Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
Nowadays, the Nice are known pretty much exclusively as Keith Emerson's old band. However, in their time, they were the start of a revolution. They were among the first to use classically influenced compositions and improvisation on a rock record, and as such their debut has a stake as the first progressive rock LP ever made. But like many innovators in the 60's, they were a little rough around the edges, and they didn't have a whole lot of talent outside of Emerson. Still, if you come to the band through ELP (and I can't think of another way anyone would), you will probably find something to enjoy, as Emerson's lightning-quick playing is all over these albums, and it's clear that he laid the blueprint here for what ELP would do later. There is a certain charm to all this, as the band clearly had more ambition than good sense, re-arranging pieces by Sibelius and renting an entire orchestra. Okay, so that could describe ELP as well, but you get the sense that the band themselves never really had an eye on the final product, unlike ELP, which always felt very deliberate. You've got to give them some credit, as nobody was doing anything like this at the time. Of course, other progressive rock bands took a lot of these ideas and improved on them, hence why people do not talk much of the Nice today.
Anyway, for all their ambition, they burned out quickly, especially as Emerson dominated the band's sound more and more each album, hence why they broke up after only a few years (also, you can imagine Emerson wanting to play with band mates as talented as he was). When guitarist Davy O'List left after Davjack, Emerson was left to do everything himself, with mixed results. The albums themselves lost focus after Ars Longa Vita Brevis, after which they seemingly just stopped writing songs altogether. Their last three albums (including Elegy) are all part-studio, part-live monsters with little new material and bad sound quality, taking Emerson's classical interpretations to an extreme. Still, their music in the early days was at least pretty fun, as if you stripped away all the more progressive aspects of their music, you'd be left with another goofy psychedelic band. All I can say is start with their debut, as it's as close to a "classic" as they ever got.
The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967)
This is loony, alright. Like a lot of 1967 psychedelia, this album relies heavily on distortion, feedback, and stereo-panning effects that makes the music feel disorienting. You can tell that the Nice didn't exactly know what they're doing, but they try anyway. Between O'List's wild guitar fills and Emerson's frequent classical quotes, they certainly had a unique sound, even if they didn't have the talent (outside of Emerson, of course). For example "Bonnie K" has an acid-blues sound similar to Hendrix, but there isn't really much of a song there, instead winding up as a showcase for O'List to play on top of himself while Lee Jackson tunelessly screams along. "Dawn" is one of those freeform "freak out" tunes that was common in '67, but Jackson's awkward whispering makes it impossible to take seriously. In general, they do better with more straightforward pop songs or when they don't let Jackson sing at all, such as on the back-to-back instrumentals "Rondo" and "War and Peace". "Rondo" is Emerson's adaptation of Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk", with a bouncy bass line and a galloping organ sound that proceeds to rock uncontrollably for eight minutes, minus a brief section where O'List attempts a solo. It's also the one Nice tune that ELP would regularly perform live, which is no surprise as it closely maps out the ELP sound. "War and Peace" is more of a standard blues jam, and seems made up on the spot. It gets more interesting as it goes on, as Emerson goes gothic while O'List flails around on the axe. There are songs that are catchy but hokey ("Flower King of Flies", the title track), and songs that sound good while they're on but aren't very memorable ("Tantalising Maggie", "The Cry of Eugene"). All I can say is, try not to pay attention to the lyrics, as they will make your head spin with their awfulness. Jackson aside, this is really a fine album with the same problems that a lot of 60's psychedelia releases have - one, the production is incredibly uneven, as the organ and guitar amps seem to get turned up and down at random and the mix is panned all over the place. Maybe this was intentional, but it makes the album hard to listen to. Two is that the best songs didn't even make the album, such as the incredible instrumental cover of West Side Story's "America" which is maybe the best thing this band ever did, particularly if you're a fan of ELP's crazy classical jams. "Azrael (Angel of Death)" is a good single with a great guitar riff that could have definitely taken the place of "Bonnie K". As it is, both of them are bonus tracks, making the CD reissues a necessity. With a little reshuffling, this could easily go up half a star. This is a nice purchase for anyone who's run out of good ELP albums to buy, especially as you can hear brief little organ fills that would eventually become parts of "Tarkus" or "Karn Evil 9".
Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968)
With O'List basically out of the band (he does show up briefly on "2nd Movement - Realisation"), the Nice had to rely more on Emerson, which of course means more classical covers. Not just the extension of a part of Bach's Brandenburg concerto on "3rd Movement - Acceptance" (maybe the high point of the disc), but also in the 9-minute adaptation of Sibelius on "Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite". That one sticks fairly close to the original and winds up being a chance to hear Emerson just tap away at his organ, at least until the doom-laden feedback starts up six minutes in, foreshadowing what he'd later do on Pictures at an Exhibition. It's not incredibly exciting but ELP fans should feel right at home. As far as the suite goes, it's alright, but it wound up being outclassed by basically every other progressive rock band. Davidson's "1st Movement - Awakening" is basically just a 4-minute drum solo, indicating that perhaps the band did not have a lot of ideas for this. Still, you have to give them credit for being the first group to try something like this, and they do bring in an orchestra for later movements. Most of this is just jamming on one central riff, though the take on Bach turns out to be incredibly entertaining. I have no doubt that this was considered a masterpiece in its time but I don't think anyone feels that way now; there's just no depth to it, and Emerson has to do pretty much all the work, and the orchestra doesn't do much outside of doubling a few melody lines. At least Lee Jackson is silent for the majority of it. Outside of that, there are three goofy psych-rockers that begin the album, one of which features Emerson on lead vocal ("Daddy, Where Did I Come From?"). They're more focused than the ones on Davjack, as they're free of classical quotations or flailing guitar work. All three are good; "Little Arabella" feels like a precursor to the campy ragtime tracks ELP would later do, except this one has a time-wasting solo section. Although this is mostly interesting from a historical point of view, once again there are some parts an ELP fan might enjoy.
Uh-oh. Only six tracks here, including a Tim Hardin cover, a Dylan cover, a new recording of the Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack single B-side, and another take on "Rondo". So there are only two new songs, and one of them is about Lee Jackson's writer's block. The other one, "For Example", is a nine minute non-song that sounds like a blues band warm-up, with a couple of outside contributors on horns. It's largely ignorable until the end when the band loosens up, though Lee Jackson's voice can't help but destroy everything around it. Really the whole album lives and dies on whether or not Emerson can think of anything to play, since the rest of the band gives him nothing to work with. He uses a detuned piano on "Azrael Revisited" to give it a honky tonk feel, which is not really preferable to the version with O'List, but at least there's an actual hook (even if it is really just a take on Rachiminov's 5th). Elsewhere there are some piano flourishes on Hardin's "Hang on to a Dream", and a short rock riff that foreshadows the stuff he'd write for Tarkus on "Diary of an Empty Day". The second side is taken from a show at the Fillmore East, and it is basically twenty minutes of Emerson diddling his organ. "Rondo" is done faster than in studio and has a lot of his patented "organ feedback", while the cover of Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" quickly devolves into a long jam based around one key. All the entertainment value is in Emerson abusing his organ and tossing off lightning quick classical quotes, some of which became parts of future ELP songs. I know people usually harp on ELP for relying too much on technique and not enough on songwriting, but one listen to this album will show you how much worse it could have been. Emerson is good and sometimes brilliant, but he doesn't really have much to play, and Davidson plays everything so straight that you hardly notice he's even there. As for Jackson, you're only left wondering who convinced the guy he could sing. It's not that his voice is terribly distracting, rather that it sounds like someone dumped a bucket of gravel onto the record every time he opens his mouth. If you want to know why the Nice were so short-lived, this is Exhibit A.
