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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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Prog Reviewer
4 stars This used to be my favorite ELP album, back when I didn't like them on the whole as much as I do now, but even after losing that distinction, I still hold this album in high regard. Well, sort of. It's a fine album, but over time, I've come to this conclusion: no album is a better summary of the good sides and the bad sides of British prog rock, and I almost shudder to guess whether the band could keep walking this dangerous line without falling into a total lack of quality control.

The biggest thing I notice is that, in a lot of ways, this album is less "ELP's take on prog" than "ELP does a generic prog album." The surface elements are the same as before, of course - same immaculate keyboard technique, same Lake singing and guitars, same Palmer as ever - but there's a crucial difference here from previous albums. However "overblown" or "pretentious" or whatever epithets one might have thrown at the band in the past, one could not deny that the core of much of the band's work was solid, no BS "normal" songwriting, albeit surrounded with all sorts of abnormal trappings. On this album, though, it's increasingly difficult to isolate Lake's impact, apart from "Still ... You Turn Me On" (it's no coincidence, I think, that Emerson gets the sole music credit for almost everything else); this album is very heavy on the synth jam aspect of ELP's shtick, and while the band members are certainly just fine when playing in that mode, they also lose much of that special something that made them so fascinating from the very beginning.

It also doesn't help that the album, in terms of pretense, is bloated even by ELP standards. Part of the blame for this comes from bringing in Pete Sinfield as the band's lyricist (though he actually only contributes on two parts of the album); I'm sorry, but while he is the clever dude who came up with lyrics to "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Epitaph," he's also the idiot who came up with lyrics to "Cirkus" and "In the Wake of Poseidon," and his contribution to part 3 of "KE9" is definitely one of the greatest negative factors here. Even disregarding lyrical pomp, though, there's something about the production that has come to bother me quite a bit over the years; all that overdubbing and echo and whatnot may make things sound more important than otherwise, but I'd much prefer it if the music itself were the driving impressive force instead of the production trying to tell me when I'm supposed to be in awe. As mentioned earlier, this sort of approach to prog makes me uncomfortable, as it's the approach taken by far too many bands that have destroyed prog far more effectively than any punk revolution could.

And yet, for all of that, the album gets a high grade; I did, after all, say that the album also represents the good sides of prog. ELP may have lost some of their restraint and discipline when making BSS, but what they didn't lose was their talent. However misdirected their efforts may be in some aspects of the album, the power of the band members' talent was such that they couldn't help but still entertain the listener a good portion of the time (how large a portion would depend greatly on one's already determined attitude towards prog, whereas the first two albums could possibly be enjoyable even to a non-prog- devotee). Funny how certain bands can still produce good works even when largely on creative autopilot ...

Anyway, the album kicks off with "Jerusalem," a cover of an old British hymn with lyrics by William Blake that's sort of an unofficial British national anthem (kinda the UK equivalent of God Bless America). Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure what the point of this track is in this album's context. The band seemingly knew that to try and do anything 'creative' with such a well-known and revered number would lead to the British political establishment falling on their necks, and as such the arrangement is very conservative for ELP. This unfortunately isn't a good thing, as the regal and majestic nature of this performance involves a lack of novel keyboard parts or creative adjustment of tempos or, I dunno, interesting thematic overlays. Even Lake's voice isn't given much of a chance to shine here, buried as it is beneath the keyboards. However, I don't want to convey the idea that I dislike this track, because I don't - it's perfectly ok, and actually works in a sense (for me) if I think of it as the band warming up for the remainder of the set.

Besides, "Toccata" is next, and this is where the album truly begins its greatness. An adaptation of the 4th movement of the 1st Piano Concerto by an Argentine composer by the name of Alberto Ginastera, this may or may not be the best of ELP's classical adaptations, but aside from a couple of parts of Pictures, it's certainly their most creative. This is an incredible piece of modern-classical discord, driven forward in the first half by some of Emerson's best ever playing for the band (best defined not in terms of speed, but rather in aggression and well-made choices for keyboard types and sounds). Then Carl manages to do the unthinkable, to begin playing an ostensible drum solo but one that I didn't even conciously notice was a drum solo the first ten times I heard it, if only because it doesn't exist solely to draw attention to technique. No, this is a very deep, low-pitched solo, one that you feel more than you hear ... until, that is, he starts triggering all sorts of cool and nutty electronic swooping noises with his drumset, creating a disorienting wall of sound until Keith chimes back in with the main theme and we close it out. Now THAT's the sort of thing I'm talking about when I almost consider maybe giving this a ***** rating.

