BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE PROG King Crimson

“Like a saber-wielding
golem”: via a pair of key reissues, Robert Fripp &. Co.’s
estimable influence is reappraised.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

Whether you choose to blame King Crimson for creating
progressive rock, or rejoice in the genre’s pervasive instrumental virtuosity,
there can be no argument that the band’s landmark 1969 album In The Court Of The Crimson King was the
shot across the bow that began this whole “prog-rock” thing.
Bandleader and guitarist Robert Fripp, aided and abetted by skilled musicians
like bassist Greg
Lake,
multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, and drummer/percussionist Michael Giles –
with lyrical assist from wordsmith Peter Sinfield – together took
post-psychedelic rock to the brink of madness and back again with a
trailblazing mix of avant-garde rock, free-form jazz, and heavy Baroque
classicism.

 

As one of the cornerstones of ’70s rock, and a major
influence on everybody from lesser-known bands like Camel and Gentle Giant to
world-beaters like Yes and Pink Floyd, In
The Court Of The Crimson King
has been reissued ad nauseum, in various
guises and quality, in the years since its fortunate inception. Since Crimson
headmaster Fripp oversaw the 30th anniversary re-release of the album ten years
ago, why should you pony up a double-sawbuck for this shiny, brand new 40th anniversary
re-re-release? Good question, grasshopper…cough up the cash ’cause the Reverend
sez so!

 

First of all, for the first time in four decades, this is
truly Fripp’s baby to do with as he wishes, released through the artist’s own
Disciple Global Mobile (DGM) label. The mercurial guitarist could have chosen anybody to assist him in
the remastering process, and he hand-picked Porcupine Tree/Blackfield
mastermind Steven Wilson to work his own unique brand of magic on these songs.
Thus you have an ambitious two-disc set, one CD and one DVD, the first disc
featuring a brand-spankin’-new 2009 stereo mix of the album’s five songs, taken
from the original multi-track master tapes. Throw in a couple of alternate
tracks, and the full version of “Moonchild” (the original album
featured an edited version), and Bob’s yer uncle!

 

At the risk of sounding like a late-night commercial for
slap-chop or some other such gadgetry – that’s
not all you get!
Disc two, the DVD, is where Fripp and Wilson get their
geek freak on, packing the disc with various audiophile versions of the album,
from a larger-than-life-sounding MLP Lossless 5.1 Surround version for those of
you who really want to prog out on your home theatre sound-system to a
pristine-sounding lossless PCM stereo version of the 2009 mix from the first
disc, as well as an entirely alternate take of the album from the original
masters. If that wasn’t enough, they slip in a video clip of the band
performing “21st Century Schizoid Man” from their legendary July 5,
1969 debut concert in London’s Hyde
Park. The accompanying booklet includes a lot of photos, new liner
notes from Fripp and writer Sid Smith, song lyrics, and enough info on the
remastering process to engage even the most serious audiohound.

 

“Yeah, old timer, but what does the music sound
like?” Like nothing you’ve ever heard before, kiddies! Benefitting from
Fripp and Wilson’s OCD-like attention to detail, the previously only-mildly-scary
“21st Century Schizoid Man” leaps out of your speakers like a
saber-wielding golem, going for your ears with a truly oppressive menace. The
instruments sizzle and spark like a downed electric line, at times rattling
around your skullplace like a nasty bit of shock therapy. The ethereal
“Moonchild” features some of the most gorgeous and inventive
instrumentation that you’ll ever experience, with Lake’s
wan vocals matched by the song’s pastoral ambiance.

 

The Rev’s personal fave, the title track, takes on a
heretofore unknown majesty and grace, with the instrumental swells and exotic
lyricism riding on a lush magic carpet of imagination. The bonus tracks are
equally impressive, with the extended version of “Moonchild” taking a
great song and stretching out the best parts of it while the “duo
version” of “I Talk To The Wind” takes the song even deeper into
the sort of folk-rock fairytale land that would be plumbed so successfully by
Fairport Convention. “Wind Session,” extracted from the session that
created the fantastic intro for “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is a
cut-and-paste exercise mostly interesting to the hardcore faithful.

 

Overall, this 40th anniversary edition of In The Court Of The Crimson King trumps
all other versions in the history of mankind, save for the original 1969
gatefold vinyl release that kick-started the entire prog-rock mess to begin
with. Forty years later, the album stands alone in the rarified stratosphere
reserved for true classics of rock music, and it still sounds as unique,
daring, and challenging today as it did in 1969.