Five Bridges (1970)
Here we go...again. This one features a live, five-part orchestral suite that was commissioned by the Newcastle Arts Festival as a tribute to the five bridges that span the River Tyne. The symphony orchestra is similar to the one that played on Days of Future Passed; it's full of clichéd bits that sound like the soundtrack to a Disney movie, and they just don't seem necessary at all other than to fill time. Outside of small amounts of piano playing, the full band doesn't arrive until about six minutes in, and the result is about as formless as the stuff on the last album, only Lee Jackson's vocals have somehow gotten even worse. Like "Ars Longa Vita Brevis", it's mostly based around one melody, with lots of jamming in between. However, unlike that piece, there is no real "good movement" here, just more of Emerson's mock-classical playing and organ abuse. Jackson can't even muster up any emotion, just mumbling his lines over soft orchestral backing. I guess Emerson gets some slack as this is the first time he would ever try to do something like this, but it's clear that he just has no idea how to write for orchestra. As for the second side, it's filled with more classical covers, some of which this band has done before ("Intermezzo 'Karelia Suite'", "Brandenburg"), plus an interpretation of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique". There's also a take on Dylan's "Country Pie". The first twenty minutes or so of this were taken from the same show as "Five Bridges", so you get to hear even more of the orchestra, but again most of this is just Emerson soloing. It's so ignorable that it feels like "Karelia Suite" breaks down into sudden organ feedback just to make sure people are still paying attention. So it's mostly a bore, but there are some good moments (such as when the band actually plays with the orchestra, instead of either/or), and at least Jackson is silent for most of it. No such luck on "Country Pie/Brandenburg", though it is interesting to hear Emerson mix together Bach, the blues, and Dylan. The remaining track is an odd B-side with a robo-Jackson singing about his own freakiness, and it's impressive in that they actually found a way to make him sound worse. Anyway, at least there's an excuse this time for the album's hodgepodge nature, as they had broken up before the album (which was recorded in 1969) was released. My version came with five bonus tracks which are supposedly alternate versions of Davjack-era material but don't seem to be mixed much different. At least it's a reminder that this band actually used to write songs.
Perhaps you thought the well was dry, but Charisma took note of ELP's success and released this posthumous collection anyway. Four songs, three of which have already appeared on previous Nice LPs, plus Yet Another Dylan Cover, "My Back Pages". Once again, everything feels endless, but at least Emerson doesn't whip out the organ until 15 minutes in. This isn't much different from the last two LPs; Emerson does everything, Jackson's voice is pretty terrible for the 4-5 minutes you actually have to hear him, and the sound quality is pretty bad. There's more jazzy playing on a live version of Hardin's "Hang on to a Dream", with a lengthy piano improv section that teeters between tasteful and time-wasting. "My Back Pages" is just more vaguely blues-inspired organ work, nothing new there. On the other hand, the version of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" here is more energetic and isn't held back by the orchestra, and you even get to hear Davidson work up a storm at the end, while "America" shows Emerson really showing off, particularly now that he has to play O'List's parts as well. It is actually begins in a way similar to ELP's "Hoedown" but it quickly devolves into more organ abuse and feedback, with another long, noisy ending. Again, nothing new, but I guess this is at least more fun than Five Bridges, if that's worth anything. Like the last album, my version comes with more "alternate" versions of earlier stuff, and if you combine the two you get the entire 1972 compilation Autumn '67-Spring '68.
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
Progressive rock fans may deny it, but ELP really was one of the superpowers of mainstream prog (the other being Yes), and while they weren't responsible for much of the genre's ingenuity, at least they were responsible for its bad reputation. Although psychedelic music was starting to die down in 1970, both American and British audiences were still looking for music that was far out, and came to embrace longer, more skilled and technical works. The Nice were the first band along these lines, and ELP is like the Nice taken to an extreme, with even faster playing and synthesizers. Then there was the prog godfathers King Crimson, who had just released their classic debut which of course originally featured Greg Lake on bass and vocals. Emerson and Lake wound up hanging out quite a bit in '69, and soon had ideas that were too big for the Nice or even Crimson. They rounded up Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster, Arthur Brown), as Palmer was one of the few drummers technically skilled enough to keep up with Emerson.
For the most part, ELP was always straddling the line of what was tasteful, which initially gave them an edge over other prog groups that didn't have much appeal if you weren't a fan of the genre already. You could ignore Genesis in their early years - you couldn't ignore these guys. Their success stemmed from a huge debut at the Isle of Wight festival, but only grew as they turned up the intensity. They played fast, didn't mind stepping on a few toes, and were usually eager to try new things, for better or worse. They had the chops, but more than that, they had the ambition. Again, Keith Emerson was the keyboardist as bandleader, who still had a chip on his shoulder, eager to prove that he was just as dynamic and exciting as any guitar god you could name. This led to a lot of antics that drew an enormous amount of attention to the group - he would rig his piano up to fly across the stage with him, destroy huge keyboard setups, and perform bizarre sexual acts on his equipment. Given that he was a showman in the true sense of the word, this was not always a bad thing, but after ELP's commercial peak, audiences were left wondering what the point was. He was the first person to bring the sounds of the Moog to a wide audience, but he was also the first person who should have been restrained from using one. He was a lover of classical music, which led to one of ELP's defining features, the "classical cover", in which they attempt to adapt a classic piece into rock n' roll; it usually worked fine, but pissed off a lot of people in the process (mostly the fans of the originals, but sometimes the artists as well).
Then there's Greg Lake, whose smooth voice and wide range was one of ELP's most impressive features, providing some balance to whatever Emerson was doing. He mostly handles the bass, which he does play pretty well, and his guitar is professional if not particularly noteworthy. His major songwriting contribution to the band were the rare ballads that usually became hits (and are generally the only ELP songs you hear on the radio today). If Emerson represents everything excessive about the band, Lake represents everything decent about it. As for Palmer, he's about as technically skilled a drummer as you can ask for. He's kind of like a Harlem Globetrotter; technically impressive, incredibly quick, and he seems capable doing everything. But just like most Globetrotters would probably not make it on a real NBA team, Palmer wouldn't make it as a jazz fusion drummer (which it sounds like he's trying to be); he's all flash and little substance, capable of dropping your jaw but unable to play with any emotion. Of course, ELP has no emotion, unless you count "Sadness on your shoulders like a worn out overcoat/In your pockets creased and tattered hang the rags of your hope".
