FM90’s Brown – King Crimson Review

In August 1969 the band, ‘King Crimson’ produced the album In the Court of the Crimson King and released it on October of that same year through the Atlantic Record Label and Island Record label. Despite the album being only 5 songs long that totaled a whole 43 minutes, it was one of the most influential albums to release (and arguably still is 60 some years later.) The 5 songs were titled 1: ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ 2: ‘I Talk to the Wind’ 3: ‘Epitaph’ 4: ‘Moonchild’ and lastly the title track, 5: ‘The Court of the Crimson King’.

The album is a mixture of jazz, rock and classical. It was a style that was so out there and different that no one had really heard it before, it was like finding a new color.  Shortly after the album had circuited through, musicians and other bands were inspired by the new discovered sound and began to make things similar to it. Suddenly King Crimson was known as the pioneers for progressive rock, their title track being the one that stood them out the most, but the title track is the last song on the album. So first we will discuss song one, ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’.  

The beginning starts off with a predominate sound of trumpets and saxophones that set the mood of an upbeat and dance worthy song with more of a jazz influence. When the lead vocalist, Greg Lake comes in, his voice sounds distorted like he is singing though an old radio, he uses the voice distortion through the whole song despite how it is difficult to understand him fully. In between his singing parts you begin to hear a flute and what sounds like an electric violin come in shifting the tone over to a higher pitch with more of a classical influence. It last for about 7 seconds before only a bassist is heard and the tempo changes to a slow and low rhythm. The sudden change here and throughout the whole song is my first example of how King Crimson gave a new definition to the art of music and emotion. With the low rhythm, the song begins to feels like there is something to anticipate, or like the song is about to really kick off, but it isn’t long before the original beat comes in with all the higher pitched instruments, leaving the build up a dud. Why is this song so chaotic in tempo and mood, leading the listener one way and immediately pulling them back with their sudden instrumental changes? It is because it adds to the song and gives the meaning effect and truth, the song is about how the future will be and that it will be a crowded and chaotic mess so the song reflects that. In the song he carries on to talk about how people will become driven to madness over things that aren’t as important as it may seem. (“Nothing he’s got, he really needs”), but it is okay if these people are driven crazy from this obsession because the neuro-surgeons can make money off of the problems, soon creating a capitalist government. (“Neuro-surgeons scream for more at paranoias poison door”.) In the same line Lake talks about how soon everyone will be in war and turmoil with one another competing to have the best, but at what cost is it to the future generation? (“Death seed blind man’s greed, poet’s starving children bleed…”) The song finishes out speeding up leaving the mood feeling anxious at the end of it.

The second song on the album is called ‘I Talk to the Wind’ and it immediately soothes any anxiety the listener got from the first song. It begins with a soft electric guitar and what sounds like a small harp. Compared to the first song, this one sounds like white noise with the added ambient sounds from the ocean that King Crimson added into the background. The tempo and mood is steady and uniform through out the song. 

Listening to this album I noticed that King Crimson wrote their lyrics similarly to old english style poetry, like their use of some words or how they phrase their sentences. The beginning of this song is a good example because he says “Said the straight man to the late man, where have you been? I’ve been here and I’ve been there and, I’ve been in between.” That is classic or old english style of phrasing. The straight man refers to someone who is conformed into society and has the typical life. While the late man refers to someone who doesn’t follow time and just goes with the wind, which blossomed the theory that the late man is a traveler. The theory carries into the third verse where he says “I’m on the outside looking inside, what do I see? Much confusion, disillusion all around me.” Because as a traveler he isn’t apart of any society so he sees the third point-of-view of it, but he still see’s what is going on around as he travels. Explained in the chorus, the late man, though may be unbiased is still not pleased with the interactions he sees all over. In short terms, the song is about a small pleasant interaction between two people, who maybe at one point were friends that slowly drifted apart. The tempo and mood finish calm and peacefully.  

The third song, also the last song on side A, is called Epitaph. It is also the second longest song on this album with the title track being a minute less in time. The song extends an entire 8 minutes, but surprisingly it is mostly instrumental with periodic singing. Epitaph is similar to the first song on the album, 21st Century Schizoid Man, where the theme of what Lake is singing about is a dystopia kind of world.  Except this is the aftermath of what he was warning everyone about with the first song, a post-war environment. King Crimson is developing a story in their album and using the same land they created with the first song, they use now but in a different light because of the bands brilliant techniques of sound; Ian McDonald (woodwind player) playing his mellotron in this song, giving evidence the power a single instrument has to change a mood so dramatically. Which leads me back to the first example I used: the art of emotion in music. King Crimson is telling a story not just with what they say, but with the moods they express instrumentally.

