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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery CD (album) cover


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

4.17 | 2129 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Review 3, Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 1973


Some fans like to think of this album as ELP's magnum opus. It certainly shows technical skill, power, a complete disregard for musical conventions and grandiose pieces that don't wear too thin after a few listens. It also has the added bonus of relatively diverse musical choices (from the heavy electronic classical(?!) interpretation of Toccata to the soft tones of Still..You Turn Me On to the progressive beast that is Karn Evil 9). The biggest let-down on this album is that it doesn't really feel like an album, but rather like a collection of several very good songs. There also isn't really any single track that I'd consider absolutely vital to someone who isn't an ELP fan already (well, maybe Toccata). There's no weakness, and everything's great, but this album doesn't really have a Tarkus or a Musical Box or a Gypsy or a Schizoid Man to leave you gasping for more and riveted to your chair. Perhaps my favourite part of this album is Palmer's drumming throughout, especially on Toccata. It always annoys me to see Phil Collins, although he's good, getting way more votes than Palmer on all those best drummer ever polls.

The version of Jerusalem was a fairly ambitious choice. However, the arrangements are great, Emerson's organ backing Lake's triumphant 'Bring me my bow of burning gold...'. It's great entertainment, an original take, and a good opener.

Still... You Turn Me On is pretty obviously a Lake composition. Short, melodic and with gorgeous haunting verses interspersed with slightly awkward choruses that take a few listens to acquire. If you like Lucky Man, you should like this, if not, I can't see it being too annoying to listen through.

Benny the Bouncer is another short track, based on a weird club-style piano, light drums and Lake's half-drunken vocals. It's quite amusing, but nothing really superb.

Toccata is a driving reinterpretation of a classical composition. The drumming; chimes, electric drums and all is absolutely amazing, the Moog is hectic, screeching and energetic, and, most importantly of all, the atmosphere and direction is always there.

Karn Evil 9 may not be every progger's piece of cake, but is definitely something most ELP fans should enjoy. The concept is the enslavement of humans by computers, which at times has superb lyrical results, and at others lines like 'no man yields who flies on my ship'. The first impression pt. 1 is opened with a good vocal part, together with Emerson's Hammond organ, and has a moody energy, great keyboards and foreshadowing perhaps weakened by an occasional moment of tacky lyrics and vocals.

The First Impression part 2 is a big improvement on that, full of energy and bursting with lightness, and the bass is supporting suitably silly keyboard parts that take the serious edge off the song. Lake's vocals are as good as anything he's done, and the lyrics aren't bad, per se, and the instrumental section is as polyphonic as you could expect from a three-piece band. I love the thing that sounds like a great guitar solo, but could be a keyboard solo. I particularly like the brief moments when Palmer's left alone. He can both hold up the rhythm section throughout the song flawlessly and also develop on that any time he wants.

My criticism for the second impression is that it is really nothing except good music. I can't see any real relation to the concept, or musical ties between the pieces. The music is all very cooperative, and usually seems to have all members of the band playing. The random yipping after the opener only improves it, and Palmer's drumming is eclectic and sounds like steel drums. The second part of it has some echoes of Toccata and excellent drawn out atmosphere with bass and piano together with the occasional hollow tap on a percussion instrument. The shift to a slightly heavier and more pompous piano part doesn't come off too well. It goes back to some variations (I think) on the opener section, and there are some brilliant moments. Unfortunately it still overall feels to me like a bunch of random ideas thrown together into a bit of a mess. It changes abruptly and obviously to an overblown third impression.

The third impression starts well with bits of pseudo-classical organ interspersed with light moog, a good sung part continuing the concept. The 'computer's lyrical parts were obviously the good ones, and its . The instrumental section is again the real triumph here, though the keyboard parts sometimes seem a little brainlessly or ostentatiously added. Additionally it doesn't really, for me, evoke the idea of a battle. As hard as I try, I can only think spacey or confused when listening to this. When the vocals kick in again, it's to good effect, and the computer's final duet with Lake is pensive and impressive, and shows why I don't dislike the concept overall. Although I've come to accept the ending, as is the case with King Crimson's In The Wake Of Poseidon, its feeling is ruined by the inclusion of bonus tracks.

Of the bonus tracks, there's not much to say, they'll get a fuller mention on the Works II review. Brain Salad Surgery itself has an almost spitting drum-part, silly keyboards, basically random lyrics, and a generally laid back feel. There's a good 'lead' guitar part in the background and the quiet bit in the middle, which is always a nice change from pure keyboard-domination. Not brilliant, but good.

When The Apple Blossoms Bloom is basically a nice jazz fusion piece, with eclectic keyboards, good percussion and a quiet bass part. It's great. The excerpts just irritate me. I can only listen to the opening of BSS itself once in a sitting before it annoys me, and I get equally annoyed if I have to dash to the stereo just to turn it off at the exact moment WTABB ends.

Overall, a very strong four stars that only misses the fifth because of a lack of overall direction and personal nitpicking in Karn Evil 9, as well as too much keyboard dominance on that song for me. I'm one of the unconverted heathen who likes polyphony and thinks that In The Cage is vastly overrated, and proud of it. Despite the high rating, I wouldn't start an ELP collection with this. It's not massively accessible, and if you just don't like ELP, I can't see this having anything really which you'd like.

Rating: Almost. Almost. Four stars. Favourite Track: Toccata

Edited up to a 5, at last. Not because my fundamental views on the album have changed all that much, it's still got a flaw or two. On the other hand, this is possibly the best played album of all time. Three very distinctive, absolutely mindblowing musicians (and Carl Palmer and Greg Lake at their finest are every bit the monster that Bruford and Squire were, in fact, I'd say even more so), pulling out fantastic tones for the entire thing and working together astoundingly closely. As I've got more and more capable of listening for the actual musical components, this has become comfortably my most listened to, and possibly even my favourite ELP album, and so I think it might be unfair to, on a technicality, deny it the fifth star. So, crank the volume up, and enjoy. And yes, now it feels perfectly like an album to me, not a fully resolved one, but nonetheless a brilliant, brilliant album.

Edit, and I'm now of the view that Toccata is ELP's crowning achievement... that's a must have, along with Jerusalem and KE-9, 1st Impression pt. 2.

Rating 14/15, and five stars. With a recommendation, if you're new to prog rock and don't like this at first, explore a few other albums and subgenres, wait for your ears to get a bit more experienced and then give it another go. It only gets better.

TGM: Orb | 5/5 |


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