King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study

Although it was already suggested that Pink Floyd is the archetypal prog-rock band (“Pink Floyd: The Prog Rock Archetype“, 08 May 2013), an equally compelling case could be made for King Crimson. By practically any criteria, King Crimson has always epitomized everything we talk about when we talk about prog. Only more so.

From their first album, which remains the Rosetta Stone of progressive rock, to their four decade-plus career making music, King Crimson looms large and remains impossible to ignore. While the title track of their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is still the purest and most perfect expression of the prog-rock aesthetic, it’s the sheer depth and breadth of their catalog that inspires a singular awe. The Dark Side of the Moon is the Sgt. Pepper of prog, but In the Court of the Crimson King is The Beatles on Ed Sullivan: a pivotal moment that announced a new reality. After 1969, nothing was, or could ever be, quite the same.

To fully fathom what In the Court of the Crimson King signifies, it’s useful to consider it as less an uncompromised statement of purpose, and perhaps the first influential album that forsook even the pretense of commercial appeal. To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you have to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as — it must be said — out of time.

So…what is it, exactly, that King Crimson accomplished on the album that arguably remains their most fully realized vision? It has all the necessary ingredients: impeccable musicianship from all players (but special props must be doled out to Ian McDonald, whose flute and saxophone contributions grant the material its majestic, at times ethereal air), rhythmic complexity, socially conscious lyrics — courtesy of Peter Sinfield, and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but is grounded in history and looks forward, not backward.

Of course, it came out of an era and the minds from which it was conceived, a dark, sensitive and undeniably psychedelic space. And then there’s the mellotron. The Moody Blues did the most to incorporate this peculiar instrument into rock music, but King Crimson henceforth made an improbable art out of it. Throughout the album Pete Townshend (the same year The Who dropped Tommy) declared “an uncanny masterpiece”, the mellotron functions as accompaniment (“Epitaph”) and, at times, lead instrument (“In the Court of the Crimson King”).

After this remarkable opening salvo, what happened next is at once unbelievable, but also the impetus for what makes King Crimson quite unlike most successful bands. The group almost imploded, with bassist/singer Greg Lake agreeing to front Emerson, Lake and Palmer (and spend the next decade driving snooty critics insane), and multi-reedist/composer Ian McDonald — whose input was so affecting on the first album — departing, not necessarily harmoniously.

Robert Fripp, the acknowledged mastermind and reticent leader, was now captain of a suddenly uncertain ship as the ‘70s began. Somehow, he convinced Lake to stick around long enough to lay down some vocal tracks (which, it must be said, are some of the most powerful of his career), and the Giles brothers (Michael and Peter, on drums and bass) were enticed to finish what had been started. The resulting album, In the Wake of Poseidon, manages to be many things, most of them quite good, and in the end is greater than the sum of its puzzling pieces.

Naysayers have pointed out that it’s a rather paint-by-numbers impression of the preceding album, but this opinion is facile. While the sensibility and most of the line-up is the same, In the Wake of Poseidon indicates signs of the ambition and restless creative energy that would characterize the next two albums. The tension and release: harrowing notes followed by tranquil ones, are the signature calling cards, and on songs like “Pictures of a City” and the sprawling “Devil’s Triangle” (modeled on Holst’s “Mars”, from Planets, and boasting more mellotron than most bands could cram into a double album), they exist alongside each other in a uniquely organic way. Few bands, in sum, mixed beauty and horror quite like King Crimson.

Considering that the only constant during these early years was change, the quality and variety of the next albums is astonishing. The line-up rotations turned out to be a fortuitous blessing, as the third and fourth efforts sound distinct and unconnected. This is actually a rather exceptional phenomenon within the prog rock movement. Where bands like Genesis and Yes steadily built up confidence and momentum, eventually hitting on all aesthetic cylinders (on albums like Close to the Edge and >i>Selling England by the Pound), King Crimson, almost by default, churned out individualized works. Put another way, one would be hard pressed to find two works by the same band as distinct yet rewarding as Lizard and Islands.

As ever a guiding force, the dominant sounds come from Fripp, holding down guitar and mellotron duties, and orchestrating the proceedings like the prickly perfectionist he has always been. King Crimson, as evidenced on these albums, could invoke other times, places and feelings practically as a matter of course. This, again, can be attributable to Fripp, one of the most keenly intelligent (and quietly driven) leaders of any group. Like many great coaches, he is not always easy or enjoyable to exist with, but players under his guidance tend to do their best work. Has there been a figure in popular music anything like Fripp, leading as many disparate bands, overseeing a vast body of work that is reflective of the various times it was created?