Suffice to say, this band was not for everyone. Once they fell out of fashion, the critics turned against them, and even their better albums rarely come recommended - they were a major casualty of the prog backlash, and finding an ELP fan who wasn't around for the group's heyday is rare. King Crimson had a cooler sound, Yes had better riffs, Genesis were way more remembered for their decent 80's hits, and nobody remembers the rest of them. ELP is definitely not as bad as you've heard - during their 'classic' period (1970-1973) they were consistently intriguing and exciting, if not exactly tasteful or even pleasant. On the other hand, I never got the impression that these guys took themselves as seriously as the others, as they've always struck me as being more like circus performers. They exist to entertain you, and I always found their music to be more fun than even Yes, as these guys really had no shame, and God bless 'em for that.
Live at the Isle of Wight Festival (rec. 1970, rel. 1997)
This was the band's debut performance, where they were pretty much granted access to an audience the size of a small country. Kind of dodgy sound quality, and pretty useless without the video, which features all sorts of strange visuals such as Keith humping the synths, stabbing knives in them, and otherwise destroying all his equipment while the drug-fueled audience freaks out. The CD doesn't offer that, but it’s the one place you can get a live recording of "The Barbarian", for what's that worth. Only 5 tracks here, but one of them is their "Pictures at an Exhibition" cover (over 35 minutes), so there's plenty of music, even if it's mostly ripped from classical composers ("Barbarian", "Nutrocker", and of course "Pictures"), or from former bands (The Nice's "Rondo"). They do perform "Take a Pebble" though, and it's still pretty even in this early version. There's plenty of energy, and it's weird to see a band with such amazing confidence and skill on their first performance. In a way I'd say this was what ELP was all about, but if you're interested I'd seriously consider getting the DVD instead.
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (1970)
They definitely deserve credit for one thing - no other band I can think of sounded quite like this right out of the gate. Yes, Genesis, and even Van Der Graaf Generator made their debuts as slightly odd pop bands, but even dating back to the Nice, ELP was prog all the way. It's also made clear from the start that this is Emerson's show - the sound is very much keyboard or piano dominated, and there's a good amount of classical music quoted here - from Bartok ("The Barbarian") to Janacek, and even Bach ("Knife Edge"). It's easy to criticize him for doing this, especially since these composers went uncredited (although Emerson quickly learned his lesson to not do this), but ELP was much more technique than songwriting, and it's not far off to say that both those tunes feature some of the most exciting and heaviest prog music that ever came out, and are major highlights of the ELP catalog. Emerson dominates most of side two as well, with "The Three Fates", a three-part composition, featuring an organ section, a piano section, and a band section. It starts off slow and boring but slowly gets more interesting, and I'd say the band part ("Atropos") is fairly nice, but only because you again get to hear ELP playing straight up as a band, which is always great. Not exactly so for "Tank", which is basically Emerson mashing random buttons on his keyboard until Palmer steps in with a long drum solo. Luckily, Lake's parts are able to offer some respite - "Take a Pebble" is more or less copped from Crimson's "Epitaph", but it's a lot gentler, and features a couple solo spots that are actually pleasant to listen to. The middle section has a very pretty piano section and clap-along acoustic part, which are notable since ELP wouldn't pull back to this degree ever again. The closer "Lucky Man" was the big FM hit, famous mostly for Emerson's tossed-off Moog solo, though the tune itself is easy to sing and is easy on the ears (basically, everything a big FM hit is supposed to do). Like everything they do, this album is hit-or-miss, but every track has its good parts, and outside of "Tank", the more irritating aspects of the group aren't yet present. Start here if anywhere.
Well, that didn't take long. By their second album, ELP were already dreaming of 20+ minute epics about armadillos in tank treads with enough movements to fill a symphony. I assure you, in reality, it's not that daunting - essentially the piece is three songs ("Stones of Years", "Mass", "Battlefield") surrounded by instrumental passages, and the group actually do play as a band for most of it. Both "Stones" and "Battlefield" are sort of a twisted take on the blues, which Lake handles well ("Mass" seems like an awkward attempt at funk rock, but is pretty enjoyable anyway). As for Emerson's parts, he shows that you can rock out in 10/8 time ("Eruption"), and comes up with enough good hooks and solo sections to prevent the listener from getting bored. His only lapse of taste is the long march section at the end, which uses a chicken squawk noise that's either funny or annoying, and the "surprise" ending only gives the impression that nobody knew how the piece should end. Still, it really is one of the most focused and consistently enjoyable things they've ever done, and may be their best album side.
As great as "Tarkus" is, records in the 70's were indeed double-sided, forcing ELP to spend a few days in the studio recording stuff to fill the B side, including a couple of tracks that sound like outtakes from the first side ("Time and a Place", "Bitches Crystal"), a few less serious tunes, including a pretty fun ragtime number ("Jeremy Bender"), a bizarre 50's rock toss-off ("Are You Ready Eddy?"), and an intolerable hymn number ("The Only Way") coupled with a piano jam in 7/4 that only Emerson would try to pull off ("Infinite Space"). What strikes me about this side is how great "Bitches Crystal" is (it's like the most frantic parts of "Tarkus", but with some ragtime mixed in), and how awful some of Lake's lyrics are. "Jeremy Bender" has lyrics that are so out of left-field you'll have to do a double take, with references to cross-dressing, anal fisting, incest, and hermaphrodites, and it's not even two minutes long! "The Only Way" is the height of Lake's anti-religious preaching, and it's so ham-fisted that you almost wonder if it's a parody. Otherwise, most of this is pretty lighthearted (Lake's Little Richard vocal on "Are You Ready, Eddy?" is actually pretty funny, if only because he gets it so wrong) and a good contrast to first side.
By the way - this is an oddity in the ELP catalog, as it's their only album to not include a single Lake ballad OR Emerson classical cover. WELL!
Pictures at an Exhibition (1972)
I once took a class on classical composers (as most degrees require a few toss-off classes to ensure we don't graduate "uncultured"), and in the book there was a section about Modest Mussorgsky, where it actually said that those who want to hear more contemporary renditions of his music ought to check out the ELP album Pictures at an Exhibition. Now, it does make me happy to see that there's at least one guy out there not embarrassed to admit he likes ELP, but you'd have to be a pretty huge fan to recommend this in place of the real classical piece. The idea for "Pictures" came about early on (it was played during their first show) when Emerson and Lake realized that they wanted to start a band but didn't have any material. So, they did what no band would ever do and borrowed a few themes a nearly hundred year old classical work and turned it into an epic rock n' roll piece. Two years later, this live album was released to capture it for posterity.
