Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Emerson, Lake & Palmer Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Rock critics despised them with a passion, but then again, of course, they would. The prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer – commonly referred to as ELP for short – had a rather lofty (critics may say pretentious) goal as musicians: to make music that would be an almost equal-parts hybrid of classical music and rock music. Whereas ELO – or Electric Light Orchestra – simply wrote pop songs that incorporated a full-time string section, ELP – consisting of Keith Emerson (formerly of The Nice), Greg Lake (the lead singer of King Crimson on the prog-rock band’s first two albums), and Carl Palmer (formerly with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) – actually played bona fide classical pieces but with a rock bent, and chances are that the band are responsible for introducing countless rock fans to the work of classical composers like Mussorgsky and Copland. Rock critics may have scoffed, but for the early ‘70s, at least, ELP were a major live draw and routinely packed arenas; while they had few hit singles in the U.S. (only one, in fact, would crack the Top 40), their albums sound in huge numbers. The band would split in 1979, Lake releasing two fine solo albums before very briefly taking John Wetton’s place in Asia. The trio would attempt to re-form in the mid-‘80s, but Palmer had by then become the drummer for the wildly successful supergroup Asia (“Heat of the Moment,” “Only Time Will Tell,” “Don’t Cry”), and Emerson and Lake – allegedly inspired by the mid-‘80s commercial comeback of fellow prog-rockers Yes – recruited former Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell to take Palmer’s place in the newly-renamed Emerson, Lake, & Powell. The arrangement would only last one album, and Powell would be replaced by Robert Berry, the new trio recording a one-off disc under the simple moniker 3. The original trio of Emerson, Lake & Palmer would finally reunite in the ‘90s for a pair of two new studio discs, but prog-rock had long fallen out of vogue, and the albums sold only modestly, the trio once again splitting up. Palmer would return to Asia, but both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake would sadly pass away in 2016. Their contributions to the world of prog-rock were immense, though, and the group’s music lives on, particularly during the holiday season, Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” having become a seasonal standard.  

Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970, Cotillion)

A

The trio’s self-titled debut is a real knockout. Like most of their later discs, this is very much a prog-rock album, but there’s little excess here, and the pieces are all relatively tight. Lake’s folky ballad “Lucky Man” just barely missed the Top 40 here in the U.S. and remains one of the trio’s most well-known songs, while “Knife Edge,” built around one of Lake’s most memorable bass lines, is easily one of the band’s most fiery and hard-rocking songs. Palmer immediately throws himself into contention for the title of one of the best drummers in rock music with his work on cuts like “Tank.” But it’s Emerson who truly steals the show here, thanks to the creative and atmospheric piano playing on the album’s centerpiece, the beautiful epic “Take a Pebble.”

Tarkus (1971, Cotillion)

B

Sure, you could accuse this concept disc – featuring a side-long title track which tells the dramatic story of a battle between a mechanical armadillo and a manticore – of initiating the kind of self-indulgence that came to eventually plague the image of prog-rock. But even if the title cut is pretty weird, it’s also surprisingly coherent for a prog-rock song of its length and sounds as if it genuinely was envisioned from the get-go as a full piece rather than built together out of fragments that emerged in the studio, and it’s also very, very well-performed and is the sound of three ace musicians playing up a real storm, The album’s second side is a bit scattershot and lacks the coherence of the first side, but “A Time and a Place” is a real knockout, with “Bitches Crystal” not that far behind, and even obvious filler like “Jeremy Bender” still at least sounds great, even if it doesn’t really belong here.

Pictures at an Exhibition (1971, Cotillion)

B +  

With the exception of one cut, this disc – recorded live in concert – is entirely comprised of a rock adaptation of the classical piece of the same name by Mussorgsky. Naturally, classical purists cringed, but this is a pretty astounding affair, and the very appreciative audience clearly understands both the magnitude and the sheer innovation of what they’re hearing, and it’s fun to hear the crowd respond with such rabid enthusiasm to what’s technically a piece of classical music. Naturally, this works much better as an album piece than it does as individual moments, so this is a more demanding disc than, say, their self-titled debut or Trilogy, and really needs to be listened to in full, but it’s worth the ride. The sound admittedly isn’t as great as it could’ve been, and you could conceivably question the inclusion of the encore “Nut Rocker,” a cover of B. Bumble and the Stingers’ sped-up rock adaptation of “March of the Toy Soldiers” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which is tacked on at the end of the disc as a bonus and doesn’t technically fit in with the rest of the album, but even that cut is so fun (showing a very lighthearted side of the band that we don’t get to see all that often on disc) that it’s a little hard to imagine the disc being quite as charming without it.

