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King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series)


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King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series)
It was, quite simply, a sound that shook the music world. When King Crimson emerged from the dust of the considerably more oblique and largely absurd trio of Giles, Giles and Fripp—whose one release, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp (Deram, 1968), was aptly titled—nobody could have anticipated that this group would literally change the face of the pop world, and almost single-handedly define a new musical genre: progressive rock. Crimson co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp has, with a number of subsequent incarnations of Crimson, only partly been successful in distancing his flagship group from that stylistic marker, but in many ways it matters not. As labels become increasingly meaningless, revisiting this seminal album reveals far more than any reductionist categorization can.

Never mind previous CD issues claiming to be "Definitive Editions," "Original Master Editions" and "30th Anniversary Editions." For the first time since its initial release, not just remixed but remastered as well in both stereo and 5.1 surround, the 40th Anniversary Series incarnation of In the Court of the Crimson King is the gold standard against which all previous editions will be measured—and, ultimately, fail. Crimson's entire original discography will, during 2009/2010, be reissued in truly definitive editions, and based on this title and the parallel-release of Red, it's going to be a grand period of rediscovery and just plain discovery, with previously unheard details now audible, and a bevy of bonus tracks, alternate versions and video content made available, in many cases for the first time.

The majority of the reissues are in two-disc editions that feature a new stereo remix on CD (along with some bonus audio material), and a DVD-A that includes, at the very least, MLP Lossless Stereo and 5.1 Surround mixes, a PCM 2.0 stereo mix and DTS 5.1 Digital Surround of the same material and, in some cases, more. But to celebrate Crimson's most commercially successful album, there are three different versions of In the Court of the Crimson King on offer: a standard CD/DVD-A version; a double-CD version that also includes the 2004 Original Master Edition and some additional bonus material; and a whopping six-disc set that includes all of the above plus three more CDs with an album's worth of alternate takes and mixes, a de-clicked transfer of the original vinyl album, live material from 1969 Hyde Park and Fillmore East concerts, the mono version of the album and single radio edits. Which version you choose (or all of the above) depends on just how much a Crimhead you are; clearly, however, there's never been such a severe test of Crimson pathology.

First, the original album...well, almost. Regardless of what format chosen, the album has never sounded this rich, this clear or this powerful. The 5.1 Surround mix takes greater advantage of the rear channels than most surround music mixes, but avoids being anywhere near gimmicky, thanks to Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, who collaborated with Fripp on these and many other of the 40th Anniversary Series editions. From the opening salvo of "21st Century Schizoid Man"—which, over the years has become Crimson's equivalent of "Free Bird" as its most demanded song in performance (despite Fripp's often strict avoidance of it, or anything else that looks back instead of forward)—the sonics are simply stunning. No over-compression or excess normalization here; this is a remix and remaster that honors the spirit of the music. A new mix might be grist for criticism from purists (witness discussions about the Genesis remixes), but Wilson and Fripp avoid any superfluous choices. Instead, the goal is simply to make the album sound the way it always should have sounded, with the benefit of technology that simply didn't exist forty years previously.

Fripp's infinitely sustaining fuzz tone on his solo to "21st Century," elegant acoustic guitar work on the symphonic "Epitaph" and epic title track, warm-toned, Wes Montgomery-like octaves on the pastoral "I Talk to the Wind," and more angular freedom on the improv-heavy "Moonchild" all suggest, despite the lack of rock posturing that was so prevalent at the time, a guitar god in the making. He'd turn more consistently muscular and dominant later, but what's most impressive here is just how restrained he is. Hearing an alternate mix of "I Talk to the Wind"—where Fripp takes a solo that speaks of a harmonic sophistication and ability to navigate changes that's more jazz than rock—it's just as striking to discover a guitarist who didn't feel the need to be out front all the time, but instead was part of a collective whole, with the solo ultimately excised from the released version. Future Crimsons were also egalitarian to a greater extent, but there was no doubt who was leading the group in terms of overall vision. At this point, and for a relatively brief time—the group barely lasted a year before splitting up after a North American tour—King Crimson was a true democracy.

Outside Gatefold of In the Court of the Crimson King. Artwork by Barry Godber "The Schizoid Man"

While Fripp's is the name that would forever become associated with King Crimson, the group that recorded In the Court of the Crimson King was a balanced one, and the performances are impressive all around. As stunning as Fripp's solo on "21st Century" remains, saxophonist/flautist/keyboardist Ian McDonald's relentlessly unfettered free play is just as compelling, and just as unexpected from a band ostensibly labeled a pop group. It's also the kind of playing that the soon-to-be-Foreigner would rarely come back to, at least until a bunch of ex-Crimson alumni regrouped as 21st Century Schizoid Band in, well, the 21st Century to perform the early Crimson repertoire, but with guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk replacing the otherwise-occupied Fripp.

Michael Giles eschewed the more thunderous power of most rock drummers, with an approach that, like Fripp's, came just as much from the jazz world—though that shouldn't suggest a lack of power, as his orchestral playing on the title track make clear. Greg Lake—still months (at the time, an eternity) from joining what would start with great promise but ultimately become one of the most bloated examples of progressive rock pomposity in Emerson, Lake and Palmer—not only sang with the same avoidance of excess demonstrated by his band mates, but worked hand-in-glove with Giles as the bassist of a group that, in turns, swung, rocked and went to unpredictable, free places that few rock bands of the time could or would. That this first incarnation of Crimson dissolved so quickly left the question of where it might have gone had it continued. We'll never know, but sometimes the promise of a greater future holds better than what might ultimately have become a reality.

