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King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King CD (album) cover

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING

King Crimson

 

Eclectic Prog

4.62 | 4032 ratings

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Magnum Vaeltaja
Special Collaborator
Eclectic Prog Team
5 stars As time passes by, perspectives can change, and how much more true can that be than for King Crimson's debut? After all, it's been almost 50 years since the initial release of "In The Court of The Crimson King". Many will call this the "first prog album", but try to post that in the PA forums and you'll get berated, shanked and shadow-banned by a horde of angry raving progheads. "Court" may not have been the first piece of prog rock; the genre was definitely brewing across England by the end of the 60's, from the Moody Blues as well as a few dozen obscure hippie bands. However, what I think we can agree on is that "Court" is perhaps the earliest definitive example of the genre, and the fact that it's still being talked about as frequently and highly as it is today, almost 50 years later, must mean that there's something special going on here. I don't know about you, but I think this is queuing up for a track-by-track.

Ah, "21st Century Schizoid Man", the game changer for many an impressionable listener. Say what you like about the state of prog prior to this, "Schizoid Man" is an innovative piece of music. A seamless fusion of jazz, psychedelic rock, and heavy metal, all in one explosive package. While you're fiddling around with the volume knob on your stereo trying to get the album to play over all the static, Fripp, McDonald and Giles burst in, causing your heart to skip a beat (or several). And with that inaugural burst of musical machine gun fire, you've stumbled upon a wholly new sound; you've entered the Court of the Crimson King. As an aside, it's worth clearing a common misconception at this point. The screaming face on the cover of the album is not "The Crimson King" (that title goes to the smiling, fanged figure on the inner gatefold); the face on the cover is the 21st Century Schizoid Man. Plenty more can be said about the strength of this opening track, one notable strength being the fact that the heavy distortion effects on Greg Lake's voice really help to heighten the tension and intensity of the track, whereas the potential is certainly there for it to sound trite and cheesy. Bravo, King Crimson, for pulling it off!

"I Talk To The Wind", follows completely unnaturally from the hectic, dissonant train wreck that is the end of "Schizoid Man". Not only is the contrast from noise to serenity incredibly stark, but it's also worth noting that the key of "I Talk To The Wind" is one semitone higher than the preceding track (C minor to C# minor). This creates a very neat effect; although the abrupt stop of the band mutilating their instruments and getting replaced by the lush feel of McDonald's flute should sound very relieving and resolved, the sudden key change actually adds a bit of uneasiness to the music. This effectively sets the tone for the remainder of the album: lush, but uneasy.

As the album continues on, this mood stays consistent. The sombre instrumental performances and Peter Sinfield's lyrics weave a web of dark emotions; loneliness, futility, fear, despair. As such, "Court" is one of King Crimson's most artistically cohesive projects. And, even if I take greater interest in the many tangents that they delved into on later releases, this one is still critical as a template, having set the frame for many of their later efforts. Historically, the importance of this album cannot be understated. Of course, in this sense it's a bit difficult for me to compare this album to other King Crimson releases; most of my admiration for their work stems from the fact that each album should offer something wholly unique.

On that note, "Court" actually falters somewhat when placed in the context of the greater King Crimson discography. Side one in particular has not aged quite as gracefully as some of the band's later material. "21st Century Schizoid Man" is still a fine track, of course, but it falls flat compared to other heavy King Crimson tracks. Even compared to "Pictures of A City", which was written around the same time, it sounds brash and misshapen, with the "Wake of Poseidon" opener sounding better produced, giving more intense dynamic contrasts, and delivering even more hectic, complex performances during its uptempo breakdown. And that's not even going into the improvements that King Crimson had made to their sound by the time "Larks' Tongues In Aspic" or "Red" had rolled around.

King Crimson really were masters of creating profound, morose ballads, but "I Talk To The Wind" and "Epitaph" don't see that talent brought to its full potential. "I Talk To The Wind", although perfectly placed in the context of the album, is simply a dull sounding track. And "Epitaph" may very well be the most dated sounding song in the entire prog canon. The mellotrons, majestic as they are, sound ancient, as though the string samples were recorded on Edison cylinders, or perhaps even scribbled onto the sides of Babylonian pottery. In addition to the production, the majority of side one simply doesn't develop much at all. All 9 minutes of "Epitaph" more or less play off of the same few themes, the only real change throughout being the volume level. So from a very visceral standpoint, much of the album just doesn't do the trick for me, no matter how significant it may be.

