Monday, January 16, 2017

Pictures at an Exhibition - Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Pictures at an Exhibition
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Cotillion  ELP 66666

This is a live recording of ELP's version of Modest Mussorgsky's classical opus recorded at Newcastle City Hall on March 26, 1971.  It was released in England in 1971 but ELP's American record company initially rejected it and its American release was delayed until 1972.  I had been planning a post in honor of Keith Emerson after he committed suicide last year.  I was planning to do an album by his previous band, the Nice, which I like better than ELP, but I changed my mind following the recent passing of his bandmate Greg Lake.  I've made fun of ELP and this album in particular in some previous posts, but I was actually a fan of Emerson as a teenager.  I loved the Nice and liked the first ELP album as well.  This one not so much, but I've never considered getting rid of it in the many years I've owned it.  Reading his obituary I was surprised to find that Emerson was living in my hometown of Santa Monica when he died.  There are loads of British ex-pats here but somehow Emerson seemed so European to me that it was hard for me to imagine living next to him out here in sunny SaMo.  In one of the obits I read, his girlfriend mentioned that he never listened to rock music, only jazz and classical.  That I found easy to believe.  Even back in the Nice I sensed that Emerson felt that rock was beneath him.  Not unlike Frank Zappa, I got the feeling he was pandering to his fans presumably for commercial reasons.  In that regard this album is emblematic of his career.  I'm sure Emerson was skilled enough to have recorded a straight performance of Mussorgsky's original work but that would have sold a tiny fraction of what this "rock" version of it did.  The album begins with "Promenade" which was taken straight out of Mussorgsky's original composition.  It features a distinctive melody that is used throughout the original work to link together some of the movements.  Emerson plays it on the big pipe organ in the hall.  "The Gnome" was also taken from Mussorgsky and adapted by ELP's drummer Carl Palmer.  His main contribution seems to be adding a bombastic drum track to the piece as well as a mercifully brief drum solo.  Like the original piece, it is gloomy and ominous.  The work proves surprisingly suitable for the heavy rock treatment given to it by ELP.  I imagine Mussorgsky would have been appalled, but I like it.  Emerson switched to an electric organ and a synthesizer for this track and I enjoy his frenetic noodling.  Next Emerson plays a subdued version of "Promenade" on his organ and Greg Lake takes to the microphone to gently croon the words he composed for it which are basically quasi-mystical nonsense about life's journey.  Lake expounds further on this theme for his original song "The Sage" which is him and his acoustic guitar. The song sounds a bit like a courtly, Renaissance air crossed with a traditional English folk song although the lyrics are pure hippie bullshit reminiscent of the trite philosophizing of the Moody Blues.  Emerson changes the tempo dramatically with his high energy adaptation of "The Old Castle" which was the second movement in Mussorgsky's original work.  The sensitive romantic character of the original piece is completely obliterated by Emerson's intense bludgeoning of assorted electric organs and synthesizers but it is entertaining.  It segues seamlessly into the pompously titled group composition "Blues Variation" which is an Emerson-dominated jam that is easily my favorite track.  It really cooks, which is something pretty rare in ELP recordings.  Side two begins with a reprise of the "Promenade" theme played forcefully by the full band.  They then run through "The Hut of Baba Yaga" at breakneck speed.  This was the ninth movement in Mussorgsky's original work.  This is followed by another group jam entitled "The Curse of Baba Yaga" which features more blistering keyboard runs from Emerson.  It is followed by a brief return to "The Hut of Baba Yaga" before moving into the tenth and final movement of Mussorgsky's opus, "The Great Gates of Kiev."  In the original work this piece is stately and triumphant, but ELP instead go with a full throttle attack featuring Lake bellowing out more of his silly lyrics with Emerson maniacally raising a ruckus in support.  Near the end the band finally slows down and Mussorgsky's majestic music emerges to back up verses like "there's no end to my life, no beginning to my death, death is life."  Ugh!  When the music finally finishes, the audience erupts in thunderous applause and if I had been there perhaps I would have too, it is perversely impressive.  The band returns to encore with a high octane performance of Kim Fowley's ludicrous Tchaikovsky adaptation "Nutrocker" which gives the album a winningly irreverent finish.  I ought to hate this record, it is one of the most pretentious pop albums ever and a vulgar travesty of Mussorgsky's original work.  It goes against all my beliefs of what good rock music should be.  Nonetheless I do find it listenable and even sporadically enjoyable, mostly because Emerson was such a dynamic keyboard player.  He may not have been interested in rock, but he was good at it as a performer.  Also I find some charm in the dialectic collision between the refined art of classical music and the crudity of heavy rock.  The results are often ridiculous (especially when Lake is singing) but there are times when the frisson between the two is engaging to me.  This record never bores me which is more than I can say about Yes, Genesis, or even post-Barrett Pink Floyd.  You could definitely do worse when it comes to prog-rock.  Even if you hate this sort of thing, you ought to hear it at least once, if only to marvel at Keith Emerson's skill and shameless audacity.  I'm going to miss him.  Recommended to classical music fans who dig Jerry Lee Lewis.

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