts... the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's and Abbey Road. John Coltrane was experimenting with free jazz and Sun Ra had been there even longer. Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart were experimental forces of the era too. Psychedelic rock was simply everywhere. With the long jams, hippie themes and higher degree of virtuosity required, the musicians of the era experimented with a hard rock type of sound and broke through barriers. Most of these psychedelic bands would go on to be forgotten in the sands of time, but there were some more popular ones who stuck around (the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd etc.).
As psychedelic musicians experimented more and more, they ushered in a new type of music, progressive rock, and the border between the genres can be rather blurred at times. Some of the bigger pioneering bands of progressive rock were the Doors with their darker lyrical themes, the Who with their rock operas, Deep Purple with their organ fitted heavy prog sound, and Can, Pink Floyd and the Beatles with their pure experimentation. The German psychedelia scene would later give rise to krautrock (a subgenre of prog rock), but before that came King Crimson. Now while it is arguable as to whether King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King was the first pure progressive rock album ever, it is certainly the most important album in the creation of the genre, and is the earliest progressive rock album I have ever heard. King Crimson created progressive rock and propelled themselves forward as a major direct influence on the other big early prog bands like Yes, ELP and Genesis. In fact, they went on to influence those who influenced them.
01 - 21st Century Schizoid Man:
21st Century Schizoid Man isn't exactly jam packed with lyrics, but the ones that are there are very poignant. In my mind, it attempts to paint a portrait of a man from the future. With lines like "Cat's foot, iron claw", "Poets starving, children bleed" and "Innocents raped with napalm fire", the lyrics give the impression that our schizoid man harks from a time where technology is absolute, art has been forgotten and war and conflict are rife.
The song starts out with ambience pockmarked with 'industrial' noises, and at about the 30 second mark, the song kicks in with what I call 'the monster riff', and upon hearing it, my reasoning will be obvious. And after this grandiose and heavy opening, Greg Lake starts chanting the first verse in a distorted caustic voice. After dipping back into the monster riff which signifies that the first section isn't yet over, Lake comes in with the second verse which is more bellicose in nature and is followed by one more rendition of the monster riff. A three note buildup which breaks into a circus-like saxophone riff marks the beginning of the energetic jam section. Robert Fripp's guitarwork is abrasive, and his 'anti-guitar solo' adds to the chaos, and though he is soloing, it's worth pointing out that Greg Lake on bass is practically soloing at the same time too, without overcrowding the song. Lake might not be Tony Levin, but at this point and throughout the song, his basswork is actually stunning. While the saxophone gives the song a jazzy feel at certain times, it is nothing short of demonic at other times - most notably around the halfway mark of the song where Ian McDonald comes in with a beautifully dissonant and distorted sounding saxophone solo, which is followed by a 'normal' jazzy sax solo (if I can call it normal). The monster riff concludes the jam as Lake shouts the third verse. And to finish off the song we have an incredibly frenetic burst of instrumental 'contributions' as every musician speaks his part at once.
02 - I Talk to the Wind:
Instantly following the frenetic ending of the last song, in an arrant contrast, we are met by the calm dulcet tones of McDonald's flute playing which is the lead instrument throughout this song. With the enchanting beauty of the flute-playing, the addition of woodwind instruments, Fripp's occasional harmonics and the amazingly precise and delicate drumming of Giles which doesn't deviate from the song at all, Lake delivers all four of the song's verses in a flowing and dreamy fashion. The opening lines "Said the straight man to the late man. Where have you been?" eloquently suggest a conversation between a straight man (a conventional everyday working man) and a late man (an unconventional and peaceful man of his own ways, a hippie). The rest of the lyrics, in essence, are the late man's reply to the straight man's question which occupy three and a half verses. From his reply, my impression is that the late man is at peace with nature but largely disillusioned with and disconnected from society. Following that, McDonald plays a lush flute solo which is followed by a very gentle Fripp solo. Lake rejoins in the vocal deparment as he repeats the chorus and the first verse. And just as the flutework sounds like it's adding the finishing touches to a sculpture and you think the song is about to end, McDonald's flute soloing comes back into the fray, if possible, even better than before. The song finishes as McDonald's flute fades away.
