In The Court Of The Crimson King
The ultimate progressive rock dynasty, and arguably the entire movement, began here with the 1969 debut of King Crimson. The Beatles had shown with their later work that rock could be serious art. The members of the original Crimson took that several steps further, incorporating influence from the best of classical music ("Mars" was a staple of their early live set), jazz instrumental techniques, the hysterical power of Jimi Hendrix, and an epic storyteller's spirit to form one of the most stunning debut albums in music history.
The record begins with the band's signature song, "21st Century Schizoid Man". This must've knocked many a hippy on his ass. A crushing, oddly-timed guitar riff, wailing saxophones, harsh, distorted vocals, harrowing stops and starts, a false ending, and an overall spirit of gleeful destruction mark this song as a clear spiritual ancestor of metal. It's been covered by Entombed and Voivod, at least.
"I Talk to the Wind" is an abrupt turnaround - a slow shuffle guided by Michael Giles' unerring drums, with wistful woodwinds and reeds supporting Greg Lake's gentle lead vocal. The lyrics are written by a separate member of the band, Peter Sinfield, who is credited with "Words and Illumination". Like everyone else in the band he's at the top of his game on this album. "I Talk to the Wind" is among his more simple and direct work, a poignant critique of the human condition in only a few words, like the Beatles at their best.
The band sets its sights higher with "Epitaph", broadening the scope of the lyrics and composition and emphasizing for the first time one of the signatures of early Crimson, the Mellotron, a sample-based keyboard that simulates orchestral instruments. Everything in this piece combines to create an overwhelming wall of sound and emotion. Further description wouldn't be sufficient; this song affects everyone who hears it.
"Moonchild" is a moody and celebratory song about the beauty of the nightside. After a few minutes it sinks into a sparse, fully improvised playtime that could go on forever.
The title track nicely brings closure to the album and helps to heal the wounds ripped by "Schizoid Man" and "Epitaph". Sinfield's colorfully fantastic, semi-incomprehensible lyrics hint at his future direction, and the vibrant vocals team with the Mellotron for a more triumphant effect than that of "Epitaph". The flute solo in the middle is brilliant. "The Dance of the Puppets" section is an imaginative little interlude before the final climax.
'Court' is one of those records that seem to come only once or twice a decade, as though an abundant muse animates a group of people with an unstoppable mission. Not surprisingly, this formation of the band collapsed very quickly. Fortunately, KC mainstay and guitar guru Robert Fripp has continued the dynasty over more than thirty years, tons of lineups, and uncountable live shows. As he says, King Crimson is not a band but an impulse - an entity unto itself - and sometimes it must speak.
© 2001 j.s.