Review Summary: Recommended for any progressive rock fan, even if the second half isn't quite as good.
During the 70's, progressive rock was generally known as an "outcast" genre, despite occasional mainstream success from the most popular bands in the style. Critics generally cited it as being "pretentious" or "throwaway trash," while the public generally turned it down for more accessible AOR and disco for the era. All in all, it's really a shame that progressive bands were just thrown into this dark pit of rejection, considering there was much more talent to be had with these artists than with the mainstream work being played on the radio at the time. Emerson, Lake and Palmer are a big example of this fate (and they'd try to change their sound later, to negative results), and never does it shine more than on their sophomore album Tarkus.
At first glance, the trio's second album is very daunting, mainly because the first side is dominated by only one song: The title track. The second side of the record consists of shorter, generally more accessible arrangements. While the second side is a bit of a mixed bag, one thing can't be denied in all of this: The title track is truly one of the best progressive epics of the 70's, easily able to compete with the big guns like "Supper's Ready" (Genesis), "Close to the Edge" (Yes), or "Cygnus X-1, Book II, Hemispheres" (Rush).
The epic opens up with a choir-like crescendo into the main instrumental motif; The trio are all exceptional musicians, and they have the chance to really shine here. Carl Palmer's sweeping, swift drum work is complemented by Keith Emerson's melodic-yet-complex harmonies gracing the forefront, only to have Greg Lake's rapid bass work sandwiched in perfectly; It all creates a mesmerizing quality that is still just as powerful today as it was back then.
Everything soon slows down for the ballad-style section "Stones of Years." Greg Lake has quite a soothing voice, and the subtle bass/drum fills in the background give this portion a very dreamy, floating feel to it. Soon, a keyboard solo comes in, this time more subtle than in the intro. Keith Emerson shows a remarkable sense of variety and restraint here; This whole collective section is one of the best sections of the song, mainly because of how well-controlled and balanced it is. After this, all hell breaks loose; Every instrument clashes for a battle to the death in the most technical section of the song. The part doesn't last long, though, as it goes right back to a slower section, and so on.
The way the band control their dynamics and know when to balance out their sound is a huge factor in how this song is so good as an epic; Any musician can simply wank on his/her instrument for 20 minutes and slap the "epic" label on it, but ELP show remarkable compositional skill through the aforementioned control of their music. The themes are well placed, and the work building off of them follows suit splendidly. Overall, this song is a classic of progressive rock, and an outstanding track all in all.
Side two isn't quite as good, but has its perks as well. While one can do without the country-styled "Jeremy Bender" or the old time 50's rock and roll of "Are You Ready, Eddy?", other song pick up the slack nicely. Bitches Crystal is a technical piano-driven number with very fast percussion and a quick-rolling bassline; definitely a highlight of the album. "Infinite Space (Conclusion)" makes its case with a deeply somber tone mixed with subtle drumming and bass riffs. Overall, this side of the album is good, but simply not as fantastic as the title track.
Overall, this album is excellent for any prog fan, if just for the splendid first song. In any case, this album feels more complete as a full album than the band's debut and demonstrates a step-up from the meanderings of said first record. For a few albums, ELP would grow and grow; Too bad they eventually succumbed to commercial music...