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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Tarkus CD (album) cover


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

4.06 | 1665 ratings

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5 stars Without a moment's hesitation I can say that this is my favourite ELP album and, in my view, this is the band at their most innovative and creative. Unlike their first album, I find all three members of the group contributing equally and uniformly to a stunning album. The lyrics and Lake's singing really add to the music. This is progressive music in all senses of the phrase; remember that this album came out in June 1971, before many of the other progressive classics. At the time it reached no. 1 in the UK album charts and no. 9 in the US album charts.

Until I discovered this Web site I was not aware that the B-side of the LP (the track 'Jeremy Bender' onwards) is regarded by some - many, it would appear - as inferior to the A-side of the LP and in general. In fact I have since seen derisive comments about the B-side tracks on several Web sites. Well, if you have never listened to this album, please do not prejudge it based on any opinions you may hear or read. Listen to the album and make up your own mind. I have to say that I really like every single track on this album, and I hope you will see why from my summary of the tracks below.

The A-side of the LP is 'Tarkus', a twenty-and-a-half minute magnum opus comprising seven parts: 'Eruption', 'Stones Of Years', 'Iconoclast', 'Mass', 'Manticore', 'Battlefield' and 'Aquatarkus'. Three of these are songs interspaced between the other four instrumentals. 'Tarkus' is an allegory. As can be seen from the album's surreal cover and inner gatefold, the tarkus is half World War I tank, half armadillo, born from an egg that appears to have been spewed from a volcano. The tarkus fights and vanquishes three creatures that are half animal, half machine ('Stones Of Years', 'Iconoclast' and 'Mass'). But then the manticore appears, they do battle and the tarkus is vanquished and cast to the waters. A manticore is a mythical Persian creature, the embodiment of tyranny and evil, with the body of a lion, the face and ears of a human, and a tail with a sting at the tip like that of a scorpion. Lake's lyrics in 'Tarkus' are a diatribe against the futility of war, and apparently he stated that the lyrics are also about where past revolution has got us: nowhere, in his opinion. This would seem to fit with the defeat by the manticore at the end of the sleeve illustrations, although more recently Lake has said that 'Stones Of Years' has taken on different meanings for him over the years, and Emerson has said that the artwork was not purposely painted to fit the music. Anyway, the futility and misery of battle are certainly apparent from the lyrics of 'Battlefield'. Musically, 'Tarkus' is an amazing piece: the composition is complex, and certainly avant-garde for the time. The use of instruments is particularly impressive. Emerson's Hammond, Moog synthesizer and piano are (just) tools and, together with Lake's solid bass and guitar playing plus Palmer's percussion they produce a truly modern, sophisticated musical work which, to me, goes beyond the bounds of rock music. Several books (one having an 8-page analysis!) and at least one PhD thesis have discussed at length the 'Tarkus' piece. A superb piece of music.

'Jeremy Bender' is, in some ways, like 'Benny The Bouncer' on "Brain Salad Surgery" in the sense that it's a sort of flippant, seedy song that one could almost picture being sung around a piano in someone's vision (probably mine!) of a Victorian pub with bare floorboards in the East End of London. Described as "throwaway" by many, I still find merit in it. Emerson's honky-tonk piano and the band's hand clapping are the backing to bizarre lyrics about cross-dressing Jeremy Bender ("bender" being British slang for a homosexual man). What exactly Lake was trying to do with this track is a mystery to me, but it makes me curious as to his motives. Perhaps he was just casting around for words to fit Emerson's piano piece. Anyway, I like honky-tonk piano and the tune's fine by me, if no masterpiece.

