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Emerson Lake & Palmer - The Return Of The Manticore CD (album) cover

THE RETURN OF THE MANTICORE

Emerson Lake & Palmer

 

Symphonic Prog

3.47 | 55 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars The other night I happened to catch a broadcast of Emerson, Lake and Palmer's 40th anniversary reunion concert filmed in 2011 and was so delighted to hear how good this trio still is I decided to finally review their retrospective behemoth, "The Return of the Manticore." I'd been putting it off for years because such an endeavor is daunting to a lazy-boned mammal like me but, being inspired by the vitality they displayed in that show, I decided it was high time to get to it. Most likely due to the 90s being the final decade of the 20th century, almost every band and/or artist that had made even a small ripple in rock music history emptied their vaults and put out elaborately-packaged, steeply-priced box sets of their careers. If you had a fanatic in your family and extra lettuce on hand, birthday and Christmas presents could be covered by gifting them with one or more of these collections and the demand for them seemed to be endless. In fall of '93, just in time for the holidays, ELP released this comprehensive overview of their collaborations and it's one of the better ones you'll come across. To keep this essay from becoming a weighty tome that would be a chore to peruse I propose this. If a given song is described in a posted review of mine (all of the initial six LPs) I'll offer only a one-sentence summary. That way if you're interested in a more wordy dissection of the tune you'll have that option and I will thus avoid the bane of all writers, redundancy. Keep in mind that there are four full CDs here. I didn't say it wouldn't be lengthy but this ploy should keep it reasonable and, hopefully, entertaining.

For the dedicated follower of Keith, Greg and Carl Disc 1 has more "new stuff" than the other three. Ironically, they open with a fresh rendition of "Touch and Go," a song penned by Emerson and Lake but hails from the largely-ignored "Emerson, Lake and Powell" album in '86. I, along with billions of others, didn't buy that record but it's a well-written, melodic rocker with Palmer improving it via a stronger rhythm track so I'm glad it got a second chance to be heard. Its spirit harkens back to their early days and sports a concise, to-the-point arrangement. To market extravaganzas like these those involved would try to toss their devotees a bone or two. ELP's clever idea was to resurrect cuts from each of the 60s outfits they'd been with prior to forming their supergroup and give them an update. Therefore you get a cover of a Tim Hardin tune, "Hang on to a Dream." Once recorded by The Nice, it's a beautiful number with a great depth of field surrounding it. Greg's voice has matured and deepened but it still packs a wallop of emotion. That song fares well but the following two don't. Lake was a huge part of King Crimson's fabulous debut but "21st Century Schizoid Man" was never meant to be a three-minute ditty. What you'll find here is a Karaoke-worthy recap of a prog icon that's been over-sanitized and cruelly gutted of the indomitable power the original owned, helping that band shake the planet in '69. To a lesser extent, their cover of "Fire" (Carl played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) is also anemic. The tune isn't held in the same esteem as the one that preceded it but that doesn't excuse them for removing all the heat from it. I can't help but be embarrassed for Lake as he tries to make his voice sound evil and maniacal here. He no longer has it in him.

A brand new studio recording of "Pictures at an Exhibition" ensues and it's a treat. They pared the Mussorgsky epic down to under 16 minutes while Keith utilized the vast improvements in keyboard technology to pump fresh blood into the piece. I have no doubt that many purists will swear by the '71 version but I find this presentation makes up for a lot of the excesses that characterized the original live taping while retaining all of the best parts, especially the final movement, "The Great Gates of Kiev." In stark contrast, they next offer up a new rendition of Greg's only solo hit from '74, "I Believe in Father Christmas." It's a nicely-textured update that includes a chorale but it doesn't add much to his charming ode to crass commercialism. "Introductory Fanfare/Peter Gunn" from the '79 "ELP in Concert" album showcases their raw energy and undeniable spunk. Emerson in particular takes the number to places that composer Henry Mancini never dreamed it would go. I'd never heard "Tiger in a Spotlight" from "Works Vol. II" (I'd disowned them after wasting hard-earned money on "Works Vol. I") and I still wish I'd never heard it. It's the turd in the punchbowl and it reminds me of how they completely lost their mojo after "Brain Salad Surgery." Speaking of that landmark LP, "Toccata" follows. It's a very good arrangement of Ginastera's abstract Piano Concerto but Palmer's drum solo and Emerson's noisy synth-noodling mar it ever so slightly. The brilliant "Trilogy" from the album of the same name is next and all I can say is that when ELP delivered masterpieces like this one no one could top them. "Tank," from their stunning debut, was the least remarkable number on that disc due to Carl's unnecessary solo but Keith's clavinet and Moog work intrigue to this day. They wisely conclude with "Lucky Man." This simple tune is significant in prog history because it brought the misunderstood synthesizer center stage and gave the trio instant credibility.

