In the Court of the Crimson King
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
If you want to know where progressive rock started, enter the realm of the Court of the Crimson King. Originally released in 1969, The five song L.P. combined elements of classical, folk, jazz and rock and helped focus attention on a genre further popularized by groups such as Yes, the Moody Blues, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the album's release, "In the Court of" has been remastered in several tantalizing formats: a double disc edition with bonus tracks, alternate mixes, and live recordings, and a boxed set with six discs that also adds restored bootlegs, single edits and rare promos. For Crimson completists, the six CD version is prog's version of the Holy Grail.
King Crimson sprang from the partnership of drummer Mike Giles, his bass-playing brother Peter and guitarist Robert Fripp, who recorded the 1968 album "The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp," a collection of quirky pop excursions. Seeking to expand their sound, the trio recruited multi-instrumentalist Ian Macdonald, who began experimenting with a Mellotron, the eerie keyboard that had given the Moody Blues music a wide-ranging orchestral sound. Macdonald then brought in poet Peter Sinfield, whose dramatic, descriptive lyrics elevated the band's songs to mythic proportions. Macdonald also drafted his girlfriend, former Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble to handle the vocals but she left after the collapse of their relationship, having recorded a few demos with the group (which you can hear on the expanded edition of the album). The last member to join was bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, who was recommended by Pete Giles, the man he replaced. The final touch was provided by artist Barry Gober. Gober's only painting, a gripping, frightening portrait depicting a screaming crimson-colored man, became the cover for the group's debut.
The Mellotron-heavy "Epitaph" is an ominous dirge with a gloomy funeral march middle section provided by Macdonald, who stirs up a foggy atmosphere on sax as Giles hit his cymbals like tolling bells, leaving Lake to lament, "But I feel tomorrow I'll be crying."
The album's only misstep is "Moonchild." The cut begins with a ghostly, echoed vocal by Lake, muffled, puffy drums and balalaika-like asides by Fripp. After a few minutes it degenerates into the type of free-form jazzy noodling that crippled the group's subsequent releases. The bunny-hopping percussion and irreverent xylophone rapping goes on for an overindulgent ten minutes before Lake mercifully returns with the closing verse. Listen to the first three minutes of "Moonchild" and skip the rest. Ironically, Steve Winwood lifted the melodic first few minutes for his song "Horizon," a highlight of his 2005 release, "About Time."
The album's centerpiece and the song that mesmerized millions of early FM radio listeners is the Mellotron-dominated title track. Giles emphatic drumming, Lake's doomsday vocal and Macdonald's horror film Mellotron chording set the song's nightmarish tone, with Macdonald providing a melodic respite with a whispery, baroque-styled flute solo.
Bassist Greg Lake may not be as omnipresent as Andy Fraser, Rick Grech or Jack Bruce, but he provides a nimble foundation to Fripp's off-center guitar work, particularly amidst the chaos of "21ST Century Schizoid Man;" and he adroitly adapts his vocal phrasing to fit the mood of each song. But the album's heavyweights are Ian Macdonald, Mike Giles and Pete Sinfield, who provide the album's color, character, and copy, respectfully. Unfortunately, the group imploded over its future musical direction, and within a year the original band was a legendary footnote. Sinfield was given his walking papers, Lake departed to join Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer in ELP, and Macdonald and Giles teamed up to record the album that should have been the group's follow up before Macdonald founded the schlock rock MOR group Foreigner. Fripp slogged on using the group's moniker, but King Crimson left the prog genre it had helped establish after its second album "In the Wake of Poseidon," morphing into a grating, less accessible schizoid jam band.