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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Tarkus CD (album) cover


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

4.06 | 2086 ratings

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4 stars After the success of their first studio album and tour, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer had to come up with something that would imprint itself into everyone's mind so that critics and fans would know they were more than just another supergroup. One of the biggest complaints of the debut album was that it wasn't concise enough and uneven, even though the performances were amazing. Personally, I love their debut album and the variety of sounds and use of dynamics. However, for this 2nd album, the band was a bit uncertain which path they wanted to take. Emerson, being classically trained and a lover of classical styles loved experimenting with that, but he also agreed with Frank Zappa that music didn't need to have meters. It was just too hard for them to understand why they had to fit their music into these organized bars. This was the direction that Emerson wanted to follow for this 2nd album.

Palmer was also leaning in the more progressive direction too, and even though Emerson and Palmer were both working independently in their own homes during the initial stages of this album, they were both coincidentally working with complex rhythmic ideas, so they were able to mesh their styles into a singular direction, and so it was pretty much decided at that point that the band would go into a full-fledged progressive style, at least with the album's centerpiece composition. In the initial stages of the musical creation of this song, Emerson was inspired by Frank Zappa and Albero Ginastera. Albero is the classical composer from Argentina that originally wrote the piano concerto that 'Toccata' (from 'Brain Salad Surgery') was based on. Emerson said that there was no plagiarism of any kind in the music, but there was a nod to Prokofiev in the opening movement of what would be known as the 'Tarkus' suite.

Finally, Emerson presented the almost finished composition to Lake, who immediately hated it. In fact, Lake almost left the group at that point because he felt the composition was pointless and had no direction. The record company talked Lake into staying, but Emerson had to think of subject matter for the piece so that Lake could write the lyrics. The interesting thing about all of this is how Emerson finally got the idea for the subject of 'Tarkus' after seeing the artwork of William Neal, who had just dropped off some of his artwork. Emerson was impressed with the armadillo on tank tracks and finally came up with the name 'Tarkus'. The concept was to be about the power that is sought by warmongers. The subsections were going to be about the different creatures that Tarkus fought and finally killed which would end with the death of Tarkus from one of those mutated creatures, the Manticore, who would sting Tarkus in the eye. Lake was finally sold on the concept because he liked the idea of it being an anti-war message and even wrote the 'Battlefield' section as his contribution to the centerpiece of the album. Thus 'Tarkus' was born.

The album is divided into two sections, with the first section being the first side of the album with 'Tarkus' taking up the entire first side and lasting almost 21 minutes. This 7 part suite starts up with the instrumental 'Eruption' which, as mentioned earlier, has a short section inspired by Prokofiev. This depicts the volcanic eruption that would produce Tarkus' egg. This section produces the familiar theme played by the various keyboards with the usual complex drumming and basswork done by Palmer and Lake respectively. The meter is, of course, non-standard, but it mostly follows a 10 / 8 pattern. The second section 'Stones of Years' begins when the music settles down and Lake's vocals begin. This tells of the voyage of Tarkus to meet his first enemy. The spider-like creature is represented by Emerson's staccato notes and the tempo speeds up to represent the fight and Tarkus' winning of this first battle before the vocal returns. 'Iconoclast' is another instrumental, again with complex drumming and rhythms, dark keys. This movement represents the 2nd battle of Tarkus, this time with a pterodactyl like war mutant. The fourth movement is 'Mass' as Lake's vocals start again and represents the 3rd battle, this time with a lizard / grasshopper / rocket launcher. Again, Tarkus is the victor. It is also full of religious undertones and a developing melody that gets extremely intense by the end. 'Manticore' is the final enemy and the one that finally kills off Tarkus. This battle is represented by an instrumental clash of the Tarkus main theme and the separate Manticore theme. 'Battlefield' is the section solely written by Lake and features a rare electric guitar solo by him. Lake has said it was inspired by the song 'Epitaph' that he cowrote and sung while with King Crimson. 'Aquatarkus' is the last movement based on a march based on the theme from Battlefield. Aquatarkus is the creature created by the dead body of Tarkus, or maybe another morphing of the creature born from the water, and this is represented by the sudden reappearance of the original Tarkus theme after the march section fades.

The overall feel of 'Tarkus' is chaotic with the melding of several themes throughout the track. It can be hard to listen to, especially in the first listenings when one is not familiar with the story or the multiple themes. The music is complex and thick, but when divided up into it's respective parts, and having the story explained, then the layers of music and complexity start to peel back and make more sense. It is quite an undertaking and it is definitely the center piece of the album. The remainder of the album is made up of short tracks that make up side 2.

'Jeremy Bender' is a honky-tonk style track with the subject ELP would come back with several times throughout their time together. 'Bitches Crystal' is more complex after the style of their more rock style similar to 'Knife's Edge'. The song features a lot of fast piano passages. 'The Only Way (Hymn)' uses themes from Bach's 'Toccata in F' and 'Prelude and Fugue VI' played on top of each other on an organ to give it a cathedral type feel. The lyrics are more anti-religious, which was also a theme Lake used a lot. Both Emerson and Palmer thought it was a bit too harsh, but left it the way it was. If you really listen to the lyrics, you will see what I mean.

The next track is 'Infinite Space (Conclusion)' written by Palmer. This one is a piano and drums led instrumental with alternating meters and the best track on this side of the album. 'A Time and a Place' returns to the heavier progressive rock sound that sounds similar to the theme on 'Living Sin' from the 'Trilogy' album. 'Are You Ready, Eddy?' is inspired by the 1956 song 'The Girl Can't Help It' by Bobby Troup and retains the 50's rock n roll style. This track closed the original album and according to Emerson, it was an impromptu song celebrating the completion of work on the album. The Japanese version of the 2010 SHM-CD reissue included another track 'Prelude and Fugue' which was written around the same time and previously only available on the 'Return of the Manticore' box set. It is a piano solo of a composition by Friedrich Guida, very difficult to play because of it's many thematic lines, performed amazingly by Emerson, of course.

On the 2012 remix edition of the album, there were three additional bonus tracks that were recorded during the same sessions and previously unreleased. First is 'Oh, My Father' written by Lake. It is a slow and pensive piano ballad with Lake's lyrics and vocals. There is a sparse use of drums and acoustic guitar. There is also a choral effect and a electric guitar solo in the middle. It's a nice track that could have easily been a single. 'Unknown Ballad' is written by Emerson with vocals. I am guessing it is Emerson singing because it definitely is not Lake, though he might be involved in the harmonies. It is a simple piano ballad. The last bonus track is an alternate take of 'Mass', the 4th movement of 'Tarkus'. It is a bit sparser than the original and seems a bit unfinished.

For many, this album would be their favorite ELP album. I don't agree so much because I don't like the unrelenting feel of the over-the-top bombastic feel of the title track. Though I have come to appreciate it and the genius behind it, I still have a hard time with it, just like I have a hard time with the 'Karn Evil' suite from 'Brain Salad Surgery'. I tend to like the ELP albums of the 70s that were less bombastic like the debut album, 'Trilogy' and the 'Works' albums, not because they are less progressive, but because they are not so flashy. Strangely enough, this always seems to be the case for me with ELP, and I don't necessarily recommend Tarkus as an album for beginning listeners for the band. Nevertheless, there is no argument that Tarkus is an amazing composition. But I am unable to give the album more than 4 stars; 3 stars for side 2 and 4 stars for the Tarkus suite but tipping the scales in favor for the album because of the complexity (not the bombast) of the track.

TCat | 4/5 |


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