34

Greg Lake & Keith Emerson: Their Best Work Together

John Kelman By

Sign in to view read count
While it should come as no surprise that musical heroes from across all genres are beginning to die off, some of the highest profile losses are, in particular, in the rock/pop world, where many of its biggest stars are now in their mid-to-late sixties...or older. Few would disagree that one of the years biggest losses happened just ten days into 2016, when David Bowie passed away at 69 just two days after the release of Black Star (Sony)—an album that presaged his pending (but, to the public, unknown) passing in a most artful fashion. Only one of the year's other major musical losses, Leonard Cohen—who passed away on November 7 at the age of 82—matched Bowie's death with a similar chain of events. Passing just 17 days after the release of his similarly career-defining You Want It Darker (Sony), like Blackstar it met, amongst other things, the subject of Cohen's also-pending (and, like Bowie, publicly unknown) passing, but with the singer/songwriter's characteristic combination of dark humor and emotional profundity.

There were simply too many more losses this year, including soul/R&B megastar Prince, who passed away April 21 at the too-young age of just 57, and masterful archivist Leon Russell, lost to us on November 13 at age 74—a musician better known for his collaborations with bigger names including Joe Cocker (who passed on 2014 at age 70) and Elton John (thankfully, still with us)...but who remained a musician's musician until the very end.

For fans of progressive rock it's also been a particularly rough year, most notably with the loss of two-thirds of one of the its earliest seminal, genre-defining (and defying) groups, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The first blow came on March 11, when the trio's virtuosic keyboardist, Keith Emerson, died at his own hand. Ever a perfectionist who refused to give his fans anything less than his absolute best, a combination of alcohol-induced depression and nerve damage that, beginning in the early '90s and ultimately hampering his ability to play at his usual level of extreme virtuosity, rendered the keyboardist—who'd also survived what was described as a "dangerous polyp" in his lower intestine that was discovered and surgically removed in the fall of 2010—"depressed, nervous and anxious," according to his girlfriend...and, so sadly, worried that he would disappoint his fans at a series of upcoming performances.

Now, just shy of nine months later and as the year draws to a close, ELP's singer/bassist/guitarist/producer Greg Lake has succumbed to cancer, age 69, on December 7. That ELP's most artistically creative and commercially successful years were between 1970 and 1974, with the release of its first four studio albums and two live sets, didn't seem to matter to fans old enough to have seen the group in its heyday, as well as to those who came to the group after that banner five-year run. Every member of the group continued to be well-loved by progressive fans, even if they rarely performed as a trio after the end of the '70s, barring a single 2010 performance at the High Voltage Festival that followed a series of occasional tours between 1992 and 1998 on the heels of Black Moon (Victory Music, 1992), the band's first studio album in 14 years, and In the Hot Seat (Victory, 1994).

A 2010 duo tour by Emerson and Lake was met with open arms. The duo claimed to be performing a collection largely culled from ELP's more introspective side, but the single live document from the tour, Live from Manticore Hall (Manticore, 2014), was a healthy mix of Lake's more accessible songs ("Lucky Man," "From the Beginning," "C'est la Vie") and ELP's more complex, epic music (much of it written by Emerson), including the 20-minute title track from its second studio album, Tarkus (Island, 1971), and "Pirates," from Works Volume 1 (Manticore, 1977). The shows were already intimate and personal, but became all the more so with the duo's Q&A session with its fans, halfway through each show. How many artists of Emerson and Lake's stature have been prepared to meet questions from their fans head-on and in public?

With Lake and Emerson now gone, drummer Carl Palmer continues to tour the music of ELP and more with his own band, albeit in reworked versions for a trio that, rather than featuring another keyboardist, employs guitarist Paul Bielatowicz, who manages to transfer Emerson's music from keys to six strings with remarkable verisimilitude.

Is it a coincidence that Lake produced all of ELP's "glory days" albums—from studio albums beginning with 1970's Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Island)) and Tarkus, through Trilogy (Island, 1972) and the group's career high water mark, Brain Salad Surgery (Island, 1973), in addition to the live Pictures at an Exhibition (Island/Manticore, 1971) and triple-LP Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends...Ladies and Gentlemen... (Manticore, 1974)—but that all subsequent ELP releases were either collaboratively produced with the group, by Emerson or, later, by outside producers?

