Deciding what the next favorite King Crimson album is after Red is a real tough one. 1981's Discipline is fantastic and could easily have been here instead of In the Court of the Crimson King, but it is also hard to overstate the brilliance of the signature KC tune, "21st Century Schizoid Man," which opens the 1969 debut with a power, adventuresomeness, tightness and precision of performance, and the spectacle that, for better or for worse, is generally lionized (or criticized) as the touchstone of so-called "Progressive Rock." And, in "Epitaph" and "The Court of the Crimson King" are two other epic pieces that have been considered highlights of an album that The Who's Pete Townshend called an "uncanny masterpiece."
Actually, when King Crimson's original vocalist and bassist Greg Lake (later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, vanguards [perhaps] of the ultimate [perhaps] in progressive bombast in the 1970s) pointed out in a recent article about "prog" that earlier British rock bands were animated by American blues and soul, while those of the late 60s were looking to more "European" sources, such as classical, including avant-garde, music, there is a lot that makes sense there.
In Ian McDonald, however, a multi-instrumentalist, whose flute and sax playing were spectacular and whose mellotron was a domainant feature, and the amazing drummer Michael Giles, who plays with great rhythmic surety and touch, there is a heavy debt to jazz, particularly on the faster tempo pieces, the "free jazz" that was raging in the 60s, including in Europe, though they were also highly sensitive and restrained, qualities not often associated with "progressive rock," if King Crimson could even be considered such, in the ballads "I Talk to the Wind" and "Moonchild," which might be a tad too "hippie-ish" to some ears.
Guitarist Robert Fripp gets lots of attention for the crunchy riffs and speedy and difficult technical runs on "Schizoid Man," (the amazing harmonic work in the middle passage developed by Giles is a truly impressive KC moment) but he also deserves much credit for the acoustic and electric playing on the other pieces that are not as showy, but just as essential in the orchestration of these pieces. Despite statements that McDonald was less than enamored with Fripp's unorthodox performing style, Lake has pointed out that the symbiosis between him and the guitarist were fundamental to the sound of that first incarnation. Fripp's impeccable technical abilities were still in development, but he was developing a style that set him utterly apart from the pyrotechnical showiness that dominated among the guitar gods of the era.
Usually, rhythm sections (Lake and Giles) and front-line sections (in this case, McDonald and Fripp) would be viewed as natural pairings, but Lake's comments and the fact that McDonald and Giles quit at the end of 1969 after an American tour to support the album, released two months prior, are quite interesting. It should be added that, while Lake is not generally considered as good on his instrument as his band mates were on theirs, he held down the bottom and supplied the rhythm and accompaniment to the soloists just fine, to this listener. More importantly, he had a fine singing voice and his vocals, particularly on "Epitaph," are indispensable to the high regard this record has.
There is the role of lyricist Peter Sinfield, who also developed the lighting for the band's live shows that, at the time, was considered very inventive. Sinfield's lyrics have been the subject of much heated debate concerning his wordplay, density, impressionistic content, and perceptions of grandiose, obtuse and overblown self-consciousness that many attach to his contributions. To YHB, Sinfield is far more restrained and direct on this album than with later releases and "Schizoid Man" and "Epitaph" are, to this listener, the best of his contributions as he wrote with interesting metaphors, highly descriptive language and a greater directness and comprehension than would be found later. With "The Court of the Crimson King," Sinfield's lyrics have the kind of impressionistic bent that would be greatly elaborated on later, but more simplified and clearer (even with "purple pipers," "black queens," "pattern jugglers" and "yellow jesters" being central characters.)
Much has been said about the almost miraculous and spiritual nature of the rehearsals and early live shows conducted by the newly-formed band in early 1969, leading to the self-produced recordings of the summer in which the band trusted its instincts and group consensus to build a remarkable record. A generous loan by Lake's uncle and what the band called its "good fairy," that ineffable musical something that guided the group through a tumultuous and turbulent year, were also essential qualities.
Then, there is the cover art, consisting of an unforgettably disturbing painting of a screaming man (a schizoid man, perhaps?) conceived by Barry Godber, a friend of Sinfield's. It has its own life apart from the music, while also helping to define it.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the remixing done for the 40th Anniversary Edition, released by Fripp's independent Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) label, in 2009 by Steven Wilson of The Porcupine Tree, is superior, as is the case with all of the edition's releases. Bonus tracks include a full version of "Moonchild," which has a much-discussed lengthy and quiet improvisation featuring Fripp, Giles and Lake that they described as magical when it came upon them in the studio, but which has been dismissed as aimless and boring by others; alternate performances of the ballad "I Talk to the Wind"; the backing track to "Epitaph" and a wind session.
You had to be there in 1969 to fully appreciate the phenomenon that was King Crimson, the album that was "In the Court of the Crimson King", and the heavy, loud and intense live shows the group performed in England and America that year. As Fripp has said, the album only hinted at the power found live, but it still leaves an indelible impression (good or bad) and "21st Century Schizoid Man" is truly one of the greatest of all rock songs (even Kanye West used it as the basis for his hit song, "Power," though Fripp had to speak directly to him to get permission granted!) Discipline is right up there, though, and it will be the next Crimson album to be spotlighted here.