Panegyric 1969 / 2019
A towering achievement of popular music which refuses to be scaled fifty years on but lends itself to observation from various angles.
It’s rather rare for a rock ensemble with a distinguished, distinct discography to have their first studio effort stand out half a century later and not be obscured by subsequent entries, let alone their peers’ oeuvre, but KING CRIMSON have never been less than unique – or, more precisely, this group have existed as a single entity in a class of their own ever since their debut signaled the beginning of a very peculiar path in modern culture’s convoluted vista. Once out in the open, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” crossed the boundaries of simple entry in a music catalogue and became a gateway into the frightening, if mesmeric, unknown for a few generations of common listeners and fellow performers alike.
Back in the day, in the late ’60 when genre borders got blurred to be mapped anew soon enough, there were other bands – such as COLOSSEUM and BLODWYN PIG – who combined wailing saxophone with stinging guitar; only those usually aligned themselves with blues or jazz. Yet whence KING CRIMSON came no pre-existing style could be applied to define this demonic sonic assault that hit hard on both melody and lyrical levels while being possessed with a lot of nuances and detail. They still stun in the original recording of “ITCOTCK” as assigned to one of the CDs here, on the arresting 50th Anniversary reissue, brought to the fore on Steven Wilson‘s remix on another disc, and exposed on the third one.
Firmly embedded in its time, the album may seem aloof and, to an extent, alien, but that’s how its subtitle – “An Observation By King Crimson” logically plays out: the ensemble comment on the period’s turmoil through tuneful tumult from both internal and external point of view, which contributed to its place in eternity. Whereas other art-rockers’ debuts are often perceived as raw experiments, KC’s initial LP emerged fully formed – outside of it, the Judy Dyble-delivered version of “I Talk To The Wind” just didn’t registered with progressively-minded listeners – as a pellucid pinnacle of what would follow in its wake. There would be many more offerings further on down the line, yet none – including such full-blooded flights of fantasy as “Red” that saw the tenets first demonstrated here explored and evolved – surpassed the shock and wonder of this pseudo-conceptual opus.
It’s amazingly balanced. For every fierce instant – with the record’s abject horror expressed not only by Barry Godber’s artwork and the fury of “21st Century Schizoid Man” but also via the folk-avant-garde of “Moonchild” and fragments of the titular epic – there’s a moment of serenity, even though the flute-flaunting “Wind” has worry married to bliss, as Mellotron passages enforce the pieces’ frailness. The album’s brittle, albeit non-fragile, sound that’s crystallized most impressively on “Epitaph” – especially when the words are wiped, revealing Bach’s “Air on the G String” as one of the ballad’s sources – might not have been consciously reliant on the devil’s tritone, yet the often funereal flow is undoubtedly deliberate and the lament deceptive, creating a contrast to move the mood. And this edition should help embrace every twist which lay below the old LP’s surface.
Ian McDonald‘s reeds rage on the 1969 instrumental run through “Schizoid” whose fervent groove is propelled by Greg Lake‘s bass as much as it’s colored by Robert Fripp’s meandering rifferama, and 2019’s rejigging and enhancement of the entire album’s voiceless interface are nigh on revelatory, the robust transparency behind “Wind” and the heaviness in the “The Return Of The Fire Witch” section of the title suite made all the more sensual. On “Schizoid” with its crafty screech, Lake’s artificially stifled vocals reflect the atmosphere of the record’s era – perhaps, more relevant today than back then – most perfectly, as Michael Giles’s drums stoke the ire without ever losing their rhythmic poise, up to the cymbals’ rustle which usher in the title track’s piano-splashed finale. Fresh mixes render the familiar landscape multidimensional – and that’s in stereo, let alone the surround option on Blu-ray – but the new, wider angle somewhat dilutes the erstwhile impact, as the sinister, claustrophobic call-and-response of six strings and brass on “Schizoid” traded off for cinematic panorama, and the cushioning of “Wind” is softly shattered once the faux-orchestral gusts of “Epitaph” paint the doom-and-gloom. Still, “Moonchild” finds its formerly barely-there, if creepy, presence fleshed out, and “ITCOTCK” has its motley front stricken with vulnerability.
And then there’s a so-called “Alternate Album” which highlights different aspects of all the five numbers, including the unnecessary studio chat from 50 years ago and Jakko Jaksyk and Mel Collins recent overdubs that hardly add anything special to the crazy swirl, given how modern the record feels five decades after it was committed to tape. Fripp’s fluid electric lines illuminate yet another version of “Wind” whereas his acoustic lace, in turns loose and vigorous, works miracles in the duo take on this ballad, with McDonald’s ivories providing tangibly exquisite texture, but it’s Lake’s isolated singing on “Epitaph” that serves up the eeriest, emotional experience, an unseen essence of the early visit to “The Court”…
Stark and startling here, strikingly opulent there, and marvelous everywhere, this temporal milestone remains a signpost on the way to eternity, with not a trace of moss gathering on its groove-riven facets – because its aural anguish and pleasure are indefinitely real.