Read my reviews of albums by Emerson, Lake & Palmer:
1970: Emerson, Lake and Palmer (8/10)
ELP’s debut sounds very different from their other studio albums and I for one think this is a good thing. See, ELP hadn’t yet invented their formula, wherein they would collect an Emerson epic, an adaptation of a “classical” piece, a “comedy” number and a Greg Lake ballad. This has to be one of the weirdest rock music formulas in history and, thankfully, on the debut it does not yet exist.
What is here are two absolutely pounding rock adaptations of Romantic pieces (one with a Baroque bridge) that set new standards for rock versions of “classical” music. Though both Lake’s epic “Take a a Pebble” and Emerson’s “The Three Fates” are probably overlong, they feature absolutely incredible piano and organ playing by Emerson. In fact, the whole album sets a new standard for virtuoso keyboard playing in rock music, a standard that has perhaps never been matched (save by Emerson himself).
Whether or not this is your best ELP album probably depends on how you feel about the formula. The older I get, the less I can put up with it and though there are great moments on later ELP albums, there are also awful ones on pretty much every studio album. The formula was their creative doom and on this album, when there were no expectations beyond the silly “super group” label, and when the band was free to show off instrumentally without the (self-imposed?) need to cater to their different audiences, we just getting brazen, loud, bombastic prog rock of a kind no other band really tried.
1971: Tarkus (6/10)
A few years ago, I wrote the following review:
I think if anyone had any doubt back in 1971 that Emerson was the greatest rock keyboardist ever, the title track probably proved them wrong. It’s too bad that it doesn’t really have the same coherence and oomph of the best side-long prog epics. But it is still the highlight of an album that I guess set ELP on their path of trying to be eclectic – or trying to please different demographics of their fans, not really sure which – which set them up to have such uneven studio albums.
I mean the first side is a true prog epic – even if it isn’t among the best – but the second side is all over the place:
- first we get the (first) obligatory pseudo-honkytonk number, which would have benefited from a proper piano, not to mention some better lyrics – science Greg Lake is a horrible “poet”;
- then there’s a return to the prog for a song;
- then there’s some Bach book-ending one of those misguided hippie attempts to be philosophical, though at least the organ is well done, but it’s certainly not rock;
- then we’re back to the prog again for a couple minutes
- and the album ends with one of the band’s seemingly numerous attempts at convincing us they can play traditional rock and roll – so why do they suck so bad at it?
This is probably the weakest thing they recorded before Works.
I think I was a littler harsh. In retrospect, the title track is a bit of a landmark in the genre and the playing on the second side sometimes makes up for the lyrics and the rather pathetic genre-hopping. (And, jesus, Keith, play a real piano on all the tracks; if you’re going pull off boogie, you can’t use a keyboard.)
It’s still lacking in songs (what ELP album isn’t?) but I think I was a little cruel to insinuate only the title track is worthwhile.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums from 1972:
Pictures at an Exhibition (???)
I have listened to this at least once, possibly as many as three times, but I’ve never sat down to review it. I think that’s partly because I grew up listening to an orchestrated (read: bastardized) version of this Mussorgsky piece. If memory serves, ELP were inspired by the true (piano) arrangement, which may be one reason I didn’t really connect with it during the listen. But I should really listen again and write a review. What other prog band did something like this?
Having just suffered through some of their late ’70s crap, it’s nice to hear them back in the day when they were still making interesting music. Always over the top, at least this stuff is also provocative.
- “The Endless Enigma” is almost a classic. It’s too bad the vocal sections are so weak compared to the rest of the composition.
- And “From the Beginning” is a Lake song I actually don’t hate, so that’s another big positive.
On the whole there is a lot to like here with their characteristic unevenness – there seem to me to be very few bands that were this desperate to be so inconsistent on record – which I guess they thought was eclecticism. But there’s stuff here that ranks among their best work. They still could have used a better producer, but oh well.
2017 update: agree with the previous assessment.
Brain Salad Surgery (9/10)
Of all of ELP’s formula records, this is the best one.
The formula? A big prog epic, usually about a side long, a Greg Lake ballad, a “comedy” number and one or two adaptations of “classical” pieces (in this case a hymn and part of a modernist piano concerto).
- The prog epic is among their very best and certainly has perhaps their best hook for one of these epics.
- Aside from “Someone get me a ladder,” the Greg Lake ballad is perhaps the best he wrote since “Lucky Man.”
- The comedy number is not funny, as usual, but it’s probably less bad than some of their other numbers.
- And the adaptations are up to par; “Jerusalem” is fine but “Toccata” is probably the best one they ever did.
If, for some reason, you decide to listen to just one ELP album, rather than a “best of CD,” this is probably the one you should listen to. I’m more partial to their debut, which is pre-formula, but it doesn’t really sound like ELP did for the rest of their career, and might give you a false impression. (Especially if you really like it!) So I guess that makes this one the one essential ELP record, for what it’s worth.
Albums from 1977 by Emerson, Lake & Palmer:
I have no idea why I’ve never written a review for this album I’ve listened to way too many times. Here is my brief summary:
- Emerson’s piano concerto is pretty good for a piano concerto written by a rock musician, I think. It’s certainly nothing remotely special but I don’t fully understand the scorn heaped upon it by some people. I mean, he’s not an actual composer.