'Bitches Crystal' is, to me, an excellent track and as good as any of the components of the 'Tarkus' piece. It starts with a very faint tinkling sound that slowly builds - I'm certain it's the celeste mentioned in the sleeve notes. The celeste is a small set of orchestral bells with a keyboard and sounds heavenly, hence the name, and it's used in other parts of the track too. Probably the most famous use of the celeste is in Tchaikovsky's 'The Sugar Plum Fairy'. This track also has plenty of honky-tonk and jazzy piano, some great, fat backing synthesizer, good drumming, and Lake's frenzied singing turning to guttural screams of angst as he belts out the lyrics: "Evil learning, People burning, Savage casting, No one lasting, Witchcraft, Sadness, Madness turning their minds." Just listen to Emerson hammering out the tune on the piano one minute, then gently tickling the ivories the next, then building up to a frenzied pace again with Palmer bashing away at the drums and one cannot fail to be impressed. This track rocks. And then a final honky-tonk tickle and a tap on a cymbal end the piece. Excellent.

'The Only Way (Hymn)' is, as the name states, a hymn. But it's a hymn with a difference: an atheist anthem using the organ of St Marks Church to provide an ecclesiastic introduction using Bach's Toccata in F before the organ launches into the tune and Lake's initially angelic-sounding tenor: "People are stirred, moved by the Word. Kneel at the shrine, deceived by the Wine. How was the Earth conceived? Infinite space, is there such a place? You must believe in the human race." And then his voice fills with contempt: "Can you believe God makes you breathe? Why did he lose six million Jews?" And then a short bridge of Bach before the final verses with the message: "Don't be afraid, man is manmade." Whether or not you are a Believer, the lyrics make you sit up and listen and are as vivid in my mind now as they were when I heard this album for the first time in the early 1970s. What a way to deliver a message: a bit like putting poison in a bottle of Chateau Lafite. A superb piece of music, irrespective of how one feels about the message.

'Infinite Space (Conclusion)' is really the end part of 'The Only Way (Hymn)' and is an ostinato that, at over 3 minutes, is nearly as long as 'The Only Way (Hymn)'. Lake's bass lays the repeating theme, and Emerson's piano repeats over it with Palmer's understated drumming alternately following one then the other. This track may appear pointless, simplistic or even irritating to some: it certainly doesn't to me. It's actually good music and done for a purpose - it creates a mood in this case - and I find it very pleasing. I also find it impressive that the trio can carry this off for over three minutes.

'A Time And A Place' is a heavier piece again, in the vein of 'Bitches Crystal' but even heavier, Emerson pounding and dragging his fingers along the keys of the Hammond, and Lake again raucously shouting out lyrics full of passion: "Save me from this shallow land, take me out of temper's hand. Drag me from the burning sand, show me those that understand." Emerson uses the Moog almost like a clarion in places in this track.

And so to the last track, 'Are You Ready Eddy', possibly the most maligned track on the album: "filler", "throwaway track", you name it. Well, it's only a bit of *fun* for Pete's sake. Eddy "Are You Ready" Offord was the engineer on this album and this was the band's way of larking around. Perhaps it was their way of filling the remaining inner grooves of the LP's B-side but, to me, it's a great way of doing it. This is Emerson tinkling away on the piano like an R&R master, with Lake and Palmer pumping at the bass and percussion in the background. The track is a great jive. And the lyrics are a gas: "Are you ready Eddy to pull your faders down. Well, are you ready, Eddie, to turn your sixteen tracks on? Eddie edit, Eddie, Eddie edit. Are you ready, Eddie, with your sixteen tracks? A bit of vibing is all it lacks." and so on. You try putting that to a jive! And one of the guys says half way through "I've missed my last bus home!". Then at the end they lark around saying "What you got: ham or cheese [sandwich]?" It's a bit of light relief and fun at the end of the album, and the band's not-so-in joke with their engineer.

Coming back to the A-side, B-side thing: All right, 'Jeremy Bender' and 'Are You Ready Eddy' don't have the weight of the other tracks. So what? That still does not make them rubbish. And the rest of the B-side is excellent. I hear nothing but good - no, excellent - music in 'Bitches Crystal', 'The Only Way', 'Infinite Space' and 'A Time And A Place'. They complement well the 'Tarkus' piece.

To those of you who don't know this album, two words: buy it! Ignore everything you've heard or read about the music (including this). Make sure you listen to it on a good hi-fi or decent headphones, and consider that this album came out in 1971. If this album is not a masterpiece of progressive music then I don't know what is.

Fitzcarraldo | 5/5 |


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