In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson
King Crimson’s debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King” (1969), has become a staple in almost every progressive rock fan’s library. Released three years before Pink Floyd’s hit “The Dark Side of the Moon,” it was a debut by a rather new band in the rather new genre of prog rock. Pete Townshend of The Who called it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and I couldn’t agree more. It’s a concept album, a single piece divided into five movements. King Crimson’s jazz and classical influences, plus its cynical and politically aware lyrics, hold listeners rapt for the entire five-movement, 44-minute record.
The album opens with the chaotic and frenzied first movement “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which explores themes of the Vietnam War and political corruption over piercing guitar and saxophone riffs. It is likely the most memorable and avant-garde track, due in part to the swinging, frantic, instrumental middle section titled “Mirrors.”
The next movement, “I Talk to the Wind,” is an abrupt change, beginning with a flute solo that transitions into the slower pace of the rest of the album. The song is about being an outsider, unable to change the ways of society: “I talk to the wind/the wind cannot hear.” The wind is the world around lyricist Peter Sinfield, filled with “much confusion, disillusion” that causes him to feel regret at being unable to change it. The song, though the shortest on the album at 6:11, leaves an impression with its sorrowful chorus.
“Epitaph” is the third movement. Like the first, its lyrics are jaded and cynical, and like “I Talk to the Wind,” they have a sad and longing tone. The subject is the Cold War and nuclear disarmament. It is my favorite due to its use of changing time signatures, drummer Michael Giles’s powerful performance, and the acute sense of feeling lost in a dystopian future. “Confusion will be my epitaph,” states lead singer Greg Lake, after the world is torn apart by the foolish arguing of politicians and the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The fourth and longest movement is “Moonchild” at 12:33. It is the only part of the record that drags. It begins well with a unique alteration of symbols by Giles, and interesting lyrics describing a “gentle Moonchild” looking for a smile from a “sunchild.” However, two minutes in, it becomes a free-form jam session with short phrases from each musician that seem random. While “Moonchild” is the weakest track, I still never want to skip it.
The finale is the title track. It’s a culmination of the themes of the previous movements, personified as guests arriving at the court of the fictional Crimson King. It is one of the band’s two charting songs (the other being “Heartbeat” in 1982) and is a fitting climax. With its fantastic images of fire witches, yellow jesters, and purple pipers, it is one of the more “far out” songs. Its end, a flute reprise called “Dance of the Puppets” and another free-time jam session, is a fitting conclusion to the album.
While definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is an intriguing concept album that I think deserves a listen from any fan of ’70s rock. Music scholar Edward Macan said that it “may be the most influential progressive rock album ever released,” and I can see why. Rating: 8/10.
Better than: “Selling England by the Pound,” “Foreigner.”
Not as good as: “The Dark Side of the Moon,” “Led Zeppelin IV.”
You might also like: “Close to the Edge,” “Days of Future Passed.”