King Crimson: The Embodiment Progressive Rock

If I am asked what has influenced me as a musician more than anything…well the answer would be Chopin. But, truthfully, I only fell in love with Chopin after I started eating and breathing everything music. When I was a kid I heard great music, even learned to play much of it on piano, but never really recognized it. I didn’t understand music yet, and I think largely because I had never written music of my own. Sure, I had played keys, trumpet, and percussion in bands and orchestras throughout life; but compositional nuance and skill was still something I took completely for granted. When I went to college the first time I had a incisive paradigm shift. I discovered philosophy and psychology; the first academic topics I could actually enjoy reading about. I self-applied those topics with vigor. Art suddenly became important, very important—meaning of life important. And during this age of epiphany some of my bandmates turned me on to something that would lead me on a journey towards musical enlightenment that I am still undertaking. It was something that connected all the (classical) music theory I had ever learned into modern music, like plugging a lamp into an outlet. The hand that plugged it in was Progressive Rock.

I decided to focus on King Crimson for this piece because no other band quite encapsulates Progressive Rock like they do. Granted, they aren’t my favorite prog band but they represent the gestalt of 70s prog like no other. The prog rock movement has its origins with a band called Procol Harum (coincidently one this year’s nominees to the rock and roll hall of fame) and their song “Whiter shade of pale”. The early spirit of progressive rock is like taking the instrumentations and drugged out attitudes of the late sixties and sending it back in time to baroque days. The excellent BBC documentary Prog Rock Brittania describes the average prog rocker more of a classical music reject (or rebel rather). Songs begin to resemble concertos, with singular movements that could eat the length of two modern pop numbers whole. In all, you see a lot of bands interested in plugging rock and roll into classical theory: you hear music that merges the complicated, nuanced hand of a romantic composer with the attitude and instrumentation of rock. Some of my favorite bands from this period include: Yes, Gentle Giant, PFM, Gryphon, Il Balleto di Bronzo, Pink Floyd, Nektar, Birth Control, Yezda Urfa, Quella Vecchia Locanda, and Happy the Man (I tried to keep it to a small sampling). But as Prog Rock Brittania as well as my personal ears suggest, the most intimidating, scary, and eclectic of all prog bands was King Crimson.

King Crimson’s debut album In the Court of the Crimson King opens with one of Prog Rock’s greatest monsters: “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Within its duration this masterpiece swings the entire gamut between barely contained atonal chaos and synchronized, syncopated musical acrobatics and back. I only wish I could have seen the crowd reaction after King Crimson used this song to open for the Rolling Stones in July of 1969. From Pete Sinfield’s recounting, there was a moment of utter shock and silence before the crowd even knew to applaud. As Bill Bruford, drummer for Yes and King Crimson, put it “nobody knew that rock musicians could play like that”. It was my personal introduction to Prog Rock as a whole, and exactly where I think anyone should be introduced to the movement (even though I probably wasn’t hooked until I heard Gentle Giant’s Three Friends album).

One of King Crimson’s founding members Pete Sinfield reflected on the band’s ethos, “if it sounded anything at all popular, it was out, so it had to be complicated, it had to have more expensive chords…if it sounded too simple we made it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 5/8 just to show off…”. I think this summarizes the band’s, as well as Progressive Rock as a whole’s, greatest strength and weakness. I absolutely adore the musicianship and spirit of progressive rock, but many a prog band’s blatant disregard for accessibility to anyone other than the musical elite was surely a mark of hubris. King Crimson does an amazing feat of musically reinventing what isn’t broken album after album. Islands is jazzy, Red is a hard rock milestone, Beat incorporates synth-pop, and even their new albums (they’re still going) tread into industrial and electronic territories. How were people suppose to keep up with this amorphous musical machine? Evidently they weren’t.

Progressive rock was soundly defeated by the punk generation in its homeland of Great Britain. And not just defeated, but caricatured and ostracized. Excessive and self-indulgent are often terms that come up to describe prog rock, and they perhaps aren’t too far off the mark. Still punk rock (which I find equally excessive and self-indulgent in different ways) tried to bury progressive rock in the UK and the States: and did a pretty good job of doing it. That is until the internet age.

Progressive Rock has enjoyed a mild modern-day resurgence (IE Mars Volta, Porcupine Tree), but mostly in prog influenced genres. Prog Metal (Dream Theatre, Tool), Math Rock (Battles, Don Cab), Djent (Animals as Leaders), and even some Jazz Fusion Artists (Hiromi Uehara) commonly cite groups such as King Crimson as influences. Even artists in unrelated genres have been influenced by the music of King Crimson in particular. Kurt Cobain acknowledged the album Red as a big influence, and Kanye West sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in his song “Power”.

I also strongly identify King Crimson with Robert Fripp, who would be the constant member in the constantly evolving line-up of musicians. His trademark guitar soundscaping technique, lovingly coined Frippertronics, was actually invented by Brian Eno. Eno and Fripp’s collective journey into guitar-scaping can be seen as foundational elements of post-rock bands like Sigur Ros.

Progressive Rock gets written off in Music History all too frequently and I’m not sure why. It had a short run, but its influence extends just as far into modern day as any other breed of Rock and Roll. While bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and Jethro Tull managed to achieve mainstream success, many music historians handle them separately from the musical movement that bore them.  In my mind, King Crimson is the true poster boy of prog rock: alienating, intimidating, but undeniably genius. In all, I think by far the most damning insult to prog rock is that it easily construed as pretentious. And this is absolutely true, but you know what else is easily construed as pretentious? Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin.