Psychotic Ramblings about Emerson Lake & Palmer

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Fucking prog rock, man.

Okay, I’m going to get this out of the way right now. This will be less of a review of a product, and more just me babbling incoherently about my confusing and contradictory feelings towards Emerson Lake & Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery and the entire genre of progressive rock music. You want a quick take on this new re-issue? It’s pretty good – and the basic 2 CD/DVD combo pack both sounds great and includes a worthwhile collection of bonus cuts and rarities. If you like ELP, then you would probably enjoy this release – and I recommend picking it up.

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, fucking prog rock, man.

I consider myself pretty eclectic when it comes to my musical preferences. I love pop music, heavy metal, punk, new wave, disco, trance, ambient, avant-garde minimalism, you name it. I own rap albums, country records, LPs filled with nothing but noise, lo-fi indie experimental releases, and so on. I think it’s important to sample all genres and all styles of music, because you’ll never know what you’ll discover.

But prog rock has always been somewhat impenetrable to me. I think this is because I’ve always associated the genre with Rush, a group who, no matter how hard I try, I cannot get into due to the whinetastic vocals of Geddy Lee (and trust me, I’ve tried, I own 2112). People often call Pink Floyd prog rock, but I think that’s bullshit. Pink Floyd have about as much in common with a group like King Crimson as a group like Hawkwind has in common with Motorhead (common membership notwithstanding).

Recently though I was finally able to break the barrier and get way into a prog band, thanks to the release of the massive Yes box set from earlier this year that included their first 12 or so LPs in an affordable package. I bought it knowing nothing about the group aside from “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Roundabout” and came out of it a hardcore devotee of the group, and I even credit one album from their discography with pulling me out of a anxiety-fueled depression that nearly left me paralyzed in agony.

My newfound Yes appreciation encouraged me to finally embrace prog as a genre and seek out other major releases by notable groups in the genre. So when I saw that Brain Salad Surgery, the supposed crowning achievement of prog rock superstars Emerson Lake & Palmer, was getting a new deluxe re-release, I figured I’d start there.

And while The Yes Album by Yes helped cure my depression. I worry that Brain Salad Surgery may be driving me insane.

What the fuck is this record?

This is what I knew about Brain Salad Surgery going in; I knew it had a bitchin’ cover. I knew that it was the album from which the line “welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” originated. I knew that it had a song that was so long that it had to be spread out over both sides of the original LP. I knew that Lester Bangs was probably not a fan. I knew it was vaguely about robots (or something).

I feel like, coming out of listening to it in its entirety several times over now, that I somehow know even less about it.

I guess first I should talk about the album musically, but I can’t even wrap my head around that. In reading about ELP, I find a lot of people talking about their musical talent, and how many of their critics felt that their desire to craft complicated compositions overtook any desire to write actual quality material.

I can definitely hear that in Brain Salad Surgery. The drumming and, most obviously, the keyboard playing by Keith Emerson are just entirely overpowering at times. They’re going so fast and working with themes so complex that I can’t make heads nor tails of it. Other times though, it just all syncs perfectly in such a beautiful way that I’m convinced I’m listening to the work of three unjustly maligned musical geniuses.

There’s no question that all three members of ELP were masters of their trade when recording Brain Salad Surgery. Emerson’s virtuoso keyboard skills were probably best in the rock world at that time, maybe coming in only second to Rick Wakeman. Palmer’s drumming is just awe-inspiring, not only in its complexity, but that he had to keep up that complexity live for 30+ minute songs. And Greg Lake’s skill as a guitarist I feel is only rarely mentioned because of his competition of the era. However, I think there’s an argument to be made that his ultra-technical, fast-paced playing did as much to pave the way for Eddie Van Halen and other guitarists of the 80s as Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend no doubt did. They’re all freaking perfect musicians.

I guess what gives me such conflicted feelings about the album is it’s schizophrenic nature. I’ve heard albums that skirt across genres and combine different sounds before, but I think Brain Salad Surgery really takes the cake. Classical, hard rock, blues, jazz, even a bit of something that sounds like ragtime, it’s all here, and it shoots back-and-forth so damn fast. I respect it. I respect that they decided to take something like “Tocatta” and add what sounds like a Moog having a heart attack and then use that as a transition for a fucking drum solo, complete with multiple GONGS. Like I said, I respect it. I just don’t know if I can tolerate it.

Although, the more I ramble on about ELP the more I guess I begrudgingly like them. In that clip with Lester Bangs I showed earlier, he claims that ELP were just “three people trying to play as fast as possible” which I don’t hear at all. That’s Buckethead or Steve Vai – virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity – all skill no melody or composition.

I don’t think ELP were trying to play the most complex and intricate stuff possible with Brain Salad Surgery. I do however think that they were trying to write the most intricate stuff possible (if that distinction makes any kind of sense at all), creating some kind of creative virtuosity that I feel I’m too stupid, and a little bit too smart, to really understand.

Or maybe I’m just rambling like an idiot, trying to be critical about an album that doesn’t deserve the attention. I mean, it’s supposedly a concept album about robots taking over the world, but it’s named after a slang term for oral sex.

Maybe I’m giving them a bit too much credit after all.

Fuck this, I’m gonna go listen to Yes.

4 Responses to Psychotic Ramblings about Emerson Lake & Palmer

  • Patrick says:

    I totally agree with your issues with prog rock. A recommendation I’d like to throw out there is Cheer-Accident’s ‘Fear Draws Misfortune’ album. It’s a bit all over the place, and “notey” at times, but generally in a way that’s mainly there to support melodies, or add counterpoints.

  • Mark M. says:

    That statement is not across-the-board valid re: Buckethead. I really like Yes’ Close To The Edge LP.

  • gordon hope says:

    should try the first lp, called emerson, lake and palmer…HEAVY organ, songs ! and a great piano epic…just incredible

  • Alzo says:

    The only prog I can tolerate anymore is Argent.

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