Review Summary: The start of a hell of a lot of bombast and virtuosity.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer helped to usher the classical style of progressive rock. When they respectively left The Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster and came together as a trio, finding that their playing styles were complimentary, they created the first progressive rock supergroup. Dominated by Emerson’s neo-classical abilities, The Nice was the first symphonic rock band to adeptly fuse true classical motifs and passages with psychedelic rock and jazz. ELP is pretty much the continuation of that group, but managed to completely overshadow the aforementioned band, due to their superior technical abilities. ELP explored their capabilities to an extreme, breaking ground, pushing the boundaries of the symphonic rock genre.
Epic, ambitious, and overflowing with technical mastery, ELP paved the way for the success of such prog artists of the 70’s like Yes and its gone-solo keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who would become their chief rivals for much of the decade. Greg Lake and Carl Palmer were the strong counterparts Emerson needed to unfold his creativity and energy to full-scale. The band was unusual for its three-man structure, and the emphasis of keyboards over guitar. If ever there had been a lead guitarist added, it would have been none other than Jimi Hendrix, who expressed an interest in playing with the trio. The band took the time to organize a jam session with the famous guitarist, with the possibility of him joining, but he sadly died less than a month later. On the other hand, ELP have always confessed their preference for a trio format, which provides more liberty regarding the songwriting, for instance.
The album presents all three musicians interacting at a furious level, throwing awe-inspiring licks around with uncanny ease, with plenty of octopus-armed drumming from Palmer. The man is considered to be one of the all time greatest drummers. His playing is a combination of precision, speed and finesse. Greg Lake's voice is nothing short of superb (as he already had proven in Crimson); always note-perfect. Both Lucky Man
and Take a Pebble
profit from his wistful tone. Lake felt much comfortable with their melodic drive, while keeping a hard edge in a large amount of his dynamic bass parts.
The sound of the band is strongly dominated by the Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer of maestro Emerson. Their compositions are mainly influenced by classical music, with jazzy touches. Their instrumentals are rich, deep, complex and plentiful. As a whole, the songs showcase varied ambiences that result from the threesome's different individual interests converging into a unique, solid offering. A third of the tracks are the ELP’s interpretations of pieces by classical composers, and the band has given them a good twist. The astounding instrumental opener The Barbarian
is based on a piece by Bartok, named Allegro Barbaro
, and contains all the elements of a classic ELP song, while Knife Edge
takes its cues from Janacek’s Sinfonietta
. This track is a bit more heavy than your usual ELP, even flirting with hard rock, but it's got a really nice melody and a thrilling crushing riff. The solo part for the organ is really groovy and heartfelt. Emerson’s skill in harmony and theme development is undeniable. Also remarkable are his smooth transitions between composed and improvised parts.
While being technically excellent (only Rick Wakeman could compete with him at that time), Emerson regularly comes off as a showman rather than a composer. The band's complicity and interplaying were as recognizable as enviable, the only gripe being the overdone, overdramatic keyboard playing, causing the risk of ruining the flow in spots. Emerson’s legendary pretentiousness and big ego make him look like he doesn’t know how to be tempered and concentrate in creating an atmosphere, or where to calm down, and this can get irritating. A running gag about the band was created about it: ‘How do you spell pretentious'?: 'ELP'
. Nevertheless, they still had classically-trained precision on their side, and the ability to play stuff that no one else would have conceived. And when you have that kind of skill at your disposal, you can go places no one else does.
The album’s first half is showcases their group efforts, and the individual prowess of the three band members on the second. The Three Fates
suite allows the flamboyant Emerson to exhibit his extreme virtuosity, making love to his keyboards for eight minutes, while Tank
is a delightful piece to show off Carl Palmer’s overpowering drumming talent. Finally, the last song is the famous radio hit Lucky Man
, an acoustic guitar ballad with beautiful vocal melodies and its well known synthesizer solo. The song features what would become Greg Lake's trademark acoustic guitar work. Side two is somewhat weaker than side one, but in the end, the album works out very well.
Unbalanced as it is, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s debut still features strong compositions and awe-inspiring musicianship. Emerson takes the group’s music a little too strongly in his own hands on many occasions, but it is his virtuoso skills on organ and keyboard that have become the defining factor of ELP’s music. Although fantastic musicians such as Greg Lake and Carl Palmer deserve a more prominent spot, this is how the group turned out, and by no means is that a bad thing. This overall excellent record definitely has its flaws, but is also more coherent than later, more known works such as Tarkus
that focus too much on one epic and leave the rest of the album’s material lagging behind. Emerson, Lake and Palmer
is an album that any progressive fan will find something to enjoy in, and is one of the better efforts of one of the defining acts in the genre.