Friday, January 12, 2018

In the Court of the Crimson King

In AM's quest to determine those albums evolutionary, Blood, Sweat and Tears (AM9) was acknowledged for 1968 rather than the far more influential Velvet Underground and Nico (AM10). What? While there are websites devoted to The Velvets, and despite those extended moments, weeks on end, when I listen to nothing but the VU, LPs like BS&T are equally evolutionary and oftentimes forgotten or overlooked. Not here at AM.

1969 was [another] exemplary year for rock music: Abbey Road, Tommy, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, Let It Bleed and Trout Mask Replica all graced the charts. Abbey Road was a destination, Tommy conceptually innovative and evolutionary, Trout Mask Replica a barely accessible tour de force. But it was In the Court of the Crimson King that was truly (r)evolutionary.

I first heard "21st Century Schizoid Man" when I was 7 years old, and it freaked me out. I had nightmares and slept with the lights on till I finally gained the courage to listen again. I thought, "Wow, is this the greatest song ever?" It was a smack in the face with a shovel for my creative maturation (I'd certainly by then discovered Sgt. Pepper, but I was honestly still in Monkee mode). Singlehandedly creating art rock and laying the foundations for metal and grunge, Court is ultimately influential. Long considered a masterpiece of its own accord, the LP receives widespread acclaim among many genres (the opening track is sampled in Kanye West's "Power"). Lyrically, In the Court of the Crimson King is an obscured anti-war statement presented chronologically backwards. Beginning in the 21st Century, it prophesies the proliferation of technology and its wartime implications. Slowly travelling back in time, it contrasts nonconformity and peace with genocide and hysteria in a grandiose statement against war. The central track, "Epitaph," summarizes the concept to show how war has destroyed civilization in the past and how it will continue to do so if nothing prevents its recurrence. Sonically, the album ranges from heavy, jazz-based rock to very soft, atmospheric ambiance, serving as a vessel to contrast conflict with peace. With that much concept, Court is the musical equivalent to Lord of the Rings.

There's a scene in the film Buffalo '66 in which Christina Ricci's character tap dances in a bowling ally to "Moonchild." It's the scene in which Vincent Gallo's character sees only her, not the distractions of the bowling ally, or the world for that matter, and realizes the girl that he kidnapped is the girl for him. Out of the context of the LP, "Moonchild" seems completely foreign and frightening. In literature, the ability to transmogrify into something else is apparent most specifically in poetry; Yeats and Byron come to mind. It is rare indeed when rock music can morph itself into alternate relevance.

The soft, bookended tracks that open and close the LP, the mellotron, the cover art, all combine to create a rock music masterpiece often overlooked. Never will one hear KC on "classic" rock radio (one if more likely to discover King Crimson on an alt. rock station). Like Roxy Music, Love, The Replacements and Television, one never casually stumbles upon In the Court of the Crimson King. It takes work and stamina.

One of the pioneering works of art-rock, In The Court of the Crimson King is a surreal modernist classic. Compared to anything of the era Court was unparalleled in its fierceness and songwriting, yet it's the album's stunning musicianship that gives the recording its durability. Greg Lake submits what is likely the strongest vocal performance of his career on an extremely challenging set of songs. Ian McDonald is perfect as the band's jack-of-all-trades. His work on keyboards set the stage for Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye to follow in the early '70s. Michael Giles drumming is steadier and more appropriate than his later replacement Bill Bruford. Then, of course, is virtuoso Robert Fripp. Fripp is the only member of the band in each permutation of the band. His unique style and experimentation differentiated King Crimson from the other progressive rock bands of the era, or even modern iterations like Porcupine Tree or Tool. 

As this album was peaking (No. 28 on the U.S. charts), Fripp was already rehearsing the new lineup that would record the band's follow-up album, In the Wake of Poseidon. King Crimson was to continuously alter their lineups becoming somewhat of a training ground for the progressive movement. Later incarnations of the band would see members such as John Wetton (UK, Asia), Bill Bruford (Yes, Earthworks), Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music), Boz Burell (Bad Company), Adrien Belew (Talking Heads), Tony Levin (Yes), among many others. But it was only Fripp with his odd mix of elegant classic, Hendrix-like explosions and jazz noodlings that would survive each and every lineup.

Setting the tone for the rest of the album is the demented "21st Century Schizoid Man" - hard-hitting stuff in 1969 and in fact quite analogous to the industrial rock of the mid '90s. "Schizoid Man," with it's huge pumping rhythm section and bewitching guitar, simply rocks like nothing before it. The lush woodwinds and interesting drumming highlight the wistful ballad "I Talk to the Wind." Probably the most important tune on the album is, once again, the epic "Epitaph", a 9-minute landmark that arguably ushered in the genre of symphonic rock. Similar to "Epitaph" but even more majestically lush is the gothic "Moonchild". Opening with an interplay between Lakes heavily processed vocals panned hard to the left channel and Fripp's decadent guitar textures answering in the right channel the piece slowly develops into a classic triumph, which surely influenced some of the early 70's work of Pink Floyd.

If any album foreshadowed the end of the 1960s, it was this one. Filled with morbid themes and unsettling rhythms and melodies, these experiments in jazz, classical, and heavy rock were the antithesis of all things psychedelic. Court is evolutionary, revolutionary and timeless.

A note on the album cover:  I distinctly remember seeing the cover for the first time and not having any clue as to what the hell was going on over there. Remember, I was seven. After listening to the album and freaking out multiple times (much later), I came to appreciate that Crimson cover. Now, just like Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with its timeless simple prism design, one look at that painting says everything you need to know. The artist was Barry Godber, a computer programmer and artist who was friends with Peter Sinfield. The word is that Peter brought a few tracks from the album to Barry for ideas on a cover. The result was his interpretation of the 21st century schizoid man, with the smiling Crimson King adorning the inner sleeve. Interestingly enough, this was the only painting he had ever made. Shortly after the album's release, Barry died of a heart attack at the age of 24.