Sunday, March 13, 2016

Archive Review: Emerson Lake & Palmer's A Time and A Place (2010)

Emerson Lake & Palmer's A Time and A Place
Formed in 1970 by keyboardist Keith Emerson (The Nice), guitarist/vocalist Greg Lake (King Crimson), and drummer Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster), the trio known worldwide as Emerson, Lake & Palmer wasn’t the “supergroup” that it was heralded as at the time so much as a collaboration of disgruntled musicians looking for new artistic opportunities.

Commercially, ELP exploded onto the U.S. charts with a 1970 self-titled debut album that cleverly fused classically-oriented art-rock with the growing progressive rock trend to create a genre-smashing set of songs. Displaying a heretofore “Gothic” edge to their music that reminded (some) listeners of Atomic Rooster’s darkest hues, and easily displaying the instrumental virtuosity of rivals like King Crimson, Yes, or the Moody Blues, the album showcased the three members’ talents in the best possible light.

Subsequent albums would tumble quickly from the band’s creative efforts: 1971’s Tarkus, 1972’s live Pictures At An Exhibition and Trilogy, and 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery – considered by many fans to be the band’s best – would propel ELP to worldwide superstar status. The band burned too brightly, perhaps, and by the end of the 1970s, ELP experienced an acrimonious break-up that kept the three musicians from performing together until the early 1990s…and make no mistake, it was the band’s raucous live performances that fueled its record sales.

While Palmer would flail at his drum kit like he was bludgeoning it into submission, Emerson’s impressive array of electronics gear allowed the musician to stab recklessly at piano, keyboards, or synthesizers with the tact and subtlety of a rabid badger. In turn, Lake’s six-string gymnastics were positively sane when compared to the instrumental madness of his band mates. The band released three live albums during its first decade together, but even the several hours of music represented by those multiple-disc sets pales next to the band’s total commitment to live performances. The recently-released four-CD box set A Time And A Place balances out the band’s too-brief catalog, presenting a career-spanning oversight of the best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer live.

A Time And A Place is divided neatly into three distinct eras, the first representing the band’s early 1970s origins. The first CD in the set opens with “The Barbarian,” a lengthy piece adapted by the band from Bela Bartak’s “Allegro Barbaro.” While not quite involved as some of their other performances here, “The Barbarian” manages to cram a lot into its five-plus minutes nonetheless. Recorded at ELP’s first major concert performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in the UK, the band rages across the sonic landscape with fierce determination, seemingly wedging classical piano, psychedelic guitar, bombastic drumplay, and proggish keyboard riffs into the mix with a figurative crowbar. It’s a chaotic, powerful performance made all the more impressive by the band’s instrumental virtuosity and total lack of guile.

You’ll find several ELP fan favorites midst the 72-minutes-and-change worth of music on disc one. Emerson’s “High Level Fugue” brings the band indoors to London’s Lyceum Ballroom in late 1970 for a spirited romp. Fueled by the pianist’s manic pounding of the 88s, Emerson solos for approximately 2/3s of the song before Palmer’s jazzy drumbeats come crashing in, and Lake’s serpentine fretwork weaves its way through the maddening syncopation. The band’s re-imagining of composer Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown,” captured live at the legendary 1972 Mar Y Sol Festival in Puerto Rico, is an energetic, measured performance that strays very little from the recorded version familiar to many in attendance, tho’ Emerson manages to wrangle a little space-noise from his trusty Moog synthesizer.

Performances of two of ELP’s best-known and beloved songs, “Still…You Turn Me On” and “Lucky Man,” are taken from a 1974 show at the Civic Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both songs were written by Greg Lake, and both are fine examples of the best that progressive rock has to offer. The former is a moody, provocative tone poem with whimsical lyrics and imaginative instrumentation that perfectly melds each of the three musician’s strengths in the creation of a magical moment. The latter features a fine vocal performance by Lake, accompanied by folkish guitar-strum that places an emphasis on the lyrics. Shorn of its studio trappings, offering just Lake and his instrument, the song takes on a different vibe altogether. Disc one finishes up with a bang, a thirty-four minute jam on “Karn Evil 9” from 1974 that features more prog-rock raging at the machine than you may care to swallow in one sitting.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

The second CD of A Time And A Place documents the band’s late 1970s work, basically 1977 and ‘78, really, before the big break-up that would send the band members in different directions for over a decade. Cranking to a stylish opening with a lively, synth-driven cover of the classic, menacing “Peter Gunn Theme,” the disc jumps immediately into the extended madness that was “Pictures At An Exhibition.” Performed here in a severely-condensed sixteen-minute version taken from a Memphis 1977 show, the song loses none of its power due to brevity, the band’s melding of the work of composer Modest Mussorgsky with mid-70s prog-rock instrumentation audacious even by ELP standards, a breathless roller-coaster ride across an art-rock horizon.

Although featuring few songs that are as well known as those on the first disc, tunes like “Tank” (from the self-titled 1970 debut LP) and “Tarkus” (from the 1971 album of the same name) are important entries in the ELP canon. This 1978 performance of “Tank” is a frenetic, nearly breathtaking tightrope sprint that condenses the original six-minute song into a two-minute race against time that provides urgency to Palmer’s drumbeats and an electrifying shock to Emerson’s stabbing synthesizer riffs, eventually leading into a lengthy and explosive drum solo. On the other hand, “Tarkus” is afforded an only slightly reduced running time, although the pace is no less frantic as the band plays its lines with alarming madness, the listener wondering what sort of hellhounds were on their trail. 