In Epitaph, they are talking about the loss of hope in the world, where before there was, but now there is none. (“The wall on which the prophet wrote is cracking at the seems…”) The first paragraph continues to describe how after all of it is over and the deed is done, that despite the horrors and trouble these people went through, life will carry on and so must they. (“Upon the instruments of death, the sunlight brightly gleams…”) Next he sings that when the sun shines the next day, it will be clear the disaster in which they became, where now the survivors can see who lost and that no one really won. These people finally get what they wanted out of  it, but are ashamed to announce the victory. They truly see the price everyone had to paid for this small reward. (“When every man is torn apart with nightmares and with dreams, will no one lay the laurel wreath as silence drowns the screams.”)  In the next line the music shifts to a higher pitch to match his singing, it sounds like he is trying to offer hope through this song, give light, yet despite his efforts it is still apparent the doom we all face and when Lake says “But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying, yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.” the hopeful tempo lowers again to the original fearful aftermath mood. The next line says, “…Who know, and who are known; Knowledge is a deadly friend…” What I interpret is that the knowledge that this made up community faces now is scary, that now them and the listener know now what man kind can do, and to what lengths for what we want. That is a dangerous power to know, to be aware of and see the aftermath of it. Lake carries on to say “When no one sets the rules, the fate of mankind I see is in the hands of fools” It really is a dog-eat-dog world out there and the richest, most crazy will always win. The songs goes back into the chorus as a re-affirmation to what they were saying, except now there is no tempo change like before, the sound of “hope” they conveyed is gone, because now we see that there is no hope. I will say, the name describes the song well, a phrase in remembrance of what is now dead.

The fourth song, ‘Moonchild’ though is short, reflects the mood and calming effect that the second song also had, similar in the way it independently changes the emotion of the music. King Crimson being who they were, did it in a completely different style. In the song Moonchild, it has a dream effect to it with how Lake distorted his voice to sound droned out and distant with a slow singing tempo, and then the added effect of the soft guitar, bell and drum gives the song the feeling of when you are about to go to sleep or in a movie when a character is awakened by a creature of the night. Though because of the soft velvet mood of this song the tempo stays at a simple beat and doesn’t shift much during the it. The way the song was also written reminds me of the interaction that happened in the second song between the straight man and the late man. 

Lastly, the longest song, as well as the most noted song off this album; ‘In the Court of the Crimson King.’ There is a pressure on this song that the listener subconsciously has, the pressure coming from how this story that was drawn out through music will finish; It has pressure on it to leave the listener feeling satisfied about the album, as if it was the last chapter of a book or the last episode in a season. Before listening to the next song, I wonder where King Crimson will take the ending. Will it be vibrant and wild with his use of tone and the bands manipulation of sound, or will they end the album with a soft resolution, a good ending where all will be well eventually? Immediately upon the song starting it is strong and feels revolutionary, the tone is set with the lead up of the drums and quick follow in with the electric violin. Before the vocals begin, the instruments fade out and are heard occasionally to add effect/dramatization to what Greg Lake is singing about, for example “the cracked brass bells will ring…” there is a small bell that echos in the background; It could easily be lost in the rest of the song adding a subtle highlight. The instruments pick back up at the end of what he is saying. The style the band does reminds me of a scene in a movie where the main character barely gets back up to try one last time before surprisingly winning the battle. 

Also if you notice in the lyrics there is a lot of descriptive colors that weren’t as prominent in the other songs; For example the first paragraph, “Purple piper…” As well as in the second paragraph where he says “Black queen…” In the third paragraph there is a description of hope of life that won’t die when Greg Lake says “The gardener plants an evergreen..,” with in the next paragraph he mention “Soft grey… Yellow Jesture…” The bands use of the words is more poetic than it is song lyrical, by adding all the colors to the description, we now imagine the mental scene of color re-appearing, it finally showing back up in life, making living less miserable. To describe ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ with a quote, I would say it is one by T.S Eliot “This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.”

This album is a beautifully produced and a well written short story of medieval days. With in 5 songs this band created a whole tale where made up people existed in our imaginations, and for that 43 minutes we felt the emotions they went through, the tragedy and lost with the community, we experienced the same hopeless perseverance and the ending that finally made it all worth it. I feel like I read a book in less than an hour. 

To listen:

21st Century Schizoid Man:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXZc0ptqFxw

I Talk to the Wind:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9kpckEwOkg

Epitaph:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuA0HQ4Zobc

Moonchild:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NjdfOoPK9c

In the Court of the Crimson King: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvCmtHDDuu0

For Reference:

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/king-crimson-crimson-king/

https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858900018/

https://www.loudersound.com/features/king-crimson-how-we-made-in-the-court-of-the-crimson-king