In the Court- Steve Wilson’s 50th Anniversary Remix on Vinyl
In the Court of the Crimson King was not just foundational to the emergence of “prog rock” but has endured long after many other influential and important early bands who tapped that vein fell into disfavor. I’ve had a number of copies of this record over the years, and settled on an early UK pink label (A3/B3) and a somewhat later UK pink rim (4u). The 2010 reissue of In the Court on vinyl, which drew from newly discovered source material was fine as far as it went but sounded a little clinical to my ears compared to the early Island pressings; those had their own issues, apart from the sonics on “Schizoid Man”; noise plagued the softer passages even assuming you could find a clean, unmolested copy. Today, the early UK pink labels of In the Court also fetch a price that may give some consumers pause.
I was actually delighted when I heard Steve Wilson’s remix of In the Court released on CD/DVD. Whatever ills may be occasioned by digital processing were, to my ears, far outweighed by the benefits, including a far less recessed vocal part by Greg Lake on “Epitaph,” a song whose lyrics seems to hold even greater meaning to me as I approach my dotage. There’s plenty to capture your fancy on this album, whether you are a hardcore Crimson fan (I only first got to see them perform live a couple years ago at Bass Hall in Austin and it was one of the best produced, best sounding concerts I’ve ever attended), or the less committed fan who consider In the Court, their first album, their peak. (I really enjoy the album Red too, with a different assemblage of performers, for the track “Starless” which competes in my book with “Epitaph” as one of the all-time great compositions in the prog rock canon). I already owned the vinyl release of the Live in Toronto 2016 show, which is a great recording and very effectively conveys, to the extent any recording can, what the band sounds like live today. (“Starless” on that set is worth the price of admission).
But it was with a great sense of anticipation that I awaited the Wilson remix of In the Court on vinyl. The recent multi-album vinyl box sets, which included the extant remix of In the Court by Wilson, offered too much for me, at a fairly high price. Word was, the individual albums remixed by Wilson, including In the Court, would eventually be released on vinyl separately. And since neither the band nor Steve Wilson seem content to leave things alone, this individual release of In the Court benefits from yet another remix by Wilson on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the album’s release.
What follows is not a definitive shoot-out of In the Court since I have neither the time nor access to all the various iterations of the album that have been released over the years. (Discogs alone shows over 300 releases of the title in various formats over the years; I also gave away my copy of the 2010 release, but remarked on it in an earlier piece here).
For the sake of brevity if not sanity, I confined myself here to the early UK pink label and the slightly later UK pink rim, which I reckon may be fairly representative of what’s available on the market to someone who cares enough about this album to bother. (Apologies if I missed an important release; I did note elsewhere that the sound of select tracks from In the Court that appeared on the Young Person’s Guide cut by Harry Moss sounded pretty good).
50th Anniversary Remix -Side One
First impressions of the new remix were positive- quiet surfaces, no acute digititus (though the first track, “Schizoid Man,” isn’t a really good one to form any opinions about sonics). “I Talk to the Wind” benefits from quiet backgrounds, and the bass and cymbals are both impressive; the flute has life, and the drums have nice tone. This album seems to come to life with a twist on the throttle- the drum rolls (tympani?) that open “Epitaph” are big and Lake’s voice comes through clearly, as does the keyboard work, which seems more prominent. Lots of upper bass on this track (but see my comments about VTA settings below), though it goes deep too and there are dynamics when the crescendo crests and we return to acoustic guitar and woodwinds (that oboe sound is haunting). Lake reprises his vocal part and it’s stunning, set against the texture of the guitar and the band at full stride, mellotronic strings shining with the occasional deep plunge on the bass. The volume swells of the band as Lake carries the song to its conclusion are palpable.
UK Pink Label-Side One
When I first switched to this old pressing, on “Schizoid Man,” I was surprised that it sounded brighter and had more clarity than the new issue. (But note my comments below about VTA adjustments, which I did not perform in these comparisons). It doesn’t have the pronounced bass of the new record- it’s there, but it’s more like listening to the bass on my vintage Quad ‘57s- taut but rolled off. I wasn’t planning to do any meaningful comparisons on the basis of this track given its sonic twists and turns (and the distortions that were apparently part of the tape) but man, this old Island pressing still has the mojo. There’s more woodiness and squawk to the woodwinds, the high frequencies seem to reach up, though it doesn’t plumb the depths the way the new issue does.
