- Vancouver, British Columbia -
Very few bands have a history as rich and fascinating as King Crimson. They are a mysterious band and have been hugely influential in the music world, but have never really found their way into the mainstream spotlight. They have seen many faces and many incarnations. Their 40+ year existence has seen only 13 studio albums, but also includes several EPs and countless live releases, both audio and video. What's also worth noting is that King Crimson is not a typical band in the sense that there have been no consistent members from their original incarnation to their current one, except for guitarist Robert Fripp, who has worked with numerous acts such as David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Andy Summers (of The Police), and many others. Their music changes shape as often as their line up and as such they have explored many genres of music. Wanting to review a specific album from their discography seemed pointless to me as each era of King Crimson, or even each album, has history and connects in some way to something previous in their discography. Similarly, each album's influence branches off into individual members' solo careers or members' collaborations outside of the name King Crimson. It's like a root system that should be looked at as a whole. Since King Crimson isn't a band in the sense that they are not a specific collection of musicians, Robert Fripp describes them more as “a way of doing things.” Often groups are founded and play together but do not become King Crimson until the right sound is found.
The purpose of these articles will be to discuss the band's music, history, and legacy. I plan to only review the 13 studio albums, and touch briefly on some of the other releases. If I were to review all solo and side projects, I would likely never finish. While you might think this project is only for hard core fans of the band, I hope to approach it so that new listeners can discover them and understand what the music meant at the time to both the band and their fans. I can't say everything I write will be 100% accurate as most of the albums they released came out before I was born, but I have researched this band for a few years now, looking at old reviews from when the albums came out and newer reviews from current fans. I have also read notes from and met a few King Crimson members who to some degree shared their experiences. So, while some of this will be my own interpretation, it will at least be an educated one.
The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp - 1968
It started back in 1968, when three musicians put together a humble little folk-rock trio called Giles, Giles and Fripp. Michael Giles played the drums, while his brother Peter Giles played bass guitar, and a very young Robert Fripp played guitar. They released a single studio album titled The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, which was not very successful financially, though it is unknown how many copies it sold. It had a fun carefree sound that, at the time, would not have suggested that this would turn into the ambitious and grand King Crimson. There is a beautiful simplicity to the album which in some ways makes it an ironic entrance for the band. I suppose it failed due to the fact that this style of music had been done. The charming folk sounding pop songs had been done to death since the Beatles made it so popular earlier that decade. They were a band doing something a little different, but they certainly weren't groundbreaking.
There was more material recorded at their home studio, but none of it saw the light of day as the band took a major shift. Greg Lake took over bass and vocals. The new trio also brought in Ian McDonald (saxophone, clarinet, and flute) and lyricist Peter Sinfield. Given the specific nature of the band's name, a change was in order. The home recordings were stored away and occasionally became future Crimson tracks. On it was a demo folk version of “I Talk to the Wind” and another would become “Peace - An End.” This collection of songs was finally released in 2001 as The Brondesbury Tapes.
Before their next record was recorded, the new band King Crimson took to live performances and became a prominent figure in London's underground music scene. There was such buzz around the band that it seemed that record companies had pretty much forgotten the failure of their last release not a year earlier. I guess with a new name comes a fresh slate. They were now a hot commodity and were hitting the studio to record their first album.
In the Court of the Crimson King – 1969
Robert Fripp – Guitar
Ian McDonald – Reeds, Woodwinds, Keyboards, Mellotron
Greg Lake – Bass Guitar, Lead Vocals
Michael Giles – Drums, Percussion
Peter Sinfield - Lyrics
To some the cover art alone was too shocking and abrasive, and the lead track “21st Century Schizoid Man” was a loud ruckus that needed to be silenced, but to many the first King Crimson album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was revolutionary and unlike anything else out there. It is even said to be the album that invented the genre of Progressive Rock. Critics praised the album saying that it lived up the hype and that King Crimson were the most important new band to come out in years. It also did very well in the charts taking 5th place on its opening week, under The Beatles' Abby Road, Motown Chartbusters vol. 3, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and The Rolling Stones' Through the Past Darkly. The album was a complete success.