Anyway, the parts where they adapt the original are generally pretty hit and miss, but the strength of the original compositions is at least a good backbone, as the melodies are solid (of course). The famous "Prominade" theme shows up three times, and fans of the original may notice that only the beginning and ending parts of the suite are played, as there has got to be room for a lot of soloing. Surprisingly they decide to put in a couple of originals as well, including an entertaining blues jam and Lake's solo acoustic spotlight "The Sage", which is a high point. Truth is, they're pretty much the only parts I can enjoy off the first half or even longer, given the overarching theme seems to be "Greg Lake's trip to the dentist", as Emerson fills a good portion of the record with obnoxious noise solos (fans of The Nice may be familiar with some of this). Things heat up a bit with "The Hut of Baba Yaga", where we're finally shown the Keith Emerson we actually like, until Lake turns "The Great Gates of Kiev" into one helluva overblown conclusion, ending with the ultimate ELP lyric: "There's no end to my life/no beginning to my death/Death...is...Life!" Still, this is probably the best part of the record, and the only moment that makes it feel as though maybe it was all worth it, as by this point you realize that this really has almost nothing to do with the original Mussorgsky. In the end, there's about a side's worth of good material here, which for ELP is not exactly terrible. The encore is "Nutrocker", of which the less said the better, though I do respect ELP's total lack of any boundaries whatsoever. Not reflected in the score is the amount of balls it takes to actually pull something like this off, though in retrospect, people LOVED this band in 1972, and the backlash for a piece like this wasn't really felt until prog fell way out of favor. Still, outside of "The Sage", it takes a real ELP nut to appreciate this.
The third ELP studio album is one of their easiest to get into, but also their least ambitious (pre-Works, that is). Most of the tunes here are alternate takes on things they've done before, but often done a little better. For example, Lake's ballad "From the Beginning" was a big hit like "Lucky Man", and is arranged in a similar way (right down to the ending Moog solo), but it's just a better song, with a great bass line and a mystical atmosphere that fully emphasizes Lake's voice. "The Sheriff" is a old-timey Western number similar to "Jeremy Bender", but with more sections, a coherent story, and a fun ragtime solo at the end. And the classical cover (based on Aaron Copland's "Rodeo") is just a full-on crowd pleaser, showing off the vast array of sounds Emerson had at his disposal. All these tracks succeed, mostly because the band doesn't really try to do anything too weird, but also because they were so talented that it's exciting just to hear them play. As for the opus tracks, three-part opener "The Endless Enigma" is kind of an overdone hymn number, with some great sections (I'm thinking particularly of the gorgeous piano interlude "Fugue"), and some that are just confusing (part of it sounds like Christmas music). It builds a lot of tension, but doesn't really know what to do with it. "Trilogy" is also a three parter (of course), though the individual sections aren't split up. It begins as a syrupy romantic ballad, but suddenly transforms into growling synth-rock, which then becomes something of a goofy pop song. Again, Emerson is the focus, though it's entertaining hearing Palmer try to replicate almost everything he's doing. If the bass were turned up, this almost would sound like Yes, and I mean that in a good way. Things fall apart after that, with a second-rate organ rocker ("Living Sin") that recalls "Bitches Crystal" and "Knife Edge" but is nowhere near as good. The ending number is a bolero, which much like "Hoedown" seems to focus mostly on displaying how many different settings Keith had on his organ. As far as a marching tune goes, it's better than "Aquatarkus", but has a wacky sci-fi atmosphere that takes any seriousness out of it (look for much more of this on the next album). Still, like most everything else on here, it's kind of fun, mostly because Emerson plays it straight, though he struggles to come up with much of an ending. If you're not a superfan, this may be the ELP album you find yourself wanting to play most, as a lot of their wilder tendencies are minimized.
Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
This is ELP's biggest and most ambitious album, which is really saying something. Essentially, this is where the brain damaged part of the group finally took control, and the result is some of the craziest music they've ever come up with, for better or worse. For example, they've covered classical works before, but never anything as wild as "Toccata", a high-intensity piece with sudden bursts of shrieking organ and a way-ahead-of-its-time techno freakout, courtesy of a rigged up drumkit. I'd like to say this is the kind of thing that the band does best, but the truth is there's nothing quite like it in their catalogue, and there certainly won't be in anyone else's. Otherwise, most of the first side is dedicated to shorter pieces, including a cover of a famous Protestant hymn ("Jerusalem") which is given a pompous, explosive arrangement that actually works; it's bombast in the best sense of the word. There's also the obligitory Lake ballad ("Still...You Turn Me On"), which also gets perverted, featuring a kimono (which sounds beautiful) and a wah-wah guitar (which sounds totally out of place). But the big turkey is "Karn Evil 9", which takes up roughly two-thirds of the album. Emerson pretty much plays through the whole thing, though Lake gets a number of big guitar parts during "1st Impression", which shows how much fun this group could be when they were truly firing on all cylinders. The result is their defining moment ("See the show!!"), as it manages to actually balance a bunch of solos without losing focus. A section of this is still a radio staple, and really the only well-known ELP tune that displays what the band actually sounded like. "2nd Impression" shifts things completely, instead focusing on long, melodic piano phrases along with some wacky stuff, like a part where the keyboards sound like steel drums. Perhaps a bit overlong, but it is one of Emerson's best compositions. "3rd Impression" is where everything goes off the rails, as the whole thing is supposed to be like the climax of a big sci-fi drama, but it winds up sounding like Muppets in Space instead. It's not bad, despite some very questionable lyrics from Sinfield ("Ties a rope to a tree/AND HANGS THE UNIVERSE!"), and a "battle" between Lake and a HAL-9000 vocaloid, complete with faux-dramatic soloing. It's certainly not boring. Plus, the finale (a synth line that speeds up into oblivion) is one of the weirdest and most ambiguous endings to an album I've ever heard. I think it's supposed to represent the computer going haywire but the more likely explanation is that Emerson discovered sequencers. It's all too easy to accuse this album of excessive showmanship, but in my opinion that kind of misses the point - while other prog groups tried to calculate the perfect moments to showcase their talents, ELP shoves everything in your face at once and dares you to not be impressed. They didn't have the songwriting skills of Yes or the dramatic sense of Genesis or Van der Graaf Generator, but when it comes to showing off, ELP are second to none. And thus, this is their best album.
Welcome Back My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends, Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (1974)
Most people don't even bother to come up with a review that's longer than the album title, but I'll give it a shot. This is a triple-live album, featuring both "Tarkus" and "Karn Evil 9" in their entirety, and they're both actually longer than the originals, while "Take a Pebble" more or less occupies an entire LP. No wonder they got raked over the coals for this, despite it being nearly a half hour shorter than Yes's own triple live set. After Brain Salad Surgery, this would have to be their ultimate statement - not only did they write whacked-out and difficult music, but they could play it live too, and you'll feel like you were actually there, as this album transports you right to the third-to-last row of the balcony. It's not without its share of gaffes - Emerson generally tries to play too fast and slips up a few times, Lake can't match some of his more dramatic vocalizations, and even forgets a few lines ("Threatened to fist her/if she didn't dunnn deeeeee"....uhhhh?) The only one who seems flawless is Palmer, even though he's undermixed, but it's satisfying to know that he actually CAN hold up for an entire concert. Okay, so it's kind of a mess, but it's a necessity for ELP fans - let's face it, sound quality issues aside, this is a hell of a live album, with Keith playing everything at supersonic speed ("Hoedown" kills the studio version in what's practically an Olympic performance, and that's the warm up!), and the band captures the spirit of the originals well - "Toccata" is genuinely scary and even adds to the original, while "Tarkus" is absolutely fierce, and nearly destroys the studio version. "Take a Pebble", featuring two of Lake's ballads and a 12-minute piano improv section, is the only restrained moment on the whole set, so luckily it lasts a while. The only time where they start to show their weaknesses is on "Karn Evil 9", which shows the band members getting tired towards the end of the now 35-minute piece, but hey, who wouldn't? Well, there's Palmer, who solos away for nearly six minutes and still manages to bash out the rest of the song, but then again, he didn't exhaust himself violating a synthesizer earlier in the show. This is ELP at the top of their game, and they make damn sure you know it too. The only odd decision here was to not include a version of "Pictures", thereby pushing this to 4 LPs and making it longer than Yes's live album, though I suppose the giant E! L! P! lettering wouldn't look so nice that way. Though you're missing the allegedly insane visual component of these shows, fans will probably find themselves returning to this album often, as this group was built to play live.
