UNDER THE VALLEY OF THE PROG Emerson, Lake & Palmer

So you think you know all about synthesizers?
Got your MoogFest tickets yet? A massive new ELP box set will set you off in
the right direction…

 

 BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Formed in
1970 by keyboardist Keith Emerson (The Nice), guitarist/vocalist Greg Lake
(King Crimson), and drummer Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster), the trio known
worldwide as Emerson, Lake & Palmer wasn’t the “supergroup” that
it was heralded as at the time so much as a collaboration of disgruntled
musicians looking for new artistic opportunities.

 

Commercially,
ELP exploded onto the U.S. charts with a 1970 self-titled debut album that
cleverly fused classically-oriented art-rock with the growing progressive rock
trend to create a genre-smashing set of songs. Displaying a heretofore
“Gothic” edge to their music that reminded (some) listeners of Atomic
Rooster’s darkest hues, and easily displaying the instrumental virtuosity of
rivals like King Crimson, Yes, or the Moody Blues, the album showcased the
three members’ talents in the best possible light.

 

Subsequent
albums would tumble quickly from the band’s creative efforts: 1971’s Tarkus, 1972’s live Pictures At An Exhibition and Trilogy,
and 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery
considered by many fans to be the band’s best – would propel ELP to worldwide
superstar status. The band burned too brightly, perhaps, and by the end of the
1970s, ELP experienced an acrimonious break-up that kept the three musicians
from performing together until the early 1990s… and make no mistake, it was the
band’s raucous live performances that fueled its record sales.

 

While
Palmer would flail at his drum kit like he was bludgeoning it into submission,
Emerson’s impressive array of electronics gear allowed the musician to stab
recklessly at piano, keyboards, or synthesizers with the tact and subtlety of a
rabid badger. In turn, Lake’s six-string gymnastics were positively sane when
compared to the instrumental madness of his band mates. The band released three
live albums during its first decade together, but even the several hours of
music represented by those multiple-disc sets pales next to the band’s total
commitment to live performances. The recently-released four-CD box set A Time And A Place (Shout! Factory_ balances
out the band’s too-brief catalog, presenting a career-spanning oversight of the
best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer live.

 

A Time And A Place is divided neatly into
three distinct eras, the first representing the band’s early 1970s origins. The
first CD in the set opens with “The Barbarian,” a lengthy piece
adapted by the band from Bela Bartak’s “Allegro Barbaro.” While not
quite as involved as some of their other performances here, “The
Barbarian” manages to cram a lot into its five-plus minutes nonetheless.
Recorded at ELP’s first major concert performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight
Festival in the UK, the band rages across the sonic landscape with fierce
determination, seemingly wedging classical piano, psychedelic guitar, bombastic
drumplay, and proggish keyboard riffs into the mix with a figurative crowbar.
It’s a chaotic, powerful performance made all the more impressive by the band’s
instrumental virtuosity and total lack of guile.

 

You’ll
find several ELP fan favorites midst the 72-minutes-and-change worth of music
on disc one. Emerson’s “High Level Fugue” brings the band indoors to
London’s Lyceum Ballroom in late 1970 for a spirited romp. Fueled by the
pianist’s manic pounding of the 88s, Emerson solos for approximately 2/3s of
the song before Palmer’s jazzy drumbeats come crashing in, and Lake’s
serpentine fretwork weaves its way through the maddening syncopation. The
band’s re-imagining of composer Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown,” captured
live at the legendary 1972 Mar Y Sol Festival in Puerto Rico, is an energetic,
measured performance that strays very little from the recorded version familiar
to many in attendance, tho’ Emerson manages to wrangle a little space-noise
from his trusty Moog synthesizer.

 

Performances
of two of ELP’s best-known and beloved songs, “Still…You Turn Me On”
and “Lucky Man,” are taken from a 1974 show at the Civic Center in
Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both songs were written by Greg Lake, and both are fine
examples of the best that progressive rock has to offer. The former is a moody,
provocative tone poem with whimsical lyrics and imaginative instrumentation
that perfectly melds each of the three musician’s strengths in the creation of
a magical moment. The latter features a fine vocal performance by Lake,
accompanied by folkish guitar-strum that places an emphasis on the lyrics.
Shorn of its studio trappings, offering just Lake and his instrument, the song takes
on a different vibe altogether. Disc one finishes up with a bang, a thirty-four
minute jam on “Karn Evil 9” from 1974 that features more prog-rock
raging at the machine than you may care to swallow in one sitting.

 

The second
CD of A Time And A Place documents
the band’s late 1970s work, basically 1977 and ’78, really, before the big
break-up that would send the band members in different directions for over a
decade. Cranking to a stylish opening with a lively, synth-driven cover of the
classic, menacing “Peter Gunn Theme,” the disc jumps immediately into
the extended madness that was “Pictures At An Exhibition.” Performed
here in a severely-condensed sixteen-minute version taken from a Memphis 1977
show, the song loses none of its power due to brevity, the band’s melding of
the work of composer Modest Mussorgsky with mid-‘70s prog-rock instrumentation audacious
even by ELP standards, a breathless roller-coaster ride across an art-rock
horizon.

 

Although
featuring few songs as well known as those on the first disc, tunes like
“Tank” (from the self-titled 1970 debut LP) and “Tarkus”
(from the 1971 album of the same name) are important entries in the ELP canon.
This 1978 performance of “Tank” is a frenetic, nearly breathtaking
tightrope sprint that condenses the original six-minute song into a two-minute
race against time that provides urgency to Palmer’s drumbeats and an
electrifying shock to Emerson’s stabbing synthesizer riffs, eventually leading
into a lengthy and explosive drum solo. On the other hand, “Tarkus”
is afforded an only slightly reduced running time, although the pace is no less
frantic as the band plays its lines with alarming madness, the listener
wondering what sort of hellhounds were on their trail.  