The only gripe here is the decision to edit "Moonchild" down from its original twelve minutes to a marginally leaner nine. What begins as a melancholy ballad turns into an extended workout of collective improvisation that, at the time, immediately distanced Crimson from other bands mining the early turf of progressive rock. Fripp's warm yet angular guitar work, McDonald's vibraphone and Giles' muted drum kit again avoid all pretenses of rockisms, going where no rock band had gone before...and few would go subsequently. The edit itself feels more than a little abrupt, and at this kind of length, the value of the edit is somewhat questionable. Fripp says, in the liner notes, that the edit was "discussed at the time, has been discussed since, and is now done." Fortunately, the full version is also included as a bonus track and, as also remixed by Wilson and Fripp, can be reprogrammed back into place by those who'd rather hear it as it was.

The value of the bonus material ranges from interesting to enlightening. A shorter, duo version of "I Talk to the Wind," featuring only Fripp's acoustic guitar and McDonald's flute, turns the pastoral to the folkloric. Lovely it is, though it's clear why the choice was made to favor the group version ultimately used, as this reading would not have melded into the overall vibe of the album, eclectic though it was. The following alternate mix of the group version includes Fripp's solo; again, an appealing version, but the final decision to bury it in the mix was the right one. A backing track of "Epitaph" may not possess much different from that on the original album, but without vocals it's possible to hear the instrumental work, in particular Fripp, whose playing may not have dominated the album in the way that most rock guitarists of the time would, but his choices—whether it was to favor acoustic over electric, or clean and warm over distortion-driven and sustaining—are revealed, throughout bonus tracks from the session, as absolutely the right ones. A four minute clip of sounds that were ultimately used at the beginning of "21st Century Schizoid Man" may not be something to listen to often, but it reveals the depth of experimentation and collaboration going on in the band during the making of the album, and the attention paid to even the briefest of musical passages.

Inside Gatefold of In the Court of the Crimson King. Artwork by Barry Godber "The Crimson King"

While having the 2004 Original Master Edition version of the album is of value—it's on both the DVD-A and the second disc of the two-CD set—it's ultimately of archival value only, as Wilson and Fripp's new mix far surpasses it. Still, at the time, as an AAJ review states, finding the original analogue tapes (as opposed to the second generation copy previously used for CD releases) was a significant one, and were those tapes not found, the 40th Anniversary Series version would not be as good as it is.

An instrumental version of "21st Century Schizoid Man," notably with a very different solo from Fripp, demonstrates just how iconic the solo used on the album is. Choosing to play more economically, with greater sustain and a silky smooth tone, Fripp's solo is one that even the guitarist himself rarely matched in concert. A BBC recording of "I Talk to the Wind" demonstrates just how much alterations in arrangement can change the complexion of a tune, as this reading sounds more like The Moody Blues than King Crimson, and while there's little doubt that the band that delivered the mega-hit "Nights in White Satin" were an influence on the nascent Crimson, equally it's clear that Crimson was and would continue to be a far more innovative band, and one that was far more experimental, far more improvisation-based, than the more pop-centric Moodies. Yes, plenty of rock bands took solos, but King Crimson did more: it regularly extemporized freely, both on album ("Moonchild") and in concert, a quality that would continue to define the group right through to the 21st Century incarnation responsible for The ConstruKction of Light (DGM Live, 2000).

The DVD-A disc includes a 30-minute The Alternate Album, a complete run-through of In the Court of the Crimson King comprised of largely instrumental material including a trio version of "21st Century Schizoid Man," an "Epitaph" featuring an outro guitar solo and bass clarinet, a short vocal take of "Moonchild" that ends before the free improve an begin, and an instrumental version of "In the Court of the Crimson King" that, again, demonstrates how, even with fixed form, this was a group that was constantly interpreting its music, rather than playing it by rote. The amount of bonus video footage is skimpy, but a chance to watch King Crimson Mark I perform "21st Century Schizoid Man" at Hyde Park—even in heavily edited form and with no solos—is a major treat for Crimheads.

The six-disc box has yet to be released (though, in late 2009, it's meant to be imminent), and is truly for only the most committed Crimhead. For most, one (or both) of the double-disc sets will, no doubt, suffice. Experiencing In the Court of the Crimson King with a sonic clarity and punch that simply was not possible when it was first released in 1969 only reaffirms its significance. And while much of the bonus material is, almost by definition, music that won't be listened to often, it does make this groundbreaking, epic classic of progressive rock all the more remarkable; an album that was of its time, to be sure, but one that, revitalized with a new mix and vastly improved sonics, remains innovative, relevant and, above all, powerful forty years after it first shook the world.

Track Listing

In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series 2CD)

Tracks: CD1: 21st Century Schizoid Man; I Talk to the Wind; Epitaph; Moonchild; The Court of the Crimson King; Moonchild (full version); I Talk to the Wind (duo version); I Talk to the Wind (alternate mix); Epitaph (backing track); Wind Session. CD2: Original Master Edition (2004 24-bit remaster): 21st Century Schizoid Man, I Talk to the Wind, Epitaph, Moonchild, The Court of the Crimson King; 21st Century Schizoid Man (Morgan studio recording, instrumental); I Talk to the Wind (BBC recording, restored); 21st Century Schizoid Man (BBC recording, restored); The Court of the Crimson King (Part 1) (de-clicked vinyl transfer from original mono single); The Court of the Crimson King (Part 2) (de-clicked vinyl transfer from original mono single).


King Crimson
band / ensemble / orchestra

Robert Fripp: guitar; Ian McDonald: reeds, woodwind, vibes, keyboards, mellotron, vocals; Greg Lake: bass guitar, lead vocals; Michael Giles: drums, percussion, vocals; Peter Sinfield: words and illumination.

Album information

Title: In the Court of the Crimson King (40th Anniversary Series) | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: DGM Live

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