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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

4.60 | 3017 ratings

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5 stars In the beginning was the sound, and the sound was with Harry Chamberlain, and the sound was good...

Look, I'm not trying to say that Mr Chamberlain is God or anything, but hey - as far as Prog Rock is concerned, well, bone up on your history if you don't know who he is.

Because when God created Prog Rock, on the first day of Prog, he surely told Harry that his invention was of great importance - and, Lo! The Bradley brothers did put his idea into manufacturing, with proper backing and everything, and behold - the Mellotron was born, and without it was not a Prog Rock record of any substance made.

And Ian MacDonald heard what the Moody Blues did with the Mellotron, and it was good. So he, together with Mike Giles and Robert Fripp, unable to withstand the cheerful insanity any longer, teamed up with Gods' bass player, got a gig supporting the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, and life was good - even though, by many accounts, the Stones were not.

Much has been written about this album, including academic theses exploring the deep significance of the key associations, relationships and modal tonalities, the subject matter of the lyrics, the use of technical devices such as ritornello, ground bass, obbligatos - and of course, the huge Tierce de Picardie at the end.

One particular musing mentioned the magical - and allegedly, mystical number 5: 5 band members. 5 Songs. Songs that, somehow, to a twisted mind, display workings of the number 5 in their forms and structures. 5 - in numerology variously, the number of Dischord, Motion, Erratic, Adventure, Passion, Expansion, Travel, Unpredictability, Information, the planet Mercury, communication, networking, translation, communities of information.

The 5th verse of the Bible runs thus; And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

You may well ask WTF?

As did I.

The Meanings...

See, people really do hunt for meanings in the early works of Prog Rock in a way that makes you think; "Hang on - these guys are missing the whole point!", but also in ways that appear to have some kind of hidden code - first day of Prog Rock?.

It's rock music, albeit a "higher" expression of that format. It's the next generation of Progressive music on from the "movement" that started approximately at the point Bob Dylan shocked the world by "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival 4 years previously. The sound of his guitar being plugged in, even to that dodgy sound system, was by far the quieter of the big bangs caused by that single event.

But, the thing that really stood out to me from one particular essay was this simple phrase; "'Moonchild' is perhaps one of the more remarkable pieces ever conceived in the history of rock music.". The writer goes on to link the Moon and number 4 and all kinds of stuff to do with modes, counterpoint, pedals, magical light and flashes of timbral light...

"Moonchild" really is both the best track on the album, and one of the most remarkable pieces in rock - a fact that most people overlook, painfully missing the point by describing it as "boring", "noodle" and using other similar terms that would indicate a lack of patience, narrow tastes in music and, well, simply not liking it, so writing it off as therefore a bad thing.

Not so.

And so it is that I'm going to take this track offline and work on an analysis to help you understand just why it is so spectacular.

Moon Child - one of the most remarkable pieces in rock music

Cue up the start of the piece. Ready?

Here we have drifts of mellotron, and a repeating picked guitar figure, which is soon joined by a short, repeating guitar figure that is important. Listen carefully to it's soaring tones - those opening notes are remarkably similar to "Au Clair de Lune" by Claude Debussy.

Greg picks up on this quickly with the vocal line - a two-part affair that picks up on this figure, appending an answering phrase, and acquiring a light accompaniment comprising bell-like cymbals, and a regular falling soft tom-tom pattern. This is repeated, then the second part of the verse picks for an additional answer. The solo guitar takes the 1st "theme" and plays with it, before the second verse is presented with the ongoing light percussion.

Little tension is built - but the song does not demand it. This is not a dramatic song, and that is part of its progressive nature - it is painting, with striking lights and shades, a kind of watercolour-hued portrait of the Moon Child that is non-linear, which kind of pushes against the intrinsically linear nature of music, yet covers many angles;

"Dancing in the shallows of a river", "Dreaming in the shadow of the willow", "Talking to the trees of the cobweb strange". None of this necessarily describes a person, real or ficticious - to me, it describes the effects of moonlight on earth - the reflection in the river or fountain, the moonbeams "dancing" and "Waving silver wands", and the interplay of the moon's light on flowers, cobwebs and the sun dial. "Sailing on the wind in a milk white gown" and "Waiting for a smile from a sun child" are self- explanatory, and "Playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn" clearly refers to clouds.

So the music expresses the soul of these ideas - the subtle keyboard changes highlight this best.

You'll note that this is not standard song structure - there is a 3-part idea that is repeated 3 times for this first section, which could be seen as verse/chorus/instrumental x3, except that the "chorus" is in no way a chorus, but an extension of the verse.

Then we have the instrumental section, which continues this expression - it seems a bit pointless to map it all out, but the first section appears to represent the rippling waters of the river - the willow, of course, will be on the river bank, and the slightly sinister edge that the music acquires could be expressing this.

We continue in the branches of the trees, "talking of the cobweb strange" - 5:28 might be expressing this, with tiny strands of melodic runs that pick up from each other. Just re-read the lyrics as this section plays out - it's not too hard to make your own mind up about what's being expressed.

The music of this section has an atonal feel to it - and some of the stylisations are strikingly similar to music in "Pierrot Lunaire", by Arnold Schoenberg. Listen to "Der Kranken Mond" - particularly the flute backing. An online recording of the entire work may be found online - note also that there are 4 sections of Pierrot directly concerned with the moon.

