September 1999 – album reissue reviews – King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ & ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ 30th anniversary reissues (“an indisputable classic, but one which sits uncomfortably in the role: forever pulling at the seamless stylistic joins that hold it together, as if to test them to destruction”)

17 Sep

What can one say about a legendary record? Well, just have a look at the magazine racks in any record store and you’ll find that everyone’s got something to say about ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Sergeant Pepper’, ‘Marquee Moon’, ‘Innervisions’… Dealing with the legend of King Crimson‘s debut is different, though. Partly because its impact is perpetually obscured by the revisionism of punk and current Americana; and partly because overtly literary qualities of legend are already there, squatting in the barbs of the flamboyant lyrics and present in every razz of saxophone.

King Crimson: 'In the Court of the Crimson King'

King Crimson: ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

There are various legends about the making of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. Collapsing producers. Good fairies with a taste for evil-sounding music, marching out of the astral plane to guide the compositions and performances. Even painter Barry Godber’s sudden death shortly after creating the distorted face that yells, horrified, from the cover. But then, few albums have engaged so flagrantly with the mythic straight from the first moment.

For better or for worse, ‘…Court…’ is the prog wellspring, responsible for all the dark castles, capering grotesques and mediaeval garments that’ve festooned its followers ever since. Whatever your expectations, you’ll find that it still sounds amazing. Remastering gives more savour to the feast, of course, but ‘…Court…’ has always been a record that jumps out and grabs you by the scruff of the ears.

No surprise here: that feverish pitch of attention has just been made a few inches larger all round, a bigger take on a picture that was big to begin with. It took, as its frame, a strongly European perspective – mediaeval-to-modern cities rubbed in the blood, flags and dirt of history and repeating cruelties, in which all that Tennysonian mooning around sundials and gardens is an integral, complementary part of that world. Later proggies fell in love with the idyll alone. Few besides Crimson had the capacity to engage with the violence that maintained that idyll, to relate it to modern-day realities so effectively, or to represent in music the confusing threads of history that made up that picture.

In the band’s sound you can hear the haughty, ghostly artificiality of Mellotron orchestras, the angry saxophone protest of Civil Rights jazz, and the squall of avant-garde chaos. However, it draws equally on hotel dance-bands from the wilderness of ’50s England and from the stormy wildness of Stravinsky, Bartok and the troubled classicism of the Eastern Frontier, with all the elements bound together by the expansive rock sensibility ruling the revolutionary roost at the time. And although Peter Sinfield‘s words are chock-a-block with excessively mannered Gothic metaphor and allusion, at their best they evoke plenty of the monstrosities that hung over the late ’60s. Spectres of Vietnam war trauma, twisted agriculture, political manipulation and malignant science all dance alongside his tarot-card shuffles of yellow jesters and purple pipers.

Although it’s guitar strategist Robert Fripp who’s forever seen as the boss of King Crimson, it was Ian McDonald who was the major player at this point. He’s the only musician listed on every single song credit, and he who left the band within a year because he felt (amongst other things) that Fripp was butchering his music. Standing between classical formality and jazz passion, he could leap readily into either with the intelligence to know just what to use. His fiery saxophones, elegant flutes and assured keyboards shaped King Crimson into the full-soundtrack monster they were, even now putting the lie to the idea that prog’s ornamentations were a flabby irrelevance. Michael Giles’s jazzy drumming is a masterclass in compressed percussive thinking: and as for Fripp, even this early glimpse of his playing displays a unique balance between cerebral focus and emotional demands – at least as intent as it is intense, from the humming wail of his electric solos to the spidery precision of his hooded acoustics.


 
The music itself has sustained pretty well across the album and across history. Perhaps its claws seem fussily manicured compared to the raw filth’n’fury The Stooges would unleash a few years later, and which would ultimately leave a stronger mark on today’s underground. But then again, the Stooges never flung their ideas as wide as Crimson did. 21st Century Schizoid Man remains among the most accurate and nasty rock pieces ever laid down on tape, as ferocious as any punk body-blow. McDonald’s brass-knuckled horn attack and the ugly strands of distortion add a raucous streetfighter’s edge, Sinfield contributes a tearing sketch of distress and conflict, and the entire band roar off across a delicious violent staccato charge like a murderous hunt closing in on the prey.

