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In the Court of the Crimson King

[1]1,953 words

Nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, it’s safe to say we’ve all grown a little schizoid.

Released in October of 1969, English progressive rock outfit King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King was – and is – a debut that permanently altered the face of pop music. In its forty-four minutes, seemingly endless layers of sound, influence, and genre are tossed in a blender of both disparate ambiguity and astonishing clarity of purpose. The album’s staying power in the lists of critics and listeners alike is due to its unconventional focus: Not once are there any clear indications of where a song’s musical arrangement will go, yet there is never uncertainty about its message, however cryptic it may be, and how each interacts with the others as a whole. The arrangement of Crimson King since its release has served as a blueprint for albums both conceptual and conventional in nearly every genre that can trace its roots to blues, jazz, and even symphonic music.

In many ways, Crimson King is a highly condensed examination of the European psyche; it’s an album that could only exist in the context of its time, peppered with references to international conflict, the soulless march of post-industrial economies, and the alienation that comes along with them. Endless words have been put to paper from all camps railing against armed conflict and consumerism, but none have done so through the curious means of treating musical genres as discoveries. King Crimson portrays the societal woes plaguing their time through musical forms and practices that they observed in others, such as the historically black genre of jazz, which they then adopted for themselves. It’s a distinctly white practice that many have dubbed “cultural appropriation,” and Crimson King exists as a testament to the unstoppably Faustian motivations of the white man intent on discovering the world both as it is, and how it should be.

No other group of people could have created an album quite like this one; even great black innovators in music like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, or the eternally controversial Kanye West stuck to a pre-established playbook while they experimented, even though the rules they followed might have been obscure to the large audiences they played to, lending these artists an arguably unearned pedigree of creativity. Where King Crimson differs is in the simultaneous recognition and adaptation of their influences.

The key contributors to King Crimson’s sound are hard rock, jazz, orchestral music, and the minimalist, almost folk-like melodies on woodwind that rely less on their own merits and more on their unlikely relationships with the other music on each track. To an untrained ear, some of Crimson King may come across as simple cacophony or random swells of choral exuberance, but even to the uninitiated, these components aren’t completely disparate. It’s this peculiar ability to package all of these sounds into a work that is enjoyable to seasoned veterans of music as well as to those who have never listened to a jazz record that makes this album such a remarkable work.

The first song, the iconic “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is a jarring introduction. The first few seconds consist of quiet ambience and a moment of silence, which comes across almost deliberately as a eulogy for the dreams of a generation. This doesn’t last long; Fripp then shreds the first few lines of “Schizoid Man”’s electric refrain – a soaring, discordant melody marked by fed-back wails and powerful harmonization created from layering multiple tracks over each another. In this one, small section of the song, a taste of the entire album is present: Between the traditional timing of the chords, the drums that patter almost randomly during Fripp’s textured guitar work are foreshadowing the jazz instrumentals to come. This refrain powers the song, serving as its leitmotif, with simple, grating quarter notes marking the moments in which Lake growls through punctuated layers of distortion. The lyricism draws influence from psychedelia; there’s little connecting each line on the surface, and the imagery Lake presents seems to change every few seconds and borders on the nonsensical. Apocalyptic themes find themselves at home with Fripp’s abrasive guitar work, and then suddenly, there’s a change. After the ascending growl that follows the song’s powerful backbone repeats itself, and then slowly speeds up, the song drops all pretenses of rock for several minutes. What once sounded like out-of-place tapping on the drums during the earlier part of the song has the light of purpose shone upon it: “Schizoid Man” turns into the avant-garde instrumental “Mirrors,” an acidic jazz foray that assembles the song’s previously unorthodox constructions into flailing coherence. This continues for several minutes, with the arrangement becoming sharper as time passes before one final interlude gives way to the song’s original structure.

“I Talk to the Wind” follows. It’s a marked departure from the crunchier sound of the previous song, held together by somber woodwind and the syncopation of lightly swung drums. This is the track where King Crimson proves their chops extend beyond the rigor of heavy music, whether it’s pounding guitar or stricter jazz; on “Wind,” gently ringing rides are interspersed between a flute solo and coda. Despite the mellow nature of the song’s instrumental, there is no want of energy. Giles’ drums prominently feature rolls and enticing elements of jazz flavor that operate both in unison with Lake’s ethereal vocals and McDonald’s flute, all in a C key that isn’t immediately obvious. The instrumental makes the perfect home for themes of one-sided conversation with natural elements as a metaphor for God – an eternal obsession of the white man – and disillusionment both with one’s inability to be heard by a higher power and the trivial nature of everyday life. The final rumination is a repetition of the song’s first lines, highlighting the loss of identity between distant locales: When the late man tells the straight man where he’s been, “here, there, and in between” suffices.