My copy does have some noise and a few ticks on “I Talk to the Wind” but nothing distracting–the woodwinds are rich and the vocal part floats ethereally above the band, with those cymbal splashes. I seem to be hearing more snare here than on the new remix; the toms or struck drums have a nice “clop” to them; when the drums roll as a segue to the flute solo, they are all ‘of a piece’—really organic sounding.
The drum roll opening of “Epitaph” is dramatic, and dynamic—I love the snare hits here, it sets a pace that has an almost march-like quality- the struck string sounds are equally dynamic, as are the cymbal smashes. Somehow, despite my previous bitching about the recessed Lake vocals, this copy just shines on “Epitaph”—that bassy quality isn’t there (see my comments re VTA below), but the mello-strings and guitar sound yummy. And at the crescendo you get bass and some real dynamics; the drum strikes here aren’t quite as pronounced as they seem to be on Wilson’s remix, but I’m good with it.
UK Pink Rim- Side One
Out of the gate, this copy sounds LOUDER than either the pink label or the newest remix—it’s a 4u cut, which I’d place as circa 1972 or slightly earlier. Island by this time had arrangements with EMI (The pink label was cut and pressed at Phonodisc, a Philips enterprise). The 3u cut, which I did not have here for these comparisons, was cut by George Peckham (“Porky”), a much-loved mastering engineer known for his bombastic sounding work. This is edgier than the pink label on “Schizoid Man.” Everything has a bit of an edge, but it’s not harsh, just more like the silhouette of each instrument is backlit. Drums are really crisp and sound faster- a little less harmonic decay on the cymbals than the pink label.
“I Talk to the Wind” settles down but the sound is, overall, still brighter than the pink label. It’s also a quieter copy overall. Cymbal strikes are really clear- the initial tap, then the shimmer. Drums have nice body as well as skin tone, as does the snare. The flute swirls and winds its way quite beautifully on this track.
“Epitaph” has that great drum roll introduction and it still isn’t as dynamic sounding as the remix. The vocal part is good sounding, the snare strikes are more prominent. Lake’s vocal is just ‘less’ here and that’s a negative, given the quality of his voice and the nature of the composition.
50th Anniversary Remix- Side Two
“Moonchild” was always a challenge on this album given how quiet the musical passages are and how difficult it is to find an old record that doesn’t interfere with them through noise, grunge and assorted vinyl nasties. This thing sounds pristine—the cymbal taps are crystalline and you can clearly hear the effects on the vocal; the woodwinds and strings along with assorted chime-y percussion bits, create a pastoral effect that isn’t disrupted by vinyl glitches so common on this track. The little figures played on the guitar are delicate and at the same time have substance- you hear pattering on the drum heads, short cymbal rolls and a sort of call and response between the guitar and the percussion I never paid much attention to in the past. This is probably the best I’ve heard this track. (Then again, this track was not played as regularly as other tracks from the album in my listening history of the album). The various spacey sounds on the percussion (and guitar) are conveyed with great immediacy. Kick drum has cojones. There’s a period of quiet, for a moment, that is truly dead quiet on this record as the strummed guitar begins a new theme. The bells and intermittent kick drum sound right. And then, we swing into that anthemic riff—
We are now “In the Court.” The halo of voices, and the full band set the stage. Nice bumping on the bass that grows, as that instrument starts to growl and the band winds up into that chorus. Then back to Lake, that tranquil voice against the darkness of the lyrics and the increasingly ominous tone of the band, as the flute anticipates a return to darkness. The stage widens as the full band comes on again. Drums are punchy as hell here. Cymbal taps in the darkness as the theme is reprised on woodwinds (and mellotron), calliope-like and the band comes in, once again, hard. Drums clip-clopping. Absolutely revelatory- like listening to this side for the first time.
