In the Court of the Crimson King

Band: King Crimson
Album: In the Court of the Crimson King
Best song: “21st Century Schizoid Man” is a classic
Worst song: “Moonchild” is great, but a little long.

Progressive rock, like stadium rock, is often decried by the punk folks all too often as self-indulgent, obnoxious and overwrought. I’m not going to disagree, but self-indulgent is not exactly the worst thing in the world to me (example: this site). Punk rock — and by extension, the very essence of rock and roll — is a populist art form, born out of the notion that somewhat simple music is the people’s form.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there in punk. All too often, punk rock’s lyricism is idiotic and childish; the Ramones created an entire career out of this. Music, in and of itself, is a hard place to convey complex emotions, but the actual arrangements can bely a complex message.

Kurt Cobain’s 45th birthday would’ve been this week. I bring this up because he’s the antidote to too much punk rock’s facile messaging. Possibly because of its time coinciding with my early adolescence, I find Nirvana’s music to be wonderfully interesting with enough lyrical complexity to rival, yes, Bob Dylan.

Ultimately, the more proggy metal and progressive rock is often the result of lots of drugs, lots of self indulgence and way more drugs. Mastodon, a band I adore, is a lyrically ridiculous outfit. The entire conceit of Crack the Skye is way too complex, bouncing around Russian mysticism, suicide and monarchies or something. Really, I don’t know. Rush’s ridiculous libertarian beliefs soak the band’s lyrics, with bizarre-ass metaphors, too.

In the Court of the Crimson King is nearly as insane, without necessarily having a plot or theme. The lyrics are a step away from the hippie-ish 60s metaphors (see “I Talk to the Wind” for an example), but somewhere weird. “Moonchild” is similarly written, but sifted into two movements (“The Dream” and “The Illusion”).

With that said, the record is somewhere between the idealistic 60s and the cocaine-fueled early 70s. “Epitaph” has some complexity — “confusion will be my epitaph” is a key lyric — and the title track is obnoxiously well-crafted. Of course, the album’s key is “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a sorta apocalyptic, scatterbrained progressive anthem. Sampled (Kanye West, etc.) and covered (Unrest, Crippled Bastards, etc.), “21st Century Schizoid Man” uses saxophones in a way previously unknown and unmatched. Greg Lake’s vocal is desperate, speaking of war, with a lyrical structure that matches a poem or whatever (from our good friend Wikipedia):

All three verses follow a set pattern in presenting these images. The first line of each verse presents two relatively vague images (e.g.”iron claw”, “death seed”). The second line is a single image, often more specific than the first two, and the third line approaches an actual sentence. The fourth and final line of every verse is “21st century schizoid man”.

King Crimson is the ultimate progressive rock band, largely because of this album. The record is a touchtone that has peppered every prog rock record ever since.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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