Sound — 10
The debut of progressive rock band King Crimson is one of the most influential and avant-garde albums I could think of especially since its advent in 1969. It's considered progressive rock but it also marks one of the earlier points that jazz and rock began to merge together with guitarist Robert Fripp specializing in jazz and a more avant-garde style of it in his playing. Never before had a debut arrived so concise and immaculate with a new kind of style that made it a whole new album that set itself apart from all genres and bands at the time that were already big like Led Zeppelin, it provides a firm root in classical and jazz with all the chops of grandiosity and pure innovation completely deviating from that blues rock that was most prevalent, going against anything mainstream and throwing it all away then honing it all again into immensely beautiful compositions that wind on with psychedelic variations but in a whole new light, it's not going to be anything like "Rain" by The Beatles or even anything like 13th Floor Elevators or even the masterpiece "Forever Changes" by Love; they're all great but in progressive rock King Crimson has remained royalty because of this stunning work that just leaves you dumbfounded (if you've never heard of this before, thinking it was from a few years ago) in the whole unique and unrivaled genius that wasn't matched at that time or even now, in making a stand out album that would speak so boldly and set a landmark.
It's insane to hear the earlier incarnation Giles, Giles and Fripp and think that they came this far but it is feasible with those lovely jazz fret workings that are severely overlooked in music history (effulgent guitar work that is possibly some of the best in jazz fusion along with Allan Holdsworth and Jeff Beck) along with the beats of Michael Giles (also originally in a more jazz style setting with Fripp) that are so complex and impossibly fast that they have never been replicated by anyone else (Buddy Rich could but that's because he is simply a legend). The whole original lineup of a jazz type of trio was a bit verdant but well on their way especially with the addition of Ian McDonald and Greg Lake, those two missing key pieces would fit in and provide the crucial sound with powerful vocals and moody bass runs from Greg Lake who would later on become a part of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Ian McDonald strangely enough would move on to other things like Foreigner but does reappear on "Red" as a guest musician, the dynamic skills of multi-instrumentalism that Ian McDonald would provide is another essential role in the building blocks of this short lived founding lineup of King Crimson.
Peter Sinfield is actually a member because of his role as a real guru to the band at the time giving them their name (something incredibly profound) and also showing them things like hippie clothes but on a more serious note giving the important back bone structure of songwriting with haunting lyrics in deep political lyrics with enlightenment and a whole philosophical motif without ever dabbling in the standard pop drab lyrics of love and other cliches. Robert Fripp's guitar playing however would render Sinfield inadequate so that's why there isn't an actual appearance of him as an actual musician. The artwork was made by Barry Godber who had unfortunately deceased after the album's release, it represents the whole tonality of the album's gloomy atmosphere and Robert Fripp had said the front cover would be the "21st Century Schizoid Man" along with the inner cover design being King Crimson himself with sadness in his eyes; just brilliant.
Lyrics — 10
This is a beautiful fine vintage and somewhat aged album that reveals a highly eclectic side that really was beyond any other prog rock at the time including The Nice or The Moody Blues and bands like Genesis would draw from this album using flute only after their debut, starting to be the progressive outfit they wanted to be from hearing this and it influenced and inspired them among many others and it's heard starting with their album "Trespass" released a year after this album. King Crimson itself is an ever changing and evolving progressive rock band hailing from the UK who's only real constant member would be Robert Fripp who made this his outlet for musical creativity after the departure of all the other original members for their own purposes, he did get Greg Lake to appear on the next album "In the Wake of Poseidon." Although it would really just be Robert Fripp alone for the course of King Crimson's many phases and lineups that shouldn't denote the other musicians and their roles in the group at this time or any other lineup. As the band's roster would change so would their whole sound and style with many members changing even within a year's time after the debut.
The album really is a pivotal point for King Crimson coming before the highly experimental and self indulgent "Lark's Tongues in Aspic" and the somewhat new wave album "Discipline." It holds a similar sound in really innovative guitar distortion and tone used which is another avant-garde characteristic that can be found as Robert Fripp would use some of the hardest distortion around at the time here on this album with his own equipment. The album would also usher in a golden age for progressive rock itself and mark a point in the advancement of rock music into new unheard boundaries. There were others who had also been doing similar concepts with releases from artists like Soft Machine ("The Soft Machine"), Jethro Tull ("Stand Up"), The Moody Blues ("Days of Future Passed"), Frank Zappa ("Hot Rats"), Can ("Monster Movie") and the debut of Yes. You have a really good chemistry with Fripp (guitar), Giles (drums), Lake (bass, lead vocals) and Ian McDonald who really comes through here as a multi-instrumentalist using vibraphones, saxophone, flute, oboe and the mellotron (which was a very crucial sound in progressive rock like The Moody Blues who also used this keyboard for an orchestral and large warm sound). The only five tracks offered here really gives you an awesome musical journey, I know that may sound cliche to say but I do wholeheartedly mean that.