 

Still,
it’s with their more obscure material that ELP often surprises. The band was
never afraid to kick up a bit of kitsch now and then, and their breakneck take
on Scott Joplin’s 1899 ragtime hit “Maple Leaf Rag” is no exception.
A 1978 performance of Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances With The Black
Spirits” is exhilarating and illuminating in its fusion of the classical
and progressive worlds, while Lake’s beautiful
“Watching Over You,” from Works,
Vol. 2
, is as close as the band ever came to creating a conventional
British folk-rock ballad. Emerson’s inspired, jazzy piano play is perfectly
married to Lake’s fluid vocals on the 1920s British
folk standard “Show Me The Way To Go Home.” Not surprisingly, there’s
nothing on the second CD from ELP’s ill-fated “break up” album,
1978’s Love Beach, which is for the better,
really. [One look at that LP’s sleeve,
all tans and chest hair, should convince the readers. – Photo Editor
]

 

By 1979,
the rigors of the road and the pitfalls of the business had clearly gotten to Emerson,
Lake and Palmer, and the trio was at creative odds with each other after cranking
out seven studio and two live albums in a mere eight years. More than the
result of mere artistic fatigue, hundreds of nights on the road in close
proximity to one another had created tensions beyond ego, and the band broke up
at the end of the decade with the member’s allegedly unable to stand one
another.

 

Lake would
forge a moderately successful solo career during the 1980s, and Palmer would
fall into the accidental goldmine that was the supergroup Asia, while Emerson
wrote film scores. Lake and Emerson would briefly reunite for an album and tour
in 1985, recruiting journeyman drummer Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Whitesnake) to
replace the hesitant Palmer (who was making bank with Asia). This new
“ELP” trio recorded a single unremarkable album that somehow still
managed to place in the Top 40 in America, showing that a lot of original ELP
nostalgia remained among the band’s fans. Suspecting that he had been chosen
for the drum seat because his name began with a ‘P’, the prickly Powell scooted
out of the ELP universe before the end of ’86, leaving his bandmates high and
dry. Things would pick up in 1991, however, as Asia met its inevitable end and
Palmer rejoined his mates in a properly-reunited Emerson, Lake
and Palmer.      

 

The third
CD in A Time And A Place documents
the ’90s-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunion with performances taken from 1993
through 1997. While not quite as bombastic as their 1970s-era shows could
become, the 1990s version of ELP shows a talented, mature band that hasn’t lost
a step, merely learned that you don’t have to end every musical sentence with
exclamation marks. The band’s 1992 Black
Moon
album, its first collection of new material in over a decade, is
represented here by three inspired performances.

 

While Greg
Lake’s voice shows a distinct lessening of it warmth and richness a couple of
decades on, his vocals on this 1993 performance of “Paper Blood” take
on a timbre closer to Dave Cousins’ of Strawbs than his old ELP work. Backed by
harmony vocals, the song is a stampeding rocker that benefits from Emerson’s
heavy hand on the keyboards and Palmer’s heavier sticks on the drums.
“Black Moon” sounds like vintage King Crimson, but with nastier
six-string work, a heavier-than-lead bass line, imploding drumbeats, and
lightning-bolts of synthesizer. The third song here from Black Moon, the album’s first single “Affairs Of The
Heart,” is an engaging ballad with a warm vocal track and intricate
fretwork by Lake and some nice keyboard
flourishes by Emerson.

 

Sadly,
disc three includes nothing from the band’s ill-fated and final (so far) studio
album, 1994’s In The Hot Seat, an
under-recorded and unsympathetic recording whose songs may have fared better in
the live setting. Instead, we get a smattering of old-school ELP (an acoustic
guitar-oriented reading of “From The Beginning” from Trilogy with some fine, nuanced Palmer
drumwork; a full-bore prog assault on “A Time And A Place,” from Tarkus) mixed with rare odds ‘n’ sods
like the surprising ragtime-styled piano instrumental “Honky Tonk Train
Blues,” or the edgy art-rock instrumental “Creole Dance.” A 1993
performance of the dark-hued “Knife Edge,” from ELP’s long-ago debut,
stands out for its malevolent voodoo vibe, Emerson’s restrained
keyboard-bashing, and some great drumming by Palmer alongside Lake’s
mesmerizing vocals.

 

The fourth
and final disc of A Time And A Place takes a surprising and welcome tack, providing listeners with a collection of a
dozen tracks culled from various fan-recorded bootlegs that span the entire
20-year career of the band. Admittedly, the sound quality lessens considerably
on these covertly-recorded performances, but they stand out in contrast mostly
because the rest of the live material in the box set sounds so damn good.
Still, designed with the fan in mind, what true ELP follower is going to
quibble with a 1972 performance of the art-rock/space-rock epic “The
Endless Enigma” or a romp through “Abaddon’s Bolero” from the
same year? ELP fanatics can sink their teeth into a haunting version of
“Jerusalem” from 1974, or an enchanting reading of the hit “I
Believe In Father Christmas” from 1993.                

 

If it
seems like A Time And A Place is
geared towards the ELP fanatic, well, yeah, it is. While much of the material here
was previously released on various collections, many long out-of-print, this
four-disc set is a cost-effective way for the collector to gather up a 43 fine
and entertaining performances by one of prog-rock’s most exciting and dynamic live
bands. While the success of Emerson, Lake and Palmer never matched that of
contemporaries Yes or Genesis, and they seldom received the critical acclaim
afforded King Crimson, their place in the prog-rock galaxy is safe and secure,
ELP one of the most influential and ground-breaking bands in the genre.

 

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