Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Do the ‘Works’ Still Work?Sep 23rd, 2015 | By Steve Scribner | Category: All Things Reconsidered, Reviews
This was in my vinyl collection, and after digging it out of storage, I promptly ignored it for several months. Back in the early 1980s, I’d liked some of it. But now, all I could remember about it was huge, blown-up ostentation, grand sonic spectacle based on nothing. Not that the concept was bad, of course: a solo project by each of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, then the three of them together for a finale. What I objected to was its being presented as what it’s not – great “works” by major contemporary classical composers, rather than rock music (crossover has never worked for me) and its being backed up by a large (and sometimes seemingly unrehearsed) symphony orchestra. Then I heard Symphonic Zeppelin, and thought, well, a rock orchestra worked there, so maybe I could give ELP’s Works (Volume 1) another try.
Side 1 presents Keith Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” Very classical concept, including the three movements. But, as a classical composition, it is deeply flawed. (Two obvious examples: In the first movement, the atonal intro and the jazzy cadenza have nothing to do either with each other or the rest of the piece; and the development section doesn’t really go anywhere, it just presents a second theme and then noodles around with its rhythms.) Yet I sat there listening to every detail, transfixed. Why? Answer: It isn’t classical at all, and I subconsciously wasn’t listening to it as classical. It’s an extended piece of progressive rock. Its interest and excitement are not derived from the composer’s personal version of classical formal structure, but from interplays of odd meters, alternation of solos and ensemble playing, and high-energy riffs that build up into something greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that only the keyboard remains unaltered (and the guitar, bass and drums have been replaced by an orchestra) doesn’t really change anything: Under that symphonic exterior, this is something that Tull, Yes, Floyd, Rush, or Kansas could have done during their most “prog” periods. And yes, it’s a lot of fun.
Not so with Side 2, five songs by Greg Lake. These are mostly forgettable power-ballads, with a voice like Neil Diamond over-singing, awful lyrics with forced rhymes, and runaway overdubbing. One song is recorded at about half the volume of the others, though it’s supposed to be a louder, rock number. Another features harmonica and elevator-guitar amplified above a string section, for an unnatural, forced sound. Despite all that, it’s not a total wasteland. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” has some interesting key-changes. “C’est La Vie” uses some memorable French folk instrumentation. Both are minor earworms; just ignore the words. “Closer to Believing” provides the “slow movement” for the entire double album, with shimmering strings that sometimes venture into atonality and even suggested mircotonality, and a contrapuntal passage near the end that is “classical” in the way that Emerson’s “Concerto” was not. The lyrics, to this song at least, aren’t all that bad either.
There are three actual classical “works” included in the Works. The first of these has a heavy metal title, and begins Side 3, Carl Palmer’s solo project: Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” from the Scythian Suite. This intentionally “barbaric” music (under the heavy influence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) is more or less played straight, though the addition of Palmer’s continuous, flailing drum solos turns it into a hectic, scary big band number (with strings). The rest of the side consists of more instrumentals, some great, some forgettable, all but one with manic drumming. There are two named after cities: “L.A. Nights” is a run-of-the-mill rocker with guitar solos, while “New Orleans” is an amazing bit of funk featuring wah-wahs. “Bach Two-Part Invention in D-minor” is the second classical number; in this arrangement of the keyboard piece, Palmer plays mallet instruments rather than drums – but the string section is off-key and ruins the whole mood. “Food for Your Soul” isn’t really, though it includes an actual drum solo (no other instruments) and a nod to Ian Anderson’s flute. Finally, “Tank” is an arrangement of an instrumental from ELP’s first album. Oddly, Emerson’s keyboard improvisations in the middle section are transcribed note for note for violins, and again, they play off-key. Ugh! They should have left it alone – and, in the third section, they do – the three of them play what sounds like the original (with a slightly different keyboard solo) and add blasting brass chords behind them. This part, at least, is exciting; but in the end it’s merely an arrangement of the first version.
Side 4 begins with the last of the three actual “classical” pieces, and the one that is the most transformed: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Very symphonic at first (though with some added – and unnecessary – reverb), but ELP’s masterstroke was to turn this into a rockin’ blues number. The blues-rock emerges slowly, but eventually the Copland comes to an end and we’re left with a keyboard solo over a driving beat, sounding like nothing so much as an electric organ version of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The music adds more and more blue notes, finally going completely, insanely, atonal. Riffs from the Copland reemerge, and then the Fanfare is back, though the beat (and electric organ) are still there. The two styles duke it out until the end. This is my favorite part of the Works, though I don’t know if it’s worth buying the whole double album for this one track.
The last and longest “song” is “Pirates,” which attempts to be a grand finale by summing up all that’s come before. There are long orchestral passages (careful listeners will notice fragments from Emerson’s “Concerto”), synthesizer solos, hints of Renaissance music, and odd meters, all leading to a rockin’ climax. Lake’s overwrought vocals finally find vindication as the thoroughly nasty character of the pirate captain, though perhaps more suitable for the Broadway stage than a rock album. At any rate, this certainly is a rock epic.
So, after 40 years, do these Works still work? Yes. No. Pick and choose between them: Some are brilliant, some are dinosaur-like fossils from an age of forced gigantic-ism, most are in between. The concept and the orchestrations are interesting at times, banal at others, and (I might mention) the whole album has a consistent problem with volume balance. Now that I’ve listened to it again a couple of times, I’ve enjoyed it – but I might be embarrassed to recommend it heartily to others. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun, and maybe that’s all it needs to be.