Anyone wanting to seek out the true origins of progressive rock, look no further than this, In The Court Of The Crimson King, an album coloured by quasi-Rococo arrangements along with lyrics almost bordering on Baroque. Full of epic guitar and snarling mellotrons, King Crimson’s 1969 debut is not the sort of thing one would play to impress a first date, much less at someone’s wedding, because let’s face it, this isn’t exactly The Moody Blues we’re talking about.
Opener “21st Century Schizoid Man” is jazz meets heavy-metal, all performed in a very cinematic manner. Fripp’s guitar is truly monumental in scale and execution, as are the mellotrons, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald (who also contributes sax). Michael Giles’ expert, precision drumming is equally impressive, like an English Elvin Jones or Billy Cobham.
The second track on side one, “I Talk To The Wind”, is less likely to do the listener’s head in, and consists of peaceful playing along with plaintive thoughtful lyrics (written by Peter Sinfield) sung by Greg Lake, followed by the deeply wistful “Epitaph”, a Moody Blues like number that drifts along in a way that only a romantic prog-rock ballad can drift, namely in one ear and out the other. And once Lake has finished talking to the wind, we find him talking to the trees in “Moonchild”, an extended atmospheric composition simply over flowing with self-indulgent instrumental noodling, perfect for a quiet night in (especially if you enjoy smoking those funny cigarettes). The combination of guitar and vibraphone is indeed exquisite, even if it does give the impression that the band is merely tuning up in the studio.
Last song, “The Court Of The Crimson King”, is one of those pretentious epics prog-rockers are so utterly obsessed with. Certainly it is nothing less than a grand gesture, and a fitting way to end proceedings. From the strings to the uplifting choir, including guitar and flute, the overall affect is as dramatic as it is stunning. In 1969, there weren’t too many artists creating music like this. It would have taken a brave band to issue an album that would’ve had next to zero chance of ever being heard on the radio, but that was precisely what Fripp, McDonald, Giles and Lake actually did, and so successfully I might add.
There can be no doubt that King Crimson set a new standard for experimental rock (Jimi Hendrix spoke highly of the group after seeing them perform in London). But despite its extreme ambition, In The Court Of The Crimson King is not without its flaws, making it one of the least perfect prog-rock outings of the time, which isn’t to say that it is in any way inferior to what would appear later. It’s just that the group was still very young and relatively inexperienced when it came to touring and recording (McDonald and Giles would quit as a result of a rigorous American tour). Today, though some of the neo-classical arrangements might seem a little dated, Crimson King remains a highly influential release by four as yet unknown musical alchemists from Dorset, England. Self-indulgent it may be, but seminal all the same.