In lieu of the sad news of Greg Lake’s passing weeks back, our second Classic Roundabout could only suitably be In the Court of the Crimson King – Greg Lake’s debut album with progressive godfathers King Crimson. Like our previous Classic Roundabout, Yes’ Close to the Edge, this album is one of classic progressive rock’s most iconic records, and is widely regarded as the epitome of the genre. Released on October 10th 1969, it’s argued that In the Court of the Crimson King was the definitive album that first formed the beginnings of progressive rock.
The original line up consisted of vocalist and bassist Greg Lake, drummer Michael Giles, Ian McDonald on woodwinds and keyboards, Peter Sinfield providing backing vocals and, of course, the sole remaining original member, Robert Fripp on guitars. King Crimson’s current incarnation, 47 years later, is miles apart from this, as the band now includes three drummers, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison and Jeremy Stacey, which makes for interesting live renditions of the band’s classic songs.
As ever, we’d like to remind you that our Roundabouts are a compilation of each Prog Talk admin’s individual views; there is no collusion or collective discussion of these albums between us during the time we write our respective reviews, so any similar comments are completely coincidental. What do you make of In the Court of the Crimson King? Do you agree with our comments? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below, and we hope you enjoy reading our thoughts. So without further ado, let’s talk classic prog:
In the Court of the Crimson King is one of the few albums that I consider timeless. Opener ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ feels generations ahead of its time, with its wailing, space age guitars and robotic vocals; whereas the title track harks back to the baroque with clavichord–like synthesizers, flutes, and its fantastical imagery. These are but a few comments on an album that refused to fit within the confines of a particular genre, what with its blend of jazz fusion, classical and experimental rock, and still manage to challenge them to this day.
The eruption that is ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ is unparalleled: Shining’s jazz metal cover, Voidvod, The Flaming Lips, and even Kanye West’s ‘Power’ (that samples Lake’s vocals) don’t come close to King Crimson‘s original, though they still remain impressive in their own right. Lake’s distorted vocals of grotesque, political commentary are delivered with such attitude that I only wish there was more of it. For a band so finely polished, and one that seems a little uptight nowadays with Fripp at the helm, it’s so enjoyable to hear the fun, energetic elements in the song’s instrumental passages: from the band’s synchronized acceleration during the build up to the mind-bending guitar and saxophone trade-offs, ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ is nothing short of a joy.
The Renaissance-esque ‘I Talk to the Wind’ and ‘Moonchild’, although fantastic in their own delicate way, pale in comparison to the quaking intensity of the other tracks; especially regarding the latter, what with its incidental ambiance for 9 minutes. The arrangement of the track list, thankfully, is balanced well, as alternations between these intense and subdued tracks create a nice variation. I feel that ‘Moonchild’, the album’s longest track, could have been condensed into a tighter package, as sitting through the ambient marathon leaves me impatiently itching for the concluding song. The single flaw in the otherwise perfect ‘Epitaph’ is the distracting snare drum – it feels obnoxiously loud against the fragility of Lake’s lamentations early on in the song, and too dry against the rest of the instrumentation that meshes beautifully together otherwise.
As for the final track, ‘The Court of the Crimson King’, I can’t comment on anything without gushing over the legendary, transcendental line “In the court of the Crimson King” – it’s undoubtedly the highlight of the album for me with its triumphant fanfare and reverent vocals. Though I must say, the fake ending that mimics a music box, before the song’s true finale, is quite cute in a ridiculous sort of way – a stark, jovial contrast to the gravity of the song that preceded it. Though as I reach the end of In the Court of the Crimson King, I do wish there were more of the heavy, jazz fusion aspects from the opening track throughout the album – in a selfish way, I feel it was a little too heavy handed on the delicate, classical inspired elements. Still, King Crimson delivered my wishes in their other classic, Red, so I can’t really fault them for that.
Very few artists can claim that they’ve broken boundaries and laid the foundations to such an expansive genre as King Crimson has. Though they’ve since released fantastic records such as Red and Discipline, I feel that King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King is their crowning achievement. Even though I’m not madly in love with ‘I Talk to the Wind’ and ‘Moonchild’, I can’t deny that this album is one of the greatest progressive rock albums, and one of the most historic records ever made.
To say that In the Court of the Crimson King had an impact on progressive rock would be akin to saying that “your mum” had an impact on a thirteen-year-old bully’s self-esteem. If the world had to come to a consensus on what album truly established prog as a formidable genre, chances are everyone would point their fingers the way of this highly distressed and reddened face. (Except for that one guy who insists it’s Procol Harum. I mean, he definitely knows his music, but still…)
King Crimson did something truly incredible with this album, as its bloody fingerprints still show up on the works of almost every major prog act to date. That said, to expand on that statement would take up the length of this whole review, so without further ado, let’s dive into the music.
I’ll start off by getting the biggest negative I have about the album out of the way and saying that, although the album’s peaks are absolutely monumental, not every song on the album quite reaches that level. ‘I Talk to the Wind’, for example, is a wonderfully mellow track with probably my favourite lyricism on the whole album, yet it fails to meet the grand ambition of most of the other tracks and as such could easily be misconstrued as being “filler”, which is a shame. Similarly, ‘Moonchild’ is a track which starts off fair enough, yet breaks into a instrumental exploration a few minutes in which honestly feels rather meandering and as such breaks the pacing of the album. On most other releases, these tracks would be considered solid, perhaps even exceptional additions, yet when compared to the works which make up the remainder of this album, they unfortunately become the black sheep. Speaking of which…
’21st Century Schizoid Man’. ‘Epitaph’. ‘The Court of the Crimson King’.
You’ll be hard pressed to find 3 songs this monumental on a single album before or since.
The first of these opens the album with a bang, and still remains one of the most inventive yet catchy tracks to ever feature on a prog rock album. Everything about this song is memorable, from the iconic fusion of brass and guitars which give life to the track’s core melodies to the late Greg Lake’s (may he rest in peace) distorted vocal cries; from the ceaseless and infectious energy found in both Michael Giles’ drumming and Lake’s basswork; from the politically driven, demented lyrics to the climactic instrumental explosion which ends the track. This song is a representative of everything which prog stands for; it’s fun, experimental, catchy yet unpredictable and simply one-of-a-kind. It’s a revolution.
As a direct contrast to this, the band gives us ‘Epitaph’; a song which demonstrates a certain quality you’d still be hard-pressed to find on prog songs today, genuine emotion. I’m not talking about your “we’ve slowed down and gone acoustic so now it’s emotional” shtick which many prog bands since the genre’s inception have been so fond of. On ‘Epitaph’ every aspect of the song contributes to a highly longing, lonely and mournful tone, only backed by it’s frenzied, impassioned lyrics. Lake’s vocal delivery on this track is one of the greatest I have ever heard, exuding sincerity and matching the lyrics’ passion and despair perfectly. Everything comes together perfectly and I would not change one bit of it if given the chance.
Finally, there is the titular track ‘The Court of the Crimson King’, which brings together the catchiness and playfulness of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ with the emotional drive of ‘Epitaph’ for the album’s symbolic closing statement.
On one last note, I’d like to highlight a few standout aspects of the album as a whole. Giles’ drumming on this album is integrated beautifully in every aspect of the album, and often plays a pivotal role in the tone each track sets to achieve, a rare feat to find on any album which doesn’t have “jazz” somewhere in the first-given genre description. Additionally, I’m very thankful that the band ultimately decided to self-produce the album; Ian McDonald especially does a beautiful job of producing the synthwork and woodwinds to create an atmosphere you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. He is also likely the biggest person to thank for Epitaph being the emotional masterpiece it is.
To sum up, In the Court of the Crimson King is absolutely justified in its legacy as the herald of progressive rock. Everything about this album set the bar for progressive music; emotion, experimentation, originality and passion; a bar which few prog albums since have been able to reach. King Crimson deliver on every aspect of music criticism; songwriting, performance, production, lyricism. No, it’s not a perfect album, but it’s the very definition of a classic.
Well there you have it: Leth and I stand in awe at King Crimson‘s In the Court of the Crimson King. Were you surprised? I’d be worried if you weren’t. Whilst we share a common love for most tracks, ‘Moonchild’ and ‘I Talk to the Wind’ are the album’s shortcomings, but even so, that doesn’t make In the Court of the Crimson King no less deserved of the title of an absolutely classic album. Do you agree? Or more importantly, don’t you agree? Tell us what you think in the comments below!
One thought on “Classic Roundabout: King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King”
The main theme of In the court of the Krimson King and the rows :
“Knife me in
Talking in its sleep again”
Share a few notes.