Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Prog Attacks!

Hailing the oft-derided genius of these bloat-tastic motherfuckers

Sorry, Nuge. Sorry, Frampton. Double-live albums are for pussies. The '70s were the era of the triple-live album. Santana's Lotus. Yes's Yessongs. Wings' Wings Over America. Shit, you can throw Chicago's four-disc Chicago at Carnegie Hall on the list—just don't throw it on the stereo. And, of course, Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, the album that proves the trio considered the 20-minute studio version of "Tarkus" restrained: Live, it balloons to a mind-crushing 27:24. And let's not even discuss the 35-minute version of the "Karn Evil 9" suite that ends the show. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were some bloat-tastic motherfuckers.

Except they weren't. As this deluxe reissue series reveals to the neophyte, the band's brand of epic, classical-soaked prog was actually tight as hell. When you've only got three guys up there, even if each of them plays like a meth-addled octopus (and at least two of them do— guitarist/bassist/vocalist Greg Lake's virtuosity is slightly more understated), the trend is always gonna be toward rhythmic impetus rather than solo frenzy. Simply put, Emerson, Lake & Palmer fucking rocked.

Their self-titled studio debut, from 1970, was a collection of stuff each member wrote individually, except for "The Barbarian," which was cribbed from Bartók, and another cut, "Knife Edge," that's based on Janácek but also includes a healthy chunk of Bach. (In fine British rock tradition—see "Zeppelin, Led"—the songwriting credits didn't reflect these appropriations until years later.) But the pattern— brain-blastingly loud organ and Moog lines, thundering yet surprisingly jazzy drums, almost mellow vocals, and songs that cribbed openly and shamelessly from classical—had been set. It continued on the band's second and third discs (both released in 1971), Tarkus, and a live run through Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Trilogy was relatively pop-friendly by comparison, and featured "From the Beginning," ELP's second big single after "Lucky Man," from the debut. But then came their studio masterpiece, the album that made them gods to stoned high-school students across America. Brain Salad Surgery, the 1973 album that got them selling out arenas (and the only one of these Shout! Factory reissues to come in a digipak, the better to reproduce its foldout H.R. Giger artwork), is a stone killer from beginning (their recasting of William Blake's hymn "Jerusalem" as an epic call to prog-rock battle) to end (the hilariously cynical "Karn Evil 9" suite).

Revisiting this catalog 35 (!) years later, it's amazing how little music has "progressed." Snip 20 random seconds of Emersonian Moog-frenzy from the live album and play it for a Wolf Eyes fan—see if he can tell the difference. Another quality that leaps out is the propulsive rhythm work. What happened to all the great British drummers? In the early '70s, English boys could actually wail—Carl Palmer, John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Alan White, and even Phil Collins were kicking ass behind the kit. This allowed ELP to dip into honky-tonk and even swing rhythms when the mood struck them—which it did with almost distressing frequency ("Benny the Bouncer," "Are You Ready Eddy," "Barrelhouse Shake-Down"). For prog-rockers, they sure liked to look backward. Listeners interested in sonic surprise should do the same. These six studio albums and two live discs are the gateways to a world of balls-out craziness the likes of which is nowhere to be found in rock circa 2008.

 
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