I have a distaste for prog rock. It was often indulgent, if you allow me to quote Simon Cowell. This is not to say that pop and rock are not in any way as indulgent, and lord knows classical and jazz has its moments, but proggers- well, 2112 is my justification. Rush, bless ’em, is a Canadian institution. That album makes me want to shoot myself. It doesn’t help me that it’s a major level on Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. They make me PLAY IT.
But King Crimson always fascinated me. A lot of it has to do with above cover art, which haunted my dreams for years. A lot of it is Robert Fripp. I revisited this album time and again after Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in which West cannily uses the vocal hook from “21st Century Schizoid Man” in the song “Power”. The album in many ways is all that I hate about progressive rock. So why do I love it?
I mean, the seven plus minute “21st Century Schizoid Man” is most definitely my favourite King Crimson song, with the memorable guitar riff, and Greg Lake’s heavily distorted vocals. There is a massive instrumental centre where Fripp let’s go and creates several minutes of guitar solo heaven. The solo is a masterpiece of speed, complexity, and silence. The silence always astounded me. These brief pauses in the music allowed for sharp inhales before being blown away again by the sheer virtuosity of the band. They were stronger musicians than Pink Floyd, so their solos seemed less “lookatme!lookatme!” and more “This is how you play a guitar”.
I have said time and again how much I love guitars. A great guitarist is my ultimate downfall. And some of the best guitarists don’t show off. If you are going to, though, make it worth my while. Robert Fripp does it time and again.
The sonic landscape created by the London band may have had technical precision, but it also had a dark vision. Songs are about war, dystopia, death, and not about hobbits and closets and whatever the hell Genesis would be talking about. And it’s a band where flute solos don’t irritate me at all. Ian McDonald was an excellent flautist, and worked with the rest of his band better than fellow prog rocker flautist Ian Anderson ( Jethro Tull). But he was also a multi-instrumentalist, providing other woodwinds and even mellotron on the album. He shines on the lullaby “I Talk To The Wind”.
The album is only five tracks of gorgeousness and darkness. I might have liked Pink Floyd post-Syd better if they learned how to write songs as simply lovely like “Moon Child”.
The album succeeds as both a concept, as a record, as the foundation for a genre, and as an example of musicianship. Part memory play, part opera, all prog. You only need one prog rock band ever. And it is King Crimson. I think the reason I love it so much is it accessible enough to be listened to without compromising what the band wanted.
(I’d like to throw in a word for their magnificent 1973 album, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, which was very nearly here instead of this one. I went with Crimson King simply because of “21st Century Schizoid Man”.)
On a WordPress related note, “aspic” is not recognized as a word. So the mighty aspic salad has fallen really low in popular opinion. I hate the shit myself.