The answer is, of course, more complex than such a reductionist suggestion. Still, with Lake's recent passing, it seems like a good time to look back at what must be considered both his and Emerson's best period, from the mid-to-late '60s through to 1974 when, following the tour that resulted in Welcome Back My Friends..., the trio took a three-year hiatus after which, while ELP's three members returned to no shortage of success for another couple years, they never fully recaptured either the creative spark that defined so much of their early work together or the commercial success that found the collective sales of those early recordings literally in the tens of millions. Sadly, ego and excess got in the way of the music—not that prog wasn't, too some extent, defined by excess; but there was always a breaking point, after which it became, well, excessively excessive—leading to the group's first dissolution in 1979, following the release of what is largely considered the group's nadir, alongside In the Hot Seat: the Emerson-produced Love Beach (Atlantic, 1979).

ELP emerged, in 1970, from three groups with varying degrees of commercial success in the nascent years of progressive rock. Emerson first achieved a name for himself as "the Jimi Hendrix of the organ" with The Nice, for both his staggering virtuosity (also on piano) and his inimitable showmanship: tossing his Hammond organ around the stage as if it were a tinker toy; playing it upside down as he lay beneath the front of the instrument, tilted low to the ground; twirling at around his Leslie and Marshall amplifiers to achieve Hendrix-like feedback; and creating sustaining notes by driving knives right into the keys. A series of albums explored everything from psychedelic original material to progressive rock-infused interpretations of music by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck and Jean Sibelius, amongst others.

But, as good as The Nice was, there was little denying that Emerson far surpassed guitarist Davy O'List (who left the group in acrimony during the summer of '68), bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison. Jackson's voice was always a challenge while, instrumentally, the band supported Emerson's burgeoning and ascending instrumental master in a way that was competent but never particularly special.

And so, while the group toured into the early months of 1970, Emerson had already informed Jackson and Davison that he'd be leaving, after meeting Lake while touring the United States in 1969 on a double bill with the singer/guitarist-turned-bassist's breakout group, King Crimson, which released a debut that truly shook the music world, In the Court of the Crimson King (Island, 1969). Playing together during a soundcheck, there was an instant connection, and so the pair decided to form a band that would combine Lake's love of lyrical, songwriting with Emerson's cross-genre and more complex, long-form interests, which blended elements of classical, jazz, blues, ragtime and more with the energy of rock...as well as the keyboardist's emerging interest in Robert Moog's physically and operationally unwieldy but sonically innovative monophonic synthesizer.

Other keyboardists, like Yes' Rick Wakeman and Mahavishnu Orchestra's Jan Hammer, would subsequently adopt the later, smaller, easier to use (and less expensive) MiniMoog, but Emerson would largely continue his allegiance to the larger model (though he would bring the MiniMoog, amongst other synths, into his arsenal), its panel of patch chords looking more like a phone switching system but allowing the keyboardist to introduce sonics never before heard in rock music...especially in concert.

Lake contributed, as a guest, to all but one of the vocal tunes on Crimson's second album, In the Wake of Poseidon (Island, 1970)—truly, by that time, group in name only as sole original member, guitarist Robert Fripp, began a two-year search to find a tour-capable (and willing) group with the release of Islands (Island, 1971). With Emerson completely freed from The Nice and Crimson all but disbanded, the pair was ready to move forward with their new project by the summer of 1970. Lake would be the group's bassist but, freed from the restrictions of King Crimson, would also bring both acoustic and electric guitars back into his arsenal.

But first, the pair needed a drummer. The final piece of the puzzle came with Carl Palmer, the youngest member of the band who had already garnered a strong reputation, first as the drummer for psychedelic madman Arthur Brown and then, along with keyboardist Vincent Crane after leaving the singer's employ, forming Atomic Rooster, which garnered some commercial and critical success but was relegated—perhaps unfairly—to a second-tier position beneath groups like King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Procol Harum and Yes. Offered the chance to work with the more masterful Emerson and Lake—and with major label interest also in the offing—the precocious drummer (he was just 19 when he joined Arthur Brown in the middle of a 1969 US tour, replacing original drummer Drachen Theaker) was the perfect—albeit second—choice.

Palmer was, in fact, approached after Emerson and Lake first entered into discussions with Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell; discussions which ultimately led to naught but, after a planned jam session that never materialized, also caused rumours to emerge—and that were only definitively debunked by Lake in 2012—that a supergroup with Hendrix, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (HELP) was in the works.