03 - Epitaph:
With a drum-roll, Epitaph commences and Fripp provides some extremely sorrowful sounding guitar wails backed by arpeggiated acoustic notes and drenched in mellotron. Then all goes silent and Greg Lake comes in, soulfully singing over his 3 note bass arpeggios, and this is really where the song starts to scream epic. Lake truly sounds like a prophetic doomsayer in this song, as if he's warning of imminent disaster looming over the world. And the vocals/lyrics are the major focus of this song. In the credits, Epitaph is divided into two halves, March for No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. In the first verse, the protagonist puts forward the idea that the world is troubled, the end is near, and everyone is deeply unhappy but no-one will step up and do anything about it. This verse is followed by the mellotron punctuated chorus which shows that the protagonist understands exactly what is happening, but he is possibly confused as to why no-one else understands. He professes the idea that he will be unhappy forever. Fripp's wailing guitar separates this from the second verse, in which the protagonist goes back a bit in history and talks of the seeds of time being sown at the start of the world. He mentions that the world has been shaped by those who are well known (possibly referring to people who aren't fit to rule but pick up the baton and hold tenure by birthright). This interpretation is reinforced by the last lines of the verse as Lake laments that "The fate of mankind I see, is in the hands of fools". Now, I am not exactly sure where the song is divided but I'm guessing that Tomorrow and Tomorrow starts after a one note mellotron crescendo which grows in volume and bursts into some acoustic arpeggios. What follows is some long acoustic chords strummed in a medieval manner and a flute/woodwind section. Lake comes back in with the first verse and the chorus, and the song finishes with Lake wailing the last line over and over and the last word even more so, accompanied of course, by strong mellotron notes.
04 - Moonchild:
Now Moonchild is quite an interesting song. Like Epitaph it is divided into 2 parts: The Dream, which has a duration of approximately two and half minutes, and the Illusion, which spans the rest of the song (almost ten minutes). The Dream is as pretty and delicate as I Talk to the Wind, but rather different in mood - it's much more eerie and spacey and is perfected down to the drumbeat. I don't really know what to make of the lyrics - my interpretation is that they simply describe a lady called Moonchild in all her elegance, but it's quite possible that there's a reference I don't understand here. Regardless, Sinfield's poetic eloquence shines through here as he pairs up "Dancing in the shallows of a river" with "Dreaming in the shadow of the willow."
Around the 2:30 mark, The Dream transforms into the Illusion which is a freeform improvisation. Most reviewers would agree that The Dream is a pleasant section, but many of those reviewers would consider Moonchild a weak song because of presence of the Illusion, the ten minute improvisation. Personally, I don't think the Moonchild is a bad song at all, but I do think it's the weakest on the album and that the Illusion could be shortened in length. I'm not going to pretend that the Illusion doesn't contain any musical noodling, but it's noodling of the free jazz type rather than the musician shredding type. And if anything, that makes it more inaccessible to the contemporary listener, but better in my opinion. I find it rather relaxing and I enjoy listening to the instruments 'talking to each other' in short bursts. It is most cohesive in the last two minutes or so, but it doesn't really climax in any way. It's not bad, but it certainly pales in comparison to the improvisational brilliance of Providence from their later album, Red.
05 - The Court of the Crimson King:
This song opens with mellotron and both the music and lyrics conjure medieval imagery. The Crimson King supposedly refers to the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. Each verse is concluded by a choral 'Kiiiinnnnggg. Aaaaaaah' sound which really adds to the dramatic/epic elements of the song. After the second and third verses, we have instrumental sections full of acoustic guitar, flutes, mellotron and woodwinds. A few drumstrokes signal what seems to be the end of the song, but after that there is a flute buildup and the true ending of the album unfolds in all its beauty. This song in particular, laid the foundations for symphonic prog, where bands like Yes and Genesis would start from.
With virtuosity of the highest degree, brilliant songwriting, eclectic influences, brutal originality, ambition, use of textures, amazing ability to convey imagery and Sinfield as his lyrical peak, it is easy to see why this album was so influential in the creation of progressive rock. King Crimson provides quite a range of music here... we see heavy metal, jazz, folk, rock and avant-garde. Fripp certainly nods to classical and medieval music too. Little has a mellotron seen such great use before this.
While this may not be considered King Crimson's classic lineup, I do wish they wrote more albums with this lineup. Before their next album, they would lose Ian McDonald who played a huge part in this album. While this is a stellar debut, King Crimson would go on to change their sound over time and progress, as is the nature of progressive rock bands.