The interplay between the instrumentalists here is remarkable - all aiming for an overall series of pictures, or, rather continual moving image, with none taking centre stage, going into personal space every now and again, then rejoining the conversation, using a predefined set of ideas. This is not aimless noodle - this is carefully constructed. The point at which it all comes back together (around 10:45) is masterly - all parts drifting slowly towards each other, and the little major chord on the guitar clearly showing the "smile from the sun child" - all music from this point has this upbeat feel of morning approaching and the darkness lifting.

All of which serves to underline "Moon Child"'s position in the album - as the penultimate piece, it provides the necessary contrast from which to kick into the grand splendour of "The Court of the Crimson King". Indeed, if you have your stereo at the necessary volume to catch each and every tiny detail in "Moon Child", the title track is like a mighty rush of wind, and somewhat overwhelming. It's in this dynamic perspective that the true power of this album may be experienced - and you probably won't get it listening to compressed mp3s on your computer speakers or headphones. On a half-decent stereo, this contrast will blow your socks off. On a decent system, it's like hearing it properly for the first time - every time.

Everything Else

Let's have a quick blast in real time around the other 4 tracks, in what seems to be a concept album on an artistic level; Each song painting a portrait that is strikingly impersonal, yet full of unique and colourful character. Each nostalgic, and infused with the individual sounds of the musicians, whilst coming together as a unified whole - a 5-part symphony structure after a fashion.

"21st Century Schizoid Man": Here's where we set the volume level to maximise our listening experience. If you can't hear every little detail in the first 30 seconds or so, then you've set it too quiet. Do try not to listen to mp3 or other form of over-compressed media - and make sure the neighbours are out, if you're not listening on headphones. When the riff kicks in, that sucker should nail you to the back of the sofa with its intended hugeness, ferocity and awesome power. There are plenty of descriptions of Greg's distorted voices, the huge and unique sound of the riff topped with sax, so let's have a look at the song construction;

The first thing that jumps out is the identical nature it shares with "Moon Child" - although pared down to 2 iterations, we have essentially 2 sections to the verses, with an instrumental section linking them. The big difference is in the construction of the verses, which comprise 3 declamatory statements rounded off with a single statement of the title. This really gives punch and drive to the song - and, of course, obliterates standard song structure.

After a mere 2 minutes, the instrumental bridge kicks in, developing the introduction riff - I always think that the underlying riff sounds like the Mission Impossible theme. Anyway, this continues into part-improv, part composed mayhem, Fripp producing guitar work that's both modal and atonal - and this whole section is polyrhythmic and more jazz than rock-inspired, yet maintains a solid rock feel. At 4:40, this is all brought together in a tight composition based on the rhythm and melodic fragments of the "improvisation".

Then, to round off the nod and wink to "First Movement" form, the verse idea is recapitulated (albeit still in the tonic), followed by the build-up that initially led to the "Development", which descends into screaming noise.

Continuing in the Symphonic vein, the next "movement" is a slow one. This time we have a balladic song that is in a more traditional verse/chorus format. The drumming, however, is notably not that of a standard ballad - and the woodwind backing seems to infer orchestral music more than it infers jazz. The prominence of the wind instruments is clearly intentional - and the short instrumental bridge is a thing of beauty. The coda, led by the flute, is a bit of a surprise when it kicks in around 4:50. This is tightly reined in, and simply plays, wind-like, with the melodies presented in the verses and choruses.

"Epitaph" would be an odd choice for a final movement - so it's a good job that this is, in fact, central and pivotal. It begins with material from "I Talk To The Wind", and feels more like an extension of the former than a new piece per se. This song appears to be based on the symphonic sound style of the Moody Blues - although that modulation around 3:45 is something else - a bit reminiscent of the orchestral build-up in "A Day In The Life". This moves on to "March For No Reason", via an instrumental passage strongly based on the earlier material. Oddly, the strong beat is on the second beat of the bar! The original verse/chorus is reprised, then there's a magnificent burn-out with some amazing percussion.

"In The Court..." follows on from "Moon Child" utterly naturally, the contemplative mood inspired by the previous 3 pieces suddenly roused - we know this is the finale. Here we see the quiet/loud structure emerging - something Nirvana were to use as their single most important song element more than 20 years later. Structurally, this song is not very interesting until we reach the instrumental section (Return of the Fire Witch) at 4:15 or so, when the flute melody and bass takes us into a new dimension - the bass reminding me more than a bit of Pete Trawavas. Sadly, this only lasts a minute and a bit, then we're back to the song already.

Moving swiftly on, there is another instrumental section (Dance of the Puppets) at 7:00, just after it feels that the piece might have ended. A jaunty, almost comical pipe organ plays with the thematic material for just under a minute, before returning once again to the majestic chorus material, broken up rhythmically, and with all kinds of little experimental details in the instrumental parts - none taking center stage, all playing their little parts in the crowd and creating a sbutly shifting texture that suddenly comes together in noise to finish the album in a blaze of atonality.

In case you were in any doubt, this is an essential masterpiece of Progressive Rock, arguably the very first Prog Rock album in the sense of the Classic idea of Prog Rock - if you don't like this, you don't like Prog.

Certif1ed | 5/5 |

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