Oh, but what might have been...but back to reality.

As instrumentally masterful as his partners, Palmer brought more than just a rhythm section approach to his kit; instead, he became a more orchestral counterpart that truly made Emerson, Lake & Palmer a condensed symphony orchestra, as its glory days found the trio tackling, in addition to its own music, pieces adapted from classical composers including Modest Mussorgsky, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Leoš Janáček and Alberto Ginastera.

Emerson's staggering virtuosity and stylistic multiplicity contributed a previously unheard approach to both keyboards and writing...and arranging, with the band's early performances consisting—in addition to an early version of "The Barbarian," a Bartók adaptation which would ultimately open ELP's debut album; "Rondo," a rework of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk"; and an arrangement of "Nut Rocker" (originally a 1962 hit by America's B. Bumble and the Stingers, adapted from "March of the Toy Soldiers," from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite)—largely of an adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, with a March 1971 performance subsequently issued as a live album following the release of Tarkus.

Lake, on the other hand, was not only capable of keeping up with his partners instrumentally on bass, but also brought, in addition to a stronger focus on song form and copious production chops, a strong and distinctive singing voice already well-known from his short but global-reaching tenure with King Crimson. From ELP's very first album he reestablished himself as a capable guitarist, most notably during his a cappella acoustic solo in the middle of Emerson's piano feature, "Take a Pebble," and, in particular, the acoustic guitar-driven "Lucky Man" that closes the album—a song which also features an Emerson Moog solo so iconic that it's actually been used in an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer Simpson finds an ELP Greatest Hits compilation on the ground and is next seen driving in his car, singing along to Emerson's soaring solo.

From the group's second-ever performance—their premiere took place at a smaller venue in Plymouth to ensure as many bugs could be worked out as possible before heading to the massively attended Isle of Wight Festival six days later on August 29, 1970—and the release of Emerson, Lake & Palmer just three months later, ELP emerged with a healthy combination of critical and commercial success.

From 1970 through 1974, as sales climbed into the tens of millions, supported by tours that filled concert stadiums around the world, so, too, did it escalate personal and creative differences, and growing egos that ultimately led to a general loss of the group's creative spark. After the 1977-78 Works tour—where the group lost vast sums of money by bringing a full orchestra on the road for its initial gigs, ultimately forced to abandon its lofty plans for the rest of the tour, barring three nights at New York City's Madison Square Gardens—the group recovered neither its position in album charts nor its ability to fill such large concert venues.

It's hard to deny that Works Volume 1 was the beginning of the end. After a three-year hiatus, ELP returned with a two-LP set that—following the artistic peak of Brain Salad Surgery and Welcome Back My Friends..., which was as terrific a consolidation of ELP's best days as any live album could be—reflected internal fracturing, with three of its four sides designed as mini-solo albums by each member, and a fourth group side containing, in addition to "Pirates," a rousing version of classical composer Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." Still, despite never approaching the artistic highs of its pre-hiatus days, in addition to Lake's balladic "C'est la Vie," a reduced single version of "Fanfare" would become the third best-selling instrumental track ever, achieving even greater ubiquity as the theme song to the CBS Sports Spectacular television broadcasts...and the band's last major chart-topper.

From 2012 through 2015, deluxe editions of ELP's first four studio albums were released. Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Tarkus, both issued in 2012, featured—in addition to remasters of the original album mixes—new stereo and surround sound mixes from a current progressive rock fave, Steven Wilson, that were designated as "alternate albums," which, was incomplete in the case of the group's debut because the entire set of original multi-track tapes could not be located. Both of Wilson's "alternate albums" also included a number of previously unreleased tracks, newly mixed by Wilson and, in the case of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, positioned to create a different experience in lieu of the entire original album. In addition to a CD containing Wilson's "alternate album" (including the newfound tracks) the new surround and stereo "alternate album" mixes were also included on DVD in higher resolution, along with new booklets featuring liner notes from noted critic Chris Welch that included interview footage with both ELP and Wilson, in addition to magazine clippings and images from the time.

Thankfully, all the multi-tracks for Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery were found, giving current King Crimson guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk the opportunity to create new stereo and surround sound mixes of both albums in their entirety. Like the group's first two albums, Trilogy was released in 2015 as a two-CD/one-DVD package, with a new CD master of the original album mix; a CD of Jakszyk's "alternate album" that also included a version of Lake's balladic "From the Beginning" with a different Moog solo; and a DVD containing both Jakszyk's new stereo and surround mixes—and, for the first time, a high resolution version of the original album mix as well.

