CD Review of The Essential Emerson, Lake & Palmer by Emerson, Lake & Palmer

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The Essential Emerson, Lake & Palmer
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Released: 2007
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It’s deceptively difficult to write a proper review of an Emerson Lake & Palmer album – even a nicely-done two-disc anthology such as this one – because their music is so damned complex that your opinion of the trio can change several times within a single song. You might be skeptical of this claim, and you’re certainly well within your rights to be so; honestly, though, once you notice that the sixth track on Disc One (“Tarkus”) is over 20 minutes long, I daresay you can kind of imagine how it could happen.

The names Emerson, Lake, and Palmer don’t mean jack to kids today, but let’s just say they’re indirectly responsible for the birth of punk rock in the ‘70s, at least in the UK. True, the blame can be laid at the feet of a lot of prog-rock artists for boring some music fans to the point where they sought solace in the simplicity of three chords and the truth, but when you get down to brass tacks, the most consistently pompous and pretentious albums came courtesy of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer. Joe Strummer, it is said, once described punk as “taking a blowtorch to an ELP record,” and, you know, that sounds like something Joe would say. After all, you really weren’t allowed to just kinda like ELP; either you loved them beyond all rational sense, or you loathed them with the fire of a thousand suns. The only possible middle ground would have been occupied by those individuals who enjoyed their few radio hits, like “Lucky Man” or “From the Beginning”; otherwise, any appreciation of the band was, quite understandably, treated as a dirty little secret.

Unfortunately, this means that I’m required to step at least halfway out of the closet to acknowledge a certain degree of appreciation for the trio’s work.

Musically, there’s no denying that Emerson, Lake & Palmer were brilliant. They’re probably also responsible for surreptitiously introducing a generation of kids to composers like Bartók, Janacek, and Copland, whose work ELP adapted into the stuff that made prog-rock fans weak in the knees. The biggest problem with the group’s music, however, is one that’s evident from the very beginning of their career and only gets worse as you progress into their discography. If you listen to “Take a Pebble,” from their self-titled debut, you’ll find that the first two and a half minutes of the song are lovely, as is the last minute and a half; unfortunately, however, that leaves almost eight minutes of the track unaccounted for – and let me tell you, you can fit a whoooooooooole lot of musical wanking into eight minutes. Songs like the aforementioned “Lucky Man,” or “C’est La Vie” (from Works, Vol. 1), show that the band could write epic songs without having to drag them out to an equally epic length. Unfortunately, they didn’t tend to exercise restraint as often as perhaps they ought to have.

Track listings for so-called “essential” collections rarely hold up to proper critical scrutiny, of course, and this ELP set is no exception. Including five of the six songs from the band’s debut probably wasn’t necessary – “Lucky Man” and the epic “Take a Pebble” would’ve been enough – and, come on, six of Trilogy’s nine songs, too? Of course, it all comes down to the whims of the person (or persons) doing the compiling, and at the very least, it can be said that there are no particularly glaring omissions – though it’s notable that the otherwise-illuminating liner notes by writer Bruce Pilato manage to totally and utterly avoid mentioning the one-off album that Emerson and Lake made with Cozy Powell instead of Carl Palmer. (Too bad – it would’ve been nice to hear “Touch and Go” again.)

In the end, you face the problem confronted by most two-disc compilations: it’s more than the average fan would want, and the diehard fans won’t want it because they already have it all anyway. It does, however, set the stage for Shout! Factory’s upcoming reissuing of the entire Emerson, Lake & Palmer back catalog; if the label shows the same love and care for those discs as it has for this set (and there’s no reason to believe they won’t), then the fans should be very pleased, indeed.

~Will Harris