After this, the band decided to part ways. And why not? When you've already re-interpreted famous classical works as rock songs and written epics that wouldn't even fit on one side of the record, what do you do next? I think it was obvious that the band blew every trick they had up their sleeves in the making of Brain Salad Surgery, and thus would have nowhere to go but down - besides, this was 1974, which was really the last call for mainstream prog anyway, where they released their Reds,Relayers and Lambs before giving up the stage to the new, opposing punk movement...
But let's face it, ELP wasn't going to bow out that easily (Lake's hatred of "talentless" punk music was no secret), and just three years later, they decided to come back. They had the same ambitions, but no ideas, and thus the post-'74 career of ELP is mostly just one turkey after another. That's really all you need to know, but if you're curious, read on...
Works, Vol. 1 (1977)
This is only *kind of* an ELP record - three sides of this double are dedicated to the band members' aborted solo albums (with the fourth being new material from the band). You'd hope that maybe this gives Emerson the chance to write something really complex and cool and Lake the chance to spin off a half-dozen more great ballads like "From the Beginning" but who am I kidding? Emerson rents an orchestra and does a concerto (as expected), but he doesn't do much with them, leading them into boring and totally predictable passages while Emerson plays in a manner that's not particularly fast or pretty, somehow finding a way for me to wish for another "Three Fates". It has pretty much everything you'd expect in a concerto, but little to suggest any thought behind the arrangement - some of the shorter, repeated piano phrases are memorable ("3rd Movement", for a while at least), but as a whole it's pretty damn clear that this is Emerson's first try at something like this, and he's doing it just to do it. Lake writes an entire side of generic love songs with Sinfield, veering into lite-soft pop Neil Diamond territory and trash disco. "C'est La Vie" is decent and "Closer to Believing" still has the pomp, but overall it's mostly a side of bad pop songs smashed with overproduction, which is unfortunate since Lake could still carry a tune with just his voice and guitar alone. In case you're wondering what Palmer does, he decides to go into jazz-fusion territory, which really is an exciting prospect, but besides one Prokofiev track that does sound a lot like a short ELP jam ("The Enemy God Dances With the Black Spirits"), he doesn't quite make it work. Most of the tunes devolve into bluesy jams ("L.A. Nights"), or are covers of famous composers such as Bach ("Two Part Invention in D Minor) or Keith Emerson ("Tank"). Unfortunately he just plays the same he always does, just bashing along with little rhyme or reason, and in the end you'd wish he'd taken a lesson from Bill Bruford or Phil Collins. Still, what he comes up with is better than both E and L, and at this point it's refreshing just to hear something with some energy.
That just leaves the band side, which is disappointing like everything else, but it's the last gasp of the "real" ELP, so enjoy it while you can. It's only two songs, one of which is another Copland cover, "Fanfare for the Common Man". It's basically old-time rock with blast synths, which works fine as a single, but the full 10-minute rendition has a lot of synth noises that simply are not pleasant to listen to, at all. Finally, there's "Pirates", which is ELP's big showtune number, inspired by a ride at Disneyland (I kid you not). It's embarrassing, but it also contains more hooks than the rest of the album put together, and actually has a number of energetic and memorable sections. It's basically a big Broadway number (albeit with only one singer), shifting from one theme to the next, using a ton of major chords and a full orchestra. Unlike most ELP longform pieces, there's hardly any repetition, which makes the piece seem fairly ambitious as a whole, even if it is kinda stupid and clumsily put together (in particular, Lake's entrace sounds like it's edited in from another song, and instead of going for a dramatic, Pictures-esque ending, it just limps to the finish). It's not something you'll want to hear often but it is at least capable of putting a smile on your face, which is something I can't say about anything else on here save maybe "C'est La Vie". It really feels like less than the sum of its parts, and it's not recommended to listen to it all at once. It did crack the UK Top 10, but it was the last ELP record to do so - many of the fans who hadn't moved on in the 3 year hiatus were bound to after this.
Works, Vol. 2 (1977)
This is another album comprised of stuff from the Works sessions (along with some vault-clearing), collecting the stuff that ELP apparently thought was too lightweight to make the first volume. The result is an album full of 4-minute tunes, alternating between boogie-woogie numbers, fusion jam-sessions, and of course the usual ballads from Greg Lake. Right away you can see what was missing from most of Volume 1, as most of this is a great deal of fun, particularly goofball stuff like Palmer's "Bullfrog", which starts off as a cha-cha tune, but evolves into a crazy jam session with a bunch of neat percussion. Also notable is Lake's "Watching Over You", which is a hell of a lot closer to his classic early-70's ballads than any of his other solo stuff on the first volume, as it rides a strong vocal and skips the overblown production. Emerson's contributions are limited to a handful of big-band ragtime numbers, which are pretty neat, though at some point you feel like you're in a Looney Tunes cartoon ("Barrel-House Shakedown", "Maple Leaf Rag"). Finally, there are some tracks that seem otherwise destined for a rarities collection, most notably the dropped, half-finished title track from Brain Salad Surgery, which begins with a cool wonky synth jam that goes off the deep end fast when the vocals come in. There's also a band version of Lake's anti-Christmas hit "I Believe in Father Christmas", which is a hell of an earworm, and something I still hear at the grocery store during the holiday season. The whole package feels like the goofier bits and pieces of a few potential ELP spinoff projects that never materialized, which makes it low on replay value, but also better than pretty much all their other post-74 material. Even if you've soured on the group, this is still worth a curiosity listen, as its rare to see a band with this much technical talent loosen their ties so much. If nothing else, just keep in mind that this is way better than the first volume.
Works Live (rec. 1977, rel. 1979, expanded 1993)
Originally titled In Concert, with the CD remaster adding a second disc and re-titling it to Works Live. That's more accurate - 9 of the tracks are from the Works's's, with only four dating from the band's classic period (and that's counting "Tank"!) This was their infamous tour where they kept an entire symphony orchestra in tow, which due to some goofy Musician's Union rules became a nightmare. Not to mention the band's audience wasn't as big as it was in '73, and as a result this nearly bankrupted them. The album does fill a neat role in that there is not a single overlap with Welcome Back, even in the expanded version. Of course, you'd think that the difference in quality would be like comparing Brain Salad Surgery to Works, but luckily this fares better than that. While they do perform pieces from those albums, they generally do only the better material - so we get Palmer's "Enemy God", Lake's "Watching Over You", and only the final movement of Emerson's concerto. Also, there's a cover of "Peter Gunn", which was never recorded in the studio. In this context it's surprising that the album holds up well - the performances at least match the studio versions, and in some cases really surpass them ("Closer to Believing" finally achieves the levels of melodrama it shoots for).