In a gesture of prog-rock bonhomie, King Crimson benefited from the vocal services of Jon Anderson (who was soon to become famous as the lead singer for Yes) on the title track to Lizard. That goodwill may have been strained when Bill Bruford, Anderson’s band mate and arguably the elite drummer of the era, left one supergroup to join another. With Bruford’s dexterity, driving the beat forward while keeping pace with Fripp’s increasingly complicated playing, the band (inevitably?) assumed a more forthright and forceful sound.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: that is not an album title so much as an eccentric ode to the path less traveled. Most of the work made during the prog rock era can be described, at least to some extent. The title suite of their fifth album, comprised of two parts, remains a high water mark for the ideas, artistry and inspiration that define the best music of this time. As usual, Fripp’s guitar guides the journey, downshifting from proto-grunge shrieking to jangling melodicism. But it’s the exotic violin contributions from David Cross and the tumultuous percussive stylings of Jamie Muir that take this track to that other place.

The following one-two punch of Starless and Bible Black and Red (both 1974) find the band taking the next logical (or illogical, if you like) strides forward, with John Wetton (bass, vocals) and Bruford anchoring the proceedings with a confidence and stability that, to this point, had not stretched beyond a single album. The two albums are a treasure trove of forward-thinking prog, a blend of bucolic and apocalyptic.

For an example of the former, the live recording “Trio” is a melancholic tone poem; its title signifies the absence of Bruford, who instinctively understood his participation was not needed for the improvised tune. In classic Fripp fashion, Bruford was nevertheless awarded an equal share of compositional credit as a nod to his astute restraint. For an example of the latter, album-closer “Fracture” might best signify King Crimson’s quiet-to-chaos dynamic, and features one of Fripp’s towering solos. (Bonus trivia: listen for the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for “The Simpsons”.)

Although the band seemed, sonically, locked in to make a sustained run, Red turned out to be their final album of the ‘70s. This was entirely Fripp’s decision, the result of burnout and likely, if understandably, residual exhaustion from his almost ceaseless work. The album begins and ends with signature songs –for the band and prog-rock. The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored by a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility: it’s the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”.

The closer, “Starless”, is epic in every sense of the word; one of the all-time prog masterworks. Brooding and heavy, fraught with feeling and foreboding, it’s an exercise in precision, the apotheosis of their “dread and release” formula. It builds an almost unbearable tension, breaking at last through the darkness; less like the tide retreating and more like an ocean disintegrating into air.

It was during the next string of albums, commencing with Discipline (1981) that King Crimson set itself apart as the only original era prog band to make significant (not to mention enjoyable) music after 1980. A case could be made that Discipline represents some of their finest playing/composing. Retaining Bruford and recruiting the ludicrously versatile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound.

Fripp had not been inactive during King Crimson’s hiatus: his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel feature some of the most inspired– and imitated– guitar pyrotechnics of his career. His exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise. On songs like “The Sheltering Sky” Fripp incorporates virtually every trick in his arsenal, creating something that integrates multiple source-points (African, Indian, and Western). The title track is like a business card for the new decade: Fripp asked a lot of his audience, but he has always asked more of himself.

If the next two albums, Beat and “Three of a Perfect Pair are not as consistent or wholly substantial as Discipline, they still stand tall alongside almost anything else being done in the early-to-mid ‘80s. Another hiatus was in order, and Fripp wisely kept King Crimson on the sidelines as hair metal and early grunge duked it out for the next decade. The band resurfaced in 1994, as a double trio (retaining Belew, Levin and Bruford and adding Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto). The resulting albums, Vroom and Thrak, are as good as any fan could reasonably have expected –or hoped for.

After this the band splintered into a billion parts and side projects, still drawing crowds and earning accolades. If it’s safe to suggest the band’s best years were well behind them, still they endure, living defiance of the notion that prog rock died like the dinosaurs decades ago. Certainly bands like The Mars Volta and Porcupine Tree owe considerable debts to King Crimson’s old and newer influences.

So where does that leave us? With this: the music that holds up over time does so for a reason. It’s not an accident, or due to sentimental longings for a particular time or place. The music that manages to confront trends or commercial-minded fashion is created without any of these considerations in mind. King Crimson, as much as or more than any other prog rock band, consistently shaped and refined a unique vision, arguably creating whole new types of music in the process. There are numerous songs (some already mentioned) that are truly unlike anything else from any other genre: the results are, by turns, tense, lush, beautiful and surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting. Steadily led by the restless and insatiable Robert Fripp, King Crimson did as much as any band to “invent” progressive rock; at their best they transcended it altogether.