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In the Court of the Crimson King
King Crimson

Atlantic 8245
Released: November 1969
Chart Peak: #28
Weeks Charted: 25
Certified Gold: 3/29/77

Ian McDonaldGreg LakeRobert FrippThere are certain problems to be encountered by any band that is consciously avant-garde. In attempting to sound "farout" the musicians inevitably impose on themselves restrictions as real as if they were trying to stay in a Top 40 groove. There's usually a tendency to regard weirdness as an end in itself, and excesses often ruin good ideas. Happily, King Crimson avoids these obstacles most of the time. Their debut album drags in places, but for the most part they have managed to effectively convey their own vision of Desolation Row. And the more I listen, the more things fall into place and the better it gets.

The album begins by setting the scene with "21st Century Schizoid Man." The song is grinding and chaotic, and the transition into the melodic flute which opens "I Talk to the Wind" is abrupt and breathtaking. Each song on this album is a new movement of the same work, and King Crimson's favorite trick is to move suddenly and forcefully from thought to thought. "Epitaph" speaks for itself: "The wall on which the prophets wrote/ Is cracking at the seams... Confusion will be my epitaph."

"Moonchild" opens the second side, and this is the only weak song on the album. Most of its twelve minutes is taken up with short statements by one or several instruments. More judicious editing would have heightened their impact; as it is, you're likely to lose interest. But the band grabs you right back when it booms into the majestic, symphonic theme of "The Court of the Crimson King." This song is the album's grand climax; it summarizes everything that has gone before it: "The yellow jester does not play/ But gently pulls the strings/ And smiles as the puppets dance/ In the court of the Crimson King."

This set was an ambitious project, to say the least. King Crimson will probably be condemned by some for pompousness, but that criticism isn't really valid. They have combined aspects of many musical forms to create a surreal work of force and originality.

Besides which they're good musicians. Guitarist Robert Fripp and Ian McDonald (reeds, woodwinds, vibes, keyboards, mellotron) both handle rock, jazz, or classical with equal ease. Bassist Greg Lake and drummer Michael Giles can provide the beat, fill in the holes, or play free-form. While Dylan or Lennon are still safe, lyricist Peter Sinfield does show a gift (macabre as it may be) for free association imagery.

How effectively this music can be on stage is, admittedly, a big question. The answer is probably not too well. Still, King Crimson's first album is successful; hopefully, there is more to come.

- John Morthland, Rolling Stone, 12/27/69.

Bonus Reviews!

After the opening band, "21st Century Schizoid Man" (including "Mirrors") finished here, I felt like I had a rift in my head from ear to ear. But then "Talk to the Wind" followed, and I listened to these truly poetic lyrics with total incredulity. This is a beautiful song, and so is the next one, "Epitaph." So I started side one over, this time prepared for the electric assault of band one. Wow! King Crimson has got it and got it big. This is a musical happening, and the musical shock waves will continue to widen and will silence all in awe. I caution those who do not have an open mind for new approaches to music; King Crimson may just blow your mind and the roof. Acid rock is not to be passed around lightly; it sometimes produces bum trips. But I find this album spellbinding and enjoy it best when I am alone. Sometimes absurd in parts, the Court of the Crimson King makes beautiful sense as a whole. Try it yourself and see.

- Rex Reed, Stereo Review, 3/70.

Definitive debut album, which was almost too good (it took years for them to come up with a record as concise and distinctive), an orchestrated vision of apocalyptic doom dominated by Ian McDonald's Mellotron, Greg Lake's dignified voice, and the ferocious guitar playing of Robert Fripp. The latter would be the only survivor onto subsequent albums. * * * * *

- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

In the Court of the Crimson King showed that progressive rock could be as heavy as Led Zeppelin yet as intricate and full of dynamic contrasts as classical music (the howling, bludgeoning "21st Century Schizoid Man" was the first of many Crimson classics in unusual time signatures), and sometimes as tuneful as the Beatles. An influentual album that stands up well, it is the definitive statement by the most powerful Crimson lineup (Fripp, Wetton and Bruford). * * * *

- Steve Holtje, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

This psychedelic window into the '60s simultaneously defined and mastered progressive rock, with songs ranging from the controlled cacophony of apocalyptic heavy metal epics to windblown English flute ballads, both poetic and moving. Crimson courtiers crown this debut as a groundbreaking, seminal work far ahead of its time, rife with popm, circumstance and bombast -- back when those things were cool. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

A vehicle for left-field guitar hero Robert Fripp, King Crimson are one of the major progressive rock acts, surviving countless personnel changes since their formation nearly four decades ago. The other original members were singer/bassist Greg Lake, drummer Michael Giles, lyricist Peter Sinfield, and keyboard/vibes/woodwind player Ian McDonald. This lineup only recorded one LP, but it remains their best-known work.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

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King Crimson Lyrics

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From the scary cover painting -- best appreciated on gatefold vinyl -- to the portentious lyrics, In The Court Of The Crimson King is a heavy-duty album. "21st Century Schizoid Man" sets the tone. It's perhaps the first alternative anthem, featuring a gargantuan main riff, squalling sax, and apocalpytic visions.

There's yet more doom in "Epitaph," a beautifully resigned ballad that finds Lake's plaintive voice supported by a rich array of textures. "Moonchild" is a spooky pastoral love song stretched out to epic length by an improvised ambient jazz interlude, while the title track melds folky arabesques, bombastic drum rolls, and baroque flute to conjure its medieval scenario.

In The Court Of The Crimson King peaked at UK No. 5 and U.S. No. 28. Other landmarks include the colorful follow-up In The Wake of Poseidon, 1973's electrifying freakout Larks' Tongues In Aspic and 1981's funky, Talking Heads-infuenced Discipline. The band are revered by contemporary neo-progs stars Tool and The Mars Volta, while the ever-versatile Fripp has played on several iconic records by David Bowie and Brian Eno.

- Manish Agarwal, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

This record effectively decimates the argument that progressive rock of the late '60s and early '70s was little more than the babbling technical feats of overamped nerds. Guitarist Robert Fripp and his band certainly had chops to burn when they recorded this -- the opening track, "Twenty-first-Century Schizoid Man," contains a long-distance lunge of an improvisation that makes most rock guitar solos sound like nursery rhymes. But from there, Fripp and his crew, which includes future Emerson, Lake and Palmer bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, seek meaningful music in more placid atmospheres. Their conversations wander far from any expected "rock" context, into extended suites. "Moonchild" opens as a tender love song, with Fripp's long-tones hovering in the background. That evolves into an ambient rubato ("The Dream" segment), which is eventually eclipsed by a guitar-and-percussion exchange ("The Illusion") that uses the spirit of free jazz to explore spacy open vistas.

This album resonated with those predisposed to progressive rock of the Pink Floyd variety. But King Crimson never developed a fan base commensurate with its talent. Personnel changed regularly around Fripp over the years, and though these subsequent ensembles made great records -- check out the dense thrill ride called Lark's Tongues in Aspic from 1973, or the decidedly funkier Discipline from 1981 -- there remains something special about this first crusading journey, an example of greatly nuanced music in a genre where nuance is often in short supply.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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