UK Pink Label-Side Two
“Moonchild” has some noise, not those dead quiet backgrounds of the new release. Again, I’m surprised by the amount of high frequency information presented on this old copy— yet it has that ‘warmth’ so characteristic of many of the pink labels and a nice homogenous sound- cymbals sound very natural, but there are little nuances that are submerged, partly due to the old vinyl pressing and no doubt due to the mix itself. There was also some faint hum (from the studio or an instrument) well into the track that isn’t heard on the remix.
When the band swings into “In the Court” it doesn’t have the dynamics or the sheer impact of transition that it does on the remix. Perhaps some compression that was necessary back in the old days of cutting. It’s pretty evident by comparison. I also think you can hear this effect to a lesser degree throughout the remainder of the track- it’s not heavy handed, but when the band is playing at full tilt, it’s like someone was watching the meters and keeping everything reined in. You can also hear its absence when the stage is less cluttered- the flute interlude, with cymbal taps and guitar filigrees are so nice, taut bass, and Lake’s voice is clear, if a little obscured by the guitar work- something that didn’t seem to bother me as much on the remix. The held note on the bass just as the main theme ends is wonderful. Then the calliope bit. The woodwinds are wonderful and when the tom-toms are struck, there’s a lovely dimension to them, as the rest of the band weighs in for that final go. I heard more keyboard sweeping at this passage and some odd synth sounds on the outro.
UK Pink Rim- Side Two
“Moonchild” works really well on this 3u UK pink rim—it’s quieter than the UK pink label and whatever slight brightness may be characteristic of this copy or pressing does not detract from the performance but probably enhances the little details. The transition to “In the Court” is pretty dynamic and nicely presented- although there is that slight bright quality compared to the pink label, it doesn’t suffer standing on its own. The kick drum is great here, and the haloed voices are clear as is the mellotron string tone. Good bass too. The calliope interval is quiet, the tone on the woodwind is warm and when the drums kick in, you know it! Oddly, on this track, there are things I like a lot about the pink rim.
I haven’t ignored the fact that the latest 50th Anniversary remix on vinyl includes a second LP, with alternate mixes of the album done by Wilson and Crimson major domo David Singleton. In the interest of time, I haven’t explored that disc yet and, in an effort to compare “like for like,” figured that the first disc in the remix represented what Wilson and the band wanted as representative of the album (for now).
I also haven’t compared either the Porky cut (which used to be cheap but now commands some money) on the UK pink rim or, the 2010 cut of the album (though as mentioned, my thoughts on the latter were included in an earlier capsule). There are certainly other versions of the album out there- I am unaware of a US pressing from the era or immediately thereafter (circa 1970) by Porky, but if readers have that information, share.
If this comparison has any shortcoming, it’s probably that I didn’t mess with VTA settings among the different pressings, which may be unfair to the latest remix, since it is on thicker vinyl. (Raising the VTA on the remix would make it sound less bassy, and by contrast to the old pink label, afford even more high frequency information, though on that score, nothing seemed lacking on the remix though there was a little upper bass prominence. I may revisit the albums and the comparison with the UK pink label solely for this reason). All listening was done in a single session on my main system, using a Koetsu Tiger Eye, which has the dimensional attributes of the Jade I like so much, with more high frequency information and delicacy.
My initial impression of the 50th Anniversary remix of In the Court (which I may revisit given the caveat above about VTA settings) is that I preferred the sonics of side one of the UK pink label and the new remix for side two. The chief benefit of the old UK pink rims was that they were cheaper than the pink label, but the 3u Porkys seem to have gotten pretty pricey. An early pink label is easily US $200 today and probably more for a truly clean copy. As for my 4u, it had some attributes I liked, but overall was brighter in places though at times, seemed more dynamic than the far more desirable (from a marketplace standpoint) early pink label. I suppose in trying to even things out even more, I could lower the VTA a bit for the pink rim in comparison to the pink label, but….
Punchline: The 50th Anniversary on vinyl was worth waiting for and is easily recommended for its modest cost and good sound quality. This was never an easy album sonically—there were trade-offs, some of which I described above. Frankly, I was pretty happy with the digital media version of Wilson’s last remix. It is a joy to be able to play it through my vinyl front end, which is significantly more involved– and brings an altogether different kind of presentation to the proceedings –than my digital gear.
I look forward to digging into the alternate mixes and may supplement this piece accordingly, including some fiddling with the VTA if time allows.