The band begins the album with feverish riffs and insane drum fills on the incendiary opening track "21st Century Schizoid Man" as a no holds barred opener with some extreme escalating and exciting saxophone leads and catchy distorted vocals on the hook as a really heavy track for 1969. It would remind me of "Helter Skelter" but I couldn't say that they are the same because even though there is a lot of experimental and groundbreaking stuff going on "21st Century Schizoid Man" pushes it to the next level with uncanny and seemingly impossible abilities to play incredibly fast whilst in sync with so much tension and fast breaks. After that the album is has a mellower mood and tones down in the softer boundary and flute harmonies, a song that was already composed as the whole album itself would have been a work in progress since the group was Giles, Giles and Fripp with the addition of Ian McDonald. "I Talk to the Wind" sets that softer feel but it's still beautiful and highly detailed the song being morphed into a more progressive rock song from it's folk origins that are still mildly audible bringing an archaic emanation as some time of older music from another world that has an intoxicating melody in softer note but with the drums still very conscious of detail improvisation against the song that doesn't impede upon the beauty but instead enhances the song with a sensational flute solo and the lush characteristic of woodwind and reed instruments that Ian McDonald would overdub into here to give this album that dreamy serenity.
"Epitaph" as it's sorrowful name alone suggests is the dark middle piece with more deep lyrics and artistry as a song written about the horrors of war (as Peter Sinfield would recall it) in a mellotron kissed dirge that helped associate this instrument with progressive rock and King Crimson who would use this often in later years as bands like Rush, Yes, and Alan Parsons Project. The mellotron was an important earlier form of a synthesizer that used analog tape loops (giving a warmer sound) for each key that was really an important piece of technology for its time, it had a distinct grainy sound quality to it that sounds familiar like hearing an orchestra but in a haunting way. The aim for "Epitaph" is an orchestral theme with loud drum rolls and a lot of reverb in the beginning of the track and when the song finally kicks in it's a drastic drop being filtered through a rock music lens in breathtaking guitar chords and hugely strummed acoustic guitar chords that call out with echo again and again and very dramatic apreggiated guitar chords that add to a song that builds higher and higher in sound and emotion as every crescendo that the band brings has an intense wave of sadness to it that very few artists have managed to piece together and it just reaches higher intensity towards the end.
"Moonchild" would be equally as effective in the same setting as "Epitaph" in mournful guitar leads and soft jazzy guitar chords and keyboards and is a gem of a vocal melody with the band quickly evolving into an understated and very spacious improv with keys, drums, and guitars. "The Dream" and "The Illusion" which are both movements that occur within the main track "Moonchild" would really give time for a free form kind of jam as an improv session with nothing but keys, drums, and guitars and even vibraphone (commonly used in jazz by artists like Milt Jackson) with every member each in their own universe with everyone cautiously making sound not wanting to step on one another in high friction and tension with interactions between each instrument with one musician playing in a key or certain pattern and the other responding and the whole improvisation instrumental is broken apart as the tension is released on the final track. "In the Court of the Crimson King" which is a reaction to the funeral of "Epitaph" with an apocalyptic explosion and acts as the reprise in a way closing the whole theatrical prog rock masterpiece. It ultimately achieves a heavier tone compared to the rest of the album as the strong drama vocal chords are expounded and the drums just going insane after the opening chorus as some of the best drum fills ever being laid out in progressive rock history being laid out all within a single track. The crescendos on this track are much heavier too especially when the harmonizing guitar leads come in and it lets the album end just as strong as it had begin in abruptness but still mind blowing.
Overall Impression — 10
Unfortunately there isn't as much material provided here as a progressive work and would be considered short by today's progressive rock standards with how much more ability and technology that has been gained since the late '60s definitely not to shortchange this album though, left with their limited devices they had managed to sound like no other and take no firm roots in anything conventional and far from the standard repetitive rave of popular pop or any kind of music during the time of this group, Hendrix himself having seen King Crimson live at this point had commented and said that it was the best band he had ever seen.
This is a beautiful starting point for anyone trying to get into the genre along with albums like "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd and the debut of Rush among many other albums, I would go as far as to say this would be an essential starting point for any beginner interested in pioneering jazz fusion prog rock with an esoteric wandering into the eclectic as a post-psychedelic album that just doesn't really fit into any other "scheme" or "category" but moreover stands as a monolith of an album. The haunting and sometimes abstract prophetic lyrics, masterful planning and longer song length making the album intransigent as a timeless work of art that withstood the test of time by sounding like not others, not being dated like other acts that were still good such as Vanilla Fudge but were too standard; they just did something that was so revolutionary it was awe-inspiring and extraordinary that this had happened in this universe at the right time. The length of tracks lets us hear a group of highly experienced young musicians drawing tracks and through solos and cohesive improvisations.
The first track would be something that any rock fan alone would enjoy in general not progressive rock fans and although a lot of new modern rock listeners today may roll their eyes and not even think about being this indulgent, you really need to listen with a slightly more open mind and you will enjoy how well these guys had played together with the technicality and finesse that Fripp and company brought to their instruments would enhance the songwriting on this LP and not distract from it. Verse, chorus, drum, and a guitar solo aren't randomly scattered but it's all peppered throughout in superb taste and engagement. A lot of modern progressive rock groups kind of miss the mark while giving the clean playing, technicality, and high quality lushness that is brought here but overlooking the engagement of the listener and the performer as a shamanic relationship (as Jim Morrison of The Doors had put it) in letting the listener become engaged in an artful and deeply emotional level which is what King Crimson does best here on their debut (as on "Epitaph"). If you give this LP a listen ponder it, what did you hear and how did it make you feel?