By Gabriel Devine
A review of In The Court Of The Crimson King By King Crimson as part of the Record Collection Column Series
There isn’t much left to be said about In the Court of the Crimson King that hasn’t been said a thousand times before by better writers and better musicians, so upon writing this I have to ask what can be brought to the table? I will in this review aim to provide a more layman's approach to the music while providing some opinions on the work that I haven’t seen echoed in other publications.
The year 1969 was an important one for many reasons, man first set foot on the moon, the LGBT movement had begun its long march towards equality, the ground breaking “2001: a space odyssey” hit theatres, and the era of free love had begun to slowly slink back into the maw of modernity as the “swinging sixties” came to a close. We can look back with hindsight and choose to see this album as an almost prophetic portent on what the world would see in the coming years from the mind of one living through it.
The album describes a psychedelic rollercoaster of love, anger, paranoia, and alienation. Feelings that the cold war and the rapid modernisation of society in the later part of the 20th century, with the cultural headrush that came with it, would soon manifest in the psyches of many living though that tumultuous time. The album strikes with a very lonely tone, not only in its quieter moments but even throughout its bombast.
21st Century Schizoid Man for instance feels like a castrated cry for help and justice in a world that either is apathetic or actively antagonistic towards any kind of relief, a feeling mirrored in many anti-war songs of that time. The central line “Innocents raped with napalm fire” shows through the word choice that the speaker is wholly incensed by the state of the world and more specifically the US intervention in Vietnam. This Vietnam motif is returned to several times on the album and serves as the focus of our speaker's anger. The manic interlude within the song not only teases the more jazz inspired composition we will see at points throughout the album but also thematically reflects the mania and helplessness felt by the subject of the song. This song alone with its groundbreaking synthesis of jazz, rock, and discordant vocals would secure King Crimson’s legacy of pioneers in the progressive rock pantheon, but the following 4 tracks take that foundation and push the album into legend status.
I Talk To The Wind expands on the lonely themes of the first song and shows the bands more laid back, fairy-tale like, journey through the disquiet that arrives from a world that can’t answer the speaker's most pertinent questions, “the wind does not hear, the wind cannot hear”. Other lines like “I’m on the outside looking inside” build on this theme of disassociation and alienation, and more directly reference the bands psychedelic influence. The album at various times hints that the listener is on an introspective journey into the mind rather than being a wholly metaphorical or literal description of events. It uses that voyeuristic feeling not only to promote a certain discomfort in the listener, as they are an interloper on this personal and lonely journey, but also to show that the band is aiming to portray an “inner truth” rather than the literal truth of the world the speaker inhabits.
Epitaph is my personal highlight of the album. The sonic landscape is opened up on this track, like a film going from a cramped 4:3 aspect ratio to a wide 16:9. The song makes the most of Lake’s voice going from quiet whispers to a bellicose roar, this outlines the emotional progression of the speaker as the song proceeds. A song that starts in a place of disappointment with the sabre-rattling nature of humanity in the cold war era, that then progresses frustration at the singers inability to understand the reasons for the state we are in, “Confusion will be my epitaph”. The point is then brought home with the sadness that all this violence and unrest brings “Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying”. This complex web of suffering at things outside of our control also weaves back into the helplessness felt on the first track and reinforces themes of emasculation that album fights and succums too at different parts.
Moonchild is probably the most enigmatic cut from the album. Its gargantuan 12 minute and 13 second runtime stands in stark contrast to its incorporeal, ethereal, and almost nonexistent presence in most discussion about this album. This isn't without reason. What is to be said about a song that is for the most part a free-form instrumental improvisation? More than I first thought. The song's titular moonchild is a reference to the writings of Aleister Crowley, someone who pops up a great deal in music from this time, a famous mystic, who in one of his books, described a being with such great magical power that she could destroy the world; the “Moonchild”. This clearly is some kind of personification of the nuclear arsenals that were being amassed at this time and the willingness of world leaders to deploy them if necessary. The proceeding sparse soundscape that follows the lyrical section of the song gives the listener the necessary breathing room to ruminate on the past tracks before the band launches into their climax in the titular court.
The Court Of The Crimson King is where the band ties together its narrative and themes. The court is a medieval themed nightmare headed by Beelzebub himself. The album’s lyrics are at their most vivid and otherworldly on this track. The use of colour is a clear motif in the song, the purple piper, the crimson king, the black queen, and the yellow jester, all painting a bright expressive picture of this hellscape in a similar manner to Hieronymus Bosch. Like Bosch, the lyrics choose to avoid a drab and depressing vision of damnation instead paint a garish one that assaults the senses not only of its victims but us the audience viewing it. The song references a “fire witch“ which is believed to be an allegory for either the use of napalm by the USA at this time or a “hot” war as opposed to the cold war that was currently happening. This reference also links the song back to 21st Century Schizoid Man which also had less than subtle nods towards napalm and modern warfare. The song ends with the phrase “The yellow jester does not play but gently pulls the strings and smiles as the puppets dance in the court of the crimson king”. This sums up the album by tying together the themes of helplessness and lack of control with the imagery of “puppets” whilst criticising the greater power structures at play responsible for this feeling of powerlessness. The album began with this feeling of confusion caused by the modern world and by the end the singer has arrived at a better understanding of his situation. He has discovered that whilst he may be clueless to the grand narratives unfolding in real time around him he does know that there are clandestine actors that operate in the background not only to ensure their goals are met but to also maintain this shared mental fog he is experiencing in the psyches of people as confusion breeds inaction.
The album oscillates between sober, masculine, bombastic numbers on 21st century Schizoid Man, Epitaph, and The Court Of The Crimson King and softer, fainter, feminine numbers on I Talk To The Wind and Moonchild. This duality in the album can at times make it seem unfocused and perhaps even like two projects sewn together haphazardly. However in reality in the synthesis of these two modes (the anima and animus) the greater picture is revealed. When the album is heading towards a nihilistic place that could spiral into despair the softer songs come in halt that spiral and give the listener breathing room to ruminate on what they have heard and prepare for what they are about to hear. This fractured album also on a grand scale mirrors the fractured mental state of the speaker with the “mood-swings” between songs perhaps being an allegory for an mental illness induced by the zeitgeist.
The anti-war messages resonate throughout this entire album and while other bands at the time were also pushing this message the focus here seems entirely on the more complex effect of war on those perpetrating it, either by action or inaction. It is easy to portray the suffering of the war-orphaned child or the grieving mother but to portray the otherside of the destruction, how partaking in these heinous acts scar the perpetrator as well as the victim, requires a more deft hand so as to not come across as being overly sympathetic to evil. This reframes the debate on war away from a necessary evil and towards it being a cancerous construct that poisons all it touches. This nuance in its messaging is probably a large reason behind why this album is so relevant today and shows a care and introspection rarely seen in the rock scene then or now. The past 50 years have given this album a new relevance and predicted how the powers that be use not only disinformation but sophisticated networks to flood the average person with more information than they can cope with.