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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Emerson Lake & Palmer CD (album) cover

EMERSON LAKE & PALMER

Emerson Lake & Palmer

 

Symphonic Prog

4.23 | 2033 ratings

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cfergmusic1
4 stars Perhaps the all-time greatest prog supergroup, even if few of the bands from which these individuals came are as well-known today. Keyboard whiz Keith Emerson was an original member of the Nice, a fine outfit which bore the first fruits of Keith's classical/rock adaptations. Lead singer, bassist and sometime guitarist Greg Lake came fresh from King Crimson Mark I (best known of course for "21st Century Schizoid Man"), while young virtuosic drummer Carl Palmer was previously a member of Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Never let it be said that these guys were short on ambition; their second gig ever was at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, in front of an estimated crowd of 600,000! Not that this really set the tone for their future long-form epics?heck, they were doing "Pictures at an Exhibition" even back then. In any case, around this time they kicked off their recording legacy with their self-titled debut, released in late 1970 in the UK and early 1971 in America.

I have to say that I'm excited to be reviewing the ELP ouevre, as Keith Emerson has always been a big influence on the way I think about music. Listening to his work here and in other venues, one gets the sense of someone who truly loved music and couldn't wait to express it any way he could, and this is borne out by his mastery of the Hammond organ and grand piano, as well as his pioneering work on Moog synthesizer (eventually befriending the late Bob Moog). Add to this the mileage that he got out of different genres?greatly influenced by music from Bach to Bartok and a more than passable jazz player as well?and his keen sense of marrying harmony and melody together, and you basically have my favorite prog keyboardist. Honestly, just about anything he does is worth listening to on some level.

The first track, "The Barbarian," is as good a representation of the ELP sound as any. An adaptation of Bela Bartok's solo piano piece "Allegro barbaro," the tone is set by a grungy, distorted bass riff and the now-classic overdriven, percussive organ sound. Serious Bartok fans will notice some differences between the original and ELP's version (notably in the first 80 seconds), but remarkably, these changes take nothing away from the piece itself. The second part is a quasi-jazz piano workout underscored by Palmer's deft brushwork and lighter bass guitar work from Lake, eventually building to a crescendo. The transitions are set up wonderfully and are organic to the piece in general, especially the run up the keyboard leading into a reprise of the first part of the piece (signaled by a gong). The title "The Barbarian" is certainly apropos as well, as the track has a persistent feeling of violence and uneasiness even in the quieter moments. Overall, though, the band couldn't have picked a better opening track.

"Take a Pebble" is an immediate change of pace. Here Emerson strums the strings of the piano, a move only recently discovered by 20th-century avant-garde classical composers; Keith's use of this technique is much more accessible though. The track itself is an atmospheric, sparse ballad of Lake's which is broken up by several distinct "episodes" to stretch the track out to 12:27. After two verses, the tempo doubles for piano-based variations on the melody line before a folky, solo acoustic guitar passage that turns into a country-ish riff halfway through. (This part of the song would evolve in live performance to include a couple of Lake's own numbers.) Much of the rest of this track is given to Emerson and his signature left-hand ostinato, which turns into a jazz exercise about 8 minutes in?in fact, I always thought that Emerson should have had a co-writing credit here, solely because of this section. As great as Lake's melody and lyrics here, the instrumental sections really hold it all together and take it to another level. Dig Lake's quasi-double-tracked vocals in the last verse, as well as Emerson's quote of Bach's Invention in C Major (here transposed).

Onward to the next track, which is "Knife Edge," another classic in the ELP canon. It took me a while to realize that this was another classical adaptation, this time of Czech composer Leos Janacek's "Sinfonietta"?the band updates it to sound like a hard-rock riff from the 1920s or thereabouts. Sparkling instrumental work characterizes this track, and Keith's organ sounds grungier than ever (in fact this is the grittiest tone he would ever get out of the Hammond, another way of making this track stand out). Lake double-tracks his vocals again, which aren't exactly in sync with each other; somehow this adds to the humanity of the group performances. The end of the tune, with the tape slowing down to almost nothing, is another innovative touch. Great track, and a great way to close out side one. And hey, isn't that another Bach quote in the instrumental section? I believe it is!

Side two is basically the "solo" side, with each member showing off his strengths. Keith's first up with "The Three Fates," naturally divided into three parts. "Clotho" is all on pipe organ, a menacing piece that explores the different timbres of the unwieldy instrument in about 90 seconds. "Lachesis" is solo piano, and one of the best examples of Emerson's pure compositional skill and technique (wonder why he never seems to have played this live?). A brief pipe organ episode leads to "Atropos," the most avant-garde section of the piece. Here Keith overdubs three piano tracks on top of each other, accompanied only by Palmer's drums in 7/8. The entire piece is built on a whole-tone scale and eventually the "top" piano (based on the range of the keyboard) introduces a steady 16th-note triplet rhythm in 4/4 time, which will throw off the unsuspecting listener. Wild stuff.

A fuzzy, electronic crashing noise leads to "Tank," which rides a nervous riff under Keith's overdubbed Clavinets. This is another jazzy piece (like "Atropos" and the middle section of "The Barbarian") that is built on the Dorian mode, and Keith wows us with his skills yet again. After some brief sparring matches between keys and drums, the piece gives way to a fast and furious drum solo. I'll give credit where credit is due; Palmer's solo has a lot more imagination and flexibility than most ham-fisted rock drum solos of the time, and the kid was only 20 years old! However, as great as it is, it's a bit of a chore to listen to in studio (as are most drum solos, frankly). Of course Carl would build on this later on in live performances, but in any case, this is a good indication of where he was musically at that time. The end section, over a quasi-shuffle beat, introduces the instrument that would become the mainstay of Keith's rig throughout his career, the Moog synthesizer (you thought it started with "Lucky Man," huh?).

Speaking of "Lucky Man," Greg's best-selling single closes out the present album. Lake apparently wrote this when he was 12, and it shows in the fact that the make-up of the tune itself is pretty simplistic (verse, chorus, etc.). The tune is pleasant enough, I suppose (and those vocal harmonies on the chorus are fantastic), but it's so at odds with the rest of the album that I wonder why it was included. Fortunately for us (and for the financial security of the band), the song became a worldwide hit along with Keith's classic Moog solo at the end (which he hated).

If there's one specific criticism I can lay upon ELP's early work, it's that none of it really hung together as an album until, say, Pictures at an Exhibition. In spite (or because) of the variety in the material, there isn't a whole lot of continuity to it. That can be forgiven, though, because the band was still finding its feet in the early stages and that sort of thing is bound to happen. It shouldn't take away tremendously from your enjoyment of the album, anyway. Recommended for your ELP "starter kit." 4 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 4/5 |

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