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King Crimson: The Sounds of War in Heavy Metal

This essay is based on my notes for a presentation given at a seminar titled "The Art of War," about artistic responses to, and interpretations of, a number of conflicts from the American Civil War onward.

I'm going to be discussing about one of the most influential pieces of music from the late '60s. A lot of important records came out around this time, so the competition is pretty tight. The song is "21st Century Schizoid Man," the opening track on early prog rock band King Crimson's 1969 debut album. At the time they were already popular thanks to their live shows, where "Schizoid Man" was a fan favorite. It's aggressive, it's chaotic, it had a siezure-inducing choreographed light show, basically everything a generation of angry jaded hippies could want out of a song.

That first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, deals with some highly political themes. This is especially evident on its opening track, and of course in 1969 the Vietnam War was an unavoidable part of political discourse. The band's lyricist, Peter Sinfield, said that "21st Century Schizoid Man" was inspired by the media imagery from the Vietnam War, and this is evident in the lyrics and the music.

The song opens with with 29 seconds of noise. It's hard to place exactly but it evokes a train whistle whenever I hear it. Next, the music starts with a heavy blues rock riff at a moderate tempo, layered saxophones reinforcing the guitar for a denser instrumentation.

The verse is where things get weird. I'll talk about the lyrics later on, but the element that stands out the most is the abrasive distortion on the vocals. A spectrogram comparison of the isolated vocals from the track and from a live performance (without effects) shows that the distorted vocals are much more complex in frequency; the pitch is less distinct, and the timbre is closer to white noise.

Top: isolated vocals from the album version of "21st Century Schizoid Man." Bottom: live recording, isolated using EQ and stereo image manipulation.

This effect can mean a number of different things to the listener. One comparison we can make is with "walkie talkie voice." Two-way radios and other low fidelity communication devices filter out high and low frequencies and only maintain the narrow strip where intelligibility lives, roughly 500Hz - 4kHz in non-tonal languages. Radios, loudspeakers, and these kinds of lo fidelity voice tech are much more common in a military setting than in most civilians' lives. The sound of someone yelling into a radio, even more so.

The radio comparison is cool and all, but I think there's an even better analysis. There's another reason you might hear complex pitch in the human voice, and this one doesn't require any mediation. The scream: the sound of the voice at its most intense intense as it resonates in complex ways through different parts of the throat, mouth, head, and chest. We're used to hearing distorted voices in pop music all the time, at least partly as an effect of how ubiquitous low fidelity audio recording and transmission is. However, to some audiences in 1969 this was reported to be a legitimately terrifying song, and that's because the lead vocals resembles a scream in such a physical way.

But why should the vocals sound like a scream? It's not hard to tell that, if there was no distortion, the delivery would be just as intense and ear-catching, and the lyrics might be easier to understand. But think about how much attention Remarque gives to screaming, both the screaming of people and of animals. It can indicate pain, terror, and rage in a way that transcends culture and species, and for that reason it's one of the most enduring and visceral signifiers for war. It's the same reason heavy metal vocalists would eventually incorporate actual screaming as a vocal technique, and at times – particularly in extreme metal – refining the scream to eliminate any recognizable trace of the human voice. What's left behind is only the primal white noise that suggests all the brutality of war but without any human agency.

After two verses, around the 2:00 mark, we're treated to an extended bridge titled "Mirrors." This section drops the blues rock/proto-metal feel entirely, transitioning to upbeat jazz. According to the band, "Mirrors" is in 6/4, which would put the tempo around 280bpm, which is very fast. It might be easier to count as 6/8 with really frantic drumming, but the point is this part is fast. There's dissonant guitars and screeching saxophones, but since I'm no musicologist, and since I certainly can't do justice to the technical brilliance of Robert Fripp's and Ian McDonald's respective solos, I'll have to move on to the bridge-within-a-bridge.

Here, the entire band plays the same jagged rhythms in unison. Short bursts of complex sound at unpredictable intervals but with an internally consistent rhythm: there's a reason people describe this trope as a machine gun staccato. Keep in mind, this was around the same time Jimi Hendrix was making explosion sounds with his guitar during the national anthem; people are finding ways to integrate the sounds of war into music.