After “Wind”’s minimalism, the centerpiece of the album, “Epitaph,” begins with a tense rush of acoustic guitar and ambience that wouldn’t be out of place in a symphonic piece. Soon after, a simple kick and snare drum pattern follows, and small crescendos dance around Lake’s tender, pleading vocals as tension builds and is released in soaring heights, all backed by a persistent bassline. It’s here that King Crimson showcases their ability to use strong orchestral punctuation to underscore the throes of Lake’s impressive bellowing, and to maintain the song’s musical spine as extended detours into wind instrumental and drone separate each of the song’s chapters. Every component of the track is a gripping demonstration of the band’s talent and classical influences. On guitar, Fripp charms with licks that sound almost Latin, alternately blending in with the remainder of the band’s symphonic wall of sound and gingerly tiptoeing into the forefront to provide transition and focus as the song drifts through its meandering movements. It’s on this song that Lake expertly places the groundwork upon which nearly every progressive rock vocalist would build, illustrating the importance of linking range and dynamics in an homage to traditional voice training; yet, in this adherence to the classical spirit, Lake’s vocals still sound fresh by virtue of their despondent, expository sustain. Giles’ drums play with the delicate fabric of presence and absence; in rest, they create atmosphere, and in motion, they create rhythm and serve as touchstones for each section of the song. Jazz remains a strong influence for his lines, swinging back and forth throughout several bars, and rolling in excitement both at the summit of a section and immediately preceding each moment of relative quiet. Of course, McDonald’s romantic, sweeping orchestrations on flute are what gives “Epitaph” both its ecstatic, romantic peaks and its spacey, reflective valleys. Throughout the entire track, McDonald harmonizes and fleshes out the sounds in a manner that avoids cacophony but embraces form, remaining constantly in unison with the rest of the band. Confusion is nowhere to be found in this song except in Lake’s declaration of it as his epitaph.

“Moonchild” is a logical continuation of the album’s established composition. Where “Epitaph” threw the inner workings of a grand, symphonic plea in the listener’s face with relish, “Moonchild” presents the complex machinations of jazz and classical in a quiet, deeply meditative song. The movements and development of King Crimson’s songwriting are now thoughtfully – and deliberately – hidden in the comfortable pockets of space in which McDonald disguises his freeform sensibilities as flute flourishes. Fripp closely follows, erratically accentuating quiet moments with plucks that create both intrigue and rhythm. It’s quite easy to become lost in these individual curiosities; their own eccentricity is doubled by the careful inclusion of dynamism that at first seems random, then quickly adopts the swinging form of Giles’ drumming that sneaks into the track about halfway through. Several times throughout the song, motifs of gently rolled snare drum and oscillating wind alongside Mellotron dubs are reminiscent, to modern listeners, of the songwriting of household psychedelic names like Pink Floyd. It’s worth noting that the album’s quietest track shines as one of its most influential; the impact of songs like Schizoid Man are hard to miss by virtue of their flagrancy, but nestled inside the pacific meandering of Moonchild are blueprints to an entire era-defining genre of music. Perhaps the reason Lake only sings for a few initial moments on the song is that the remainder of the instrumental speaks for itself.

The final, cumulative track is the exalting The Court of the Crimson King. The notes taken on every track are consulted for a song that jumps between moods quicker than Giles can strike his hi-hat; the initial cascade of sound gives way to a plaintive Lake, detailing a scene of antiquity that complements the almost medieval marching of choir and drum. We’re left to think, in some ways, that this must be the theme that echoes through the halls of the namesake Crimson King’s fortress; Fripp’s forceful strumming in time with the choral awe forms musical walls that seal in the abstract, fantastical events that occur in the King’s court. The aforementioned clarity of focus is most evident here: playful woodwinds and shy melodies are the mark of solemn, rote daily life, all under the watchful and omnipotent eyes of a Crimson King that can strike out in full musical force at any moment. The harsh distortion seen on “Schizoid Man” plays a notable second fiddle, adding weight to the glide and strut of the song’s powerful orchestra hits that follow the mention of the Crimson King’s name. The King’s power, in a sense, is best conveyed when these sudden musical exuberances occur without their hallmark preceding lyrics. We realize, then, that this majestic court is not one that rules over a distant fairy-tale land, but is the one that governs the lives of people making their way in a society to which they haven’t had time to grow accustomed. Each of Lake’s verses detail fruitless searches and exasperation, roads that lead nowhere, and invocations of ancient evil that have only been waiting for their chance to strike. In King Crimson’s time, competing senses of the world prevailed; the newfound bounty of economies recovered from the Second World War would continue propelling man to greatness, but behind the scenes, much like the black witch summoned in the song, disaster dwelt just below the surface in the form of war and the existential dread that accompanies it. The final notes of the song, and the album, are of noise and disco, suggesting the King’s court might not be so powerful after all.

Yet even in the presence of doom, jesters dance in the Court of the Crimson King.