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This is the nineteenth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Although many bands have gone unrecognized over the years yet have made tremendous impacts on rock and roll, there are a few that seem to really garner a cult following, yet linger in obscurity for everyone else in spite of their influence. King Crimson definitely seems to fit into that category. I can hear their influence in a number of the harder hitting progressive bands of modern times, including some of personal favorites, which makes me wonder why it took me so long to hear about King Crimson themselves and subsequently check out an album by them. I also start to wonder why once I did hear their music, I still wasn't sold. I become a fan of Robert Fripp's guitar work pretty quickly, but for whatever reason, I wasn't a King Crimson fan until just recently (as in the past few months). Now I have a number of their albums in my collection, but I continually come back to their very first the most often.
With only 5 "songs", each one containing something of different "movements" ala classical music, this first album may be a little more pretentious than straight forward rock and roll, but it's definitely got some great musical moments. In the Court of the Crimson King not only marks the beginning King Crimson long career (although Fripp has remained the only continuing member over the years I'm pretty sure, as the band has had multiple incarnations), but is also an great conceptual album with some amazing melodies and arrangements throughout, and that's why I've chosen it to be this month's Rock and Roll Feature.
Released in 1969, this is definitely an album that fits in with the post psychedelic era of the late 60s early 70s. At the same time though, it sounds very ahead of it's time and out of place. Whereas concept and classically tinged albums of the past (think, the Moody Blues for example) tend to be more flowery and uplifting in their melodies, Fripp and company craft something that is far darker and more eerie, even sinister, here... but still mystical, sweeping and extremely melodic.
The opening track is probably the most well known songs by King Crimson, although I don't remember the last time I heard it on classic rock radio, and it's an amazing one at that. Along with being a killer song, "21st Century Schizoid Man/Mirrors" could easily be seen as one of the early precursor to things like the noise rock bombast of Sonic Youth, with it's blasts of guitar fuzz and screeching lyrics. The song teeters between huge arrangements and this minimalist guitar grind, with layered arching melodic lines punctuated by these short bursts of fury. The song also builds into a driving, higher energy mid section while still maintaining the melody albeit in a new form. Fripp adds some twisting and decisively progressive guitar leads that are fiery and gritty, but never showing off... typical of his style. There's also some advanced, rapid fire melody trading and stylish woodwinds/mellotron lead work before the song returns to it's massive opening melody and pattern. It eventually descends into free form noise to close.
Definitely a lot going on for one song, but it all works so well together to create one massive piece that opens the album with more than just a bang, but also a challenge to all progressive bands to follow to up their game. King Crimson arrived with this track and left a permanent mark on rock and roll from day one.
Compared to it's opening, the rest of the album may seem subdued, but it's in the melodic beauty that it really shines. "I Talk to the Wind" is an airy, track that really fits it's title. The music really feels like a subtle embodiment of wind, swaying and sweeping in large motions to create this lush sound scape of which the vocals are only a small part. Fripp once again demonstrates his subtle mastery of the guitar with a very relaxed, but fitting lead work and there is some great flute work throughout as well. Definitely a great composition from start to finish, but I think that it gets even better with the next track.
"Epitaph/March for No Reason/Tomorrow and Tomorrow" is easily my favorite part of this entire album, although if I really had to chose I'd probably chose to listen to the album straight through as opposed to any one section. With a haunting, melancholy, massive acoustic guitar strums that ring out and give a very appropriate, almost funeral like procession feel, the entire piece is just larger than life, massively melodic and almost spine tinglingly powerful. I'm especially fond of Fripp's lead guitar work on this song. It's subtle, round and rich with not only the perfect minimal notes necessary to convey his ideas, but also the perfect tone. As a complete composition I think this one is a masterpiece... everything just works so well together whether it is the vocals/lyrics, the pound of the drum, the dark brooding woodwinds, or the sweeping, building strings....just amazing if you ask me.
"Moonchild/The Dream/The Illusion" continues with the more subdued tracks, taking on a twisted, eerie, mystic flavored love song type of feel. There's an almost dream-like quality throughout as sounds seem to come and go behind the main guitar part and slowly dancing vocal lines. The dream idea is taken to it's ultimate conclusion as the band stretches the song out to over 12 minutes with an extended, free form, multi-part, minimalist improvisational section. Different melodic lines seem to float and echo back and forth creating a sort of musical tapestry crafted without any specific direction of grounding method. It's eerily restless, yet beautiful and somehow very fitting compositionally as it fades into nothingness to close.
The album concludes in a very fitting return to the massive bombast of the opener, although without some of the contained fury that "21st Century Schizoid Man" has. "The Court of the Crimson King/The Return of the Firewitch/The Dance of the Puppets" has a melody that seems more than an adequate counterpoint to the opener, and yet also completely unique and removed from it. Although the verses are tainted dark with acoustic arpeggios, the choruses are huge and sweeping with layers of sound, vocals and tones. I's not necessarily a heavy track, but there is a weight within the music... an ominous undertone that adds a dark edge to everything. Interestingly, there is a break with a sort of playful take on the melodies towards the end, but then the massive layers are back in full force to close the song and this album with all the grandeur you'd expect before closing with a bit of an abrupt halt.
From start to finish a very ambitious composition that says from the very start that King Crimson would be far more than your typical rock and roll band, and even more than your typical progressive rock band.
Each of the album sections can certainly be viewed independently, as I have done here... it's not as if they necessarily bleed one into the next... but I truly think this one works best as a whole. When it comes to concept albums (make that albums in general) I actually tend to prefer the completed work over individual tracks, but with King Crimson especially, I think that's even more so the case. Straight through there is almost a proto story progression from one song to the next, finally coming to the climax in the final track. Where as bands like Pink Floyd knitted songs together into a complete idea to phenomenal success as well, King Crimson seems to do it even more naturally to the point where they don't necessarily have to blend songs seamlessly. It's as if their scope from the very first note is bigger than just a single song... especially on this album... and they really take the time to craft every single note, always working towards this end.
Now, I'm not going to claim that this album is going to be easy listening to everyone. Progressive rock and especially King Crimson are not for everyone. Although this is one of the band's more accessible albums in my opinion, it's not the kind of thing you listen to all that casually. If you don't allow yourself to become encompassed within the music and the melodies you might have a hard time connecting with these compositions and find them less than compelling.
Don't give up hope though. It took me a very long time to really be able to appreciate King Crimson, but I'm glad I've grown to do so as they are easily one of the most interesting melodic bands of all time and I think even from the very beginning here with this album, that is evident. In the Court of the Crimson King is a great melodic work that even though it's the most well known album by King Crimson, often goes overlooked. King Crimson does have a strong cult following, but that doesn't mean that their music is only for the initiated. I think that if you're really looking to expand your progressive rock knowledge, you should definitely check them and this album out. There is a reason why they've had such a huge influence on rock and roll over the years.
There have been some fantastic remastered versions of this album released in recent years, so the sound quality is excellent, allowing all the little nuances to come through. Check out this one remastered directly from Amazon here: In the Court of the Crimson King
And if King Crimson really sparks your interest, and I hope they will, there are plenty of other great albums by them as well. I'm partial to the ones from 1969-74, but even Robert Fripp's more recent incarnations of the band have produced some amazing results.