As the album considered by most fans to be the group's creative high point, all the stops were pulled out for Brain Salad Surgery's 2014 reissue, with both deluxe and super deluxe editions released. The deluxe edition followed the usual three-disc format, but with a difference: the original album mix, remastered on CD, was followed by a second CD containing "The Alternate Brain Salad Surgery," but rather than being Jakszyk's new stereo mix, the disc contained alternate versions, first mixes, an original backing track and different version of the third part of the album's epic "Karn Evil 9," as well as an instrumental and a couple of single b-sides. The only place that Jakszyk's new high resolution stereo mix could be found was along with a high res version of the original album stereo mix on the accompanying DVD, called Super Sonic Brain Salad Surgery...but there was no surround sound mix to be found, which became the subject of numerous complaints to the label.

In addition to those three discs—but, this time, with Jakszyk's new surround sound mix also included on the Super Sonic Brain Salad Surgery DVD—the super deluxe edition also added Jakszyk's new stereo mix on CD; a second DVD containing the Manticore Special Documentary, originally broadcast in the U.K. and Canada towards the end of '73; and, in the LP-sized box—which also included a 12"x12" booklet with Chris Welch's liners (featuring interviews with the band and Jakszyk), contributions from all three band members and a wealth of images—the first ELP reissue to include the album on 180gm vinyl...an acknowledgement of the medium's growing resurgence.

Now, just 17 months after the release of the deluxe em>Trilogy, a whole new series of ELP reissues are hitting the market—relatively budget-priced editions containing the two CDs found in the previous three-disc deluxe editions: good news for those not interested in high resolution or surround sound mixes. But in addition to those first four studio sets, this reissue program also includes a newly remastered Pictures at an Exhibition—which, in addition to the original album's Newcastle Hall show, also includes a short medley of the suite from the 1972 Mar Y Sol festival in Puerto Rico, as well as, on its second disc, the complete December 1970 show from London's Lyceum Theatre that, in addition to the "Nut Rocker" encore, also includes (from the then-just-released Emerson, Lake & Palmer) "The Barbarian" and "Knife's Edge," as well as a searing "Rondo." Last, a new remaster of the two-CD Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends...Ladies and Gentlemen... renders this stunning live album with the best sound it's ever had.

But there's even more good news for fans of high resolution music and vinyl. For the first time in decades, the original mixes of all ELP albums from 1970-1974 are being made available on 140gm vinyl, with forwards by Lake and using the most recent remasters from the CD reissues: in the case of the four studio albums, from the previous deluxe editions' remasters; in the case of the live albums, from brand new remasters, all sourced from the original master tapes. The original mixes are also being made available as 24-bit/96KHz high resolution digital downloads, taken from the 24/96 masters used on either the previous deluxe editions (in the case of albums not including original mixes in high res on the previous editions, it's important to note that the original mix remasters were still done at 24/96 and then down-sampled to CD quality 16/44.1) or the new live album remasters.

That the two-disc Brain Salad Surgery opts for the bonus material over Jakszyk's remix is a shame; unlike Wilson, whose primary objective with his new stereo mixes (surround sound is a completely different story) is to be relatively faithful to the original mixes while bringing greater transparency and clarity between the often-dense instrumental layers, Jakszyk's approach is somewhat more liberal and less immediately faithful (though his remixes never lose the heart of the originals). Perhaps BSS should have been reissued as a three-CD set, to include the original mix remaster, the disc of bonus material and Jakszyk's revealing remix, as it currently means the only way to hear his "alternate album" is through the previous deluxe and super deluxe editions.

That the only way to get either Wilson or Jakszyk's "alternate albums" in high resolution is through previous deluxe/super deluxe editions is also unfortunate, as they all reveal plenty that the original mixes do not. As faithful as Wilson is, there are clear differences; for example, the introduction of a major-key piano chord supporting the start of Emerson's organ solo during the second movement of Tarkus' 20-minute title track, "Stones of Years," that is either nowhere to be found on the original mix...or is so buried in it as to be inaudible. And, about one minute into Jakszyk's stereo remix of Brain Salad Surgery's "1st Impression Part 1"—from the epic, 30-minute "Karn Evil 9" that closes both the album and a creative apex that ELP would, sadly, never again achieve—contains a jittery keyboard figure that can be heard in the original mix, but in a far more buried position.

