Seeking Audience "In the Court of the Crimson King": Prog Countdown #2
From the pinnacle of early prog we move backward to its inception: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) must have made a remarkably jarring entrance into the world of popular music on its release. The explosive combination of guitar, drums, and saxophone that play full force in the opening riff of “21st century Schizoid Man” is perhaps slightly reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Good Morning” or some of their other loud experimental tracks. So while not taking a completely new approach to rock sound as far as volume, distortion, and aggression, the song takes discord to new heights with an over-seven-minute run that includes an extended solo section performed in free time.
As exciting as the lead track and one of the band’s most well-known song is (it’s even been sampled by Kanye West), the rest of the album isn’t quite so heavy or dissonant. The folkish “I talk to the Wind” and dreamy “Moonchild” more obviously scream “1960s” to me, and these are the less exciting sections of the album for their moderation. The muted nine-minute improvisational section after “Moonchild” at least announces that this is a band not to be constrained by any genre expectations and song length requirements. Those nine minutes are completely skippable, but they lay the foundation for the try-anything approach that makes prog so exciting. The improvisation in this case is not very fruitful, but the similarly motivated interludes on the far better King Crimson album, Red, showcase the value of just messing around with instruments in-studio as a musical statement. Still, bands that take this mode of song writing as their core sound have yet to catch my ear, no matter how often I try to listen to Gentle Giant.
Almost as iconic as the opening track, “The Court of the Crimson King” delivers the gospel of prog from a different perspective, showing off the grandeur of complex melodies and a soft-loud dynamic performed with a variety of instruments. The solos, sweeping mellotron, non-stop drum fills, and transcendent harmonies make this a satisfying conclusion to the album.
On relistening, I’m struck by how catchy these songs are; it’s an accessibility that isn’t on a lot of later King Crimson material. Unsurprisingly, “The Court of the Crimson King” was the band’s most successful single. But it’s the truly majestic “Epitaph” that lingers in my head for days. The eerie mellotron that dominates this track runs under the soaring and plaintive vocals; “I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” Greg Lake sings, but this melancholy tune suggests tomorrow is not long in coming.
In the Court of the Crimson King is a powerful album that set the stage for all other prog, while also demonstrating how far the rock and roll sound could go. Though there’s much to love about this album, the vastly different stylings of each track signal the insistent refrain, “here’s something new”. It’s brilliant, but King Crimson was able to sharpen their sound and do some more energetic and coherent stuff on Lark’s Tongue in Aspic (1973) and Red (1974) at least.
Rolling Stone Rankings
#1: Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
#2: King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King
#1: King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King
#2: Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon