March Through Time: Emerson Lake & Palmer

This month, I’m hitting pause on coverage of new artists and releases, focusing instead for a bit on the bodies of work from some of my favorite artists. — bk

The prog trio people love to hate, ELP were undeniably a polarizing force. At their best they were thrilling, innovative and wonderfully melodic. At their worst they were … well, none of those things. Some listeners would insist they were all or nothing in that regard. I never had the pleasure of seeing ELP live onstage. But as a pretty-damn-fine alternative, I did in fact interview, meet and see each of them perform. They also — years apart from one another – each autographed my Welcome Back My Friends… LP jacket, now proudly displayed on my office wall.

Here’s my capsule assessment of each of their releases.

  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) – The debut still sounds fresh today. Lake is in fine voice, and Emerson and Palmer play their assess off. Lake’s romantic lyrical concerns provide a nice balance to the ambitious instrumental work. Essential.

  • Tarkus (1971) – Avoiding the sophomore slump, this is an imposing record. The side-long title suite is an exemplar of what ELP could do with the long form. Pop fans beware, though: there’s little for you here.

  • Pictures at an Exhibition (1971) – ELP covers the classics. Save for bits here and there, it’s all Mussorgsky compositions. They handle it with verve and aplomb. Of its time, to be sure, but wonderful still.

  • Trilogy (1972) – The trio at the height of their powers. Never before (and, notably, never again) would ELP so perfectly navigate the spaces between their often incompatible musical goals. A desert island LP, and some pop songs to boot.

  • Brain Salad Surgery (1973) – Less immediate than its predecessor, but still quite good. Perhaps taking a leaf from the Led Zeppelin playbook, the title track is nowhere to be found here.. But “Karn Evil 9” is masterful.

  • Welcome Back My Friends… (1974) – A bombastic and overblown 3LP set? To be sure. A great document of their live show? Indeed.

  • Works Volume 1 (1977) – Some gems among the pretentious, long-winded material. Those whose tastes run toward songcraft won’t want to miss Greg Lake’s Side Three. And Side Four’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” is a thrill ride.

  • Works Volume 2 (1977) – More of an odds-and-sods collection, it nonetheless has a wealth of gems. Emerson’s Scott Joplin and Meade Lux Lewis pieces are a treat, and “Tiger in a Spotlight” is a catchy, almost-pop number.

  • Love Beach (1978) – Is it as bad as its reputation suggests? Not quite. But it’s pedestrian and lifeless, and you really don’t need it.

  • In Concert (1979) – For those who found Welcome… a bit much, this distillation is easier going. But for those looking for the big hits in a live context, they’re not here.

  • Black Moon (1992) – Though all three men still had much to give musically, this is an underwhelming reunion. It did, however, provide an excuse for live dates, which was a good thing.

  • In the Hot Seat (1994) – I never heard this one. Did you?

Note: The non-canon release Emerson Lake & Powell from ‘86 isn’t included here. It’s pretty good, though, especially by ‘80s-prog-wilderness standards. And the excerpt from Holst’s The Planets is fun if – as am I – you’re into that sort of thing.