Friday, December 11, 2009

In the Court of the Crimson King

Has there been a more electrifying and attention-grabbing debut album in rock history than ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, the 1969 introduction of seminal progressive-rock legends King Crimson? The short answer is an unqualified no. It is easy to discern why 'In the Court of the Crimson King' is held in such high regard in critics’ circles and amongst serious rock fans. Everything is pitch-perfect on this era-defining album, from the towering, overwhelming music, which successfully merges disparate genres like psychedelic rock, baroque classicism, avant-garde jazz and folk balladry into an artistic totality that is almost frightening in its dexterous execution, to the physical packaging, whose macabre, fearsome album cover by the late Barry Godber remains one of the most indelible and arresting sleeve jacket ever produced.

It is also on this mammoth, influential record that all the essential artistic elements of King Crimson came together to form a seamless whole: the death-defyingly accurate and proficient playing aptitude, the abstract, intuitive lyrics that oftentimes border on the outrageous and surreal, and the elaborate, intelligent production values which hold everything together effortlessly. It is no wonder that subsequent King Crimson endeavours are invariably compared, frequently unfavourably and unfairly, to this antecedent record whose cultural relevance still resonates strongly today.

‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ now gets a long-deserved 5.1 surround-sound release, which efficiently fleshes out all the detailed instrumental nuances and tonal colours of the five-song set. This is good news indeed for those King Crimson aficionados who have been looking for a sonically superior replacement for their worn-out first-generation CD copies. This new remastering job benefits the proceedings greatly, especially on the awe-inspiring opener ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, King Crimson’s undisputed signature tune, and a virtual precursor to and benchmark for all forms of rock music to come (its tempestuous post-bop jazz middle-eight section sounds particularly provocative here).

The following ‘I Talk to the Wind’, an airily placid and melodic medieval madrigal, makes for a sudden but welcome change in pace from the sonic frenzy of ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, with its poignant flute solos and low-key double-bass underpinning. Next up is the hauntingly sinister, nine-minute multi-segmented symphonic suite ‘Epitaph’, which abounds with a surfeit of apocalyptic lyrical imagery ("The wall on which the prophets wrote, is cracking at the seams, confusion will be my epitaph").

Elsewhere, ‘Moonchild’ is a defiantly experimental set piece that is divided into two sections: the first is a delicate, folk-influenced pastoral ballad with lyrics that could have been lifted straight from a medieval troubadour’s sonnet, while the second is an elongated, improvisatory instrumental portion that makes for a respectable template for the ensuing minimalist-classical movement of the 70s.

The concluding almost-title track ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ is perhaps the most creatively realised and musically majestic composition here. Underlaid with an exceptionally inspired lyrical depiction of Lucifer’s palace in Hades, this cathedral-sized, sonically dramatic, Mellotron-driven symphony, capably bone-chilling in its intensity, makes for one hell of a grand finale to one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

In short, the singularity of vision on ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ remains fiercely undiminished and dynamically commanding, despite the passing of four decades since it was originally unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Nothing released since has come close to the album’s fundamental, calculated power and uncompromisingly intellectual musical structures, and it’s certainly no overstatement to say that this is one album that can be safely regarded as belonging to a far, lofty roost completely removed from and above any capricious vagaries of the day. An outstanding, breathtaking reissue of a true rock-music classic, and one that rightfully belong in any self-respecting rock fan’s record collection, or any record collection for that matter.


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