 

 

***

 

In the five years between the release of In The Court Of The Crimson King and the
band’s seventh album, 1975’s Red,
King Crimson had easily undergone a half-dozen line-up changes, the only constant
being frontman and founder Robert Fripp. At odds with Fripp’s unique musical
vision and perspective, band members would jump ship at the slightest
provocation, leaving King Crimson as basically the power-trio of Fripp,
bassist/vocalist John Wetton, and drummer Bill Bruford when it came time to
record Red.

 

To his credit, Fripp managed to coax original band member
Ian McDonald into the studio to lay down some red-hot alto sax alongside
another former Crimsoner, soprano saxophonist Mel Collins. Fripp also recruited
former members Robin Miller and Marc Charig to contribute oboe and cornet,
respectively, and violinist David Cross, who had already bolted from the band,
was represented by a previously-taped performance. It was this ramshackle King
Crimson line-up that would haunt London’s
Olympic Sound Studios during the summer of 1974 to create Red, an album that would become the band’s short-lived swansong.

 

By mid-1974, King Crimson’s breakneck recording schedule and
growing popularity as a live band had them perched in an odd position, just
inches away from the commercial breakthrough that might have made them players
in the same league as Pink Floyd and Yes. However, physically beaten-down by a
half-decade of touring, and brow-beaten by music business hijinx, Fripp found
himself standing at an artistic and spiritual crossroads, and he
unceremoniously announced to Wetton and Bruford that he would be withholding
his opinion during the sessions for Red,
a curious position for, perhaps, the band’s guiding force to take.

 

Wetton and Bruford accepted the challenge, Fripp reduced to
a lesser status in a band that he clearly saw on the ropes. The resulting
album, fractured as it was by the sound of the band falling apart, is nothing
short of a masterpiece and one of the most important and enduring works in the
extensive King Crimson catalog. Red kicks off with the barbed-wire tension of the instrumental title track. A tour
de force of clashing instrumentation working at odd angles off one another, the
semi-metallic “Red” was more intense and aggressive than anything
Crimson had attempted previously, as if all the wounds of years in the rock ‘n’
roll trenches were all exposed at once.

 

From here, Red takes a decidedly different tact with a pair of shorter vocal tracks. The
filigree instrumentation and wan vocals of “Fallen Angel” harkens
back to the band’s earlier folk-rock compositions, albeit with heavier ambience
courtesy of an impressive Wetton/Bruford bass/drums dynamic and the injection
of flailing, chaotic hornplay. In some ways, the dark-hued “One More Red
Nightmare” foreshadows the band’s later 1980s-era work with syncopated
rhythms, wiry angular guitarplay, and more shadowy instrumental textures.

 

The fantasia-colored landscape of the live, improvised
“Providence”
is supported by David Cross’s nightmarish violin and Fripp’s monstrous
fretwork, while the twelve-minute-plus “Starless,” part of the band’s
live set for months, is codified here as an amalgam of the early and the future
Crimson sound. Wetton’s melancholy vocals are matched by the mournful horns of
Collins and McDonald, while Fripp’s guitar fills in the corners with subtle
anguish.

 

The two-disc 40th Anniversary Series reissue of Red provides the definitive version of
this influential album, with a handful of bonus tracks including a
heavier-than-metal “trio version” of the title track that, stripped
down to its guitar/bass/drums foundation, sounds even more menacing than the
originally leviathan. The DVD bonus disc includes a lossless 5.1 surround mix
of Red produced by Steven Wilson, as
well as a lossless PCM stereo mix with an additional bonus track thrown in for
good measure. The best part of the DVD, however, for those of us with
pedestrian ears unable to pick up on Wilson’s
majestic remixes, is the inclusion of four video performances taken from a 1974
French TV appearance, including a spirited take on “Starless.”

 

Although Fripp would announce shortly after the album’s
completion that King Crimson had “ceased to exist,” Red would become an influential and
important part of the band’s canon nonetheless. A prog-rock album for people
that didn’t like progressive rock, the unyielding heaviness of Red is said to have inspired rockers as
diverse as Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and Tool’s
Maynard James Keenan, among others. After a brief solo career, and a pair of
classic collaborations with Brian Eno, Fripp would later re-form King Crimson
in 1980 with Bruford and guitarist Adrian Belew…but that’s a story for another
time.

 

 

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