Not that there is anything wrong with the original mixes; these are, after all, the versions, whose vinyl grooves ELP fans have worn out more than once during their lifetimes; which they've replaced, most likely, more than once on CD; and which they truly know like the backs of their hands. These new (or, in some cases, new-ish) original mix remasters of those classic albums are certainly wonderful to hear. But while proper remastering can, indeed, bring greater clarity, and dynamic and sonic breadth to the table, remixes—coming as they do from the original 2" multi-track tapes, rather than the 1/4" master tape of the original mix—simply allow for more latitude, in the proper hands, to introduce the clarity and transparency that both Wilson and Jakszyk do on a consistent basis. There's greater punch at the bottom end, and upper frequency adjustments that make, for example, Palmer's cymbals far crisper and more lifelike than they've ever been.

The dynamics of the music are also more pronounced. Yes, it's necessary to almost lean forward to hear Emerson strum the strings inside his piano as he fades away and Lake's acoustic guitar emerges in the midst of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Take a Pebble"—whereas the overall original mix remaster is somewhat louder (though, thankfully, far from a victim of the "loudness wars" that have marred so many classic album remasters, beginning, in earnest, in the early 1990s)—but that is, perhaps, a more realistic interpretation of the dynamics that, as bombastic and pyrotechnic as ELP could be at times, was also a fundamental part of the trio's approach to music-making. And, overall, the new mixes are simply richer and warmer where they need to be, as well as being more vivacious, potent and high octane when the music demands.

Still, it's clear that, with Lake involved in both the 2012-2015 and new 2016 reissues, the original mixes are being positioned as the definitive ones, with Lake having the final word on how these albums—which he produced in the first place—should sound, as opposed to Wilson and Jakszyk's work, which normally takes precedence. And it's an unusual move; most groups—amongst them, King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and XTC—that have employed Wilson and/or Jakszyk have positioned their new mixes as the definitive ones, featured on both CD and high resolution media, with the original mixes largely relegated to high resolution media for completion's sake.

And so, while it's good news that newly mastered original mixes are available, in multiple formats, rendering them as the best they have ever sounded, it's unfortunate that Wilson and Jakszyk's work has been, to some extent, positioned as secondary.

Still, irrespective of which mix is available on whatever media, the most important thing is, of course, the music itself, and pumped through a Tetra 333 speaker stack powered by a Leema Tucana II integrated amplifier, both mixes sound superb. Lake's fuzz bass, which opens Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "The Barbarian," is positively massive; his clean bass line that—alone with Palmer's delay-driven high hat—supports his deep-toned voice during the first two verses of "Knife Edge" is as bright as it is rich and full when the band kicks into higher gear during Emerson's Hammond-driven choruses and solo. Palmer's delicate cymbal work on "Take a Pebble" is as subtle and nuanced as anything heard on an ECM recording, in particular given the song's largely acoustic, piano-driven nature. Emerson's solo church organ on "Clotho," the first movement of "The Three Fates" is as grand as his piano is sweeping during the second part, "Lachesis," while the 7/8 figure that brings the entire band in for the closing segment, "Atropos," is a combination of improvisational gymnastics and Palmer's quirky combination of drum kit and hand percussion.

It's not until "Tank," the album's penultimate track, that Emerson introduces his Moog synthesizer, as well as a clavinet solo that, preceding Palmer's show-stopper of a drum solo, eschews the instrument's funkier proclivities for a more harpsichord-like approach; while the closing segment, driven by harmonized chords and a linear synth solo, was, at the time, not just a sound like nothing that had been heard before, but a demonstration, as if more were needed, of Emerson's improvisational panache. Other than an early trio recording from 1963, when he was just 19 (only released in 2015, from one of just four acetates available), Emerson never released a flat-out jazz record, but throughout Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the three studio and two live albums that followed, it became clear that his knowledge of the language—from 1920s/30s stride through to a then-more modernistic Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck-infused vernacular—was a fundamental part of what, when combined with his clear classical influences, created one of the major foundations of progressive rock, as it emerged and became, for a a few short years, a massively popular cross-pollinating musical genre.

