Thursday, December 2, 2010

King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)  ****

According to legends of yore, prog rock has its genesis in this vale of somber melancholy.  Like its proto-metal counterpart Led Zeppelin also released the same year, it closes curtains on the '60s and ushers in the '70s with music that is colder, less soulful, more pompous, puffed-up, and doom-laden, not to mention frillier shirts and lyrics about Middle Earth.  The title track that closes the album may be the only song that directly touches upon dancing court jesters and wise wizards sharing jokes, but the rest of the album sustains that dark, courtly medieval feel, with sombre ballads that owe as much to Gregorian chant as R&B.  Many of the critics of the day recoiled from such sacrilege, this mixing of light chamber music with a rock beat, but it was a genuinely new wrinkle in rock's crinkle.  To modern ears, the ballads sound melodically gorgeous if pompously inflated, though in truth the symphonic strings are tastefully balanced in the mix, unlike most other late '60s garish overproductions of the type.  The lyrics to "I Talk to the Wind" and "Epitaph" may be meaningful-sounding but ultimately meaningless 'rock poetry' but are tasteful enough to not be offensive, and Greg Lake's plangent pipes deliver them with all due power and conviction.  Notice that I didn't say 'soul' or 'emotion'; even in troubador style ballad mode, King Crimson's music reigns on a plane of cold, cerebral abstraction.  "Moonchild" is the only track that doesn't deliver; the balladic vocal section is fair enough, if nothing spectacular, but then it descends into nearly ten minutes of tuneless keyboard experimentation, making it the longest and by far the worst track on the album.

The one track that deviates from the Moody Blues style ballad formula is the most famed, the shrieking, pounding heavy metal assault of "21st Century Man", a ferocious anti-war screed made creepier and more mechanically inhuman sounding by filtering Lake's vocals through a distorted vocoder that makes him sound like a harshly barking killer robot.  Note that I didn't add the qualifer "proto" to the metal; this is as harsh and heavy and metallic as it gets, with a crushingly inhuman power that Black Sabbath would sell their souls for.  (Oh, you say Ozzy covered it?  Would that he would've in 1971 instead of the actual 21st century.)  It sounds nothing remotely like the rest of the album, which consists of melodic balladry too frosty to be called easy-going. 

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