King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study

Although it was already suggested that Pink Floyd is the archetypal prog-rock band (HERE), an equally compelling case could be made for King Crimson. By practically any criteria, King Crimson has always epitomized everything we talk about when we talk about prog. Only more so.

From their first album, which remains the Rosetta Stone of progressive rock, to their four decade-plus career making music, King Crimson looms large and remains impossible to ignore. While the title track of their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is still the purest and most perfect expression of the prog-rock aesthetic, it’s the sheer depth and breadth of their catalog that inspires a singular awe. The Dark Side of the Moon is the Sgt. Pepper of prog, but In the Court of the Crimson King is The Beatles on Ed Sullivan: a pivotal moment that announced a new reality. After 1969, nothing was, or could ever be, quite the same.

To fully fathom what In the Court of the Crimson King signifies, it’s useful to consider it as less an uncompromised statement of purpose, and perhaps the first influential album that forsook even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you have to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—out of time.

So…what is it, exactly, that King Crimson accomplished on the album that arguably remains their most fully realized vision? It has all the necessary ingredients: impeccable musicianship from all players (but special props must be doled out to Ian McDonald, whose flute and saxophone contributions grant the material its majestic, at times ethereal air), rhythmic complexity, socially conscious lyrics—courtesy of Peter Sinfield, and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but is grounded in history and looks forward, not backward.

Of course, it came out of an era and the minds from which it was conceived, a dark, sensitive and undeniably psychedelic space. And then there’s the mellotron. The Moody Blues did the most to incorporate this peculiar instrument into rock music, but King Crimson henceforth made an improbable art out of it. Throughout the album Pete Townshend (the same year The Who dropped Tommy) declared “an uncanny masterpiece”, the mellotron functions as accompaniment (“Epitaph”) and, at times, lead instrument (“In the Court of the Crimson King”).

After this remarkable opening salvo, what happened next is at once unbelievable, but also the impetus for what makes King Crimson quite unlike most successful bands. The group almost imploded, with bassist/singer Greg Lake agreeing to front Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and spend the next decade driving snooty critics insane), and multi-reedist/composer Ian McDonald—whose input was so affecting on the first album—departing, not necessarily harmoniously.

Robert Fripp, the acknowledged mastermind and reticent leader, was now captain of a suddenly uncertain ship as the ‘70s began. Somehow, he convinced Lake to stick around long enough to lay down some vocal tracks (which, it must be said, are some of the most powerful of his career), and the Giles brothers (Michael and Peter, on drums and bass) were enticed to finish what had been started. The resulting album, In the Wake of Poseidon, manages to be many things, most of them quite good, and in the end is greater than the sum of its puzzling pieces.

Naysayers have pointed out that it’s a rather paint-by-numbers impression of the preceding album, but this opinion is facile. While the sensibility and most of the line-up is the same, In the Wake of Poseidon indicates signs of the ambition and restless creative energy that would characterize the next two albums. The tension and release: harrowing notes followed by tranquil ones, are the signature calling cards, and on songs like “Pictures of a City” and the sprawling “Devil’s Triangle” (modeled on Holst’s “Mars”, from Planets, and boasting more mellotron than most bands could cram into a double album), they exist alongside each other in a uniquely organic way. Few bands, in sum, mixed beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

Considering that the only constant during these early years was change, the quality and variety of the next albums is astonishing. The line-up rotations turned out to be a fortuitous blessing, as the third and fourth efforts sound distinct and unconnected. This is actually a rather exceptional phenomenon within the prog rock movement. Where bands like Genesis and Yes steadily built up confidence and momentum, eventually hitting on all aesthetic cylinders (on albums like Close to the Edge and Selling England by the Pound), King Crimson, almost by default, churned out individualized works. Put another way, one would be hard pressed to find two works by the same band as distinct yet rewarding as Lizard and Islands.

As ever a guiding force, the dominant sounds come from Fripp, holding down guitar and mellotron duties, and orchestrating the proceedings like the prickly perfectionist he has always been. King Crimson, as evidenced on these albums, could invoke other times, places and feelings practically as a matter of course. This, again, can be attributable to Fripp, one of the most keenly intelligent (and quietly driven) leaders of any group. Like many great coaches, he is not always easy or enjoyable to exist with, but players under his guidance tend to do their best work. Has there been a figure in popular music anything like Fripp, leading as many disparate bands, overseeing a vast body of work that is reflective of the various times it was created?

