King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Edition)

I wonder what he was looking at

King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

I’ll begin bluntly: King Crimson’s 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King is a work of genius. When it released, it immediately inspired; many fans of the genre consider it the first true progressive rock album (and it is still one of the best). It’s guaranteed to be listed amongst the most influential for any progressive rock band today, (like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Opeth, The Mars Volta and Spock’s Beard). It set the standard for combining top notch melodic songwriting and incredible musicianship and arrangement, and if you’ve never heard it, you need to.

King Crimson was the brainchild of virtuoso guitarist Robert Fripp, and he changed his line-up very often. On this debut, he used Ian McDonald, Michael Giles (who contributes my favorite drum timbre ever), Peter Sinfield and, most notably, Greg Lake on bass and vocals (he would leave after the second album to form ELP). This 40th anniversary edition was reproduced by Fripp and avid follower Steven Wilson (the mastermind of Porcupine Tree). Overall the album is brighter, fuller and features more depth between instruments, and it comes with a nice amount of bonus materials.

The opening track, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is a masterpiece in itself. Not only is it one of the best opening tracks ever (introducing the world to the incredibly complex and frantic genre of progressive rock), it’s still, after forty years, perhaps the best prog rock song of all time. After half a minute of feedback and ominous noises, the entire band lets loose with one hell of a riff (played simultaneously by bass, guitar and horns), along with some fantastic syncopation on drums. This song grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Greg Lake uses an unprecedented level of distortion on his voice (though it’s not at all the growling of death metal, so don’t confuse the two). It’s been joked that the front cover represents the public’s reaction to hearing something they were so unprepared for, and that’s easy to understand.

The real meat of the song is the instrumental middle section, which will blow your mind after every listen. At around two minutes in, the band lets loose with what is still the most incredible jam I’ve ever heard. The guitar sounds fierce, the drums play polyrhythm flawlessly, the keyboards and woodwinds accentuate the madness, and the bass is just as active. After going off on tangents, the original jam melody is reprised two and half minutes later, and then all the instruments play extremely fast, fragmented melodies in perfect unison. They start and stop together as if being played with one mind. It is simply astounding, and you’d be hard pressed to find something that can match it even today. Finally, the verse riff and vocal is reprised again before the track bursts into random notes dissipating. If you owned this on record, you’d wear out the grooves repeating this one alone; in fact, it took me twenty minutes to finish this paragraph and move onto the next track.

“I Talk to the Wind” is the complete opposite. It’s a soft, subtle track with a gracious melody and light vocals. The flute and Mellotron are the main instruments, and it’s similar to a Moody Blues track from that era. With the opener, the world learned that King Crimson could play the hell out of their instruments, and with this one, they also prove that they can craft quality songs. The guitar is clean and adds minor accompaniment. The flute solo in the middle is breezy and calm, and as the second track on the album, we already hear two totally different sides of King Crimson.

The centerpiece, “Epitaph,” is the best song on the album by far (though not necessarily the best track). The Mellotron blankets us in sad tones as a beautiful acoustic guitar arpeggio introduces the despair. Greg Lake sings a heart wrenching melody with stunning lyrics, and it’s still one of the best performances in the genre. At first he is reflective and reserved, but eventually he belts pain wonderfully. The drums are subtle initially and then crash when the emotional heights are reached. Progressive rock is revered more for its musicianship and grand concepts than pure songwriting, but with this track, we simply have a fantastic, tragic, glorious piece of art.

“Moonchild” is the only mixed bag on In the Court of the Crimson King. Its eerie electric guitar piercings, clasping cymbals and ghostly vocals complement the slow melody nicely, and for the first part, it’s a fine song. Lyrically, it’s the most visually arresting and imaginative track. Around three minutes in, the song stops, and the album’s biggest problem (which is also one of its biggest innovations) begins. We are left with roughly six minutes of extremely sparse ambience; the instruments play light little things and it’s all very mellow, but it goes nowhere. It’s literally six minutes of almost nothing. You wait for something to build back up again and it doesn’t, making “Moonchild” really only worth your attention for a third of its duration. Now, I say this is innovation because doing this paved the way for insurmountable experimentation and avant-garde techniques. The idea of dragging a song out with random noise, notes and nuances was very new, and without King Crimson, progressive rock would’ve been way different. For example, The Mars Volta’s Frances the Mute would’ve been half as long as it is.

The album closes with the extraordinary title track. It features a great melody, a lush chorus, magnificent instrumentation, and perhaps most attractively, some superb drumming. Lake tells a fascinating story as guitar arpeggios, vocal harmonies, imprisoning Mellotron and still more stellar syncopation surround him. The middle features a sort of battle between the flutes and guitars, and it builds back up to the main song as only King Crimson can do. It’s one of the best album closers ever.

Most of the extra material is alternative mixes and takes of the album, and is really only for major fans of the album who want to hear new rehearsal audio and the like. The one true gem is the duo mix of “I Talk to the Wind.” While the flutes carry the familiar melody and the root notes are still evident, it’s basically a guitar duet (albeit a simply wonderful one at that). The chord changes are great and it’s just very beautiful and uplifting. If it were used as a coda for the album, it would’ve given a nice continuity (though I’m not at all suggesting that a seminal album be changed forty years later; I’m just saying that this would’ve fit in if it were there originally). It’s interesting that the wind session for “21st Century…” was included, insulating that it’s just as crucial to In the Court… as anything else.

The bonus DVD contains a 5.1 mix of the album, more alternate takes, and a video of the band’s debut performance at Hyde Park, London in 1969. The video is cool historically and it’s interesting to see people’s reaction to “21st Century…” but they only get up to the second verse of the song and then it’s over. It would’ve been amazing if we got the entire track, but we don’t, and the camera is so active that we barely even see them play.

Both discs come in a nice case with a thick booklet with lyrics, photos and information. Overall it’s a great package for one of the most influential album of all time, and, like the best music, it sounds just as fresh today as it ever did. It’s a timeless gem you should own as soon as possible.