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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Pictures At An Exhibition CD (album) cover


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

3.86 | 896 ratings

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4 stars This album is a live recording of an ELP concert at Newcastle City Hall, UK on 26 March 1971. The majority of the music is ELP's interpretation of Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition", with a couple of pieces written by the band thrown in ('The Sage' and 'The Curse Of Baba Yaga') plus ELP's version of Kim Fowley's 'Nut Rocker' (itself an adaptation of Tchaikovsky's 'March Of The Wooden Soldiers' from "The Nutcracker Suite" and originally played by B. BUMBLE AND THE STINGERS).

I would be a rich man if I had a cent for every time someone has said about this album "Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's original is better" or "Mussorgsky's original piano version is better." But such statements probably miss the point. Both the original opus and Ravel's later orchestration are of course wonderful, but ELP did not set out to reproduce faithfully Mussorgsky's original or Ravel's version. ELP - particularly Keith Emerson - unashamedly borrowed heavily from classical music in all their albums. Basically, the band liked many classical pieces and enjoyed giving them a modern twist. And what a twist: Emerson's Moog synthesizers and Hammond organ transformed pieces into futuristic mind-blowers. As with the adaptations of classical pieces on other ELP albums, here the band used Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition" as a frame on which to build. It was never their intention to say "look how clever, sophisticated and knowledgeable we are: we can even play classical music." As Emerson's previous history with THE NICE shows, he knew a good tune when he heard one. And, in terms of pleasing the listener, this often gave the band a head start.

Mussorgsky wrote "Pictures At An Exhibition" as a tribute to his artist friend Hartmann. The music is Mussorgsky's impressions of Hartmann's paintings, interspaced with the evolving Promenade refrain, which represents Mussorgsky walking from painting to painting. It also helps to know this when listening to the ELP version.

The album cover is quite appealing: an oak panelled wall with ornate gilded picture frames filled with the surreal, sci-fi style, paintings of William Neal (the same artist who painted the cover art for ELP's previous album "Tarkus"). Each frame contains a painting of one of the key tracks: 'The Gnome', 'The Sage', 'The Old Castle', 'The Hut Of Baba Yaga', and so on.

After an introduction and the crowd's roar, Emerson's synthesizer (very ecclesiastical sounding to start with) launches into the first 'Promenade' refrain. 'The Gnome' has some interplay between Emerson and Palmer leading into some fat synthesizer backed with Lake's bass and Palmer's drums, which is reminiscent of someone (the Gnome) plodding along rather malevolently. Sounds like a gnome to be avoided! Emerson's mastery of the keyboards on stage is very impressive - he changes radically from one sound to another - and, to a synthesizer fan such as myself, the sounds are very pleasing. Lake's and Fraser's lyrics, and Lake's singing, are pleasant on the third track (the evolving 'Promenade' refrain).

'The Sage' is a song written by Lake and, after an excellent synthesizer introduction by Emerson, is played solely on the acoustic guitar. It's very mellow, melodic and pleasing: a quiet interlude between the sonic attacks of Emerson's synthesizer. You could probably have heard a pin drop in the hall when Lake performed this song, and his tenor voice and enunciation are clear and very pleasant. The acoustic guitar is lovely, reminiscent of Spanish guitar music. Again the lyrics are good.

Emerson goes into some real synthesizer 'pyrotechnics' at the start of 'The Old Castle', taunting the crowd with the synthesizer before launching into some wonderful, reverberating fat synthesiser. Palmer and Lake pound away at their instruments as Emerson's synthesizer dances over the top melodiously. The track segues into 'Blues Variations', which is a real R&B foot-tapper. There's some funky work on the Hammond and synthesizer. Great stuff.

And then we're back to the 'Promenade' refrain as ELP walk to the next painting: 'The Hut Of Baba Yaga.' This is a fast-paced piece, again with bass and percussion supporting Emerson's accomplished Hammond. It segues into 'The Curse Of Baba Yaga' which was written by ELP and has some *very* electronic-sounding synthesizer bopping around over Lake's bass for a while, before Lake launches into fast singing (sometimes yelling) over frenetic-paced music. With this pace, the lyrics, wailing synthesizer and pounding of the bass and drums it sounds almost manic. It segues back into the instrumental 'The Hut Of Baba Yaga' at a thumping pace, then into 'The Great Gates Of Kiev' which Lake's singing almost turns into an anthem, Emerson's Hammond sounding ecclesiastical and at times bell-like. Emerson interrupts the tune briefly with some deep, distorted synthesizer that sounds like someone blowing through a long, wide pipe, before the finale with Lake belting out "There's no end to my life, no beginning to my death. Death is life..."

The crowd erupts and of course accepts the inevitable offer of an encore."Nut Rocker" (written as "Nutrocker" on the album cover). This is pure fun: honky-tonk Hammond, bass and drums. After it ends we're left to hear the fading out of the crowd's chant: "More, more, more." and to wish that the album went on longer.

"Pictures At An Exhibition" has always been a strange album for me in the sense that, when I'm not listening to it, I think it is average, but while I'm listening to it I enjoy every minute and really like some of the heavy, thumping interpretations of Mussorgsky's music, especially Emerson's synthesizer work. And when I remember that it's a recording of a live concert, it's even more remarkable. I have my doubts that any other band could pull-off such a live project so elegantly and with such self-assurance. In my opinion this album is at least a 4-star album (Excellent addition to any Prog Rock collection) and one that newcomers to the Progressive Rock genre should find interesting and entertaining. And if it piques you to listen to Mussorgsky's original piano opus or Ravel's orchestration then so much the better.

Fitzcarraldo | 4/5 |


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