Of course, it's not ELP without at least SOME of the bombast of the ELPast to balance out the boogie-woogie numbers, and we do get a decent "Fanfare", with Emerson even throwing in his old group's take on "Rondo" (which only emphasizes how much better "Rondo" is, and how much Emerson obviously wanted "Fanfare" to resemble it), but this is mostly done by the older numbers, including a much improved "Abaddon's Bolero" that shreds the original thanks to the orchestral backing, which also adds to the previously-thin sound of "Pictures at an Exhibition", here in an abridged 15-minute version. Another old one is "Knife Edge", which uses the orchestra to great effect, but the recording sounds really cheap, which hurts it a lot - Lake sounds like he's playing a cardboard box with rubber bands. And then there's "Tank", which is nearly twice the length of the studio version, and...is still "Tank". So "Knife Edge" and "Pictures" aside, this is second-rate ELP material, but this mostly works (barf), and the orchestra takes the band to new heights on a few tracks. It's easier on the ears than Welcome Back (and recorded better, too!), but less spectacular. Still in the end I'd say this is a great primer of what was actually good from the Works sessions, and you'd probably do well to pick this up and skip those albums all together.
Love Beach (1978)
ELP's heyday must have seemed like ancient history by this point, but they still owed their label one more album. Although it's tempting to write off the album with just a glance of the gratuitous amounts of chest hair on the cover (and indeed, many do - this may be the most panned album in history that nobody's actually ever listened to - see here), it's actually not that bad. They drop all the outside players and expensive instruments and just kick it as a semi-normal pop band. In fact, the most notable thing about the album is Sinfield's bizarre lyrical choices, which are oddly sexual for a rapidly aging prog band, and not in a subtle way either. "Taste of my Love" is the biggest offender, and includes lyrics that implore you to "get on my stallion and ride" and "climb on my rocket and we'll fly", but not before you go "down on your knees with your face to the wall", and eventually "around the maze of pleasure to the gates of pain" (!!). The money lyric on the title track is "We can make love on love beach!"...which I guess is not as bad as "Load your program, I am yourself!" Even Emerson tones down his act, limiting himself to a tweety synth noise and piano. There are a few good selections here - "All I Want Is You" is a short and sweet tune that recalls "Pirates", the title track is a fun riff-heavy rocker that may have been a precursor to Rush's "Limelight", and "Canario" is a classical cover that’s both fun and lightweight, not unlike “Hoedown”. I don't really need to tell you this, but none of this is substantial, and even though much of it is pleasant, there's not much of a reason to hear it more than once or twice, and there are really no grand moments that ELP is so well known for - even the grand finale to "Memoirs" is limp. It's hard to believe that these are the same guys that made Brain Salad Surgery just 5 years ago - even for an obligation album this is personality-free, though it could be seen as nothing more than a failed attempt at a new image. This is not an album that will be very appealing to fans, and nobody really bought it anyway, so its reputation as being the worst prog album ever isn't justified...it's not progressive, and it's not even ELP's worst album. Really, this is just an okay pop album with a god-awful cover and some really dumb/awesome lyrics. "Canario" appeared on the group's excellent Atlantic Years double-disc set and it worked well there. "Love Beach" is good playlist fodder. I mean yeah, I was surprised - I don't think I've ever gone into an album with lower expectations than I did with this one. "Go down gently with your face to the east. The sun may be rising but we haven't finished the beast." What more needs to be said?
Emerson, Lake, and Powell (1986)
ELP has always been the Spinal Tap of prog rock, but this was almost too good to make up - Emerson and Lake got the knack in the mid-80's and wanted to reconvene for a comeback album, but Palmer was busy as a member of Asia. They decided to soldier on and search for a new drummer, but couldn't sell it as "ELP" unless his last name began with a "P", knocking out 25 of every 26 potential candidates right out of the gate. They settled on ex-Black Sabbath drummer Cozy Powell (who even had the right number of syllables!), and made this one-off album, scoring a decent-sized hit in "Touch and Go", which builds in a way that was only possible in the 80's - the main hook appears up front, then everything calms down for a tense electronic drum shuffle while Lake starts shouting...and only then does the chorus comes back so the song can begin. It sounds like it was written by a record producer, and not the guy who brought us "Tank" all those years ago, but I'm glad it's here - bombastic pop in the 80's certainly fared better than the bombastic prog, and you know Keith loves his bombast.
The band's sound seems to adapted backwards into the 80's, with Emerson picking up all these cheap new-age keyboards (only on "The Miracle" does he pick up the old organ, and the result is as close to their larger-than-life classic sound as they get), and Powell's loud synthesized drum beats giving it all a processed and mechanical sheen. It actually sounds more dated than the stuff they were doing in the 70's, believe it or not. They do resume some of their old habits - Emerson takes a lot of solo parts ("The Score"), but he's not playing fast anymore, and the synths are just ugly this time around. As far as the lyrics go, Lake has somehow gotten even worse, filling the songs with overworn cliches and hamming it up more than he ever has, regardless of whether or not the song calls for it – on the single he sings "All systems go/friend or foe/It's all dependin' on the dice you throw/Come without a warning like a U.F.O./You're runnin' with the devil, it's touch and go", and no I did not make that up. One chorus features the line "they put you in a corner like an old ban-jo". But it's not even the lyrics that get me, or the melodies, which are mostly decent, but rather the glossy and processed feel we get - even on the ballads ("Lay Down Your Guns", "Love Blind"), the drums are brought to the front, drenching the song in a pool of reverb. Which is a shame, since altogether the songwriting is fairly decent here, and let's face it, these guys weren't that much worse than Asia. They do make the jazzy "Step Aside" pleasant, with Emerson finally pulling out his piano for a change. "Love Blind" is catchy enough to have been made the 2nd single - if they filled the album with songs as good as that, they could have had a 90125 or Genesis-type album on their hands. But this is ELP we're talking about. There is still the the obligatory classical cover, "Mars, the Bringer of War" (think Super Mario 3), which actually rules harder than any of the other album tracks. It's still not much more than a nostalgia trip for the old fans ("The Score" definitely seems to be a tribute to the band's classic era), and even if the songwriting is a notch above Love Beach, the sound is several notches below. Also, while Lake's voice has been slipping since Brain Salad Surgery, this is the first release where it's clear that he can't really hit the high notes anymore. Frustrating, but in the end I'm glad something called "Emerson, Lake, and Powell" exists.