After another verse, the 7-minute song finally ends in a wall of noise. You could argue it sounds like screams, explosions, or any number of war sounds. I hear a noise like scraping metal, but it's hard to pin anything down for certain. It's abrasive, meaningless, unpredictable. Even better, there's a fakeout ending before the noise swells up again and finally ends for real. It's hard to put a better sonic profile on the Vietnam War. Yes drummer Bill Bruford (who would join King Crimson just a few years later), saw the band live early on and said that if someone were to commission a band to write a song criticizing the war, you couldn't ask for anything better than "Schizoid Man."

With that in mind, the lyrics confirm, reinforce, and elaborate on the themes communicated by the music. There are three verses following a pretty strict form: the first line consists of two quick, paratactic images. The second line is a single more elaborate concept, though still without context. The way Sinfield puts it, if the lyrics were "a movie, it would just be a series of frames.” In the third line a complete sentence is at least implied, and a narrative finally starts to emerge. In two of the three verses, subject and predicate are both present for the first time in this third line. It's here that the flashes of imagery gain some sort of meaning: "paranoia," "neurosurgeons" – clearly someone isn't doing too well with their mental health. The last line is the hook, which contextualizes all the previous lyrics in relation to the titular 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Cat's foot iron claw Neuro-surgeons scream for more At paranoia's poison door Twenty first century schizoid man

Blood rack barbed wire Politicians' funeral pyre Innocents raped with napalm fire Twenty first century schizoid man

Death seed blind man's greed Poets' starving children bleed Nothing he's got he really needs Twenty first century schizoid man

At first glance this seems like PTSD, and we might understand the lyrics as describing the experiences and memories of a traumatized soldier, as well as the social forces that go into constructing this trauma, like hawkish politicians and the state-medical apparatus. The lyrics are ambiguous enough to allow for other interpretations, however, and the futuristic 21st century setting suggests this probably has more to do with technology than the shell-shock reading affords. Technology like the visual media that exposed a generation of Americans to the horrors of the most televised war in history, the Vietnam War having taken place at that delicate moment when communication technology allowed for unprecedented frontline coverage but before warfare was technologically sterilized, as it was during the Gulf War.

One last thing to note about the lyrics: in an interview, Sinfield said the lines "paranoia's poison door" and "politicians' funeral pyre" were the result of stringing plosives together to sound like a machine gun, so even in the lyrics we can hear how the band is tone painting with the sounds of war.

I promise this is an important song, not just me geeking out about music I like. Specifically, it's often given the prestigious title of the first heavy metal song, predating the seminal Black Sabbath by about nine months.

One reason for this is the combination of bluesy riffing and jazz influence with an approach taken from the playbook of western art music. A defining feature of metal that separates it from hard rock is a "symphonic" or "operatic" feel where everything's larger (and louder) than life. It's from this tradition, and specifically western religious traditions, where notions of the sublime emerge, and where overpowering the body with sound becomes a key objective.

There is another thing that separates rock and metal: metal music is built around an aesthetics of fear, where value comes from invoking darkness and evil. While Black Sabbath would soon provide precedent for the "hail Satan" approach that was taken up and refined in black metal, King Crimson used Vietnam War imagery that was deliberately disturbing and confrontational to tap into a more political sense of evil. This legacy can be heard in thrash metal and then grindcore from the '80s, with songs about the Holocaust, drug addiction, and all sorts of institutionalized oppression. This type of metal lyricism digs out the most disturbing images and concepts from these historical and contemporary atrocities and throws them unrelentingly at the listener. When done well, this can provoke a visceral reaction and make the horror of distant or opaque topics more real and present.

Sonic aggression is even more important than lyrics to making something sound evil, as evidenced by tests conducted on Guantánamo Bay detainees. Heavy and dissonant guitars, distorted and screamed vocals, and mixing that specifically brings out the aggressive characteristics of each instrument. Metal saxophone didn't catch on quite as much, but shoutout to John Zorn and Clown Core for carrying that torch.

Heavy metal was one of several genres and subcultures that grew out of a disillusionment with the '60s, and the Vietnam War was an essential part of that cultural ethos. King Crimson was one of the earliest acts to fully harness this political rage and the sounds of war into what would become heavy metal.

I've lost my works cited page and don't feel like finding all the sources again, but don't hesitate to get in touch with me at if you'd like to check the primary source material for any reason.


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