Sunday, December 29, 2013

Semi-Finals #2: Discipline Vs. In The Court of The Crimson King

After submitting my last article an observant reader made this comment:
"Red is emotional in a more direct way, the lyrics are clear and the vocals up front. His voice on Larks sounds distant and pretty meek. I could sing you most of Reds lyrics and none from Larks except for the "Ea-syyy Mo-neyyyy".
The mixing sets Red apart too, I guess."

While I could recall the majority of Easy Money's  lyrics I think the reader made a spot on observation about how Lark's Tongue in Aspic was mixed compared to Red.  It just goes to show how important mix can be in creating a great album, and how the mix of an album can reflect the emotion and feeling of an album.

These are two different concepts.  A bad mix is just a poor balance of sounds, either due to a lack of know-how or budget restraints.  A poorly thought out mix is different, as the mix can be reflective of the mood of an album.  Sometimes a rough mix better reflects the feel of the music, and sometimes it benefits from a clean sounding mix with everything being truly distinguished.  While the later concept is purely subjective you sometimes get the feeling the musician or producer either gave the mixing stage a big 'ol "aw fuck it" or had a far different idea for their music than the listener did.

Once I realized that these two albums were going to be going against each other I knew I was in trouble.  While most Crimson fans would be quick to state that this is a wash and no album could truly compare to the inaugural debut of King Crimson I beg to disagree with the statement.  While there is no doubt in how important In The Court of The Crimson King is, I also believe that the same is true of Discipline.  Both do an outstanding job of defining their respective genres and raising the bar of what could be done.I will throw some more fire into the mix and state that what makes the task of determining a winner here so difficult is both the fact that Discipline is so undervalued and In The Court is raised to an impossible pedestal preventing proper analyzation and comparison.

I have spent enough time on this blog drooling over Discipline and have spent equally as much time outside of this blog telling everyone that they should listen to it.  It is truly King Crimson's dark horse.  By 1981 progressive rock was long dead as it was known.  Like all music fads it had blown up and then collapsed under its own weight.  Even by the mid 70's it was losing steam and by the 80's it had sufficiently flat-lined.  The greatness of Discipline is in its ability to redefine a genre for a new era; taking the original concept of what "progressive" is and applying it to a new era of music.

Progressive rock I do not feel was meant to specifically be what it initially was.  Rather, its creation was a by-product of the time.  The musicians in those acts only had the model that was set before them, which was an insidious amount of brit-pop and a few odd ducks in between .  If you listen to those first few albums by King Crimson, Yes, Egg and Genesis you hear those tones, despite their desperation to not sound like those bands.  As the times changed and mainstream rock began to adopt the sounds of The Who, Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie progressive rock followed suit.  In a way, progressive rock is always a couple years behind, listening to the music that had just happened and going "we can do that, but more intricate."

This issue of always being two years behind, and being annoyingly complex for the average music consumer helped to ensure that these bands never truly made it big.   You will never fit in with the cool kids if you are wearing yesterday's fashions.  You need to be cutting edge and sleek.  After a decade of being late to the party the British progressive rock invasion collapsed under its own weight of ornate costumes, twenty piece drum kits, endless arrays of keyboards, and wind instruments.  Fans were tired of their self-indulgent madness, and record labels had no interest in supporting tours that were costing two or three times as much to fund.

Yes, the fans abandoned progressive rock, but the record labels were also quick to drop them once they decided it was time to maximize profits.  Near this time was when pop acts were starting to really explode and be heavily pushed by labels.  While there is no doubt singers like Michael Jackson were paid handsomely and excessively, it makes less sense to write checks for 6 musicians who are all self-identified virtuoso's and hope they get along enough to write an album than it is to hand one person some music that is already completed and needs vocals.  To make a long-winded point short, the world would no longer support these kinds of bands.

That is where Discipline came in.  When we look at the context of its inception we begin to understand the gravity of its importance in the rock music world.  A seeming importance anyway, as one the biggest downfalls of Discipline was its lack of influence in future albums beyond King Crimson's own.  For as much as I gush about the album, I have begun to realize that this album only exists in its own vacuum and has little sway over future albums.  While there is no doubt that some bands have adopted the concept of intricate layering I have yet to find anything that truly emulates the 80's King Crimson style.

This is where In The Court Of The Crimson King comes in.  The original King's influence is so far reaching and vast; a musical kingdom that stretches to all corners of the musical map.  Of course we can not forget Kanye's sampling of 21st Century Schizoid Man, but what is more astounding is how it influenced its most immediate peers so quickly, making them panic and rethink their approach.  I do not know about you, but I wonder if we would have gotten Roundabout without this album. Rick Wakemen must have crapped himself when he heard Epitaph.

Many albums are influential though that do not stand the test of time while many that were not so influential (including one of our contestants) that remain eternal.  With that said we must ask ourselves whether In The Court does its job of being timeless while also being influential.  This is where the equation for this match-up becomes even more difficult as I am not totally convinced one way or the other.  Yes, there is no doubt how iconic these songs are with each being a representation of a progressive motif that would be exercised until today, but with that comes problems as well.  For the uninitiated into the genre, In The Court is a primer for what to expect.  The furious 21st Century Schizoid Man, the mystical I Talk To The Wind, the swelling and futuristic (at the time) Epitaph, the experimental Moonchild, and the epic In The Court Of The Crimson King.  In 1969 these were all nearly insane songs; a template for all future bands to follow.  For someone in 2013 with the ability of being retrospective it comes off a bit cliche, a stereotypical model of what a progressive rock album should be.  It still is without a doubt absolutely brilliant and a monumentally intense listen.

