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


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

4.17 | 2128 ratings

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Special Collaborator
Eclectic Prog & JR/F/Canterbury Teams
5 stars I try to reserve 5 star ratings for albums that provide a truly magnificent experience, and this one deserves it. Brain Salad Surgery more or less adheres to the same pattern as Tarkus, with an epic, prolonged centrepiece backed up by a number of shorter songs. Only this time it is a far more consistent product with virtually no weak spots at all, and the band has also gained a better understanding and handling of both their instruments and the capabilities of recording in a studio.

The opening track, "Jerusalem" illustrates the shift in tone perfectly: it's a bombastic album opener that's meant to kick things off in the same way as "The Endless Enigma" on the last album, but it's more concise, more fast-paced and lively (in contrast to the snail's tempo at which "The Endless Enigma" crawls along) and, most notably, far better produced: the organs sound a lot sharper and militant (the result of numerous overdubs) and, most importantly, the synthesizer has at long last settled comfortably in its role as musical backbone: instead of being used exclusively as a flashy novel solo instrument, it is here allowed to enhance and spice up the beautiful main melody, and is more prominent than ever before on most of the other tracks too. The classical composition on which "Jerusalem" is based (a choral song by Hubert Parry) pretty much sounds like what the band was trying to imitate when they recorded "The Endless Enigma" so I suppose it's only fair that they'd put the original in the spotlight as well.

"Jerusalem" is followed by "Toccata", another classical adaptation, though you probably wouldn't immediately guess because of the track's high-tech and electronic feel. Once again, Keith is the main star. Carl gets to rock out on his timpanis and tubular bells and Greg is even allowed some muted electric guitar playing in the quiet middle section, but for the most part it's a merciless onslaught of keyboard manoeuvres set to a complex martial rhythm, with the organ providing an ominous background to the aggressive synth playing on top of it. At one point the track even breaks down to show off Carl's set of electronic percussion, producing sounds such as police sirens and other synthesized noises.

Well, that one may be a little too over the top. Luckily, the two tracks that follow serve as a peaceful intermission after that little bout of musical insanity, and while they're not as essential as the rest of the album, they're still worth the price of admission. "Still? You Turn Me On" is this album's Greg Lake ballad; probably not his best but still very soothing. Keith plays some lovely accordion on it, too. And "Benny The Bouncer", the first in a series of ragtime tributes by Keith, has to be one of the most hilarious tracks these guys ever made, with Greg singing a silly tale of a bar brawl in a fake cockney accent along with muted drums and, of course, some excellent honky-tonk soloing.

But no matter how good these songs are, they still feel like afterthoughts when compared to the album's pièce de résistance, which is the lengthy "Karn Evil 9" suite: a half hour-long composition, divided into three "impressions" (one of which is further divided into two parts), describing an apocalyptic scenario of a dystopian futuristic society being destroyed by a war between humans and machines (that's something else I should mention: the lyrics on this album are actually competent [though that's not that much of a surprise since they're now written by former King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield rather than the band members themselves]. They convey the fantastic, intriguing images you'd expect from such a grandiose concept quite well, and steer clear of the embarrassing clichés that plagued the band's earlier lyrical efforts. It still comes close to word salad [perhaps even brain salad] at times, but it's imaginative word salad). To even begin listening to this monster must be a daunting prospect for any? Nah, who am I kidding? If you're crazy enough to still be reading these reviews you must be crazy enough to derive some enjoyment from this.

The first impression (which was originally split into two parts in order to make it fit on the LP) starts off as a fast, determined, organ-dominated tune lamenting the soullessness and the mechanization of the fictional world, before turning into an even faster tune which is styled like a series of circus announcements, showcasing items from past societies that were lost and mocking the technological accomplishments of the future. The second part of the impression begins with the famous "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends", which is followed by one of the most badass organ solos in Keith's career (if you want to be impressed further, look up a video of a live performance of this song: while Greg is having fun on his electric guitar during this part, Keith plays the bass track on his synthesizer while simultaneously soloing on his organ with his other hand).

The second impression is instrumental, and is mostly centred around Keith's keyboard playing again. For once, he goes back to his old trusted Steinway piano, leaving his organ completely untouched and only using his synthesizer to imitate a steel drum in a jam-portion of the song. The piano parts together constitute one of the most intricate and demanding compositions Keith ever wrote, going from a very fast-paced part to a slow, brooding, ominous section which gradually grows more ferocious before leading to a restatement of the opening theme, and finally into the synth-heavy third impression, a threatening march-like tune depicting the man-machine war.

The funny thing is, from a purely compositional viewpoint, many parts of this album aren't even that much of a step up from Trilogy. I've thought hard and long about why exactly Brain Salad Surgery fills me with so much more satisfaction than its predecessor, but I've finally concluded that the production is really the one aspect in which Brain Salad Surgery truly shines, and which sets it apart from the band's earlier efforts. The boys really put care into creating a diverse set of arrangements and different sounds for this album: the orchestral percussion on "Toccata", the accordion and harpsichord on "Still? You Turn Me On", the piano solo in the middle of "Karn Evil 9", even the synth tones are far more diverse and fresh in comparison to Trilogy. And the songs themselves are more intricately layered and made up of far more separate tracks, too. I discover something new with each consecutive listen. Something I noticed only recently is the 1920s-esque piano which is hidden in the background of the first impression of "Karn Evil 9" and kicks in once Greg Lake sings about "Alexander's ragtime band". I love albums that keep surprising me no matter how many times I listen to them. Brain Salad Surgery has an admirable number of surprises up its sleeve, and I hope it can surprise me for many years to come.

Mirakaze | 5/5 |


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