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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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5 stars REVIEW #8 - "Brain Salad Surgery" by Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (1973). 06/12/2018

Prog's most illustrious super-group ELP had an insane run from 1971 to 1973. Made up of the Nice keyboardist Keith Emerson, King Crimson bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, and Atomic Rooster drummer Carl Palmer, the band's first four albums are considered seminal works of progressive music. This period is considered to be the band's heyday, as all of their subsequent releases either fell flat or were miserable flops. Their final great offering is considered to be 1973's "Brain Salad Surgery", released on the band's own record label Manticore, although others have pointed to albums such as their eponymous debut, "Trilogy", or "Tarkus" as their finest album.

With all of their albums having charted, ELP was at the top of their game going into the recording of this album. There is no argument as to whether the trio were talented musicians; Emerson is considered to be the greatest keyboardist in the genre's history, Lake's impeccable and dynamic voice made up for his uninspiring bass work, and Palmer's voracious drumming style provided an edge to the group's music. Even without a guitarist, ELP managed to captivate rock fans around the world, going as far as to headline the 1974 California Jam which featured some of the most successful and mainstream rock bands that music had to offer at the time. Using top of the line recording techniques, the production of ELP albums such as "Brain Salad Surgery" is wonderful, allowing the listener to truly indulge in the band's oft-pretentious expanded instrumentals and epics. Similar to Yes's "Tales of Topographic Oceans" album released the same year, "Brain Salad Surgery" is considered to be the epitome of progressive elitism, even though this album definitely wears better on the ears than "Tales" mainly because it isn't a double LP.

ELP opens up the album with a thunderous reworking of Hubert Perry's "Jerusalem", which is a musical arrangement around William Blake's 1804 poem "And did those feet in ancient time" that is considered to be an unofficial anthem of England. With Emerson utilizing the brand new Moog Apollo synthesizer, the end result is a glorious opening to the album. It was released as a single in the band's native UK, which was promptly banned by the British government from being played on the radio and therefore did not chart. "Jerusalem" was not banned or looked upon negatively by the British at the time, but since it was a hymn and a rock band had covered it, the British public immediately assumed that ELP had "bastardized" the tune. Carl Palmer lamented on the censorship by proclaiming that the English had not listened to the tune, and simply had banned it out of spite. Nevertheless this is a really unique and grandiose cover which in my opinion gives the hymn justice, but I'm not English so maybe I'm missing something here. This is followed up by another cover, this time a reworking of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto, 4th Movement arranged by both Emerson and Palmer. Unlike the Hymn, Ginastera praised the band's cover of his work, titled "Toccata", hardly ten seconds after Emerson had presented the song to him for his approval. This is a much more abstract and experimental piece, and has warranted a bit of criticism from the prog community. Surely this is not as commercially viable or lyrical as "Jerusalem" but the band really flexes their muscle on this one, most notably working across a dynamic range to produce a rather dark sounding piece of music which fools around with range similar to Crimson's "Devil's Triangle" suite. I immediately noticed the harsh effect of Palmer's drums to back up the hyperactive keyboard virtuosity by Emerson; this song really serves as a solo piece for both men. While I would normally discredit a song like this as being boring or uninspiring, there really is a lot of music to soak up here for a listener who listens critically. The percussion knocks your socks off throughout the tune, and Emerson's heroics with the Moog brings this all together to provide a very satisfying coda for what is a rather long song at just over seven minutes. Fortunately this is evened out by the presence of two shorter tunes that follow it up, the first being Lake's "Still... You Turn Me On" which is an easily accessible love ballad and one of the group's most memorable songs. For the casual listeners, this is a much- needed reprieve from the experimental "Toccata". It is the album's "From the Beginning" or even a "Lucky Man", with Lake starting off with an intimate acoustic performance which is ultimately backed up by Emerson's synth and concludes with a synth solo. All in all it sounds very nostalgic to me; it has that emotional quality which a ballad altogether needs to gel with the listener. What really doesn't gel with me is the subsequent track, the tongue-in- cheek "Benny the Bouncer." It is co-written by ex-King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield, whose sole 1973 solo album released on Manticore was featured in my last review. ELP made it a necessity to include a humorous throwaway piece on their albums, and here they fail to disappoint, with some funky synth and Greg Lake speaking in a stereotypically British voice about stereotypically British pub behavior. While the song's chorus is tolerable, I just cannot resist trashing this tune, as it really takes away from the so-far exceptional nature of this album. Fortunately, the song barely breaks two minutes, and is over very quick. As for Sinfield, this would not be the only song that he would provide lyrics for on this album...