This is in contrast to Discipline, because there is nothing to compare it to.  Its obscurity is also its benefit as there is no line of copycats trying to replicate its sound.  You may catch nods, but there is a lack of blatant rip-offs.  Every time I spin Discpline I have the same thought "This album is so unique, and so mind-boggling."  It is oozing innovation and futuristic sounds from Tony Levin's use of the Chapman Stick to Bill Bruford's drum kit that looks like an alien craft.  In 1969 In The Court did the same, with Michael Giles' drumming that simulates a stampede of elephants and the use of the then next gen Mellotron.  Again, then it was so out there, but now, several covers and imitators later it is not such a big deal.

This is a huge frustration when exploring old albums.  So many of them that were earth shattering when they were released sound so average in the 21st century.  This is because, as I said, of the endless amount of imitators that delude the unique qualities of what was once a unique sound. All of this makes listening to those 'classics' that much more difficult if you have spent any amount of time with the musical replicants.  That is why for me it is so wonderful to run into an album that is not only thirty years old, but sounds so fresh and exciting.  It is what makes Discipline such a pleasant listen, because it remains mostly lost in history.

Does that make it better though?  Does the ability of an album to remain unique and inspiring thirty years later make it better than one that has had its legacy mutilated by forgeries?  You would likely experience opinions on both sides of the fence, with some stating that it does make for a better album since it is still fresh today, and others stating no because the sheer amount of influenced albums indicates how powerful the album was. In essence the debate is an endless one, but fun none the less.

I might be getting ahead of myself here, however, because we have now drifted into a realm way off from the actual point.  Lasting appeal and legacies are important, but what about the songs?  You are in no shortage of amazing songs on either album.  Discipline's seem to be more cohesive compared to In The Court's sample platter.  One could argue that as one of the earliest examples of 'proper' British prog that this is somewhat a moot point.  There is no doubt about the enormity of what In The Court brought to listeners back in '69.  I could easily write forever about just how awesome 21st Century Schizoid Man is, and it would never be sufficient.  The song is one of the best ever made with such a disregard for traditional rock song structure instead only providing scant lyrics and opting for wildly intense instrumentation.  The instrumental chorus in the beginning is a villainous build-up indicating the impending doom that is about to befall the listener.  How incredible that I can still get so excited hearing this song after hundred of listens and even knowing its going to be played next.

The song itself is almost a detriment to the rest of the album because it never quite gets that good afterwards.  Obviously the rest of the album is a brilliantly pieced together construction, but it always seems to fall a bit short.  I Talk To The Wind is an appropriate follow-up from the musical ax murdering that occurs in the first seven minutes of the album, but after that you seem to want to return to that break-neck speed, and you will continue waiting until their next album because it never quite happens.  Epitaph is a monstrous all absorbing epic brimmed with mellotron tones that indicate a harrowing feeling of despair.  It is brilliant and endlessly haunting, but just not quite as good as 21st Century.  Perhaps I am just a sucker for fast paced music, but there is something about how rambunctious that opening track is that puts everything else here to shame.  It clearly eclipses Moonchild which is easily the albums low point.  King Crimson had not quite figured out the whole improvisation thing quite yet at that point, and it comes off like four minutes cooing love song, and eight minutes of nothing short of dicking around.  I really do not get the improv on Moonchild as it all comes off so half baked but also pompous as if they thought "people will listen to this because we are King Crimson and they will pretend to enjoy it."  In The Court is a well placed conclusion helping you ascend to musical heaven with its vocal harmonies, because surely you have been bleeding to death after being stabbed at the beginning of the album.

None of the other tracks (aside from a chunk of Moonchild) are bad, miles from it in fact, they just suffer from the issue of having to follow-up 21st Century Schizoid Man.  It is a strange predicament that Discipline does not suffer from as each track plays off each other so well, creating a well rounded experience that never leaves you yearning for something that has already passed.  Discipline is not perfect either, though, despite the songs all being well crafted and balancing each other, some are better than others.  Matte Kudasai is far and away not as good as I Talk To The Wind and I am sure there are some people who dislike Adrian Belew's guitar bending antics, although those people are indeed moronic.Nothing on Discipline, truth be told, can hold a candle to 21st Century Schizoid Man, but truth be told nearly nothing in the band's catalog can.  It is a song that overshadows the band's entire career and I am sure by some measure is a nuisance in the life of those who created it, forever having their work being compared to their lab science experiment.

Yes, In The Court of The Crimson King is THE benchmark for which all progressive rock albums are compared to, for better or for worse.  There is no doubt that it is the institution for which all would follow, and the blueprint for creating the truly insane music that would follow in its immediate future.  It is also true that despite how obscene Discipline is it is a bench mark for not much besides itself.  A musical novelty for which commentators can applaud, but rarely note future influence.  In The Court's future influences are so many that a two year old throwing paper could hit them on a dart board.  Both are just immensely beautiful and well constructed pieces of art that should be required listening for all music lovers.

Here is my question, and the one that I think will determine a winner here.  If you were to take out 21st Century, and take out your favorite song from Discipline, a less objectively easy task if you ask me, although either Elephant Talk or Thela Hun Ginjeet would be my candidates, which album would you rather own?  In other words, which album stands on its feet better without its lead song?