Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Best Use of a Mellotron on a Rock Song

The Mellotron, for all intents and purposes, is the first polyphonic keyboard instrument to make full use of tape banks housing the sounds of various instruments, and was the direct precursor to the numerous digital samplers on the market today. What is so unique about the Mellotron is its ability to realistically emulate a myriad of sounds, not just obvious ones like string and brass instruments, but also other sound effects like pitch variations and percussion loops.

This enabled many marquee prog-rock acts of the 1970s (i.e. Yes, Genesis, the Moody Blues) to recreate elaborate orchestral arrangements on their recordings (and sometimes even in concert), without actually forking out inordinate amounts of money to employ a full-sized orchestra. More funds for mind-altering substances to help with the songwriting, then.

While the most well-known use of a Mellotron in rock history remains the Moody Blues' studio recording of the dreamy "Nights in White Satin", my personal preference for the best use of a Mellotron in a rock song is in King Crimson's portentous 1969 epic "In the Court of the Crimson King", a phantasmagoric, nine-minute tone poem that remains, justifiably, their most famous composition.

The Mellotron on "In the Court of the Crimson King", played by the virtuosic Ian McDonald, is obvious right from the beginning, when it announces itself with an expressive, expansive, four-bar theme that comprises the main instrumental motif of the song. Throughout the entire track, McDonald's Mellotron riff (manifested here in a grand-sounding orchestral-string incarnation) shows up at regular points, interspersed with Michael Giles's ominous drum rolls and resident guitar deity Robert Fripp's standard-issue guitar freak-outs, eventually pulling out all the stops with a dramatic, almost berserk flourish, before coming abruptly to a cold ending.

Incredibly evocative and undoubtedly powerful.


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