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Thursday, January 18, 2018

King Crimson: In The Court Of The Crimson King

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (1969)

1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) I Talk To The Wind; 3) Epitaph; 4) Moonchild; 5) The Court Of The Crimson King.

General verdict: Progressive rock at its earliest, finest, and trend-settingest.

One of the biggest wonders of 1969, a year fairly ripe with those, was when, almost overnight, the lovably eccentric gentlemanly British trio of Giles, Giles & Fripp mutated into the progressive monster of King Crimson. Granted, given that Robert Fripp had been highly interested in all things «progressive» even prior to forming that particular partnership, The Cheerful Insanity must have seemed to him more like a temporary detour from the chosen path, but since we have very little evidence of Robert's creativity prior to 1968, formally this is exactly what we have — an instantaneous evolution of a comedic, or at least a very «lightweight», act into one of the most seriously minded and visionary bands of its time. Heck, of all time.

Naturally, by 1968, let alone 1969, progressive pop music, avidly integrating the forms, chords, and techniques of classical, jazz, and Eastern music into the framework, was nothing new, and King Crimson had plenty of precursors — the poppier ones (Moody Blues), the bluesier ones (Procol Harum), and even a bit of the «real thing», like The Nice with Keith Emerson. But history tells us that «progressive music» never truly had such a flashy flag-bearer before In The Court Of The Crimson King came out and grabbed everybody's attention — I mean, the album cover alone is revolutionary, and probably explains the band's commercial success better than anything. It is not a matter of any one thing in particular, but rather a matter of how it all came together, and how it all came together so completely out of the blue, to the stupefaction of Pete Townshend and everybody else who praised the record.

With Peter Giles out of the original trio, the first official King Crimson lineup, in addition to Fripp and Michael Giles, now included Ian Macdonald on woodwinds and keyboards, and a new powerhouse singer in Greg Lake; equally important was the official inclusion into the band of Peter Sinfield, who did not play or sing, but provided all the lyrics for the band — stressing the importance of words, which, come to think of it, is a fairly common idea in progressive rock, but one that does not particularly apply to the silent Robert Fripp and his preference for hours and hours of instrumental improvisations. Nevertheless, this first incarnation of King Crimson still had a long way to go to evolve into the more or less «default» state of King Crimson — heck, in 1969-1970 Robert Fripp himself looked like a goddamn hippie.

It is also important to note that the sessions were self-produced — the band's early collaboration with Moody Blues' producer Tony Clarke was unsuccessful, and ultimately Fripp took matters in his own hands, where they would forever remain from then on. And it is all the more important since, I would say, the best albums are those that, after years upon years of listening, are still capable of retaining a mystery angle — and in the case of Court, this mystery angle, to me, is precisely related to production. I lack the skill to put this into the proper technical words, but layman-wise, this record sounds like shit — and it sounds amazing. The mix is clumsy and cluttered; the drums often sound as if made of cardboard; Ian Macdonald's woodwinds are creaky; the Mellotron is overbearing and seems to occupy way too much space for such a, let's admit it, primitive emulation of the sounds of a string orchestra. And yet, somehow, none of that matters — or, perhaps, all of it matters in that it makes the recording all the more unique and awesome. Here is a band working at the top of its technical potential, on a lousy 8-track machine, and creating involving and engaging soundscapes that have never been surpassed since.

In fact, this whole album is like trying to run a modern video game on an antiquated PC, where you have to make all sorts of trade-offs and compromises, but sometimes end up with weirdly wond'rous results. In terms of ambitions, there was nothing like this in 1969: a record about the upcoming end of the world, the tragic fate of self-deluding humanity, and the big final ball presided over by the Crimson King himself — with Peter Sinfield, one of rock music's most pretentious poets, taking care of the lyrics, and Greg Lake, one of rock music's most pompous singers, taking care of their vocalisation. In the wrong hands, this could easily turn into a laughable embarrassment (and, well, according to some listeners, predictably including the illust­rious Robert Christgau, it did). Fortunately, the hands were right.

