Classic Rock Review

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Emerson Lake & Palmer 1st Album (1970)


Their first try, and everything works. And I do mean everything.

There’s not a single track on the album I’d call bad, and the only flaw I can think about is that on the second side the band slowly starts to run out of truly creative melodies; therefore, it tends to drag a little, with next to no lyrics and lots of instrumental noodling, culminating in a stupid Palmer drum solo (‘Tank’) which adds nothing to Baker’s legacy on ‘Toad’ or Nick Mason’s legacy on ‘The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party’.

Perhaps Palmer did bring the ‘technical’ side of drumming to its peak, but amazingly enough, you can’t really tell it from his solo which hardly sounds any different from the above-mentioned ones. Which, by the way, only emphasizes the point that a real good drummer can only be told by the way he holds up the rhythm, not by the way he showcases his soloing prowess – and my favourite drum solos are those that are actually rhythmic, like Bushy’s on ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. Okay, enough digressing; a fact is a fact – ‘Tank’ is a clone of ‘Toad’, and not a very good one.

Another big space-holder on the second side is Emerson’s three-part suite ‘The Three Fates’; these can be slightly boring, too, especially if you’re not a great fan of church organ which is so prominent on that track. On the other hand, it’s at least cleverly and engagingly constructed: ‘Clotho’ corresponds to the church organ passage, ‘Lachesis’ is a solo piano part, and ‘Atropos’ is where the band finally joins in and “jams” for a bit. Fact is, I’ve heard much worse from these guys than this seven-minute mock-classical workout, and I’m not particularly offended.

Otherwise, though, they make the wise decision of relying entirely on Lake’s songwriting, and it’s a full blast. Having just contributed to King Crimson’s first and best album, Greg was obviously on a high note, because memorable, solid tunes, highlighted by his distinctive and super-powerful singing, abound. Er, well, there’s only three of them, to be more exact, but they’re so good that they certainly ‘abound’. ‘Take A Pebble’, my personal favourite from the album, might be bombastic, but you have to overcome yourself if you’re ever gonna stick to Lake – that’s his favourite cup of tea, you know.

His singing is simply terrific, with the final line of every verse building on the legacy of King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph’ and actually sounding even better; a grandiose theatrical number that’s certainly “fake” according to Old Man Rock’n’Rollah standards, but quite in the European opera/romance vein which said Old Man would probably despise in its entirety. Plus, the song’s twelve minute length is fully justified: they throw in a silly clap-along countryish acoustic guitar sequence, and Keith does a few nice piano solos which fit in perfectly with the mood before reverting to the grand melody that closes off the number.

Then there’s ‘Knife Edge’ – a creepy, scary little tune with Greg adopting an unusually ‘evil’ tune and Keith playing up to him. This one was always a live highlight and deservedly so, as it’s a great showcase for all the three band members and has something of an “arena-rock feel” to it, only more serious and gloomy than most arena-rock tunes. The basslines are killer. And finally, ‘Lucky Man’ is often regarded as the finest song they ever did (and it’s played on the radio quite often as well): acoustic guitar, beautiful singing, and a great synth solo towards the end. ‘Ooooooooh, what a lucky man he waaaaas’…

The medievalistic lyrics sound somewhat silly and primitive, but one has to keep in mind that (a) this was the first song ever written by Lake when he was still a young teenager and (b) it’s still miles better than contemporary Uriah Heep lyrics. At least these guys don’t sound like they’re taking the dungeons & dragons subject too seriously. And if there ever was a defining moment of ELP’s arrival on the rock scene on this record, it might as well be the ominous, mind-boggling swoop-swoops of the synthesizer in the ‘Lucky Man’ coda; while the Moog synth had already been explored by some performers, this is perhaps the most early “grandiose” use of the instrument as a true force in producing powerful keyboard solos.

In all, if you throw out the boring ‘Three Fates/Tank’ suite (or learn to appreciate it – whichever comes first), you’ll be probably left with some of the finest prog rock tunes ever written. See, they are pretentious, and if you’re desperately despising all that artsy, puffed-up stuff, you’ll probably be better off staying at a long distance from it. However, I really advise you to follow my example and try to like this album. I’ve always been thinking that overblown music might be forgiven on exactly one condition – the ambitions must be dutifully compensated with competent musicianship and song writing, and if they are, one might pardon even the uttermost insincerity and artificial character of the compositions.

This might be the best example of such an album: beautiful, moody keyboards, fluent and memorable guitar lines, immaculate drumming and above all Lake’s soaring vocals. Not that the vocals are necessary: ‘The Three Fates’ are indeed boring, but have I mentioned ‘Barbarian’? It’s a great album opener! The bass lines in the beginning sound as if they’re going to scare the very life out of you, and Keith is almost jumping out of his skin so as to interest you in his playing. Gimmicks? For certain. But they’re nice gimmicks, and they’re only punctuating the actual value of the songs. You know – the skeleton. The essence. The pith. The core. The heart, darn it!

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Emerson Lake & Palmer 1st Album | | Leave a comment