The debut album by prog-rock pioneers King Crimson is staggering in its creativity and legacy. At the time of its release, the band consisted of Robert Fripp on guitar, Greg Lake on bass and lead vocals, Ian McDonald on reeds and keyboards, and Michael Giles on drums. This lineup disbanded not long after releasing the album, and has since featured a revolving cast centered around Robert Fripp. In the Court of the Crimson King essentially defined the ‘prog-rock’ genre, and is widely regarded as one of the most influential records of all time. The Who’s Pete Townshend has been quoted as calling the album “an uncanny masterpiece” (DGM Live), and it has served as inspiration for other bands such as Yes, Genesis, Porcupine Tree, and Tool. It also celebrated its 50th anniversary this past week on October 10th.
In the Court was written in 1969 in the midst of the Vietnam War, and is “filled with echoes of the darkest parts of the decade” (Cook). While it is presented as a fantasy concept album, many of the lyrics are anti-war, reflective of the tense political climate. The album opens with “21st Century Schizoid Man,” described by lyricist Peter Sinfield as “an angry, modern song of its time” (Smith). It is a frantic, chaotic, yet somewhat jazzy song, twisting and turning abruptly while Lake paints a dark and violent lyrical landscape. The energy shifts dramatically during the second track “I Talk to the Wind.” The frenetic energy mellows out to a subdued, calm atmosphere punctuated by flute and strings, before diving back into the bleak uncertainty of “Epitaph.” This dark ballad features Mellotron, rich strings, and brilliant percussion, and is a strong contender for the best song on the album. “Moonchild” is a brief improvisational interlude which leads into the eponymous final track “In the Court of the Crimson King.” This 9-minute medieval epic changes tone many times throughout, episodically telling the tale of the Crimson King (a term given to monarchs who ruled in times of unrest and bloodshed). The cohesion of the group is astounding when you consider that at the time they’d only been together for around a year. The band’s composition and musicianship are on full display in this track, bringing the album to a stunning conclusion.
In the Court of the Crimson King was a massively influential album on both the musical landscape in general, and as well on me in my formative years (and was incidentally the first album I chose to play during my first shift at the music library). I chose to review it both due to its recent anniversary as well as my personal affinity for this album. I highly recommend this album to anyone interested in rock, jazz, or anything in between.
In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) is available to loan from the AU Music Library. For other notable progressive rock albums, try Yes’ Fragile (1972), or Genesis’ Foxtrot (1972) and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974).