If this was clear on Emerson, Lake & Palmer, then it was presented with even greater clarity on Tarkus. The 20-minute title track contained mind-boggling, high-speed scripted music in 10/8 and other irregular meters, while the tension was released on the more song-like movements including the balladic "Stones of Years" and funkier, synth-driven "Mass," where Emerson's near-iconic Hammond solo leads to a fiery middle section where scorching synth lines are brought together with Lake's searing electric guitar lines. Lake's voice brings similarly memorable melodies to the three song-based movements, in particular the majestic "Battlefield," which also features one of his best guitar solos—double tracked—on record. Palmer—despite being criticized over the years for less-than-precise time—is both a firm anchor throughout the suite and an orchestral partner, adding not just fills but broader percussive colors.

With such an epic opener, it's hard for the album's second side of shorter pieces to come close to matching the intense, relentless creativity of Tarkus' first side. But what the original second vinyl side lacked in sheer innovation it more than made up for in stylistic breadth, from the piano-driven "Jeremy Bender," one of a number of tracks, from this point forward, where Emerson would put metal tacks on the piano key heads to create a distinctive sound hardening back to ragtime days. ELP may, indeed, have not been a jazz trio, but "Bitches Crystal" swings furiously, with Lake's fiery walking bass line and Palmer's frenetic kit work bolstering another jazz-inflected piano solo from Emerson. Church organ returns on the opener to a two-part piece, "The Only Way (Hymn)," which suggests both Emerson and Lake spent at least some of their childhood years in churches and boys' choirs, while the alternating 3/4 and 4/4 bars of "Infinite Space (Conclusion)" once again return to jazz-informed, if not precisely jazz territory. "A Time and a Place" is pure magisterial prog, while "Are You Ready, Eddy?" is a piece of flat-out rock 'n' roll that pays tribute to the group's longtime engineer, Eddy Offord.

Trilogy, for some reason, is often overlooked despite it being a clear continuation of the evolution heard with Tarkus. Perhaps it's because, other than a show-opening/show-stopping interpretation of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown"—with Emerson's command of his Moog becoming even more confident and texturally broad—and Lake's romantic, acoustic-driven "From the Beginning," little music from the album was performed live...or, at least, for long. The majestic three-part opener—the synth and Hammond-heavy "The Endless Enigma, Pt. 1," piano interlude "Fugue" and even more stately "The Endless Enigma, Pt. 2" are as impressive as anything they'd delivered to date, while the closing "Abbadon's Bolero" builds slowly, inexorably to its multilayered conclusion, but was consequently difficult to execute live. "The Sherrif" injects some levity, while the title track represents some of the group's most beautiful music, combined with some of its most powerful...but, again, the multi-layered synths in the middle section proved next-to-impossible to recreate live, while "Living Sin" is, perhaps, a rare low for the trio. Still, a low for 1970-'74 ELP remains a higher achievement than many groups' best work.

Which leads to Brain Salad Surgery. If "Tarkus" was an early epic, "Karn Evil 9" raised the group's game even further. A science fiction cautionary tale with lyrics contributed by early King Crimson wordsmith Peter Sinfield, its three "Impressions"—four, if you consider that the 14-minute "1st Impression" had to be broken up into two parts due to vinyl's limitations and not wanting to sacrifice sound by making a 31-minute second side (though on CD the two parts have been seamlessly joined together, making it even more monumental)—Emerson's command of Hammond and Moog, in particular when played together, has never been better, and the writing reached a level of detail, complexity and sheer magnificence that the group would never again achieve, complete with Lake's electric guitar supported by Emerson's muscular synth bass lines.

The second "Impression" begins with a brief opening from Palmer but is ultimately another piano feature for Emerson, with its combination of challenging score and space for a mid-section synth spot where Emerson manages to emulate steel pan drums—not necessarily impressive with today's sampling technology, but at the time another example of a group pushing the boundaries of form, freedom, color and texture...as well as stylistic cross-pollination, with Emerson even quoting saxophonist Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" during the steel pan section. The "3rd Impression" returns largely to Hammond and Moog terrain, but builds to an inevitable climax where, after eight minutes of powerful yet refined writing—with trumpet-informed synths, clavinets and other keyboards that may reflect ELP's best moments, period—ends the album with a repeating synthesizer sequence that begins to accelerate and pan, ever more rapidly, from left to right and right to left, building to a high-velocity ending that finally just...stops.

