Review Summary: The most over-rated progressive album of all time, and a damn fine one at that.
A bold statement no doubt but, being quite the prog-rock fanatic, yours truly is fully willing and able to back up such a dissenting opinion. For starters, King Crimson
are widely known as the progenitors of progressive rock and In the Court of the Crimson King
is widely acknowledged as being the first full-blown progressive rock album (unless you count Keith Emerson’s first band The Nice
’s 1967 debut The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack
) as well as a prototypical example of “prog for people who don’t like prog.” To say that Fripp and the boys are an “important” rock band is an understatement. King Crimson
, perhaps more than any other group, was responsible for bridging the pop sentiments of the 1960’s and the hard rock revolution of the 1970’s. However, this album falls squarely into the very common yet mostly untrue categorization of “first means best.” Society seems so intent on praising innovation in music while entirely ignoring the very likely possibilities that other artists who came later did that very same thing much better or that that very same thing wasn’t all that great to begin with. In all fairness to the Crimson they fall into the former category. No doubt, ITCOTCK
must have hit like an atomic bomb when it dropped in 1969, especially in the face of an entire decade that was built upon 3-minute pop singles. However, the argument being presented is that over the course of the following decade, particularly the first half, many bands simply did it better, including King Crimson
The album begins with the seminal 21st Century Schizoid Man
, a perennial prog-favorite. The main riff has grown to become the Smoke On The Water
of the progressive world. Already a hard-rockin’ tune Greg Lake’s harshly distorted vocals come shattering in and the song kicks into full gear. After a little while we arrive at a bridge in the form of a jazz-fusion jam, quite the unexpected turn at the time, I’m sure. There is complex, jazzy interplay among the band, particularly between Fripp’s guitar and Michael Giles’ drumming and soon after we return to the original theme of the song and, until the very end, there isn’t much else. And so we arrive at a crucial problem: not having enough varied material to warrant a 9-minute song and instead dragging the same theme out repeatedly. Unfortunately, this problem comes up far too often throughout the album.
The following track, I Talk to the Wind
, is a definite highlight of the album and essentially the only song that works on every level, without a single minute feeling wasted. The song is centered around a blissfully beautiful melody that, not coincidentally, brings to mind a light autumn breeze. Ian McDonald’s ethereally expressive flute solo is the icing on an already delicious cake and we have an absolute winner here. Never again did King Crimson
write such an effortlessly beautiful yet completely captivating and effective ballad, much as they tried.
begins in a very grand and majestic manner. Greg Lake introduces a very intriguing and mournful vocal melody that, at first, is absolutely stunning, with Fripp weaving a beautiful layer of guitars around the lyrics. This, however, continues for some time and once again we return to the aforementioned problem. Nine minutes of even the best melody can get tedious and Epitaph
is no exception. There is very little development and very little to supplement the main theme and so the majesty we hear at the beginning of the song is little more than a worn-out welcome around the end.
Now we come to the typically controversial track on the album, Moonchild
, a twelve-minute exercise in psychedelic noodling that, in all honesty, is not the complete waste of space everyone makes it out to be, however, is hardly twelve minutes well spent. Moonchild
, unlike the previous tracks, suffers from the exact opposite of what was wrong with those. Yet again we are treated to an absolutely beautiful and intriguing intro-melody that is begging to be developed. But instead of following with the pattern and dragging it out for the entirety of its twelve minutes or *gasp* introducing another interesting idea to the beauty of the theme Fripp and co. decide to cut it off entirely around the two-and-a-half-minute mark and after a minute of spacy, Floydian ambience launch into almost ten minutes of experimental instrumental tinkering. Once again, but this time for different reasons, we are left completely disenchanted by the end.
The finale, The Court of the Crimson King
, is perhaps the most well-known tune from the album. This song, yep you guessed it, starts very promisingly. Once again we have a very intriguing vocal melody from Greg Lake that is accompanied by Fripp’s mysterious acoustic-guitar lines. Before long the track launches into its rather famous, sweeping chorus alternating between “in the court of the crimson king” and “ahhhhh ah, ahhhhh ah.” After a few rounds of these themes we hit a much-needed bridge, an upbeat interplay between keyboards, flute and drums; then, the inevitable return; then, another short and rather pleasant flute solo whose end welcomes back the all-too-familiar main theme, which carries us all the way out. A great track but hardly worthy of being ten minutes long.
And so, we see that for forty-five minutes of music this album contains far too much padding and too few (albeit, great) ideas to be considered an all-time classic. More than likely critics and listeners alike get swept away in its innovation and seismic impact while failing to objectively analyze it from a purely musical perspective; and from that perspective it simply doesn’t hold up. This becomes even more apparent when one considers that Emerson, Lake and Palmer
’s self-titled debut album was released just several months later. It managed to eclipse ITCOTCK
in just about every aspect and although ELP
were famous for their pretensions their debut had better song-writing, infinitely richer ideas and a more dazzling performance. It was progressive in every sense of the word. ITCOTCK
, on the other hand, was progressive in little other than song lengths and even those, as argued above, were usually unwarranted. King Crimson
’s real peak came in 1973 and 1974 with the releases of the stunning Larks’ Tongues in Aspic
, respectively. It was on those recordings that Fripp harnessed a perfect balance of experimentation, jamming and deadly-potent songwriting at its most focused. And so, ITCOTKC
's real significance ultimately comes through in its impact on rock music rather than its musical merits; as for those, a very respectable 3.5.