In contrast, Epitaph is a theatrical, lushly orchestrated anthem of doubt and foreboding – mannered by the standards of the bombast that’s followed (from Yes to Oasis), but universal enough for any era of coming trouble. Mellotron strings and kettle drums lumber into the darkness like the Flying Dutchman. While the young Greg Lake’s impeccably enunciated singing (still a year or two away from his ringmaster swagger with Emerson, Lake & Palmer) might’ve always been too formal, too educated to make him a real rock’n’roller, the apprehensive angst of his delivery here is perfect – “If we make it we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying…”


 
Perhaps it was inevitable that ‘…Court…’ would be touched by the flower-strewn, Anglo-Celtic folk impressions that were also sweeping through pop music at the time – and this is possibly the album’s Achilles’ heel. I Talk to the Wind (midway between McCartney and Donovan, dominated by McDonald’s dusky flutes) ultimately proved universal enough to be reinvented for the ’90s dance crowd by Opus III, and the original still sounds as lovely today, a more melancholy existential take on Fool On The Hill. But Moonchild risks sending new Crimson initiates away snarling. Only Fripp’s eldritch vacuum-draining howl of guitar raises any question of a world outside this bubble of mediaeval English hippydom, winsomely sucking in its cheeks and playing at courtly love; its talk of silver wands and milk-white gowns only a whisker away from a simper.


 
And the excessively muted free improv that follows – broken whispers, pings and shuffles between guitar, drums and vibraphone – is guaranteed to piss off anyone who was fired up by Schizoid Man’s driven nerve or Epitaph’s towering romantic majesty. If you listen hard, though, the remaster reveals in full the telepathy of the Fripp/Giles/McDonald interplay, allowing you almost to hear the thoughts that kick out each nimble, abbreviated scurry of sub-audible notes… But you’ll need to listen. Even then, King Crimson could be uncompromising about the value of all of their music; and however much perspective thirty-odd years may have given us on their intentions, the consequent imbalances on their debut remain as frustrating to the floating musical voter as they ever did.


 
The title track of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ – also the finale – sets the seal on the album. For good or ill, it leaves us with another slab of McDonald/Sinfield orchestral folk balladry, closing the record with a mediaeval flavour (tootling pipe organs, choirs of monks, thunderheads of Early Music strings) and without a hint of the alchemical rock momentum to counterweight Sinfield’s Gothic metaphors of palaces and fire-witches.


 
‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ is an indisputable classic, but one which sits uncomfortably in the role: forever pulling at the seamless stylistic joins that hold it together, as if to test them to destruction. It’s one that forever splits the voters. As they watch the music pounce from peak to dissimilar peak, many realise that it suffers from the way it never entirely resolves the band’s magnificent talents for more than nine minutes at any one time.

King Crimson: 'In the Wake of Poseidon'

King Crimson: ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’

It’s odd to find that King Crimson’s second album ‘In The Wake Of Poseidon’ – recorded with a depleted band and a floating pool of guests, and usually seen as the debut’s feebler brother – should solve many of these problems. But solve them it does. Remastering, like the cleaning of an oil painting, has restored plenty of the innate presence of an album which always seemed to suffer from the whispers in between the shouts. It’s subdued compared to the brazen ambition of ‘…Court…’, with the recurring acoustic Peace theme sounding apologetic compared to former roarings.


 
There is, admittedly, a sense of people arranging things tidily before they leave. Ian McDonald – then seen as King Crimson’s heart – had already vanished by that point, off to fashion a lighter, more summery pastoral prog elsewhere. Mike Giles would shortly be off to join him, but – drumming on ‘…Poseidon…’ as a goodbye favour – he turns in a tremendously sympathetic farewell performance of subtlety and fire, far outshining his work on ‘…Court…’. Greg Lake, too, has his own hand on the doorknob, waiting to depart to the ‘Top Gun’ frolics of ELP (meaning that Gordon Haskell‘s soft bumblebee tones take over lead vocals for ‘Cadence And Cascade’). Only Fripp and Sinfield – guitar and lyrics’n’lights respectively – would still be travelling in Crimson once the tape reels stopped moving.

 
Whatever the weaknesses of a splitting band, though, they are countered by the strengths of the guest players. Peter Giles (the remaining part of the pre-Crimson Giles, Giles & Fripp trio) provides rich, intuitive bass playing. Mel Collins‘ saxophones and flutes are bold and assured in interpretation; and while most of the expansive ensemble keyboards on ‘…Court…’ departed with McDonald, the inspired British jazz pianist Keith Tippett provides perfect contributions wherever needed (with Fripp picking gamely up on Mellotron and celeste).