Brain Salad Surgery also represents ELP at its most consistent...and it's most experimental. "Toccata" is Emerson's adaptation of the "Fourth Movement" of Alberto Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto that, in addition to its oblique blend of Hammond, piano and synth, is a feature for Palmer who, in addition to kit work, timpani and other orchestral percussion, introduces early drum synthesizer technology in a percussion section written (but uncredited) by the drummer. It's ELP at its most avant-garde, and if Aaron Copland was less than enthusiastic about the group's take on "Hoedown," Ginastera was far more positive and optimistic about "Toccata," arranging for clearance himself to allow the band to perform it and, upon hearing the finished result, simply called it "formidable."

"Still You Turn Me On" is another melodic Lake song for acoustic and electric guitars, while few albums have ever opened with greater majesty than the group's collaborative arrangement of Hubert Parry's well-known hymn, "Jerusalem," its lyrics culled from a poem that prefaces William Blake's Milton. The song is also notable for its introduction of a prototype of the Moog Apollo, the first polyphonic synth.

If Trilogy was an album too multilayered for ELP to play live for the most part, the trio purchased a cinema in order to develop Brain Salad Surgery as an album intended for live performance. And as complex as it was, it was certainly mission accomplished, based on Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends...Ladies and Gentlemen...—one of the best progressive rock live albums of all time along with Yes' Yessongs—where the band performs the entire album, with the exception of the comedy short, "Benny the Bouncer." While not explicitly credited, "Still You Turn Me On" is built into Lake's acoustic guitar segment during "Take a Pebble," along with "Lucky Man," sandwiched between piano solos from Emerson that manage to transcend his superb playing on the original studio version...in particular the "Piano Improvisations" following Lake's solo spot that ultimately leads back to the conclusion of this extended, 27-minute look at one of the best tracks from ELP's debut. If there were any doubt about Emerson's jazz chops and his band mates' ability to swing with absolute authenticity, look no further.

A similarly extended, 27-minute "Tarkus" is taken at an even faster clip and includes both a significantly expanded version of the suite-closing "Aquatarkus" and a brief solo section for Lake, where the singer and guitarist quotes the chorus for In the Court of the Crimson King's symphonic "Epitaph" during "Battlefield." And if Brain Salad Surgery was, indeed, designed for live performance, the group delivers a 36-minute Karn Evil 9" that makes up for Welcome Back My Friends' sound with a positively nuclear performance that closes the album on the highest possible note. Not that the sound is bad—far from it, and this remaster definitely gives it more heft than it previously possessed—but it's simply a function of there being more of the concert venue(s) in the mix, which makes it a touch hollow at times.

Throughout the entire run of albums from 1970-74, Lake's voice is like a lightning rod, drawing knotty, idiosyncratic and deeply challenging music into periods of more lyrical simplicity. There are those for whom the more challenging music represents ELP's biggest draw, but it's the diametric opposites, the stylistic shifts, the opposing forces that made ELP such a remarkable band, especially during this fertile four-year period. Remove any single component and the group would have lost what made it such a powerhouse studio and live act. If there's any weak spot in the trio's early discography, it would be the live Pictures at an Exhibition: not because it's intrinsically bad, but because it was recorded during such early days for the band that, by the time it was released after Tarkus, the innovations it represented had already been so well and truly surpassed, rendering it, in retrospect, exactly as it was: a group still looking to find itself, to hone its overall conception and sound. Still, the current reissue, with an entire performance on the second disc, has plenty to recommend, in particular its take on "Rondo" that surpasses any recorded version from The Nice.

Wilson's "alternate albums" also have plenty of previously unreleased music, even if multi-tracks for the entire Emerson, Lake & Palmer could not be located. But if the addition of an early studio recording of Pictures at an Exhibition's "Promenade," a "Rave Up" jam that hints at what's to come with "Tarkus," and alternate takes of "Lucky Man," "Take a Pebble" and "Knife Edge" are as worthwhile as Tarkus' inclusion of Lake's ballad, "Oh, My Father," an alternate take of "Mass" and, most curiously, "Unknown Ballad," a piano ballad written and sung by Emerson, the most enticing music remains Wilson's remix work on the actual album tracks where the multi-track tapes could be found. The entire first side of Emerson, Lake & Palmer positively sings, with nuance, power, and the unbridled energy of a group still hungry, still searching...as does, in particular, the first side of Tarkus.

Post a comment

Listen

Watch

Tags

Shop Amazon

More

All About Jazz needs your support

Donate
All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.