Emerson, Lake & Palmer – A Progressive Retrospective

Welcome back my friends, to the blog that never ends.

In commemoration of Greg Lake, who died last Thursday, it’s an Emerson, Lake, & Palmer retrospective.

ELP produced a run of good albums in the 70s, then turned to pop-inspired music in the 80s, presumably for the sake of money, and their output significantly worsened. This is a common story for classic progressive rock bands – Yes and Genesis being the most prominent examples. While I delved into their later catalog, I’ve given their first five albums far more attention (those being their self-titled debut, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, and Brain Salad Surgery).

Some general notes are in order. On each of the members:

There was a certain airy, royal quality about Lake’s voice, in both ELP and in his small number of works for King Crimson – and this was only exacerbated by the lyrics he either wrote himself or was forced into singing by the caprices of early Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield. Not even he was capable of reproducing his singing style in the 70s. And it possessed a famous hard edge; there are stories floating around the Internet about early Crimson auditions, where people would try to match the ferocity of ‘Schizoid Man’ and end up fainting from the strain.

But the band is characterised much more strongly by the keyboard and piano work of Keith Emerson. Given his control over their creative output, I would have been unsurprised if he had chosen to name the band solely after himself – and maybe it would have been justified. Although Lake tried to make their music somewhat commercially recognisable, ELP’s true greatness is undoubtedly found in Emerson’s expert keyboard work.

Carl Palmer is a beast. There’s not much I can really say about him, other than that he has a ridiculous amount of energy on seemingly every song. ‘Tank’ contains a massive drum solo which honestly sounds like a shooting range, and it’s reminiscent of some of the electronic drumming off ‘Lark’s Tongues in Aspic Part IV’ – except on real drums, twenty years earlier, and without double-kick pedals and tons of effects. So he’s a drummer who seems to focus on speed, and could probably have worked in a metal band.

There was potential for a fourth member – they tried to enlist Jimi Hendrix, but he declined. The band would have been named ‘HELP,’ so maybe it was for the best.

If there could be said to be a ‘definitive’ ELP sound, I believe it was captured in 1972’s Trilogy. The first three songs, which are technically a single composition named ‘The Endless Enigma’ perfectly capture what people so hated and loved about the band – frankly excessive keyboard playing, an extra-large helping of bombast, and lyrics occasionally grating enough  to shred vegetables – perhaps if one wanted to prepare a word salad. Whether one enjoys this piece depends on their tolerance for these characteristics – ELP is not a band that holds back in any regard. Ostentatiousness was the name of the 70s, and you either thought it was utter trash, or the greatest thing ever. Going off the reactions I get to playing this music to people, anyway.

Which brings me to another point in this retrospective ramble – are ELP pretentious? This is a question I’ve never been asked – mostly because only one person I’ve spoken to in real life had ever heard of them. But it’s one I’ll answer for the sake of progressive rock in general. It’s not a difficult accusation to level at someone discussing particularly complex topics or creating dense or ‘difficult’ art. But considering the meaning – attempting to affect an air greater understanding than one actually has – ELP were never ‘pretentious’. Certainly, the lyrics in ‘Endless Enigma’ are on the nose – but its not as though the band were pretending to play the music, or Emerson was editing content in the studio to release albums he couldn’t actually play. While in midair. Spinning vertically in his seat. While chewing gum. The influences that he took on, from Ravel to Mussorgsky, were real influences. Accusations of ‘pretentiousness,’ I think, are best saved for Yes’ ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans.’

As for why they only released five albums before falling into the 80s pop hell that engulfed most classic prog bands, I can only offer the hypothesis of creative differences between Emerson and Lake slowing writing and production down. Lake was constantly trying to create radio hits, and got at least one short ditty on each of the five albums. I’m talking about songs like ‘Jeremy Bender’ and ‘Lucky Man.’ These might not always seem like ‘pop hits’ but relative to Emerson’s ‘Tarkus’ they’re practically Bieber.

The first album, titled ‘Emerson, Lake, & Palmer’ (1970), features more guitar work than later albums. Everyone seems more balanced, in terms of playing time, than later albums, where presumably Emerson became increasingly autocratic and widened the conflict between him and Lake. But there’s even a drum solo, in ‘Tank’, which I can’t remember featuring anywhere else in the first five albums. Not typical of their later sound, but a great album nonetheless. Parts of ‘The Three Fates’ do drag, though.