3 - To The Power of Three (1988)
Another ELP permutation, this time with Lake missing, being replaced with a somewhat-unknown named Robert Berry. The fans barely know about this one, for several reasons - first of all, they were unable to secure a singer with a last name that begins with "L", and "EBP" sounds awful. Secondly, they didn't have a hit single like "Touch and Go" (nor did they come particularly close). And thirdly, they went through "second marriage syndrome", where, you know, nobody really cares about the return of two-thirds of the band anymore, because they already did it once and it didn't turn out so well. If you're making cheap, keyboard-drenched rock, I guess you could go on without Palmer, but Lake? Berry's voice is suited to this type of music - he's got a throaty voice, no range, and almost no personality. He stays on key but that's really the only credit I can give him. Oh, and there's the most important thing, which is that the album completely sucks, with Emerson using the same cheap keyboard sounds he did on the last album and Palmer playing the same loud syndrums that Powell did. And without Lake, this sounds even LESS like ELP than the Powell album did. In fact, you'd never even know Emerson or Palmer was playing on it, as they're almost completely restrained, leaving the sound a combination of the Powell band and toss-off 80's television themes. They do give Emerson a few brief instrumental passages, but hey...this isn't prog, it's generic, reverb-heavy 80's pop music, and they sound totally out of place here. Plus, the main synth he uses sounds like a tuned airhorn, but less funny. I remember the John McFerrin review of this saying it made Love Beach look like a masterpiece - and what do you know, it does! There is not a single song on here I'd like to hear again; "Desde La Vida" DOES contain about 20 seconds of the band actually really rocking out and playing the kind of music we want them to play. The only good tune is a cover of "Eight Miles High", but the squonky keyboard lines and Palmer's trashcan beats ruin it, and it's only a small pittance in a sea of 80's AOR hell that's only notable because two washed up proggers allegedly played on it twenty years ago. Also, as it turns out, this was only put out for contract reasons - when Asia broke up for the first time, the band members still owed the label an album, which led to a lot of regrettable material, and this band didn't really have any intention of staying together anyways. It still sucks, but at least we can blame the record label (again).
Black Moon (1992)
Here's the "full" reunion that everyone knew would happen sooner or later, and it's even lamer than you'd think. Yes, Palmer is finally playing with Emerson and Lake again, but he's completely faceless, as he's stuck with the same loud syn-drums that every other crappy band was using in the early 90's, and all these songs are midtempo anyway. Emerson still is stuck with the curse of trying to update his synths without really trying them out first, as they still sound ugly and very much "late 80's", and due to physical injury he's unable to play fast anymore. Worse, smoking and about a hundred extra pounds finally got the best of Lake's voice, making it deep and gravelly, and not in a good way. So his smoothness and upper range are gone, but he tries to sing in his old style anyway, and you can hear the strain. Put all this together and there's almost nothing decent about this band anymore, but here's an album anyway. It's not even like they have any songs to write - the title track may be decent, and it's the most fleshed out thing here, but there's nothing particularly good about it - it's just the "We Will Rock You" beat with a lame medieval theme, and Lake's vocals are so thick you can't even make out what he's singing sometimes. The only interesting part comes with the organ jam in the end, which is still much slower than what we expect from Keith, but it's at least tuneful, for what that's worth. Likewise, "Paper Blood" hangs on standard blues-riffing and backup vocals but fails to add anything remotely interesting. This was intended as little more than a nostalgia trip, much moreso than even the Powell album was, but when they actually DO emulate their former selves the results are weak - Emerson gets a synth-jam in "Changing States" that's thoroughly boring and uninspired, and while his solo piano spot is pleasant ("Close to Home"), it's miles short of what "Fugue" was able to do in just two minutes. Even the classical cover ("Romeo and Juliet") is empty (not to mention completely unchallenging - an 8 year old could have played this), whereas at least "Nutrocker" was fast-paced. I don't understand; these guys were just in their forties when this was recorded, so why do they sound like tired old men? At least we can still count on Lake to write a nice ballad ("Affairs of the Heart"), although his new voice may make you cringe if you're expecting something like the Lake ballads of albums past. Still, it's a decent try from the band's one somewhat-reliable songwriter, and the producer contributes a catchy pop song ("Burning Bridges") that stands out from the rest. So in all there's two, maybe three songs that are worth listening to, which was sadly par for the course in the 90's for a reunion album - they give the band an excuse to tour despite adding nothing worthwhile to the band's canon. There's not even a guilty pleasure, unlike the Powell album. It's not just that the old spirit of ELP is gone (which is kind of a blessing, because you know 70's ELP would have made this thing 79 minutes), but the semi-decent pop side is gone too, so what's left?
Live at Royal Albert Hall (1993)
Welp, the renditions of the old songs pale in comparison to the Welcome Back and Works Live versions, and while the new songs sound fine, those songs pretty much suck, so what do you want with this live album? If nothing else, it's a chance to hear the old gems in the new style, but do you really want to? They do have an 'updated' technophilic sound, which hardly suits the material at all, and unfortunately they have to slow the tunes down in order to keep up. Okay, the few attempts Emerson makes to sound like his old self (Ginastra's "Creole Dance", which is not available anywhere else) actually aren't bad, and the medley at the end is nice ("Fanfare" and "Rondo", which we've heard before), and like most bad reunion albums, Black Moon proves tolerable when mixed lightly with the good stuff. It still begs the question, why would you ever want this unless you were an obsessive fan at one of the shows? Besides "Creole Dance", we have all this material on much better live sets already, and the Black Moon stuff doesn't sound much different from the studio.
In The Hot Seat (1994)
A second reunion album, and like Love Beach, it's recorded under contractual obligation. Also like Love Beach, it's not bad, and actually fares better than some of the other stuff they've been doing, showing that adult contemporary ELP is better than "trying to recapture the past" ELP. They drop the progressive sound (for the most part, although "Hand of Truth" sort of replicates it, but in a much more pleasant and melodic way than most of Black Moon) and allow their producer (who co-writes most of this) to take over. Since neither Emerson nor Lake can be counted on to write a decent song these days, that's actually a good thing, and as such we get a few good pop songs that are actually kind of catchy ("Change", "Gone Too Soon") and stand up with the good stuff on the Powell album. Emerson's keyboard solos are generally toned down and actually fit their role here, Lake's gotten used to his new voice and doesn't overextend himself, and Palmer's drums are actually turned down and sound fairly normal, so the band at least sounds decent this time around. Now this isn't to say the songs are good, but it's at least easy to ignore. In fact, you would never know this was ELP if you didn't see it on the disc - even Love Beach had a classical cover and a sidelong. But it's preferable to the last album, which is actually kind of funny considering that they weren't even trying this time. I guess they knew that this album wasn't going to appeal to the old ELP fans, so to lure them in, there's a studio recording of "Pictures at an Exhibition" as a bonus track - of course it's not as good as the old live versions, but it's something, even if Emerson puffs it up more than he has to with his new keyboards. Okay, Lake really doesn't sound too good trying to hit all those long and high notes, but let's not forget that a lot of "Pictures" was pretty good, and they do cut most of the uninteresting parts out. It's actually kind of thoughtful of them to do this considering that they apparently tried to record this as quickly as they could. Still, this is not exactly a good listen, though it's nice to hear Lake finally tackle a serious lyrical topic without making it sound too stupid ("Daddy").
