King Crimson – Pushing the Envelope of Rock Music

by Philip Damico   /  @philipsdamico
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King Crimson is a British rock band formed in 1968. Founded and led by guitarist Robert Fripp, the band remains active to this day. Over their 49 year career they have released a total of 13 albums despite a revolving door of members and numerous hiatuses. King Crimson are often considered one of the cornerstones of the progressive and art rock genres and modern bands such as The Mars Volta, Nirvana and Tool cite them as influential to their style. King Crimson were founded in a time when rock music had not yet established itself as an art form. It was a young genre and the standard rock music formula was yet to be pushed very far. King Crimson were one of the first bands to bring rock music into mainstream focus as an art-form and not just simple dance music for teenagers by employing complex musical theory and serious lyrical themes. Their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, is one of the defining albums of the progressive rock genre. It deals with mature themes such as the vietnam war, nuclear warfare and religion in a beautiful, otherworldly package.

The musical characteristics of the album are eclectic but the emotions, imagery and thoughts that it wants to provoke from the listener are not. In the Court of the Crimson King uses anachronistic lyrics laden with anti-war sentiments to create a truly unique and timeless sonic journey.

Opening track 21st Century Schizoid Man serves both as a zeitgeist of the 1960s and a prediction of the future. It reflects on social worries of the time and predicts what those worries could result in – a generation of people disconnected from reality. It is possibly the band’s most famous song and was sampled by Kanye West on the 2010 song Power. The lyrics viciously condemn war and conjure imagery of the horrors wars produce. It features a relentless, rough guitar sound that, along with some of the band’s later work, helped pave the way for the development of heavy metal. 21st Century Schizoid Man is an intense, brilliant song. It moves the listener and at the time of its release, it moved standards for the very definition of rock music with its grating sound and politically charged lyrics.

It’s followed up by something jarringly different – I Talk to the Wind is a calm, breezy tune that muses on the existence of god. It’s a beautiful, introspective song that sets the scene for the rest of the album. King Crimson’s ability to create such varied music that retains stylistic consistency is brilliant. Not a moment feels out of place, within the context of the album or out of it. The themes it discusses remain relevant to this day.

But the magic of King Crimson  comes from something else. That factor that has given the album such cultural staying power for the band to have been referenced and given homage in anime, books, films and even other music. The band failed to achieve commercial success with just two singles reaching the Billboard Top 100 in the history of the band but their legacy as one of the most well respected and influential rock bands of all time is undeniable.

The medieval atmosphere that flows through the album is what gives it its charm. The album’s sub-title, An Observation by King Crimson, plays an essential part in decoding this. It helps present King Crimson as a character – a character whose world we get to look into while listening to the album. In the Court of the Crimson King is one of the best examples to date of an album with a distinct chronotope. That is – representation of time and space in language and discourse. The album is full of medieval and classical musical characteristics that had never been seen in rock music such as choral vocal performances, woodwind instruments, harpsichord and organs. This creates an unforgettable mood that few others have been able to replicate.
King Crimson pushed rock music forward in ways that, in the late 60s, few thought was possible. Their music discusses mature themes that have retained their relevancy for nearly 50 years. In the Court of the Crimson King is a timeless classic that set the tone for not only the coming progressive rock revolution but the alienation and fear that maintains a grip on our minds to this day.



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