- Lake’s side of the first LP is dreck. It’s a bunch of shitty ballads performed with an orchestra.
- Palmer’s side contains most of the music closest to rock as well as a mediocre adaptation of Prokofiev and, weirdest of all, a new version of one of the best tracks from their debut album.
- For the group side: the Copland adaptation lasts too long and “Pirates” is a weird narrative number that leans far more into “symphonic rock” than you might expect.
6/10 feels charitable.
Works Volume 2 (3/10)
Years ago, when I was still young enough to maintain that ELP was a truly great band, I gave this a listen or three and rated it 6/10. I think I wanted to believe the common idea that this is better than Volume 1 because at least here the bands sometimes sounds like ELP. Well, there are a bunch of problems with that.
The idea that this album is related to Volume One is, in itself, a bit of a foolish idea. Volume One was, after all, a way for all three band members to record on their own while still putting out a “group” album. This album is really a rarities album collecting outtakes not just from Volume One but from Brain Salad Surgery. And as such, it suffers from the usual problem with rarities albums: some of these tracks were outtakes for a reason.
But the album was indeed released as some kind of sequel and as such it fails pretty miserably. It sounds nothing like its predecessor, which could be a good thing.
But what we get is so all-over-the-place as to please no one, or at least only the biggest of ELP devotees who are prepared to forgive them all their faults.
“Tiger in the Spotlight” is a traditional rock and roll number considerably modernized with synthesizers – and a bridge that doesn’t really belong in a rock and roll song. It feels like two separate pieces: the traditional chorus – not really a song in total, that is marred by the presence of synthesizers – and the interesting bridge section that features some playing by Emerson that could be mistaken for turntabilism if it hadn’t been recorded in 1973. There is a reason it was left off that album.
“When the Apple Blossoms Bloom in the Windmills of Your Mind I’ll Be You” is more along what you might expect from the band, despite it’s reputation as a throwaway. Listen, it won’t change your life, but it is, at the very least, the sound of three very able musicians having a good time together, which can’t be said for most of the rest of the material they recorded during this time. And that’s because it was recorded in 1973, apparently.
“Bullfrog” is far and away the best thing here and probably the best thing Palmer ever wrote. It appears to be an outtake from his sessions for the earlier Works album but it is more fun, more unhinged and arguably more daring than anything the band chose to include on that album. If you must acquire this album for completeness sake, at least this piece is present.
The title track from most people’s candidate for the band’s masterpiece, “Brain Salad Surgery,” was left off that album for a reason: it is terrible. I don’t know why this band felt like they had to include some kind of unfunny “comedy” number on each album after their debut. I wasn’t sure that I ever enjoyed “Benny the Bouncer” but if this was the alternative then they made the right choice.
“Barrelhouse Shakedown” is a fine recreation of traditional honky-tonk, but that is all it is.
“Watching Over You” is another piece of shit Lake ballad that should never have been released by a “progressive” rock band. The only thing positive I can say about its inclusion is that at least there isn’t a whole side of these on this record. Ugh. (It is better than pretty much everything he included on the first Works album, but so what?)
“So Far to Fall” feels like a legitimate attempt to do something new. I’m not sure it works, but it at least feels like a band effort and it is musically interesting.
Emerson’s overly-orchestrated cover of “Maple Leaf Rag” is unnecessary and adds nothing to the original. That said, it is still one of the best things here; damning with faint praise.
Then there is the Christmas song, with typical Lake-Sinfield pseudo-profound lyrics. I can’t begin to say how ridiculous it sounds for the band that recorded “Toccata” to have created a Christmas song – admittedly now a “rock” Christmas staple. There is nothing to say about it.
“Close But Not Touching” is another Palmer contribution that shows just how much more fun he was at this point. Regardless of whether or not the rest of the band was involved – I doubt it, given their general lack of involvement in his 1977 output – it stands as one of the best things here.
I have not heard the original of “Honky Tonk Train Blues” but I suspect it is relatively similar to the original. I don’t know that for a fact and I must say it is enjoyable, even if it is revivalist, if only because so much of the rest of the album isn’t enjoyable.
Finally, their cover of “Show Me the Way to Go Home” is insipid and utterly unnecessary. Isn’t this a British pub song? Then why does it sound like the band is a lounge act with good production values and a decent arranger?
The whole album reeks of an attempt to make more money without putting in any effort. But it contains so little in the way of “progressive” rock that it is hard to understand why they thought their fans would go for it.
1978: Love Beach (???)
I have never listened to ELP’s infamous final album. Read my reviews of 1978 albums.
1986: Emerson, Lake & Powell (???)
I have no idea why Emerson and Lake made an album without Palmer. I suspect Palmer had a better job in Asia at the time, or something. I haven’t listened to it.
1988:…To the Power of Three (???)
This time Emerson and Palmer reunited without Lake. I have not listened to this either. The lone non-ELP member of this version of the band has put out new music as “3.2” in the 21st century but I am not adding that here.
1992: Black Moon (???)
I have not listened to this proper ELP reunion album. Read my reviews of 1992 albums.
1994: In the Hot Seat (???)
This is apparently even worse than than the first reunion record. Read my reviews of albums released in 1994.