Review Summary: All that is good, bad, and ugly in the world of progressive rock.
Back in the old days of my freshman year of high school, our symphonic band played two movements from a classical suite entitled "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. As a percussionist, my parts weren't particularly interesting. So, each time we played the piece, my mind churned with thoughts of how potentially awesome the drum part COULD be in a hypothetical heavy rock/metal cover. After our concert performance, my father told me that he had heard the piece before, but performed by a progressive rock band called Emerson, Lake & Palmer - at this point, I experienced the most severe musically-metaphorical blue balls of my life, until I got home and found the CD, curiously awaiting whether or not it would meet my high expectations.
It's certainly an audacious release; especially considering it being a live album. However, audacity alone in no way substantiates an album's quality, and perhaps ELP's interpretation was too
audacious for its own good. The thought of delivering a classical suite from the 1800's to a yelling, adrenaline-filled, rock crowd is a daunting endeavour, and further, several of the album's major shortcomings can be directly attributed to it being live. Some of these flaws are completely unnecessary and musically irrelevant open-ended blues-rock jams and solos, lack of textural variations within themes, and sub-par production. Yet, could the essence of this album - the definitive raw energy, creativity, and passion - truly be captured in a studio? There are certainly downsides to it being live, but what Emerson, Lake & Palmer does
do on stage is perfectly meld consonance with dissonance, melody with noise, subtlety with outspokenness, energy with empathy; classical with rock.
Throughout the arrangement, it's quite obvious which instruments provide which roles in defining ELP's sound: Emerson's keyboards not only provide the classical aspect, but also the use of raw noise, Lake's bass gives a 70's rock edge while his guitar contributes to the progressive/classical aspect, and the drums provide a very jazz-influenced aspect. But even with the eclectic mix of influences, I couldn't imagine the band settling into a more cohesive groove. This proves to be one of the strongest points of the album.
However, one of the album's weakest
points is the lack of cohesiveness and purpose. ELP added vocals to several of the original suite's movements, which sound great, as do the entirely original sections, including "The Sage", a beautiful acoustic/vocal duet by Lake, and "The Curse of Baba-Yaga", which is based on, preempted by, and proceeded by the original suite's "The Hut of Baba-Yaga". Therefore, these aspects are not where the lack of cohesiveness is coming from. Rather, the issue seems to be the fact that Emerson, Lake & Palmer tends to approach several sections in a pretentious manner that is more so "playing to be playing" than contributing to the album as a whole (see: Dream Theater), resulting in a fun ride of emotions, but not too much more.
So, in response to my original question, the album did not
meet my expectations; however, this doesn't keep it from being a good listen, especially if you are a fan of the original. Each section is captivating in its own way, and - as Mussorgsky's intent was - takes you on a stroll, looking about diverse works of art. Modest Mussorgsky was quoted after viewing Viktor Hartmann's inspirational art exhibit stating, "Sounds and ideas are hanging in the air; I am devouring them and stuffing myself." Unfortunately, to sum up the review in a single metaphor, Emerson, Lake & Palmer seemed to dine-and-ditch half-way through the entrée.