Trilogy (1972, Cotillion)

A

More comparable to the band’s self-titled debut than to either of the two preceding discs, Trilogy makes a fine album piece, but it’s song-oriented enough that you can also enjoy it in the form of individual tracks, to the extent that the disc even yielded the band’s first (and only) Top 40 hit, the great synth-laden prog-folk hybrid “From the Beginning.” There’s also a famous rock adaptation here of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” that proves to be a great showcase for Emerson’s organ playing. The two-part epic “The Endless Enigma” is the most prog-oriented piece here, and it’s a good one, but it’s upstaged by the album’s title cut, which starts off in a very quiet, delicate manner, with Lake singing a lovely melody worthy of a torch ballad against Emerson’s graceful piano before the track changes course and morphs into a manic jam, Palmer suddenly barging in on his drumkit as Emerson switches from his piano to a bed of a careening synths that constantly sound on the verge of wandering into atonal territory without ever actually doing so. It’s simultaneously one of the prettiest pieces the band ever made and one of its most avant-garde and dizzying – a tricky balancing act, to be sure, but one the band pulls off nicely. 

Brain Salad Surgery (1973, Manticore)

A

Perhaps the group’s most famous album (and certainly its most astonishing packaging-wise, the fold-open art of the album’s original vinyl pressing truly being one of the more memorable covers of the prog-rock era), this disc still has its filler (“Benny the Bouncer” doesn’t really fit in here and would seem more at home on the second side of Tarkus) but it also boasts several of the group’s most legendary moments, including their rock adapatation of the William Blake-poem-turned-hymn “Jerusalem” and Greg Lake’s hypnotic acoustic ballad “Still … You Turn Me On” (the latter of which – perhaps deservedly – gets a lot of grief over its line “Someone get me a ladder” but is otherwise as near-perfect a ballad as ELP ever recorded.)  The album’s centerpiece, though, is undeniably the prog-rock epic “Karn Evil 9,” which begins in the closing minutes of the first side and takes up the entirety of the second. A small portion of the piece’s First Impression would be extracted and put to extensive use at athletic events and on sports broadcasts (“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends! We’re so glad you could attend! Come inside, come inside …”), but the piece really needs to be heard in full to truly be appreciated, the battle between man and machine steadily building in intensity as the track progresses, the piece and the album both closing in an impressively apocalyptic bit of synthesizer and studio trickery that ends the disc in a chill-inducing and frightening but powerful fashion.

Works, Vol. 1 (1977, Atlantic)

B –

The trio’s first new disc of studio material in four years is a double-disc affair, and a very self-indulgent one, at that, one very reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. Each member is given a full side to use on solo material, while the fourth and final side features all three men. Naturally, it ends up being a very long and somewhat schizophrenic affair. Emerson uses his full album side on a solitary piano concerto, while Lake uses his on more short-form songs, mainly acoustic ballads in the mold of “Still … You Turn Me On.” (“C’est la Vie” is cloying, but “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” and, even better still, “Closer to Believing” are both stunningly gorgeous.) Palmer’s all-instrumental affair is the most rock-oriented of the three solo sides and even boasts guitar work from special guest Joe Walsh and sounds fantastic when it’s on, but it’s not as easy to remember individual moments from as Lake’s more song-oriented side. The two full-band pieces here are both fairly epic, a rock adaptation of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and the theatrical near-opera of “Pirates.” Overall, it’s undeniably spottier than any ELP album to date, but there’s just enough winning material – particularly “Closer to Believing,” “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight,” and the two full-trio cuts – to compensate for the filler.

Works, Vol. 2 (1977, Atlantic)    

B +

Strangely enough, Works, Vol. 2 isn’t really a proper sequel to Works, Vol. 1 but rather a clearinghouse of odds-and-ends that appeared in various forms, namely as B-sides and non-LP solo singles, making this a very handy way of collecting most of the group’s rarities. Among the rarities is “Brain Salad Surgery,” which strangely didn’t appear on the album of the same name [why it didn’t is a bit of a mystery, as it would have made a more fitting inclusion than “Benny the Bouncer”], the bouncy Brain Salad Surgery outtake “Tiger in a Spotlight,” the fun Zappa-esque instrumental “Bullfrog,” the Randy Newman-like “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” and the lovely Lake lullaby “Watching Over You.” The disc bounces all over the place stylistically, making for one very eclectic affair, but it’s fun to see so many very different styles bunched so closely together, since it effectively shows off just how versatile this so-often-critically-derided band truly was and proves them to be more than just a bunch of classical-music-loving prog-rockers. This disc also has the distinction of being the easiest way to obtain the previously non-LP Greg Lake goose bump-inducing solo single “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which has gone on to become a holiday standard. This may be more of a rarities compilation than a proper album, but for a disc of this type, it’s shockingly good, and it’s arguably even better – it’s certainly more fun, anyway – than its immediate predecessor.