‘Tarkus’ (1971) is famous for the title track. One of the famous prog epics, it’s the 20-minute long story about the birth, life, and death of an armadillo-tank hybrid, represented through glorious Moog soloing and a surprisingly jazzy middle section. Palmer gets to play around with a gong. Lake sings lyrics which are thinly veiled commentaries on Vietnam. Fantastic, bombastic, drug-addled; what more can one ask for from progressive rock?

Everything else on the album is kind of average, at least in comparison. Considering ‘Tarkus’ takes up a whole side, I’m assuming that Emerson and Lake took a side each – so the first half is the massive composition that is ‘Tarkus’ and the rest is just bizarre rock/pop music. Not bad on its own. I rarely listened to this stuff, however, considering Tarkus was on the same album. Lake could probably have produced this stuff as part of his solo career and it would have been better without the excessive keyboard work.

‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ (1971) was recorded live, in a cathedral, with an actual organ as well as the omnipresent Moog and five thousand other keyboards courtesy of Emerson. Considering how the size of the organ necessitates a second between pressing the key and producing sound, it’s impressive that Lake and Emerson were able to synchronise their play live. They also made the controversial decision of adding lyrics – probably to give Lake something to do, considering otherwise he would have spent huge swathes of time doing absolutely nothing, like Jon Anderson in Yes. Side note: on a re-listen, I’m surprised by how much Lake’s guitar play on ‘The Sage’ sounds like ‘Court of the Crimson King.’

‘Trilogy’ (1972), which I’ve already discussed in part above, offers something closer to the balance the trio achieved on their first album. Emerson is still over-represented, but in terms of composition it’s seemingly more equal. There’s a satisfying mix of simpler Lake-ish work and Emerson lunacy on display, between songs like ‘The Sheriff’ and ‘Hoedown’ to ‘Trilogy’ itself – which by the way is the best song on the album. Unfortunately, there’s a drop in quality in the final two songs. ‘Living Sin’ just isn’t as interesting as anything that comes before it, although I can tolerate it. ‘Abaddon’s Bolero’, just like Ravel’s original, annoys me to no end. I’ve always felt sorry for whoever has to play snare drums in that piece in concert – there’s a great piece of French comedy out there outlining the poor snare’s plight.

‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (1973), is one many people consider ELP’s best. Beginning with a new adaptation of classic English folk hymn ‘Jerusalem’, ‘BSS’ quickly moves through a version of a modern classical piece by Ginastera and some Lakeian singles (‘Still, You Turn Me On’ and ‘Benny the Bouncer’) before jumping into the real attraction.

‘Karn Evil 9’ does raise the question of what happened to Karn Evils 1 through 8. In keeping with the title, it evokes a sinister carnival aspect – from the beginning of part 1 to the famous lyrics in the 2nd impression – but also rocks like some of the simplest Lake ballads. The quality is among ELP’s best, rivaling the songs ‘Tarkus’ and ‘Trilogy’.

Ignoring everything after ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ seems to be the best option. ‘Fanfare For the Common Man’ off ‘Works, Vol. 1’ is quality, but nothing else on the album drew my attention. After that point, their music was unremarkable. I confess no experience with Emerson Lake and Powell, the short-lived project resulting from Carl Palmer’s hiatus.

ELP were typical of progressive rock, with all its faults – excessive braggadocio, incredible costs, showmanship bordering on showing off – but also its greatest strengths. There’s incredible virtuosity from all three members, a variety of influences from vaudevillian rockers to modern composers like Ginastera, and a tenacity to take drugs risks with longer songs like ‘Tarkus’, stretching ‘rock music’ to its breaking point.

ELP demonstrated a  spirit of experimentation and willingness to push musical boundaries that perfectly typifies what ‘progressive’ rock is supposedly about, and is so unfortunately missing from modern artists. An example is, dare I say it, Steven Wilson, who made the same album for twenty years with Porcupine Tree and then made it again on his own four more times. Perhaps I’m being harsh. But it seems as though this all-important aspect of ‘progression’ has disappeared.

But I often see ELP maligned in comparison to many contemporary works, which is frankly unfair, considering their place near the top in progressive rock is well-deserved.

For what it’s worth, rest in peace Emerson and Lake. The show still hasn’t ended.

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