The next two tracks are also excellent, and each represent the continuation of a niche that fans had come to expect on ELP albums. The first is the album's obligatory beautiful, excellent ballad, here called "Still ... You Turn Me On." While it has one of the worst lines EVER (I'm sorry, but "every day a little sadder, a little madder, someone get me a ladder" is unforgivably bad), the lyrics are quite nice otherwise, and while the porno wah-wah guitar in the chorus is totally out of place, the melody is incredibly beautiful. Maybe songs like this weren't where the band wanted to go, as if they thought they had become too good for such pittance, but man, Lake was GOOD at writing these sorts of things. Ah well, c'est la vie (which isn't a very good song, but that's for later). Closing out the album's "introductory set" is part three in the band's goofy keyboard ragtime series, the ever so hilarious "Benny the Bouncer." The horrifying lyrics about Benny getting in a fight, getting his head chopped up and ending up as the bouncer at St. Peter's gate are delivered with aplomb in Greg's nastiest voice, and even though I didn't come around to "Jeremy Bender" and "The Sheriff" right away, this was an instantaneous success with me when I first heard it.

As good as the first four numbers are, though, the crux of this album's reputation lies not with them, but rather with the behemoth that occupies the remainder of the album. This is the "Karn Evil 9" suite, taking up just short of half an hour and the entirety of the second side (as well as the last eight minutes or so of the first). It is divided into three parts (or "impressions," the pretentious boobs), with the first impression split over the two sides and the second half of this impression serving as one of the band's radio hits (unlikely as it may be). Both musically and lyrically, it is unbeLIEVably bombastic and overblown - I kinda get the feeling the band (particularly Emerson) aimed to create the most grandiose, important, epic piece of music the world had ever seen, but since they weren't the earthly incarnation of Apollo, God of Music, but instead 'just' a nicely talented trio, they of course fall very short. The lyric theme tries to be deep and scary (all about a future where the 'bad' things of today only exist as spectator attractions, and where machines rebel against their human masters in the end), but while sometimes they're amusing, other times the lyrics are just so stupid that I can't take them seriously without feeling extremely ashamed of myself. So yeah, it's kinda freakin' flawed.

But dagnabbit, this suite may be a failure on a certain level, but what an INCREDIBLY entertaining failure in several parts. I just can't help it, I am still passionately in love with the whole "1st impression," even as the better parts of my nature assail me for being such a dweeb. I love how it starts as this menacing tense epic prog anthem, with Lake not really singing anything neat melody-wise but still making it come alive, and then becomes a GREAT synth-led jam which in turn becomes a GREAT bombastic pop song. I love that incredible "epic" guitar line Lake plays at various intervals between verses. I love how the music stops when Lake sings the word "shocks." I love the break into "WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS" and how the song just keeps grooving on that melody and how these cool jams that exist only for the sake of having jams are so entertaining anyway. Pure dorky prog bliss for 13 or so minutes, that's what this is.

The suite starts to lose people a bit in the "2nd impression," a lengthy instrumental focused around (of course) Keith's keyboards, but I enjoy it just fine. There's no discernable structure to it, and it's probably overlong, but I can honestly say that the 'boredom sensors' within me don't begin reacting during its ramblings. It varies well in mood, texture and speed, so monotony is hardly a problem, and overall it's the closest that ELP have come (for me) to making a "sit back, relax, listen" piece. However, while the "2nd impression" does me no harm, the "3rd impression" has most definitely grown off me over the years, and while in some sense I get a bit of dorky pleasure from it, it's much harder for me to enjoy it than before. There's a decent sci-fi vibe running through the music, but it gets really difficult to enjoy them after the lyrics turn into "Star Trek: The Musical." Add in that the jamming here isn't anywhere near as enthralling as the jamming in impression the 1st, and you have a serious nine minute let down at the end of the album, one that unfortunately slightly spoils my impression of the whole. That said, though, the ending up-and-down synth arpeggio is pretty amusing, so that's at least something.

So there you have it, the prog album that simultaneously makes me want to praise and curse the entire genre. I apologize to worshippers of the album if I seemed overly mean throughout - I really do enjoy and respect a great deal of it, and a high **** is definitely nothing to sneeze at. But there's no question that I prefer the debut now.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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