Still, it’s with their more obscure material that ELP often surprises. The band was never afraid to kick up a bit of kitsch now and then, and their breakneck take on Scott Joplin’s 1899 ragtime hit “Maple Leaf Rag” is no exception. A 1978 performance of Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances With The Black Spirits” is exhilarating and illuminating in its fusion of the classical and progressive worlds, while Lake’s beautiful “Watching Over You,” from Works, Vol. 2, is as close as the band ever came to creating a conventional British folk-rock ballad. Emerson’s inspired, jazzy piano play is perfectly married to Lake’s fluid vocals on the 1920s British folk standard “Show Me The Way To Go Home.” Not surprisingly, there’s nothing on the second CD from ELP’s ill-fated “break up” album, 1978’s Love Beach, which is for the better, really.

By 1979, the rigors of the road and the pitfalls of the business had clearly gotten to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and the trio was at creative odds with each other after cranking out seven studio and two live albums in a mere eight years. More than the result of mere artistic fatigue, hundreds of nights on the road in close proximity to one another had created tensions beyond ego, and the band broke up at the end of the decade with the three members allegedly unable to stand one another.

Lake would forge a moderately successful solo career during the 1980s, and Palmer would fall into the accidental goldmine that was the supergroup Asia, while Emerson wrote film scores. Lake and Emerson would briefly reunite for an album and tour in 1985, recruiting journeyman drummer Cozy Powell (Rainbow, Whitesnake) to replace the hesitant Palmer (who was making bank with Asia). This new “ELP” trio recorded a single unremarkable album that somehow still managed to place in the Top 40 in America, showing that a lot of original ELP nostalgia remained among the band’s fans. Suspecting that he had been chosen for the drum seat because his name began with a ‘P’, the prickly Powell scooted out of the ELP universe before the end of ‘86, leaving his bandmates high and dry. Things would pick up in 1991, however, as Asia met its inevitable end and Palmer rejoined his mates in a properly-reunited Emerson, Lakes and Palmer.     

The third CD in A Time And A Place documents the ‘90s-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunion with performances taken from 1993 through 1997. While not quite as bombastic as their 1970s-era shows could become, the 1990s version of ELP shows a talented, mature band that hasn’t lost a step, merely learned that you don’t have to end every musical sentence with exclamation marks. The band’s 1992 Black Moon album, its first collection of new material in over a decade, is represented here by three inspired performances.

While Greg Lake’s voice shows a distinct lessening of it warmth and richness a couple of decades on, his vocals on this 1993 performance of “Paper Blood” take on a timbre closer to Dave Cousins’ of Strawbs than his old ELP work. Backed by harmony vocals, the song is a stampeding rocker that benefits from Emerson’s heavy hand on the keyboards and Palmer’s heavier sticks on the drums. “Black Moon” sounds like vintage King Crimson, but with nastier six-string work, a heavier-than-lead bass line, imploding drumbeats, and lightning-bolts of synthesizer. The third song here from Black Moon, the album’s first single “Affairs Of The Heart,” is an engaging ballad with a warm vocal track and intricate fretwork by Lake and some nice keyboard flourishes by Emerson.

Sadly, disc three includes nothing from the band’s ill-fated and final (so far) studio album, 1994’s In The Hot Seat, an under-recorded and unsympathetic recording whose songs may have fared better in the live setting. Instead, we get a smattering of old-school ELP (an acoustic guitar-oriented reading of “From The Beginning” from Trilogy with some fine, nuanced Palmer drumwork; a full-bore prog assault on “A Time And A Place,” from Tarkus) mixed with rare odds ‘n’ sods like the surprising ragtime-styled piano instrumental “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” or the edgy art-rock instrumental “Creole Dance.” A 1993 performance of the dark-hued “Knife Edge,” from ELP’s long-ago debut, stands out for its malevolent voodoo vibe, Emerson’s restrained keyboard-bashing, and some great drumming by Palmer alongside Lake’s mesmerizing vocals.

The fourth and final disc of A Time And A Place takes a surprising and welcome tack, providing listeners with a collection of a dozen tracks culled from various fan-recorded bootlegs that span the entire 20-year career of the band. Admittedly, the sound quality lessens considerably on these covertly-recorded performances, but they stand out in contrast mostly because the rest of the live material in the box set sounds so damn good. Still, designed with the fan in mind, what true ELP follower is going to quibble with a 1972 performance of the art-rock/space-rock epic “The Endless Enigma” or a romp through “Abaddon’s Bolero” from the same year? ELP fanatics can sink their teeth into a haunting version of “Jerusalem” from 1974, or an enchanting reading of the hit “I Believe In Father Christmas” from 1993.               

If it seems like A Time And A Place is geared towards the ELP fanatic, well, yeah it is. While much of the material here was previously released on various collections, many long out-of-print, this four-disc set is a cost-effective way for the collector to gather up a 43 fine and entertaining performances by one of prog-rock’s most exciting and dynamic live bands. While the commercial success of Emerson, Lake and Palmer never matched that of contemporaries Yes or Genesis, and they seldom received the critical acclaim afforded King Crimson, their place in the prog-rock galaxy is safe and secure, ELP one of the most influential and ground-breaking bands in the genre. (Shout! Factory Records, 2010)

Review reprinted courtesy of Blurt magazine...

Buy the box set from ELP's A Time and A Place

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