The record's first, best, and most historically important track actually functions as a prelude to the whole thing if you accept its (intentional or accidental) conceptuality. The big bang with which ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ makes its appearance is arguably the biggest musical bang of 1969: when, after the briefly deceptive «wind intro», the guitars, saxes, and rhythm section crash out of your speakers with no warning, there's a jump effect, a big power-chord blast that blows your mind instantly in a simple, but efficient way next to which even the most aggressive Hendrix intros could look like nuance and subtlety itself. In a way, this is the KISS-est riff in King Crimson history; although Fripp would later be no stranger to the simple, brutal heavy rock riff (ʻLarks' Tongues In Aspic Part IIʼ, ʻRedʼ, ʻTHRAKʼ, etc.), ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ states its point with the broadest of brushstrokes. The little touches are not so much gut-frightening as they are theatrically exciting — the way McDonald's sax gets to sound like an air raid siren, the bizarre «iron man» distortion effect on Lake's vocals, the metallic-militaristic clang of Fripp's guitar — ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ is not ʻGimmie Shelterʼ, its central function is not to spook you, but to electrify you, and the entire ʻMirrorsʼ section, the fastest and most maniacal piece of music in King Crimson's early catalog, electrifies like little else. Even though the drums sound awful. They are great drums, and Michael Giles may be one of the world's most underrated drummers, but they sound almost hilariously thin. There's that bit in the middle where they play several series of notes really fast, all band members in unison, with a series of rapid stops-and-starts — the thinness of the drum sound is particularly noticeable there, but only adds to the overall charm of the passage (which is one of my favorite examples of how technicality and precision need not be the enemy of emotional expression).

After the storm is over, comes the actual body of the album — which, despite the first track and the grizzly album cover, is anything but aggressive or militaristic. ʻ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ is the contextual setting, a picture of a world presided by madness and standing at "paranoia's poison door"; but senses are quickly placated by the introduction of The Romantic Hero, per­formed by Mr. Lake, who spends the rest of the day talking to the wind (but the wind does not hear), crawling a cracked and broken path (but he fears tomorrow he'll be crying), talking to the trees of the cobweb strange (technically, that is not him, but The Moonchild, but if the Romantic Hero can see that, he is just as loony), and waiting outside the pilgrim's door with insufficient schemes (because he can hardly do anything about puppets dancing in the court of the crimson king). If all of this is taken superficially, with 90% attention paid to Peter Sinfield's lyrics, this whole journey will look, at best, like hackneyed romanticism, and at worst, like a set of poorly rigged cliches, and not even Lake's powerful (but rather formulaic) singing can save the day.

But the strength of In The Court is primarily in the music — and, in fact, if you listen to the instrumental mixes of some of these songs on the anniversary reissue, they never lose any of their magic without the vocalist. The two power ballad epics, ʻEpitaphʼ and ʻThe Court Of The Crimson Kingʼ, are masterful testaments to the power of the Mellotron, with complex overdubs creating crescendos and counterpoints that put the Moody Blues to shame, and Macdonald's woodwinds complement them perfectly, while Fripp's mournful minimalistic guitar melody on ʻEpitaphʼ is his earliest, simplest, and most effective attempt at bottling the entire sorrow of humanity in just a few drawn out licks. Against a background like this, Lake's faux-operatic "I fear tomorrow I'll be crying" is almost convincing — almost, I say, because it is not really the type of delivery that should bring tears to your eyes, but it is... impressive. The shorter, slightly more pastoral ballad ʻI Talk To The Windʼ, which goes all the way back to the late days of Giles, Giles & Fripp (an early version is available on The Brondesbury Tapes with Judy Dyble on vocals), also works perfectly fine instrumentally, with soft jazzy guitar and flute solos that convey an atmosphere of lightness and nonchalance — very contrastive with the roar of ʻSchizoid Manʼ.

Then there's ʻMoonchildʼ. Heh. I guess everyone who listens to this album begins by hating ʻMoonchildʼ, or at least about two thirds of it that roll in once the sung part is over. I know I used to — I mean, who needs these seven or eight minutes of little quiet noises, with no melody in sight and the entire band sounding like it is just tuning up or messing around, setting up its instruments in the studio? Fortunately, I'm good now — that entire section is fun, since what it basically does is simulate the hustle-bustle of those night fairies, will-o'-wisps, whatever, described in the first verse. If you say, "ʻMoonchildʼ is good because it is a bold experiment in bringing the values of avantgarde/atonal jazz to a rock-based environment", you fail. But if you say, "ʻMoonchildʼ is cool because it creates a vivid nocturnal picture of little fairies running around their business in the bushes, trees, and the glades", you just might have something there. Then, actually, some of the transformations through which the guitars and the vibraphone are put might begin to make sense.

Most importantly, it all hangs together so well — the maniacal-militaristic setting threatening the peaceful existence of the Hero, the Hero's lonely and self-sufficient existence, the Hero's desperation as he finds himself unable to do anything about the world's troubles, the Hero's eventual descent into a world of dreams, illusions, and yellow jesters, the ultimate triumph of The Crimson King as the world slowly, solemnly, and inescapably marches towards extinction. The songs came from different places, and there was never any intent of making this into a unified conceptual album from the beginning, but you know how it goes: the best conceptual albums are those whose concept only arises postfactum.