In a gesture of prog-rock bonhomie, King Crimson benefited from the vocal services of Jon Anderson (who was soon to become famous as the lead singer for Yes) on the title track to Lizard. That goodwill may have been strained when Bill Bruford, Anderson’s band mate and arguably the elite drummer of the era, left one supergroup to join another. With Bruford’s dexterity, driving the beat forward while keeping pace with Fripp’s increasingly complicated playing, the band (inevitably?) assumed a more forthright and forceful sound.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: that is not an album title so much as an eccentric ode to the path less traveled. Most of the work made during the prog rock era can be described, at least to some extent. The title suite of their fifth album, comprised of two parts, remains a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As usual, Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussive stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The following one-two punch of Starless and Bible Black and Red (both 1974) find the band taking the next logical (or illogical, if you like) strides forward, with John Wetton (bass, vocals) and Bruford anchoring the proceedings with a confidence and stability that, to this point, had not stretched beyond a single album. The two albums are a treasure trove of forward-thinking prog, a blend of bucolic and apocalyptic.

For an example of the former, the live recording “Trio” is a melancholic tone poem; its title signifies the absence of Bruford, who instinctively understood his participation was not needed for the improvised tune. In classic Fripp fashion, Bruford was nevertheless awarded an equal share of compositional credit as a nod to his astute restraint. For an example of the latter, album-closer “Fracture” might best signify King Crimson’s quiet-to-chaos dynamic, and features one of Fripp’s towering solos. (Bonus trivia: listen for the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for “The Simpsons”.)

Although the band seemed, sonically, locked in to make a sustained run, Red turned out to be their final album of the ‘70s. This was entirely Fripp’s decision, the result of burnout and likely, if understandably, residual exhaustion from his almost ceaseless work. The album begins and ends with signature songs—for the band and prog-rock. The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored by a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility: it’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.

The closer, “Starless”, is epic in every sense of the word; one of the all-time prog masterworks. Brooding and heavy, fraught with feeling and foreboding, it’s an exercise in precision, the apotheosis of their “dread and release” formula. It builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the darkness; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

It was during the next string of albums, commencing with Discipline (1981) that King Crimson set itself apart as the only original era prog band to make significant (not to mention enjoyable) music after 1980. A case could be made that Discipline represents some of their finest playing/composing. Retaining Bruford and recruiting the ludicrously versatile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound.

Fripp had not been inactive during King Crimson’s hiatus: his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel feature some of the most inspired—and imitated—guitar pyrotechnics of his career. His exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise. On songs like “The Sheltering Sky” Fripp incorporates virtually every trick in his arsenal, creating something that integrates multiple source-points (African, Indian, and Western). The title track is like a business card for the new decade: Fripp asked a lot of his audience, but he has always asked more of himself.

If the next two albums, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair are not as consistent or wholly substantial as Discipline, they still stand tall alongside almost anything else being done in the early-to-mid ‘80s. Another hiatus was in order, and Fripp wisely kept King Crimson on the sidelines as hair metal and early grunge duked it out for the next decade.  The band resurfaced in 1994, as a double trio (retaining Belew, Levin and Bruford and adding Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto). The resulting albums, Vroom and Thrak, are as good as any fan could reasonably have expected—or hoped for.

After this the band splintered into a billion parts and side projects, still drawing crowds and earning accolades. If it’s safe to suggest the band’s best years were well behind them, still they endure, living defiance of the notion that prog rock died like the dinosaurs decades ago. Certainly bands like The Mars Volta and Porcupine Tree owe considerable debts to King Crimson’s old and newer influences.

So where does that leave us? With this: the music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It’s not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to confront trends or commercial-minded fashion is created without any of these considerations in mind. King Crimson, as much as or more than any other prog rock band, consistently shaped and refined a unique vision, arguably creating whole new types of music in the process. There are numerous songs (some already mentioned) that are truly unlike anything else from any other genre: the results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Steadily led by the restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; at their best they transcended it altogether.

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The 25 Best Progressive Rock Songs of All Time: Part Five

5. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies”

The mellotron certainly had its time and place. It became overused, a crutch for bands hoping to mimic the sounds made by bands like King Crimson and late ‘60s Moody Blues, but when properly utilized, it could produce an oddly enchanting (I can’t quite bring myself to say haunting) effect that even the strings it was designed to replicate can’t quite convey. It was often employed as a layering effect, to embellish the other instruments, and the effect was surreal and murky; if it was loud or frequent enough to notice, it was probably being abused. However, on “Watcher of the Skies”, the opening song from prog-rock benchmark Foxtrot, we are treated to the first (best? only?) mellotron “solo”. It takes over 90 seconds for the other instruments to (slowly, brilliantly) enter and build, and that extended introduction might be the best wordless evidence for what we could define as the essential “prog-rock sound”: it’s all in there, whatever it is. Then there are the lyrics, with allusions to literature (Keats) and some of Phil Collins’ most satisfying accompaniment. As much as any song from the early ‘70s, “Watcher of the Skies” manages to invoke the past while commenting on the present, using new instruments and ideas to create a certain type of mood music that is crammed with feeling, intensity, and release.

