by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor
If there is an album that jumps to mind for me when people are talking about progressive rock, it’s almost certainly King Crimson’s edgy and polished In the Court of the Crimson King (1969).
Robert Fripp has developed a reputation as the enfant terrible of progressive rock. Even in a genre filled with notoriously demanding, egomaniacal virtuosos, Fripp somehow manages to be the most demanding, the most egomaniacal, and perhaps even the most virtuosic. You only need to take a peek at the revolving door of personnel in King Crimson to see how difficult it is to work with Fripp.
Fripp founded the band with some musician friends (Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, and Greg Lake) in 1968, and early jams provided the blueprint for what the band would become: “If it sounded at all popular, it was out. So it had to be complicated, it had to be more expansive chords, it had to have strange influences,” said Fripp collaborator Peter Sinfield.
And my God, the album starts with more than a little bombast. Potent, layered woodwinds (played by Ian McDonald, who also plays the album’s Moody Blues-inspired Mellotron lines) burst in the album’s opening track, the iconic “21st Century Schitzoid Man”. The song features many of the elements that defined In the Court of the Crimson King as a touchstone for the genre: Fripp’s wild, virtuosic guitar solo, Lake’s distorted vocals, and a musical form that could be comfortably described as byzantine.
Listening to the album now, it’s interesting for me to hear how it wasn’t entirely the Fripp show I remembered it to be. King Crimson’s romanticism is usually more like the stormy melancholy of “Starless and Bible Black” (or the album’s own “Epitaph”) than the naive melodies of Crimson King’s McDonald/Sinfield-penned “I Talk To The Wind”. Michael Giles and Ian McDonald left the band in 1970 due to Fripp’s controlling tendencies, and Greg Lake left the band shortly before them to co-found Emerson Lake and Palmer. If the main artistic voices aside from Fripp hasn’t left the band, who knows what course King Crimson could have charted?
In the Court of the Crimson King isn’t cringeworthy. If anything, it’s a remarkably coherent progressive rock album that dazzles without overwhelming. From here, King Crimson would continue delving into darker and jazzier records, with some triumphs (Red, Starless and Bible Black) and some failures (1984’s baffling Three of a Perfect Pair).