Fashionably Late: An Exercise in Critical Time Travel


Published: November 15, 2007

King Crimson: “In the Court of the Crimson King”

Make no mistake—King Crimson was heavy. Not heavy like contemporaries Black Sabbath or even Led Zeppelin, but in terms of meticulously arranged, deeply evocative power. Widely recognized as an innovative group that had a large hand in the formation of ’70s progressive rock, Robert Fripp and his rotating cast of conspirators began turning heads upon their incipience in the late ’60s. “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the band’s 1969 debut LP, marked a turning point in the restless genre of rock ‘n’ roll and injected a vitally exploratory element into the mix.

The record sets forth a modus operandi that would eventually become a recurring, if not signature, structure for King Crimson’s works. With its sharply distinct five songs, “Crimson King” is a prog-rock symphony that defies the exhausted conventions of so-called guitar music. The method goes as thus: start with a bang, dissipate into quiet exploration and return triumphantly. Let’s not kid around—the album’s opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” sounds absolutely crushing for 1969. As the first song on the first record, this frantic guitar-and-horns sizzler immediately establishes King Crimson as a serious musical contender. The band switches gears for the subsequent tracks, suddenly mellowing down for “I Talk to the Wind,” featuring bassist Greg Lake’s crooned vocals and exceptionally arranged flute accompaniment.

One of the most notably brilliant aspects of this record (and others in King Crimson’s catalog) is its stirring use of dynamics. “Epitaph” and “Moonchild” are spectacularly moody pieces that expand and contract between sparse minimalism and climactic power. The music at times seems to reach nearly a dead stop, only to give way to triumphant, decadent energy. King Crimson’s relatively geeky fame as progressive rock mavericks was built from these carefully balanced dynamic qualities.

The unabridged King Crimson experience ultimately requires a pair of good headphones and spans a multitude of albums and artistic contributors. But a close look at this inaugural work reveals the stylistic ideas that started it all.

Yes: “Fragile”

By contrast to the haunting opuses of prog-peers King Crimson, the music of Yes contains a considerably more light-hearted element. While similar in their complex compositional modes and jazz-based progressions, Yes one-ups their fellow Britons with something we can call the “groove factor.” Getting right down to business, this factor is manifested with great success on the nine motley selections that comprise “Fragile.”

“Fragile” presents us with a seasoned, polished version of Yes, four albums deep and not looking back. It’s also a modest showcase for keyboardist Rick Wakeman, whose contributions via massive instrumental array litter the album. Wakeman receives the MVP award this time around, as his ubiquitous presence is what gives this album its drive and grandiosity. He even arranged the band’s take on Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in E Minor, “Cans and Brahms.”

Aside from Wakeman’s role on “Fragile,” the record is a highlight reel for Yes’ other members as well. The vocal arrangements on the part of singer Jon Anderson are remarkable. “We Have Heaven” layers five harmonized vocal tracks (all sung by Anderson) in a gleeful melodic romp. Guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire shine on “South Side of the Sky,” which pairs one of the best riffs of the ’70s with a remarkable vocal chorus that doesn’t easily leave the listener’s head. This is also one of the only tracks on the record to feature the entire band rigidly locked in together.

Yes don’t relent until the very last note of “Heart of the Sunrise,” an epic closer that essentially serves as an anti-anthem definitive of the band’s capabilities. This song runs the gamut of what Yes is capable of a liberal dose of visceral riffing, serene restraint, jazzy spazz-outs and evocative harmony.

“Fragile” is an extraordinary achievement and should be required listening for any connoisseur of musical composition.