4. Yes, “Close To The Edge”

Writing last year about my search for the “sublimely awful lyric”, I singled Yes out for special mention as “elevating ardent yet inane lyrics to a level of… real art.” On the other hand, I did—and do—maintain that listening to Yes is like listening to opera: the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds: that voice, those instruments, that composition. The music Yes made between 1971 and 1973 approached a level of ecstasy that not many bands were able to approximate. So it matters less than a little that the lyrics are, supposedly, based on/inspired by Hesse’s Siddhartha (indeed, that fact is likely to get points subtracted for typical prog-rock pretension, real or imagined). What matters is that this song really does go places no other band has done; or rather, it is a gold standard that was never surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning build-up, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes, to the operatic (yes I said it) majesty of the middle section, (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out. On exceptional tracks, like the previously discussed “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise” there are individual moments—and musicians—that stand out and shine; on “Close to the Edge” everyone assembled works in service of the song and the result is a tight, unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.

3. Jethro Tull, “A Passion Play”

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick As a Brick, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, in rock and on this list, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated. Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

2. Pink Floyd, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”

Roger Waters, understandably struggling with what to do next after Dark Side of the Moon, began to think about the man without whom he may never have become a rock musician. Syd Barrett’s mental disintegration is alluded to on the previous album’s “Brain Damage”, but all of the tracks on Wish You Were Here deal, directly and indirectly, with the man who named the band’s breakdown. The centerpiece, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is equal parts elegiac tribute to an old friend and assessment of loss and alienation. Gilmour and Wright both sought to play the saddest notes they could conceive, and the results are at once poignant and stunning. Even without the lyrics, it would be abundantly obvious that the band was attempting to invoke a wistful sort of melancholy that stops just short of desolation. It was inevitable, and appropriate, that Waters chose to sing these lyrics —- so personal and plaintive—and it is without question his most affecting vocal performance.

Then there is the story, confirmed by all members present at the recording, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again. As touching, and extraordinary as this stranger-than-fiction occurrence might be, it only adds to the already unqualified masterpiece that Pink Floyd created, turning loss and despair into something inexplicably moving and awe-inspiring.

1. King Crimson, “In The Court of the Crimson King”

Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.

Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ‘67 there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ‘69, signaled the first album that was as much aesthetic statement as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as—it must be said—timeless. Of course it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this track (and this album) and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid are the same kind of simpletons who hear Charlie Parker and envision a strung out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.

Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “In the Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.

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King Crimson: In the Wake of Poseidon (40th Anniversary Series)

Considering that the only constant within King Crimson was change, the quality of their early albums is, in hindsight, even more remarkable. Poised to conquer the world, or at least own the underground, following the release of In The Court of the Crimson King(1969)—easily one of the enduring debut records in all of rock—the band instead almost imploded. Singer/bassist Greg Lake abruptly headed off for proggier pastures, joining up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to begin a decade-long quest of driving snooty critics insane. Equally distressing was the departure of multi-reedist/composer Ian McDonald, whose input was indelible on the first album.

Robert Fripp, the acknowledged mastermind and reticent leader, was now completely in control as a new decade commenced. On one hand, he had material ready to record; on the other hand, he did not have a band. Somehow, he managed to convince Lake to stick around long enough to lay down some vocal tracks along with the Giles brothers (drummer Michael and bassist Peter). Rounding out the personnel was Keith Tippett (piano) and Mel Collins (sax, flute), both of whom would figure prominently in the band’s subsequent albums.

The line-up shuffling would continue and turned out to be a considerable blessing, as each album King Crimson made sounds distinct and unconnected. This is actually a fairly unique phenomenon, particularly within the progressive rock movement. Where bands like Genesis and Yes slowly built up confidence and momentum, eventually hitting on all aesthetic cylinders (on albums like Close to the Edge and Selling England By the Pound), King Crimson released individual statements of purpose. As a result, there is no other band that, in the span of 4-5 years, made such radically different yet satisfying records.

In The Wake of Poseidon manages to be many things, most of them quite good, and in the end is greater than the sum of its puzzling pieces. Naysayers have pointed out that it could be considered a paint-by-numbers impression of the first album. There is a foundation for this critique, but it does not take into account that the follow-up remains at once more and less than the more universally worshipped debut. Even though In The Court of the Crimson King seems to exist uncannily out of time (it could only have been recorded in the hippie hangover of ’69, but it also still seems somehow ahead of its time), In The Wake of Poseidon is more of a prog-rock period piece, a distinctive document of a type of music that is not made any longer.