To be honest, I am still not quite sure if Greg Lake was really the best candidate to sing all these songs, or if Peter Sinfield was the best candidate to come up with the lyrics. «Pretentiousness» is not an accusation that worries me in any way when the music is emotionally stimulating, and I have never had any real problems with these guys, but I still can't help wondering if the album could be even better than it is if its verbal aspect was less grand-theatrical and more «realistic», or at least if the lyrics were a little bit less classicist and the vocals were a little less wooden (think Peter Hammill, for instance). In other words, I do not feel that the music and the voice/words here are integrated so tightly that the album couldn't stand a little improvement. But, just like silly inescapable plotholes in an otherwise invigorating and addictive videogame, this is hardly an enjoyment-blocking problem. Neither is the creaky production which, as I already said, actually adds to the charm — particularly 40 years later, when the vintage qualities of Crimson King are so refreshing among the oceans of soulless perfection from the latest generations of neo-proggers. Maybe the title track and ʻMoonchildʼ could stand a little trimming, particularly if their magnitude came at the expense of other song ideas... bottomline is, I cannot really think of anything serious to throw at the album, other than, if I'd ever have to perform it in public, I would have to re-write most of the lyrics (I mean, "between the iron gates of fate the seeds of time were sown" — trying to find new word combinations to recreate the frissons of 18th century poetry was one of the worst ideas by the «rock poets» of the prog era).

Somebody — no, don't remember who — once said that each of the tracks on In The Court gave birth to a separate sub-genre of progressive rock, or something to that effect. Naturally, that would be an exaggeration (ʻEpitaphʼ and the title track could not have given birth to two different genres!), but in between the jazz-punkishness of ʻMirrorsʼ, the atonal midnight noodlings of ʻMoonchildʼ, the pastoral flutes of ʻI Talk To The Windʼ, and the Mello-marshes of ʻEpitaphʼ, the pool of ideas is really huge, and, best of all, all of these ideas are realized to the best possible effect. The lack of production gloss works in favor of the album, making it come alive in all its roughness; and even if Sinfield's lyrics are very much of their time, the music itself is timeless — or, at least, «dated» in the best way possible, as in, «written in one of the finest years for pop music ever».

It is useful to note that, although not all of the reception was favorable at the time, this and the immediate follow-up, In The Wake Of Poseidon, still turned out to be the most commercially successful albums by King Crimson ever — both because of the novelty of it all and also because unlike most KC albums, these two actually have a certain «mass appeal». Most importantly, though, without this album there would have been no Yes, no ELP, no Genesis... well, at least probably not the way we know them, since all these guys owe a massive debt to Crimson King. It is all the more ironic that Fripp himself, having started this business, quickly shifted gears, and by 1973, would be veering off in a completely different direction from the regular symph-prog acts — a shift that salvaged King Crimson's reputation at a time when «progressive» was becoming a curse word, and retained them as one of the very few prog bands that could still garner a nice word or two from mainstream rock criticism. Some people could spend their entire career recreating the atmosphere of Crimson King over and over again — for the real Crimson King, this was just a glorious first stop on an unpredictable journey.

Yet it is regrettable that once the original band collapsed, the only song that remained in the KC repertoire was ʻSchizoid Manʼ — understandable, because it was indeed the only one to remain fully compatible with the band's 1973-74 aesthetics (later, it disappeared during the Discipline period, but was occasionally revived in the 1990s when KC got heavier once more), but regrettable all the same, since it created an illusion that Fripp had pretty much disowned the entire «romantic» period of the band. I have no idea — perhaps he does feel a little uneasy about his Lake/Sinfield experience, although, on the other hand, the extreme care that went into the preparation of the multi-CD 40th anniversary edition would speak for the contrary. In any case, how Frippian of him — point the way (or, rather, several ways) to legions of aspiring musicians, then fold his hands behind his back and leisurely take the other path. You do not have to love the Robert, but you gotta admit there ain't another one like him — not after he sold his soul to the Crimson King, who likes putting his mark on victims of cheerful insanity. 

4 comments:

  1. Another great review. It is impressive how you can review the same album multiple times and still add another layer of depth and new insights or ways for the reader (of the blog) to listen to the album.

    It may please you to know that recently KC has reinstalled Epitaph and Court of the Crimson King in their setlists next to 21st Schizoid Man.

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    1. As well as "Moonchild" - the song portion of it.

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  2. I kinda figured "Moonchild" was written with only a listener's 1st spin of the LP in mind.

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  3. For all the "Moonchild" haters, on 40th Anniversary edition there is a 9 minute edited version. :-)

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