And for the moment we've all been waiting for, we reach the final song of the album, a leviathan thirty-minute epic titled "Karn Evil 9". While many progressive rock bands were limited by the physical constraints of vinyl to twenty- minute epics, ELP would break the barrier by simply putting part of the epic on the first side, with the entire second side being occupied as well. Considered to be ELP's finest moment in terms of musical virtuosity, "Karn" is split into "impressions", and has a dystopian theme to it similar to that of 1971's "Tarkus". To put it plain, this is one of the most intense epics ever conceived in prog, with the trio throwing everything they could possibly conceive at the listener. With only Lake's voice, some bass, Emerson's organs, and Palmer's drum kit, ELP creates a cacophony of futuristic noises and intense instrumental passages which draw influence from classical and modern rock movements while still retaining an element of conventionality and listenability. The first impression not only lays out the setting of the song, but provides some epic Greg Lake vocals in the first half on masterful lyrics written by Sinfield, and then some great synth solos in the second half. Emerson plays his keyboards and formulates his music as to compete with even the greatest guitar solos. You simply do not see this level of keyboard showmanship in rock anymore, which while it may seem dated to some, is rather unfortunate. The mere fact that this group did not need a guitarist shows how progressive they could truly get, and "Karn Evil 9" is the magnum opus of their contributions to prog. Thanks to the LP, the first impression is furthermore split into two parts, with the second part continuing on the second side and beginning with Lake's proclamation of "Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends!" whose effect is largely lost in CD remasters. This second part is considered to be the most famous part of the epic, going as far to even be cut out of the overall song to be viable for radio airplay - and boy does it work given the monstrous and grandious Emerson keyboard solos which are pure money. I feel that this album is best listened to with a dynamic stereo system, as to capture the intense rhythm section of Lake and Palmer which contrasts with the treble of Emerson's keyboards very well similar to how the drums and synth fused on "Toccata" earlier in the album. Altogether the First Impression lasts for a whole thirteen minutes, giving away to the entirely instrumental Second Impression that features Emerson dominating with the piano and Palmer taking a new approach by introducing a Caribbean steel drum - in other reviews I noticed that this choice of instrumentation led to some criticism which I feel is unwarranted. This impression has a much different feel than the first, with a more classical approach largely in part to the warm piano that is overly prominent - the drums on the other hand are not as obvious, being largely present through the middle portion of the movement, and therefore I didn't feel that they had much of a negative impact on my listening experience. While there is a brief moment of musical reprieve that tested my attention span, the second impression is only seven minutes, and is concluded by the Third Impression, which is largely a reprise of the First to close things out in a grand finale. Retaining similar musical themes yet with much more elaborate lyrics - in the liner notes Sinfield is credited with the lyrics here - All in all I'm not paying as much attention to the lyrics as I am the music per the case of Sinfield; his diction alone makes the vocals flow off Lake's tongue in a way that most cannot simply stimulate. Thematically, we learn of a war between man and machine, with a rather ambiguous resolution. Sinfield later revealed the intended ending, where the machines win after "helping" man win its own war. While not as resonant as the First Impression, the Third provides proper closure while giving us prog fans another SciFi epic that we can add to the ranks of unique themes that only prog has really had the nerve to experiment with.

While ELP has left a remarkable impact on the world of prog, interestingly enough their albums seem to pale in comparison to those of Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, or even Rush. While the group achieved tremendous mainstream fame bringing progressive rock to millions of new listeners, most of their albums simply were not very good. Even their first four albums only barely crack the 4-star range, and while they fluctuate around the top 100, it is a rather lukewarm showing by such an influential band. That being said I consider "Brain Salad Surgery" to be the band's best album at the moment - this is largely in part thanks to "Karn Evil 9" as a prog powerhouse that counters the less-advanced stuff on the flip side of the LP. Maybe in a way to keep mainstream success, the group included the ballads and humorous pieces which may garner less awe from the prog community. "Brain" is arguably the most seminal ELP album, and is well worth a listen thanks to its historical value on the genre, which urged me to give this album a five-star (91% A-) rating. There's lots of progressive stuff here, and even some more accessible music for the more casual listener. Only one filler track, and some parts of the epic can get a bit tiresome. "Toccata" is very inaccessible, and will only be appreciated by hardcore prog listeners.

SonomaComa1999 | 5/5 |


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