Having said that, and perhaps more relevant to my original critique of the album, is what does set it apart from other King Crimson releases. The truly unique bounty that "Court" offers is its second side, and in particular, "Moonchild". People often complain about "Moonchild", with common criticisms being that it's long and aimless, or that it's an experiment gone wrong. I couldn't disagree more, though. I feel that anyone with a bit of patience, a bit of imagination, and an open mind should be able to find plenty of joy from this beautiful song. For best results, I encourage you to listen to this one on a clear autumn night, looking out the window as you listen, with no other distractions. Peter Sinfield's lyrics, which personify the moonlight as the namesake "Moonchild", are absolutely haunting. The simplicity of the music during "The Dream" also serves very well to highlight the innocent, naive nature of the subject. The brilliance makes itself more apparent, however, with the second section, "The Illusion".

With a meandering instrumental jam, King Crimson invites you to listen to what you just heard a second time. This time, though, it's presented completely differently. "The Dream" set the scene, and "The Illusion" plays it back in a more intimate, yet cryptic manner. With a bit of reflection, you can tell that Robert Fripp's initial soft guitar strumming once again describes the Moonchild "dancing in the shallows of a river"; his velvety tone is reminiscent of the ripples in a pond, or a softly bubbling brook, with the moonlight reflecting off of it. Then, as Giles joins in on percussion, we're brought inland. Perhaps into a forest, perhaps a garden. The wind has certainly picked up, as soft cymbal crashes and brief flurries of sound coalesce, not unlike the beating of branches in the nocturnal woods. Some time later, the mood lightens. Fripp plays alone once again. He switches to a major key, lightly strumming away. It may just be me, but I hear hints of the Allman Brothers in his playing during this final minute of the piece (think the end of "Mountain Jam"). The wind is gone, and dawn has calmed the scene. The Moonchild is done playing for tonight and we eagerly await the smile of a Sunchild.

As you can imagine, "Moonchild" isn't the sort of music you put on for instant gratification, to be grabbed by a catchy hook and carried along, but rather a sort of sonic portrait that drifts by at its own pace, inviting you to sit down and relax, to simply open your ears and appreciate the magic of the sounds. It's a very non-linear form of expression, but it's absolutely gorgeous and definitely worth the time span. And once it all comes to a close, the album's title track brings its valiant conclusion. These two songs together, "Moonchild" and "The Court of The Crimson King" present something truly special in King Crimson's catalogue, a sophisticated simplicity, a certain pastoral, folk-like quality. This quality permeates less so on "The Court" than on "Moonchild", but it still comes out strong during the flute solo. While King Crimson would touch on this sort of atmosphere selectively throughout their career, such as in "Cadence and Cascade" or "Lady of the Dancing Water", it is only on "Court" that they devote an extensive framework to develop and integrate it into a larger sound.

So there you have it. A historically significant album, with a perfect structure, utter cohesion, and it even presents a facet of the King Crimson sound that stands out as unique. What's not to love? In fact, although "I Talk To The Wind" and "Epitaph" haven't been the most replayable, there's still something to be said for them. Though the mellotrons in "Epitaph" haven't aged quite so well, there is still a certain power and majesty to them. As well, while much of Peter Sinfield's later writing is beautiful sounding, it doesn't necessarily resonate as powerfully as the bleakly human lyrics to "Epitaph".

So I guess it just goes to show that try as I might to pick this album apart, it always manages to give a rebuttal. Even after 47 years, "In The Court of the Crimson King" is still one of the most talked about, and played, prog albums, which really is a testament to just how incredible it is. As well, I would definitely recommend "Court" as a gateway album. Either this one or "Red" are both fantastic starting points for those interested in delving into the deep and diverse universe of King Crimson. From a purely listening standpoint I may only give this one 4 stars, but it truly is a masterpiece. As it stands, 5 stars.

Magnum Vaeltaja | 5/5 |

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