For better or for worse, a pretty decent argument can be mounted that progressive rock — or "prog" as we know it today — was born with the 1969 release of King Crimson's first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King.
The British band's early fans included Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix, and it only took one listen for legendary music-exec Ahmet Ertegun to sign them to his Atlantic Records on the spot.
Now, forty years later, another of King Crimson's fans, Porcupine Tree's studio wizard and resident genius Steven Wilson has overseen a 40th Anniversary deluxe edition of this landmark album, working alongside founding member Robert Fripp. Wilson is said to have revered the album as a teenager, and is also managing the analog-to-digital transfer of a number of other nuggets from the Crimson catalogue.
But back to this one.
In The Court Of The Crimson King made its impact way back in 1969, by breaking the blues-rock mold of British rock at the time. Crimson instead stretched those boundaries to include much longer arrangements, where the guitar was not always the most prominent instrument. The original album has only five tracks, and there is not a guitar solo amongst them (even though Robert Fripp was and remains one of rock's most inventive guitarists).
The album's five songs vary from the studio-treated vocals and jazz-rock-fusion freak out of "21st Century Schizoid Man," to the mellotron-laced symphonic rock of "Epitaph" and the lilting woodwinds of "I Talk To The Wind." Prog-rock bands from Genesis to Rush to Wilson's own Porcupine Tree all adopted Crimson's blueprint in one form or another over the decades to come.
Amazingly, the group's original incarnation only produced this single album and broke up less than a year later (although Fripp kept the name, and fronted several subsequent lineups of the band through the seventies, eighties, and beyond).
For the 40th Anniversary edition of In The Court Of The Crimson King, Wilson has transferred the original five tracks to digital, and remastered them in MLPS lossless format, including a 5.1 sen-surround mix that is included on the DVD. There is also a 2009 stereo mix on the CD.
The bonus material includes alternate mixes of each track (on both the CD and the DVD), as well an alternate version of the entire album on the DVD built from alternate takes and, in the case of "I Talk To The Wind," a practice run at the song in the studio. None of these have been previously released.
Wilson's remix of the original album is the real prize here though. The album sounds just as revolutionary now as it did then, and Wilson does a fine job with the remastering. Greg Lake's vocals (and yes, that is the same Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame), reveal a rather underrated vocalist equally at home with the frenzied jazz-rock-fusion of "Schizoid Man" and the introspective fantasy-laced lyrics of the title track.
Elsewhere, the audio separation is flawless (especially on the 5.1 mixes). The drums are crisp and clear; the woodwinds, flutes, and mellotrons float like butterflies; and the guitars sting like bees.
The bonus material is noteworthy mainly for the fact that it appears here for the first time ever, but is otherwise nothing you'd miss (unless you are a hardcore fan of course). If anything, the alternate versions of these songs just confirm that the final selections made were the correct ones.
Likewise with the restored DVD footage of King Crimson performing "Schizoid Man" at London's Hyde Park (opening for the Stones). The mono mix isn't unlistenable, but hearing the rest in 5.1 does tend to spoil you a bit. The black and white video is likewise grainy, and features as many shots of dancing hippies and flower children as there are of the band.
All in all though, Wilson and Fripp have done a fabulous job here. If you don't already own this progressive rock landmark, I can't think of a better introduction. Steven Wilson and Robert Fripp have breathed new life into a Crimson classic.