Disc 2 begins with the greatness that is "Tarkus," one of the most concise and complex progressive rock suites ever produced. Next is "From the Beginning," one of the more unusual Top 40 singles but also one that wouldn't be denied due to Lake's irresistible voice. A live performance of "Take a Pebble," culled from the "Welcome Back My Friends..." set provides a flashback to when these guys were unstoppable. Emerson in particular astounds on the piano but the injection of a stripped-down run-through of "Lucky Man" must've been a disappointment to many in the crowd who craved to hear that "weird thing" at the end but methinks they had nowhere else to stick their obligatory hit. The main number's heavy jazz element probably bored many in attendance but it surely astounded those who were listening. "Knife Edge" from the first record utterly satisfied the rock monster living in my soul at the time and the meltdown ending is still orgasmic. "Paper Blood," a cut on 92's "Black Moon," is an edgy rocker in which Emerson's Hammond and Lake's harp make a good pair and it's reassuring to hear that they still harbor a raucous attitude when called for. Their impeccable rendition of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" that appeared on "Trilogy" follows and it goes without saying that Keith's proficient work on the mighty B3 does the great composer's spirited piece full justice. I'd looked forward to having a copy of their unreleased interpretation of Dave Brubeck's "Rondo" but it fails to thrill. Their wild opening leads to a "normalized" time signature foundation rocking under the central theme that drains it of its magic. It turns out to be an organ-led melee/noise fest that bores me to tears. 'Tis a pity.

Disc 3 starts off with "The Barbarian," the 1st cut on the first LP that not only served as an eye-opening intro to ELP but, thanks to the tune's fine piano interlude, announced to us all that we were in the presence of keyboard deity. "Still... You Turn Me On" was the predictable follow-up to their previous radio hit that's dated mostly by Greg's wah-wah guitar work but has managed to keep its peculiar charm intact over the decades. What can I say about "The Endless Enigma" from the outstanding "Trilogy" album? Simply put, it's a marvelous piece of symphonic prog that will never grow old. They then bring the listener back to earth with "C'est La Vie," Lake's overproduced dollop of commercial pop from "Works Vol. I," and then Palmer's "The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits" from the same record that only proves Carl could play a marching cadence. The previously unreleased, group-written "Bo Diddley" is next and it's a welcome surprise in that it has a lot of proggy meat on its bones. They give it a tight, imaginative arrangement and Greg's aggressive guitar playing is a plus. "Bitches Crystal" from "Tarkus" is an excellent inclusion because it's a jazzy, piano-heavy stunner containing a passionate, almost furious vocal. "A Time and a Place," also from that album, is a typical ELP tour-de-force that takes no prisoners. "Living Sin," found on the "Trilogy" release is an ordinary rocker and the only so-so track on that exemplary record. The famous "Karn Evil 9" from "BSS" is their most adventurous epic with Impressions 1 & 2 being the most spectacular, leaving the third one to frantically run to keep up. The closer is "Honky Tonk Train Blues" from "Works Vol. II," a boogie-woogie ditty that has a pulse and some punchy synth horns but still seems uninspired and dull.

Disc 4 begins with the majestic "Jerusalem" from "BSS," an awesome rendering of that revered hymn that sounds like something they might've penned themselves. Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," one of the few bright spots on "Works Vol. I," rocks hard. The title cut of "Black Moon" projects a familiar beat that gives a respectful nod to Queen's universal anthem. However, it's the Genesis-like grandeur enveloping the song that's most appealing even though it's not terribly original. By the early 90s ELP had become followers, not leaders, but that was an affliction that infected many of the former giants of prog so don't judge harshly. "Watching Over You" is lifted from "Works Vol. 2" and, while unremarkable, ain't half bad. It's a sweet, acoustic guitar-based lullaby that doesn't offend. The 3rd movement, "Toccata Con Fucco," of Emerson's "Piano Concerto #1" on "Works Vol. I" is next. His ambitious but flawed classical foray was the high water mark of that album but realistically it would only earn him a C+ in a Composition 101 course. "For You" is only one of two entries from their dubious "Love Beach" fiasco and they could've left it out as far as I'm concerned. It's an under-produced, iron-deficient power ballad that lacks guts. The previously unreleased "Prelude and Fugue" by Gulda is a gem, though. Keith dazzles on this short but complicated solo piano piece, displaying an incredible range of ability. The second contribution from "Love Beach" is their long-winded, four-part "Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman." Section A starts out gallantly atop a stately structure but suffers greatly from its unpolished feel. The piano-heavy Section B is quite flowery and even interesting at times but when Carl's drums intrude all panache evacuates the building. Section C is an involved instrumental that's almost intriguing but Greg's singing comes off forced and unnatural. Section D offers no climax, just more of the number's inherently weak musical premise. The pompous "Pirates" from "Works Vol. 1" is, hopefully, an unintended self-parody and a laughable mess that confirmed to me they'd flown south. Thank heavens they end on a positive note. Lake's "Affairs of the Heart" from "Black Moon" shows that he's still capable of writing and singing decent folk-influenced songs because this is no disgrace. Emerson fills out the spaces with classy symphonic flourishes that satisfy.

So there you have it. "Return of the Manticore" has enough of the ELP splendor to make it worth having in your collection. I'm more in favor of anyone new to their music getting copies of their first five albums than relying on an uneven box set to educate one's mind about their progressive rock prowess but if you're an ELP aficionado and you should come across this compilation in a used CD bin somewhere it will be a wise investment that you won't regret shelling out a few bucks for. 3.5 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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