It starts with the legendary “21st Century Schizoid Man,” an aggressive jazz tune that turns chaos into something compelling. It's dynamic and offers the listener many sounds through its intricate composition before diving into complete insanity in its finale. It's loud and relentless, likely driving the parents of the 1960s crazy. Actually, my mom can't even stand it and this is much closer to her time than mine. I love this track, but admit that it might give the wrong impression of what the album has to offer. However, it works well as an introduction to the band and what will follow. It shows that they are willing to experiment and be abrasive for the sake of pushing boundaries and challenging their audience. In a sense, they were showing they had nothing to hide.
The following track is “I Talk to the Wind,” which is a radically different offering. The song is calm and collected, showing a much more restrained side of the band. By the first two tracks alone, they have displayed their diversity as song writers and performers. There is a flute that carries through the song and is absolutely beautiful. It takes center stage while many other instruments stay quiet in the background adding much volume to the song. They reveal the ability to be gentle with their intricacies, and use subtlety to their advantage.
“Epitaph” is the most emotionally charged song on the album, which is good. Sometimes Progressive Rock bands work so hard to create musically intricate, masterful compositions, that they forget to add a human element to the music. This song allows that vulnerability to show and reveals tragedy in those who might come across as inaccessible. The mellotron is the lead instrument of the tune. While a very outdated instrument by today's standards, there is a haunting howl to it that I haven't heard replicated, but it has a charm to its unrefined beauty.
The track “Moonchild” is a strange case and much can be said about it. First, I greatly enjoy the first movement of it. It's another case of the band choosing restraint. The song feels like a calm chanty sung on a quiet clear night with the moon beaming over the water. The song descends into nonsense however, and this was the main criticism of the album even in its initial release. The main meat of the song finishes after two and a half minutes and then it keeps going for almost ten more minutes. The purpose was for the band to experiment and use their improvisation skills on the album, and while I see what they were trying to do, it doesn't work and sadly becomes boring. It is too quiet and uneventful and could have been done in just a few minutes. If the song was even just seven minutes long, I would be forgiving, but at twelve minutes, it is too much. But the first portion of the song should not be forgotten and on a quiet evening, you may want to try and give the rest of it a thorough listening at least once.
The album finishes with the epic final track, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” which has a very medieval feel to it both lyrically and musically. It showcases all that the band has to offer with complex drum beats, flute solos, booming mellotron, and well calculated guitar riffs. It shows off so much, but what works the most is the song as a whole. It just feels so grand and powerful. Interestingly enough, I didn't care for it when I first heard it, but that was more due to my mixed up introduction to King Crimson and not due to the fault of the song. I had heard primarily their material from the 1980s and when I heard this, I didn't even think it was the same band (I suppose it really wasn't). It didn't take too long before I came to appreciate it and understood its place in the Crimson time line. It is a titan of a song that leaves a strong lasting impression for those exiting the album.
Apart from the concern that I addressed in “Moonchild,” In the Court of the Crimson King is an amazing achievement that to this day holds its own. The album would make resounding splash across the British music scene that would ripple through time as songs from it are still being referenced to or sampled from to this day (even Kanye West awkwardly sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in his 2010 song “Power” but I wouldn't recommend listening to it). It does all it needs to in 5 tracks, albeit quite long ones, and feels complete, while leaving the listener hungry for more.
Not long after the release of the album, Michael Giles and Ian McDonald left the band to collaborate on their own musical endeavors. They would release a single album together simply titled McDonald and Giles in 1971. Similarly, Greg Lake left the band to join with two other musicians to form the group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a band that would go on to be very successful internationally. The future of King Crimson looked grim. Critics and fans alike were mourning the loss of a great band that only released a single album, but their mourning was premature. Fripp and Sinfield were determined to keep the band alive.
I highly recommend this album for anyone who is interested in music. It is intelligent, moving, and groundbreaking, even by some of today's standards. At the very least, it's worth it for the historic value. In the Court of the Crimson King is one of the quintessential King Crimson releases.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes
Next time... In The Wake of Poseidon.