Seldom does an album-cover embody the essence of a song so perfectly (or vice versa), but that is the case with the disturbing cover of King Crimson’s debut album of 1969, the year of my birth (art by Barry Godber). The thing is, An Observation by King Crimson (© 1969 E.G. Music Ltd) is such a mixture of extremely well-constructed and performed pieces that you should not let the cover or the first frightening and experimental, yet intriguing, track scare you away! (How could it with its capturing allure?)”21st century schizoid man” is one of the most intense songs I have ever heard, and it was only in the last month that I heard it for the first time (as far as I can remember) when I picked up a near mint copy of the album at a flea market for a buck fifty (the deal of the 21st century). This piece starts out intense and dominating, with its screaming, electronically altered vocals and throbbing rhythm section. It then segues into a no less intense free jazz saxophone bombardment (the sax was there from the beginning, in case you didn’t notice) followed by a jazz guitar solo that gives you no doubt that this is a progressive rock tune, blending jazz influences in a hard rock onslaught. One might wonder whether or not this was a Charles Mingus piece in the jazz moments (wait for a minute or so into into the track), if not for the electric guitar: “Wednesday night prayer meeting” meets Led Zeppelin.
Yet what is amazing is the way in which the entire album is not overtaken by this opening track. The other tracks on the album demonstrate the experimental range of this team led by Robert Fripp and including Greg Lake as vocalist at this point (soon to be the instrumental vocalist in Emerson, Lake and Palmer). The heavy-duty opening track is followed by an equally complicated but far more subtle tune, “I talk to the wind”, with its flute and clarinet duet, accompanied by the far less terrifying, perhaps comforting, vocals of Greg Lake.
The somehow calming funeral dirge, “Epitaph” (track 3), has a capturing, dramatic build as the world seemingly comes to an end in the final apocalypse. Here acoustic guitars meet somber clarinets and strings as Greg Lake soothingly (somehow) sings: “Confusion will be my epitaph, as I crawl a cracked and broken path. If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh. But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying, Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying”.
Side two finds more experimentation in a lengthy tune (“Moonchild”) followed by the climactic “The court of the Crimson King”. This finale almost demands that you sing along (at least my conscience demands it). Here again there is a sophistication that beats even the most well-written progressive tune by the likes of Yes or ELP, and one could not ask more of the flute solo.
Wikipedia artricle on King Crimson and their albums here.