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A walk through the court of the Crimson King

Of all the artists likely to be featured in an Influential Artist column, King Crimson will surely leave the greatest number of students scratching their head. Without any hit singles to their name, very little chart success with their records and virtually no radio airplay, selecting King Crimson for a column like this may cause some to wonder how a band so few people are aware of could possibly rank among the most influential popular artists of all-time. Even the briefest sampling of their output will remove any uncertainties.

First, it’s important to define precisely what King Crimson is. Founder Robert Fripp is the only member to be with the group from inception to the present. For the majority of the band’s history, no two consecutive records were made with the same line-up. Despite being the most well-known vehicle of the music of Fripp (a man who could be entitled to a column like this of his own), it is impossible to pin down exactly what the King Crimson sound is.

In the late 1960s, an emerging musical scene was growing mainly out of Europe – progressive rock. Borrowing elements from many spheres of music, the prog groups began to create what is also sometimes called “art rock,” using more sophisticated arrangements than their peers and pushing pop music to its limits. But whereas the latter part of the 1970s saw the decline of most prominent prog groups (Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake and Palmer all either lost their way or fell apart completely), Fripp continued pushing King Crimson in exciting new directions.

The debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” took the world by storm in 1969 with its mellotrons and symphonic sound. No less-prominent a figure than The Who’s Pete Townshend called the record “an uncanny masterpiece,” a phrase which now adorns the CD reissue. Right away, the opening “21st Century Schizoid Man” attacks the listener with a sonic assault that no amount of modern digitized distortion and effects-producing could ever hope to reproduce. Greg Lake’s aggressive singing, the pounding, militaristic drum parts, Fripp’s manic guitar lines – the song is as close as anybody has ever come to recording pure carnage.

After 1971’s gorgeous “Islands,” Fripp took the group in an entirely different direction. Dropping pseudo-intellectual lyricist Pete Sinfeld and bringing in former Yes drummer Bill Bruford, Fripp embarked King Crimson on a journey that would take them far from their classical roots and into the realm of free-form jazz experimentation.

For the next three albums, improvisation and dissonance would dominate the sound. They would run the gamut from the breathtaking (“Starless,” off the “Red” album, is possibly the band’s finest hour), to the beautiful (“The Night Watch,” about as close as they ever came to a hit single), to the completely non-listenable (“Fracture,” a noodling mess of an improvisation which is only redeemed after eight minutes of painful listening).

After 1974, Fripp put the band on hold, declaring it dead. However, in 1980, after jamming with Bruford, Chapman Stick player Tony Levin and former Talking Heads associate Adrian Belew, Fripp decided to release the album “Discipline” under the King Crimson name. Here was a record unlike anything ever attempted by the band before, with elements of gamelan music (polyrhythmic and polyphonic music from Indonesia) and New Wave added to the mix of clean guitars and Belew’s almost singer-songwriter structures.

This group recorded three albums together, and the band was once again put on hold until 1995. At this point, Fripp put the group back together again, this time under the guise of the metallic onslaught of the Double Trio – two bass players, two drummers and two guitarists. They recorded “Thrak” and launched a successful tour, and the most recent incarnation released the almost purely metal “The Power to Believe” in 2003.

Such a prolific output of so many diverse musical motifs gives King Crimson a unique position in the world of popular music. Nobody has broken as many boundaries as they have over such a long period of time, and their importance to the world of music should not be overlooked because of their invisibility on your standard classic rock radio stations.

Add to this the almost inconceivable who’s-who of great musicians which have been members at one point or another, the wealth of diverse musicians who counted them as influences (all the way from Peter Gabriel to Kurt Cobain) and Fripp’s remarkable innovations to all forms of sound making, and King Crimson’s place in music history is as assured as Johann Sebastian Bach’s. Even the most amateur musicologists would do well to become familiar with the band’s output.

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