Ironically, King Crimson as enforced studio project recorded more convincingly on album than King Crimson as gigging band. The textures are fuller, the dynamics subtler and more secretive (check out Fripp’s near-inaudible fretboard sighs on the midsection of Pictures of a City). And although McDonald’s absence is felt, and his musical imprint haunts ‘…Poseidon…’ from beginning to end, King Crimson were learning more about consistent balance.


 
They were also learning about how to reconcile their taste for baroque fantasy with a closer reflection of reality. Pictures of a City, rejoicing in a delectably nasty jazz-horn vamp and razor-wire Fripp guitar, reinvents New York as an overground circle of Dante’s Inferno in which Sinfield runs wild with information overload (“bright light, scream, beam, brake and squeal / Red, white, green, white, neon wheel”). Cadence and Cascade’s sleepy song of groupie courtship sees Tippett and Fripp trading glimmers of piano and celeste beyond an atypically gentle acoustic guitar, anticipating Nick Drake’s riverside reveries by several years. And even if the huge title song’s laden with yet more layers of Mellotron and Edgar Allen Poe imagery (harlequins, hags, midnight queens, chains and madmen all jostled together), Greg Lake – in a last burst of empathy – cuts right through to the heart of Sinfield’s overwrought symbolism, and delivers it as a magnificently poignant galactic swan song.


 
The first half of ‘…Poseidon…’ might mirror that of the previous album (matching the violent/pastoral/symphonic alternation of Schizoid Man, I Talk to the Wind and Epitaph) but the second half is a very different story. There’s Cat Food, for instance – one of the few Crimson singles, and as tuneful and as cheeky as anything on ‘The White Album’. This pulls out all the stops so far left untouched. In one lateral-thinker’s spring, Tippett advances from sensitive accompanist to aggressive frontline collaborator, hammering out explosive scrambles of piano notes and barrelhouse staccato. Lake hollers an absurdist Sinfield supermarket tale, Fripp toots and yelps jazzily and the Giles brothers jump in and out of each others’ syncopated footprints. It winds down in an animated mixture of excited jazz stutter and beautiful Debussian piano flourish, having blown apart King Crimson’s po-faced reputation for a few minutes. At the same time, it’s given them access to pop’s wonderful holy-fool zone, where playful silliness cracks open a reservoir of sheer joyous inspiration.

 
Matters turn far more serious when Fripp – whose musical responsibilities were doubled and weighed heavy on him after McDonald’s departure – takes over the remainder of the album. For The Devil’s Triangle he’s left pretty much to his own devices, putting his guitar aside to lean heavily on occult Mellotron and keyboard textures. Although the initial results draw heavily on Crimson’s infamous live interpretation of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’, they go far beyond it and into the dark shadows of avant-garde sound-sculpting and musique concrète.

Dark, trapped minor-key harmonies hover on the edge of terrifying dissonance, a constantly pitched battle march is suddenly hideously yanked up in pitch as Fripp assaults the tape speed, and found sounds (bits of orchestra, samples from the previous album) glint in the fog. Tippett contributes butcher’s piano, like a sledgehammer through glassware. At one point, hot wind scours the studio of all other sounds save that of an interrupted metronome. The full band return for an unresolved finale, surrounded by shrieks, whistles and a baroque circus melody on a tinny keyboard playing scratchily over the top of them, before Mel Collins’ cloud of flutes cast down the tension and bring it to a close as the Peace theme returns for a hushed (if ultimately unresolved) finale.


 
If the mark of a classic is tight conceptual continuity, then ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ fares little better than ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. But in a quieter way, it achieves its ambitions with greater consistency, taking on King Crimson’s multi-levelled world view and presenting it with less arriviste flash and a more mature grip on its latent chaos – something which Fripp and Sinfield would pursue further on the next album.

Beyond that, both albums still remain as another high-water mark (flaws notwithstanding) in rock’s assimilation of other musical forms. Held together, they’re a fascinating (if frequently stiff) European counterpart to the multi-media explorations of The Velvet Underground or Miles Davis’ polychromatic meltdown music on ‘Bitches’ Brew’. This music still sounds mythic, enrobed, and somehow atavistic; as if it was made for Old English giants to knock down the world’s cities to.

King Crimson: ‘In the Court of the Crimson King”
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX1 (7243 8 48099 2 8)
King Crimson: ‘In the Wake of Poseidon”
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX2 (7243 8 48948 2 5)
CD-only reissue albums
Released:
14th September 1999
Get them from: (2020 update) Both records have now been superseded by 40th Anniversary Editions with new remastering and additional tracks. Current or former versions can be obtained from the King Crimson stores at Burning Shed and the Schizoid Shop.
King Crimson online:
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