Review Summary: Tarkus is an unlikely album to draw in more listeners to the progressive rock fan base, but will be a treasure to those who love prog.
When a band takes a new direction, it usually brings the band vast success or total failure. During the transition of the 80’s to the 90’s, Metallica began doing things much more radio friendly and as a result lost many of their older fans by being mainstream instead of thrash. Many of their older fans deemed them a failure or sell-out. However some albums, such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1971 release Tarkus, were strides to a different place that proved overwhelmingly successful. In fact when first approached by compositional ringleader Keith Emerson, Greg Lake was extremely apprehensive about the new musical direction. Interesting proof lies in a booklet included with Brain Salad Surgery: Lake is quoted saying to Emerson, “…if you want to play classical music do it on your solo album.” ELP’s eponymous debut album showed musicality but really, as are most debuts, was quite a bit off of what the power trio ended up playing as fan favorites. A mixture of social criticism and humor, Tarkus is the first move that the trio made which brought them closer to the standard ELP sound.
Tarkus is really a difficult record to tonally describe, as it is not very cohesive and travels through many moods and ideas. On Tarkus ELP sounds a bit like Rush blended with elements of Yes and a touch of Genesis’ early days. Overall, the sound of the album is very similar to Genesis’ Trespass, but contains a much more classically influenced sound in Emerson and Lake and a far jazzier drum performance from Palmer. Except for the two fun tracks, the performance and atmosphere created are extremely dark and reflective: this is an album that was made to make a (very melancholic) statement about war and religion. Parts of the album are intentionally, ironically spiritual sounding with anti-religious lyrics, which adds an extra complexity and depth to such intriguing music. Other parts sound rather cluttered (also intentional) and busy, while still others sound like straightforward 70’s rock charts. A record that upholds any preexisting, high standards about ELP, Tarkus delivers the goods that prog fans crave.
The technical performance of the album is absolutely superb! The sound of the trio fuses together seamlessly and creates a virtuoso ensemble sound. Carl Palmer’s light, jazz-influenced drumming is an amazing foundation and really helps add motion to different parts of the album. It is incredible how he keeps such focus while going through passages that have extremely complex time signatures; for example the 10/8 section that the first movement of “Tarkus” is dominantly comprised of. Greg Lake has a stellar performance on this album as some of his most spot-on vocal work can be found on this album. “Bitches Crystal” and the three movements of “Tarkus” that have vocals highlight his great lyricism and his versatile vocal tonalities. Not to mention, Lake’s bass playing is also up to par as he demonstrates his skills on the title track and the faster sections of “The Only Way.” Emerson is, as always, a complete octopus behind his wide array of keyboards, pianos, and organs. One of the downsides to his extreme lead playing are that the abilities of some of the other members of the group, although equally talented, are somewhat overshadowed musically and are also much lower in the overall mix.
Emotional performance is also there but definitely shows in some places more than others; places where the lyrics are more reflective of the band’s social views are definitely better. The section of the title track called “Battlefield” shows some extremely expressive, deep lyrics about the costs of war and its futilities. Most of the lyrics of “Tarkus” really have to deal with a satirical version of war expressed through symbols like Tarkus (the armadillo-tank on the album cover), representing the war machine. Another emotive lyrical theme is social criticism of religion, Christianity in particular. Some of the lyrics may be equivocal, as they could possibly just be attacking the current state of religion, i.e. “Bitches Crystal” lyrics talk about gypsies, fortune tellers, and crystal ball predictions. However other lyrics throw more direct blows to monotheistic religions (again mostly Christianity) in “The Only Way” and “Mass” from Tarkus. Whether the listener agrees with these views or not, these sections show a lot of passion and are oddly some of the finest moments on the album (Note: Due to likely possibilities of offending audiences, ELP doesn’t perform “Mass” with lyrics often and “The Only Way” isn’t included on any live release). Obvious humor is present on the tracks “Jeremy Bender” and “Are You Ready Eddy"” and nicely rounds off the overly serious edge of the band.
Thusly, this is not Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s magnum opus, but is definitely the next best thing and contains moments that are very dark, inspiring, and capturing. “Tarkus” is must have for hardcore prog fans, and both “Bitches Crystal” and “The Only Way” are worth a listen for fans of classic rock or neo-classical rock. Tarkus is an unlikely album to draw in more listeners to the progressive rock fan base, but will be a treasure to those who love prog.