Various Artists - Encores, Legends, and Paradox (1999)
Scoring real high on the list of "bands that probably should not ever have tribute albums" is ELP, but regardless, a bunch of knuckleheads tried to do it anyway. This is especially troublesome considering that not only was ELP a band of virtuosos, but their songs are complex (and often boneheaded) enough to throw most rational-thinking musicians for a loop. They were a band that valued performance more than songwriting, which explains why they never get covered. To make matters worse they actually shied away from Lake's more song-oriented material like "Lucky Man", instead attempting the long-winded complex material like "Tarkus", "Karn Evil 9", "Toccata", and "Endless Enigma". Just who are these knuckleheads? Actually it's an impressive resume of prog rockers old and new, with Robert Berry taking about half the vocal duties (yep, the same guy who brought you To the Power of 3) and appearances by Peter Banks (70's Yes) and Geoff Downes (80's Yes), John Wetton (King Crimson past), Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson future), and most of Dream Theater. I have heard other people call some of these guys talented. Still, all they really succeed in doing is making Emerson, Lake, and Palmer look good (truly, this is a selfless tribute), as they fumble over the ELP classics. It's only partly their fault...hey, I couldn't play that stuff either, but at least I could remember the lyrics, unlike Berry, who flubs a line on "Karn Evil 9" (yes, this is nitpicky, but come on, this isn't even a live album! You can do it over!) Here we do have a confident band that sounds like a slight update of 80's hair metal (granted, each tune has a different lineup, but in general the core players are the same), but they just can't handle these tunes, stumbling over most of the time changes and even unintentionally adding a few of their own. They handle "Toccata" poorly, seeming to cover it just so they can say they did, by turning in a solo-heavy instrumental that only references the original a couple of times. The vocalists, unable to replicate Lake's powerful and smooth voice, pretty much biff all the powerful parts, but do underscore the parts that don't call for it, and (like most tribute albums, unfortunately) don't really come up with anything close to what the actual ELP lineup did nearly 30 years past. They certainly didn't make things easy on themselves, tackling four of the band's classical interpretations, meaning that nearly half these tunes were covers in the first place! Cover of a cover...very progressive. At least they knew what the good material was, and they get points for trying, but in the end they're biting off more than they can chew (just like ELP!). It does say something that they couldn't replicate the work of these three men even given the amount of talent they supposedly had on hand - perhaps there will never be another band like ELP, but does anyone really want one?
From the Beginning (2007)
This is a 6-disc boxset (the 6th disc is a DVD), which I'm only mentioning because I happen to have a copy. The draw here is that many of the tracks are live ones or alternate studio mixes, so those of us who have memorized these albums can get subconsciously bothered by small differences in the mix. Most of these really are slight (and some of the "alternate" versions don’t seem to have any at all), though "Karn Evil 9" has a number of different parts that were either cut or left unprocessed, and "C'est La Vie", "I Believe in Father Christmas", and "The Enemy God" have huge orchestral arrangements this time. "Pirates", on the other hand, replaces all the orchestra with more synths, and it doesn’t quite work. You really can't take the grandiosity out of these songs. Also, there is one previously unreleased track, Lake's "Oh, Father", which was recorded during the Tarkus sessions but wouldn't have fit. If you're wondering, "how do they fill five 80-minute CDs when they only have like four good albums?", there's 25 minutes of their pre-ELP groups, a 20-minute "Rondo", and the entire fifth disc is a 1972 live show. This really is almost everything decent the group ever did – I say almost because it does omit “Toccata” for some reason, along with anything from Pictures (but do you get Emerson’s entire concerto, in case you just didn’t get enough the first time around). That’s too bad, because it almost makes it three discs before delving into the real questionable stuff.
Live at High Voltage (2010) (+ one star for sheer entertainment value)
This is ELP's 40th anniversary reunion concert at London's High Voltage Festival, and...wow. I mean, I expected everything to be played at standard "old guy" tempo - these guys are all in their 60's after all, and you can't really expect them to be able to play the same way as on Welcome Back. Or Works Live. Or even Live at Royal Albert Hall, I guess. It looks like Emerson's habit of cramming a thousand notes into every minute finally caught up with him. I know he had a broken hand and all, but he does not appear to have even practiced since ELP's last split. Despite being played at about two-thirds the speed, he flubs the very first solo by not only failing to keep up the tempo, but also by adding in a bunch of unwanted notes, as though he’s hitting the spaces between the keys. It sounds like he’s wearing gloves during the entire performance. On some of his songs, particularly "Tarkus" and "The Barbarian", he sounds less like Keith Emerson and more like myself (or any other amateur keyboard player) trying to figure out ELP songs on the fly - like he knows the melody but forgets the notes, and in some instances sounds like he's just mashing keys without getting a single chord right! Some of his solos are downright atonal and don't have any time signature! Grab a piano right now and try to bang out something simple like "Sunshine of Your Love" or "Smoke on the Water" in real-time without rehearsing. Congrats - you now sound exactly like Keith Emerson. It's dissonant as hell, and I have to admit I got a laugh out of Lake's half-hearted "yeah!" when the solo was over. But Lake isn't really great either - his voice has deepened another octave, so he doesn't attempt any of the higher or more expressive notes. His money line - "See the show!"...is so devoid of emotion and power that it sounds like the song fell apart instead of ending. Even the easier songs like "Lucky Man" do not go smoothly. He runs out of breath in the middle of a verse, and cannot even finish his "aaaaah"s at the end of the song. He, too, appears to have not practiced; he does not even seem to know when to come into the song or what key he's supposed to be in, and during "Tarkus" he completely bombs the first line by singing it a measure too early. Later in the song the mic starts to feedback and he starts yelling at one of the sound guys - in the middle of one of his verses!!
Look; I've seen my own share of dinosaur bands. I saw the Moodys in concert in 2005 and they sounded great. My satellite TV picked up a recent show by Yes and it was actually pretty damn good, even though Steve Howe was practically a skeleton. The old men in King Crimson actually seem to still be learning new things. Van der Graaf Generator still sound exactly as they did in the 70's, perhaps through a pact with Satan himself. But ELP - the fact they are actually able to finish the abridged "Pictures at an Exhibition" is a miracle in itself. I mean, these guys never quite worked as a band, but at least they were able to keep time with each other most of the time in the past - here, all three members struggle to keep up, and it seems like nobody is able to hear each other - in some spots they sound like the Legion of Rock Stars! I can't even let Palmer off the hook - his sense of meter is off nearly the whole show and he always seems a quarter-beat behind. At least he's a sport and lets them perform "Touch and Go".
Whatever - the crowd enjoys it anyway. And why not? They still love the guys, and if nothing else it's amusing that they're in their 60's and still have no idea what their limitations are. You have to think this could be their last show, so I would think most of the crowd is just happy to see the band in any form. And for only $35 you can hear it yourself – but watch out! Apparently most copies of this set are actually just a straight-up compilation of old studio work, despite it clearly being labeled as a live album. This appears to have pissed off a lot of people. Luckily I found the actual document, and it looks like the middle 3 minutes of “Bitches Crystal” are missing – it’s nothing but silence. Since this album was released immediately after the show, it’s a direct soundboard recording, malfunctions and all. I doubt anyone in the ELP camp even got a chance to hear it before it went on sale. At least you know there are no overdubs. How many other 40-year veterans do you know who are still capable of screwing something up this badly? That’s right baby...ladies and gentlemen, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer!