ISSUE 14  It's 2003
page 9 of 16



by Tim Ellison

For those unaware, Tim Ellison is the publisher/editor/sole staff member of Modern Rock Magazine. He has proven himself time and time again to be one of the most analytically crazed minds to write about sounds in our time of breathing. This essay originally appeared in the fifth issue of Modern Rock (When it was stilled titled 'Rock Mag') in 1996. Although it may not be the freshest piece in Tim's canon, it brings some interesting points to the foreground and might give SOME insight into one of the most lambasted bands in Rock 'N' Roll history. But most of all, it'll most likely piss off and confuse people to no end. Which is fine by me. Maybe not Tim, but certainly me.
Tony Rettman
Progressive Rock Editor

Let it be said that I don't think progressive rock is necessary. Except when it is, but that is not all the time so as a general context for life: Why put yourself in a box?
      The main things you've got to wonder about with this stuff are matters such as: Just how much fun did Emerson, Lake and Palmer ultimately have? Were they smart enough or lucky enough to have lived enchanted lives? I'd guess to a certain extent so, and it is with this premise that I have taken to create this guide to the five albums they released in a period of three to four years, which you may wish to use in lieu of chalk. (The reference here is to Frank Zappa, who as a teenager marked up his Edgar Varese records with chalk to outline the exciting parts.)
       Their main style of music is primarily a futuristic tank rock sound, a programme music of machines. Just about five minutes into the first album, though after the first such robotic theme, 'musical' nonsense begins: 'Dramatic' piano music. This is No Wave Music. (As are their arbitrary robot sounds.) They have no real concept apart from attacking the piano. And then there's no music either. Just dynamics.
       Next up a restrained theme: Make it more intense by exaggerating it. ('The Barbarian', an ELP classic.) Carl Palmer's drums at the end COMPLETELY FILL UP THE SPACE. (Robotic music is repetitious or texturally constant.) It's a stretch, but Greg Lake's ballad-songs can be appreciable as post-King Crimson (Post-post-British Psychedelia) light music fantasy (And still Rock Music). Something arbitrarily other, refusing the time period's own stylistic claims to what was beautiful (Banal humanist singer/songwriters...see the writings of Lester Bangs for more details).
       This is early 70s Futuristic Classicism: Pretty cool. It may sound close to REO Sppedwagon territory, but it's different. 'Take A Pebble' has a nice structure of: The song exposition followed by a little sonata interlude, a big acoustic guitar buildup, a long filigree Keith Emerson solo with the band coming in with funky fusionoid sounds that proceed to get art-rock-ish, THEN return to the song. Clocks in at 12:32.
       Then 'Knife Edge', a very silly monster of a song. (Note Carl Palmers' great tom beat over Keith Emerson's solo: Very No Wave. (Tom beats deconstruct the drumset.)
       Side Two finds Keith Emerson at The Royal Hall Festival Organ skronking away with 'fanfares' and 'filigree,' then next on piano with some Debussian sounds which spiel out not only into filigree-nonsense, but then into dissonant thematic developments out of the nonsense: Pretty avant-garde territory. A masterful theme then follows, followed by complex nonsense. Some more big dissonant honks out of the organ and then here comes the band with a No Wave segement in 7/4 time. (No Wave: Repititious and dissonant with extra added noises.) Plus, it's 'circus music' which fits in with the post-post-psychedelia angle. 'Tank' sounds exactly like The Mothers of Invention circa 'Uncle Meat'. They make it real long too, with a drum solo that maintains the hyper active vibe longer than The Mothers ever did (To the point where it starts to seem arbitrary and thus quite weird) Then the band comes in with a dissonant bouncy theme that makes no sense at all.
      Greg Lake's 'Lucky Man' could've been a Davy Jones Monkees song. (Has that fantasy sociology element.) Great! (And yes, it's a no wave move to throw it all alone at the end of this album side.) (Even the synthesizer tone at the end reminds one of The Monkees' use of the Moog circa 'Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.')
       Next album is Tarkus. Great name, and Side One is 'Tarkus', a suite which begins with the thematic 'Eruption.' (This time it's 5/4 time.) You've got to have a lot of themes to fill up a lot of 'musical' space in this show which never ends, so, Emerson, Lake and Palmer have one, and it leads into the great downer 'Stones of Years,' a strangely meaningless poem and King Crimson-type song.
       Back to the theme, and Keith Emerson's solo sounds like Miles Davis's organ playing on 'Get Up With It' except on the wrong speed (and with no swing beats--ELP are a tank, remember). What they do next is real good too: Extrapolate the theme pointlessly for awhile and then just cut it off! It could've gone on forever--Why come up with a 'musical' ending when you can hyper actively just go into the next song instead? (Note: This particular cut 'Iconoclast' is 1:16. Pretty ambitious to fill up a show that never ends with such tiny elements (in this case linking materials).
       After another annoying song they're back to yet MORE incredibly hyper-active stuff.
       'Mass' is a more tolerable song with some nice developments, plenty of Carl Palmer hyper activity, and then they ride out the rest of the side with a bouncy surreal march. (Why not?) And, oh yeah, the theme is repeated pretty much note for note except with a real dramatic ridiculous ending. 'Tarkus': Pretty Good!
       What you need after such a dramatic conclusion to keep 'the show' going is some variety. So, the kitschy 'Jeremy Bender.' It may sound like Jethro Tull (whom Joe Carducci likes) but at least Keith Emerson is kind of spazzing out on the piano. (Also: The tune is a sort of 'show' tune, more of which we'll see later.)
       Show off Keith some more on the piano throughout the great 'Bitches Crystal.' (This time the meter's in six--Are they going to run out of ideas soon?)
       Alright, it's down to St. Mark's Church to record Keith on the organ next. Great variety on this LP. Tolerate Greg Lake's singing for a brief time and it's on into some great skronking Emerson piano riffage in 7/4. Weird and new (and arbitrary) vibe for them; kind of quiet and they slow down to end it rather than spaz out or proving they will utilize all bad 'musical' tricks that sound good.
       Total archetypal ELP greatness in 'A Time and A Place' and again just a short song where they cram so much stuff in it's amazing. (No one else came close to this.) A song about their engineer (Eddy) follows (another element of 'show music'--silly songs about performers or stage hands) and that's Tarkus!
       O.K. why not tackle a whole Romantic Era song cycle! Better yet, adapt it so you can arbitrarily work on it all the more! And so their next release was a live recording of their adaptation of Mussorgskys' 'Pictures of an Exhibition'.
       Pretty archetypal stuff from these guys, it turns out. Real nice organ chords (the Mussorgsky theme is so pretty!) and then the band enters with dramatic skronking, athletic sparseness (this is new Rock and Roll!), and a slow and sinister, dissonant exposition (real archetypal ELP stuff and great).
       Greg Lake's corny vocal on the theme threatens to ruin it, but again: think of it as like early King Crimson. Works, huh? Same goes for his composition 'The Old Castle' which in addition is so quiet that you can easily not pay much attention to it except as background O.K.-period-piece-post-post-psychedelia. (And if you are paying attention to it, a lot of the necessary elements of psych are lost in the non-concise-ness of the rambling psuedo-Classicism, but dig the rambling!)
        'Blues Variation' fills up a lot of time and space with Keith Emerson soloing for a long time. (And hey, 4/4 time: good use here of an obvious idea when you start to run out of ideas and realize you'd been using all the complicated or obscure or difficult ones.) Variations on the 'Promenade' theme are quite nice: good arbitrary time to go back to the real meaty materials--Dive right in!
        They haven't done anything real extremely hyper active with this piece yet so: do that next. Brief complex themes and then a frantic run with Keith Emerson wailing on the organ and then the synth and Greg Lake yelling out--sounds like Rob Tyner at one point actually, and hey this is as gnarly as the MC5 (not to mention sillier, more arbitrarily weird, a kind of No Wave music, if you will) OK?
        More Greg Lake singing of something, a little music, then a really nice feedback section. More of the singing (with variations on the music, of course). The song cycle's then over, except they come back for an encore: A real spazzed out, arbitrary version of Kim Fowley' 'Nutrocker' adaptation of The Nutcracker. Nice how it's music, they're eclectic and make no attempts to make it particualarly ELP-like in their standard ways, yet it's spazzy and related to 'Classical' also so it works. This isn't really their most developed album, though.
        Greg Lake's singing on 'The Endless Enigma' which starts off the Trilogy album, moves back and forth from the sometimes-nice post-early King Crimson style to awful gestures predating Styx. Perhaps 'It's all (partially) his fault' but Styx wouldn't have followed it with a fugue. ELP do. And it's weird to hear this long solo piano junk, definitely (moves from pseudo-Baroque to pseudo-Romantic to the Anywhere beyond) coming at you off of a Rock (No Wave Rock) record.
        After a very beautiful fanfare, Part Two of 'The Endless Enigma' firmly resolves things in the King Crimson (as opposed to Styx) category, so rest assured. And the hit 'From The Beginning' follows in this mode as well. It's pretty nice--and not nauseating.
        'The Show.' It's show business, right? So how about some old timey theme music? ('The Sheriff.') Not only that, but incorporate it into skronky ELP deconstructed complex music: no mean feat.
        They follow this up appropriately (thematic development: a big factor in keeping 'the show' moving) with, dig it, another hoedown! And more appropriately still, a hoedown that's adapted from Aaron Copeland. How silly/arbitrary/neat! Very complex too, needless to say.
        Greg Lake singing which starts 'Trilogy' on Side Two also falls in the Crimson-ish category (a pretty good run at this!) though more extreme, expansive, and rambling. (A true essence of ELP.) After some cool filigree, the band does a variation on this theme in 5/4 time, quickened up and with Keith wailing on the Moog...
        The next section has ELP wailing away as a robotic machine and what an archetype it is. A definite sense here that their music is progressing further, and where they choose to go is toward even more complex archetypes of their athletic circus robot stuff!
        They really keep it up with the excellent 'Living Sin,' exploiting 'sinister' chromatic riffs. If they'd have filled up their show with more intense three-minute tune/interludes such as this, it would have been an even more intensely grating eternal annoyance-type phenomenon.
        Really though, they're certainly eclectic enough, as evidenced indeed by the very next track 'Abbadon's Bolero'. a harmonically-shifting art-rock 'bolero'/march which goes on and on and on very nicely, and showcasing here a very important element: that in the show that never ends you sometimes get to fill up a lot of space with minimal ideas, and can thus be free to groove on riding out long (potentially eternal, depending on the interest factor-degree of the osomotic tongue pressure, or...) passages. In this realm, the show is thus potentially both macro-cosmically AND micro-cosmically eternal.
       Next year, ELP unleashed the crowning achievement of their four years of non-stop athletic no wave show music. Brain Salad Surgery is an entire album shaped as one long 'grand finale' starting off with an exposition 'Jerusalem' (non-cloying, Greg Lake singing William Blake verses), then subtly building intense drama ("Toccata,' an adaptation of Ginasteris' 1st Piano Concerto). A grand finale means greater tricks than ever before, so the drama rolls on ahead forcefully, and into Carl Palmer's intense solo. Halfway into the solo here comes: electronic drums! (Very intense grand finale surprises.) The band returns and builds more and more and the grand finale has only begun...
        Got to have one last Greg Lake ballad to wrap things up comprehensively. The old distinctions regarding these songs outlined throughout this guide still apply here.
        One more old-timey western-ish show tune is necessary too, so they have one. (And it's spazzy and arbitrary--good.) One more thing to do: a final huge suite-piece to top 'em all. So big this time they've got to start it at the end of Side One.
        'Karn Evil': a spazzy exposition; long, rambling connective materials; the theme returns sped up then tails off into a couple crashes, but before you can relax the great ELP tank or steamroller sound shoots off forever (it can fly) into the cosmos!
         In the midst of this elation, the final glory, Greg Lake steps forward and spells it out: the show! The show that never ends! The true grand finale (grand finale of the grand finale: more micro/macro-cosmic implications) thus begins.
         Pure dynamics. The '2nd Impression' of 'Karn Evil 9': 1st Keith Emerson at the piano; frantic steel drum sounds over the bands' robot machine, a final expansive mellow segment. (Suspenseful, this time, and to reinfornce the continuity of the grand finale.)
        The machine sound of the band, again, building slowly this time, then incrementally climbing...Drop it off and roll forward with 'fanfares' ('3rd Impression'). (This time Greg Lakes' song-stuff is integrated into the fanfare function of the grand finale, and no distinction between early King Crimson and Styx need be made: This is ELPs' own territory (and its cool).)
        The fanfares turn into a surrealistic happy march (off into the cosmos once again--talk about heaven rock) then soar out to the Anywhere Beyond (which includes Why Not? of course) room for some spazzed out blues jamming.
Then building again. More marching, more soaring. Another fanfare, but it ain't over yet. The soaring turns to spinning. Then zoom! Off harder and further still! Suddenly, it stops. Greg Lake delivers a eulogy. It's over.




with Sir Reggie Queequeg