For haters, or people who can’t or won’t bring themselves to give the music of this era the scrutiny and approbation it deserves, progressive rock seems best remembered as a noisy splash that left its pretentious imprint (sonic dinosaur fossils, if you will) and then got sucked out to sea once the restorative tide of punk rolled in. For such folk, the notion of a 40th anniversary special edition reissue (double-disc, no less) might seem like either a waste of resources or a typically gluttonous cash grab. The former sentiment cannot be helped, but the latter should be addressed.

These albums found, and continue to find their audience because of the simple fact that they are convincing and consistently rewarding after the first dozen (or thousand) listens. That noted audiophile and/or fanatic Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree, was game to revisit the vaults and diligently produce a 5.1 surround sound mix tells you some of the tale. Groups like King Crimson were not just obligatory reference points for young musicians to absorb; their conceptual bent and refined aesthetic remain touchstones of influence and inspiration. Of all the prog-rock bands, Crimson might have the market cornered on innovation and integrity: there was nothing about any of their albums that gave even a modicum of attention to commercial or critical concerns. People who dislike progressive rock consider this the reason; people who endorse it find this the only evidence required in its defense.

Even for ardent Crimson fans, In The Wake of Poseidon has presented problems. For starters, it would simply be impossible to improve upon the perfection of the debut, so the second effort was invariably going to disappoint some listeners. The aforementioned structural similarities, although overblown, are difficult to overlook as well. On side one of each album, there is the frenetic, dark side of society opener followed by a gentle ballad and then an earnest (or lugubrious) statement at the end. Perhaps it’s personal preference, but I’ve always found “Pictures of a City” (which comes crashing out of the scarcely-audible tone poem “Peace—A Beginning”) more consistently awe-inspiring than “21st Century Schizoid Man”, and I consider “In The Wake of Poseidon” even better than the incredible “Epitaph” from the debut. “Cadence and Cascade” suffers unfairly when compared to Ian McDonald’s majestic “I Talk To The Wind”, but it is still sublime: the cymbal sprays and Mel Collins’ ethereal flute are as gorgeous as anything else from this era (Gordon Haskell’s vocals, weird and unsettling on the next album, Lizard, here are weird but wonderful).

The sound on the first disc is the 2010 mix, and it is a definite improvement on the (already sufficiently spectacular) previous reissue; the sound on the bonus 5.1 mix is even more of a revelation. For fans, like myself, who have heard these albums on vinyl, or cassette, or earlier digital pressings, it actually is worthwhile to hear sounds long-buried in inferior mixes. The clarity is, frankly, astonishing, and any fans that have the first edition of this disc will be delighted with the upgrade. As always with a proposition like ostensibly superfluous reissues, it’s the subtle elements that make a difference: on the title track, every single acoustic strum is crystalline but not at the expense of the other instruments; each sound, from the bass to the drums (which, on this track, function sort of like a lead guitar—out in front and pulling the song forward), to Greg Lake’s voice — never in better form than on the first two Crimson releases. The urgency of the music (and its messages) is appropriately stark, and it really does seem almost like the band is playing live in your living room.

The second side is where, stylistically, the album suffers a bit. The individual songs are excellent in their own way(s), but going from the funereal mellotron that concludes the title track into the idyllic “Peace — A Theme” (one of Fripp’s most unaffected but affecting compositions) does not exactly set the scene for what follows. “Cat Food” is obviously a lark, and even though the musicianship is typically first-rate, it is a tad jarring considering what has come before (Better the band should have gone with outtake “Groon”, an aggressive and ominous instrumental barnburner and left “Cat Food” as the non-album single — particularly since it actually charted).

Album centerpiece “The Devil’s Triangle (Parts 1-3)” is an unacknowledged riff on Holst’s classical piece “Mars” (from Planets), functioning as a descent even further into the abyss, following the title track that concludes the first album. Clearly this was the one Melody Maker had in mind when they suggested, in 1970, “If Wagner were alive, he’d work with King Crimson.” Nonsense like that makes it a little more understandable why this era was difficult for so many to stomach. Featuring more mellotron than most bands could conceivably cram into a double album, “The Devil’s Triangle” utilizes a drum and bass march, balancing dread and release with wind effects and jarring foghorn cries. Adore it or detest it, most honest listeners would concede that few bands did beauty and horror quite like King Crimson. The tension implodes on itself, segueing into the soothing “Peace — An End”, which functions like the sun coming out after a thunderstorm.

All in all, this is an album that holds up quite nicely and is dated only in the sense that it sounds like it was made in 1970, and 1970 was a very nice year indeed for the making of albums. So where does that leave us? The extra disc and assorted out-takes and remixes will gratify the die-hard contingent; this might all be a bit much for the merely curious or those unlikely to be intrigued. It is, essentially, what it is: a welcome reissue that enables anyone and everyone to hear a classic prog statement in a new light and possibly be transported to a time when albums were as serious as the musicians who made them — for better or worse.

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