Love Beach (1978, Atlantic)

C +

Yes, the album title and cover are cringe-inducing, and, yes, the band has never cut a worse song than “Taste of My Love.” While this album was pretty much recorded simply to fill a contractual obligation and seldom ever actually sounds like the ELP of old, it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation would have you believe. “All I Want Is You” may sound a little more like Renaissance than ELP (it certainly sounds as if the trio had heard the former band’s “Northern Lights” in the weeks before writing this song), but it’s still a fine piece of songwriting and is one of the more easily memorable originals of ELP’s latter years.  The driving pop/rock of the title cut might skirt a little too closely towards standard rock-radio fare for hardcore fans of the band’s prog-rock past (it is admittedly not one of Pete Sinfield’s better sets of lyrics), but the melody is infectious and it’s actually surprisingly refreshing to see the group taking itself a little less seriously here and just kicking back with a straightforward rock jam comparable to Asia’s poppier moments like “Don’t Cry.” “For You” is a typically lovely Lake ballad made better by an atypically (for latter-day ELP, at least) rock-heavy arrangement. Even if you abhor the more pop-tinged cuts here, though, there is still some more standard ELP fare here in the form of the instrumental “Canario” and the side-long epic “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman.”  It’s no Brain Salad Surgery, yes, and it may be the weakest of the band’s ‘70s discs, but it’s not all that much inferior in quality to say, Works, Vol. 1, either, and had the band simply removed “Taste of My Love” and gone with an album cover that was a little less Bee Gees-like, it’s likely that this album would have a much, much better reputation.  

Black Moon (1992, Victory)

C

Neither great nor terrible, the newly-reunited band’s first disc in fourteen years doesn’t sound all that stylistically different from the band’s Carl Palmer-less ‘80s experiments (Emerson, Lake & Powell and To to the Power of Three). But it’s also a much, much less organic-sounding affair than any of the band’s ‘70s albums, to the extent that the drums all sound programmed, and Lake’s voice also isn’t nearly as recognizable as it used to be, so it’s possible you could hear this disc and never realize you were listening to ELP, which makes this a really jarring disc to listen to alongside any of the band’s previous albums, Love Beach included. The songs themselves are well-written, though, and the title cut and “Affairs of the Heart” (penned by Lake with Geoff Downes, formerly of Asia and the Buggles) are highlights, as is the rock adaptation of Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet.”

In the Hot Seat (1994, Victory)

D +

Like Black Moon, this second reunion disc never quite fully sounds like ELP, and it certainly doesn’t help things that the producer here is Keith Olsen, a quite-good pop producer (best known for his work with Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield, and Pat Benatar) who’s simply an awkward fit for a prog-rock band like ELP. And the decision to close the disc with a studio recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition” is a very questionable move that only invites unfavorable comparisons to the original 1971 live album from when the band was in its prime. But, like Black Moon, the disc isn’t without its reasonably good songs, and “Daddy” and “Hand of Truth” both help to redeem the album.
 

Compilations:

Vinyl collectors’ best bet is the 1980 Atlantic package The Best of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which inexplicably lacks “From the Beginning” (the group’s lone Top 40 hit, mind you) but is otherwise a nice sampler of the band’s highlights. There is also a 1994 compilation on Victory – confusingly titled The Best of Emerson, Lake & Palmer as well – which is the best bet for those looking for a single-disc CD anthology from the group, including most of the same cuts as the 1980 Atlantic package but also thankfully adding “From the Beginning,” as well as the entirety of “Tarkus” and such other ELP essentials as “I Believe in Father Christmas” and “Knife Edge.”  If you’re willing to spring for a double-disc, go for the 1992 package The Atlantic Years, which goes even further and adds “Take a Pebble,” “Pirates,” excerpts from Pictures at an Exhibition, and the entirety of “Karn Evil 9,” in addition to other minor gems like “The Endless Enigma” and “Tank.”