Song: "21st Century Schizoid Man"
Album: In The Court Of King Crimson
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Though there were a number of amazing occurrences during the late 1960's that forever altered the shape of music, perhaps the most intriguing and significant was the way in which a handful of bands were able to blend together older styles of music with the new sounds of psychedelic rock. Combined with advancements in technology in both actual instruments, as well as within a studio environment, there were suddenly no limits whatsoever in terms of what a band could accomplish. During that era, there was perhaps no band that took more advantage of these changes than the one group that can be seen as the fathers of progressive rock, King Crimson. The way in which the band was able to blend together jazz and blues, within a largely classic structure, and yet make their music unquestionably rock styled was nothing short of stunning, and to this day, their music remains completely unrivaled. Though all of the bands' early records are absolute classics, it was their 1969 debut, In The Court Of King Crimson, that made them instant legends. Containing only five songs, yet clocking in at nearly forty-five minutes, the album is a brilliant musical exploration, and it completely rewrote the books on what was possible within rock music. Though each song is superb in its own right, there is no song that better defines King Crimson than their iconic 1969 recording, "21st Century Schizoid Man."
The song, which opens the album, starts off in a rather unassuming manner, with what sounds like wind blowing across the song. The listener is quickly jolted, as the song drops in suddenly at full force, with a powerful guitar and horn riff. The guitar piece, played by the legendary Robert Fripp, remains one of the most famous riffs in history, and there is a growl and aggression within his playing that was unlike anything else being recorded at the time. The saxophone from Ian MacDonald shares this mood, and it almost sounds as if he is over-blowing his horn, yet he has clear control of the tone he deploys. Drummer Michael Giles seems to be all over the place, playing with a unique abandon, and yet this almost free-form sound is still within a standard time signature. Rounding out the band is bassist Greg Lake, and the thick layer he adds underneath the entire song quickly becomes one of the strongest musical aspects of "21st Century Schizoid Man." Yet the main aspect that sets the song aside from nearly everything else lives within its structure, which is unquestionably classical. The various movements within the music are quite clear, and the fact that King Crimson is able to retain the dark, almost lumbering feeling throughout the different parts of the song is a testament to the exceptional level of musicianship within the band members. The middle of the song is dominated by "Mirrors," which stands as one of the most stunning jams in music history, and it is here where one can find the fusion of jazz and rock, and it is this piece that pushes the song to absolutely legendary status.
However, while they are comparatively brief and bookend the amazing "jam" section of the song, the vocals from Greg Lake are absolutely as important and stunning as the music over which he sings. Bringing an absolutely massive amount of tension to the song, the aggression and energy with which he sings is far beyond that of anything else being recorded at the time, and one can easily argue his performance here as one of the building blocks of both the punk and heavy metal vocal approach. Singing with just enough distortion, his voice conveys the ideal balance of tension and nervous energy, along with a force and power that makes his sound unforgettable. This distortion also gives "21st Century Schizoid Man" an almost futuristic tone, and his vocals also help the song to have a far more imposing sound. Yet even with the power and sound that he brings, one can easily argue that the most overlooked aspect of the song is the truly brilliant lyrics which Lake is singing. Penned by Peter Sinfield, one would be hard pressed to find more metaphors and wordplay within such a small amount of words. Nearly every line is laced with metaphors, and most listeners miss the harsh digs that are taken at the world as it existed. Making a clear reference to the Vietnam War, Sinfield held nothing back when he wrote, "...politicians funeral pyre, innocents raped with napalm fire...," and the way in which Lake sings these words make the words even more haunting and intimidating.
In many ways, there is simply no amount of words that can do justice to the sheer brilliance and revolutionary sound found on "21st Century Schizoid Man." When one compares it to the other music being made at the time, everything else seems quite "normal" and unadventurous, and it is this fact alone that makes it easy to argue that King Crimson was the most important band when it came to creating what would eventually be labeled as "progressive rock." The energy that the band brings to the song is almost overwhelming, and though every section of the song, the nervous, almost panicked mood keeps building to an astonishing level. Along with this, the group was able to give the song a very dark, almost desperate feel, and yet it never becomes cliché, and almost goes a bit unnoticed due to the other factors within the song. Adding in the tight, diverse structure of the song, and it becomes quickly clear that the members of King Crimson were clearly able to see and hear music on a level far above most of their peers. The way in which the band was able to flawlessly fuse together the sound and style of jazz within a classical structure has been copied many times since, and yet no other band has been able to come close to the stunning sound they deployed on "21st Century Schizoid Man." Whether it is the contrasts in sound, the revolutionary structure and fusion, or the sheer level of musicianship, there is simply no other song in history that can be even remotely compared to the extraordinary musical achievement that is King Crimson's iconic 1969 song, "21st Century Schizoid Man."