- Vacating the Throne in the Smallest Room in the House -
Most of the tales that surround the making of this grubby and tatty little album carry an uncanny resemblance to the sorts of excuses trotted out by beleaguered soccer franchise owners when their team is on a 10 match losing streak:
'Injuries to key players'
(Emerson had not long undergone arm surgery for nerve entrapment and his pliancy in agreeing to press ahead and overdub his parts individually with his one remaining good hand beggars belief)
'Confidence and morale have taken a dent, the fans need to get behind us and encourage the team'
(Hiring Disney composers and Sony hit writers to contribute to a document featuring three of the most indelible talents to ever grace rock music might just contribute to the faithful streaming towards the exits)
'The coach has my complete trust and he can and will turn this around'
(Producer Keith Olsen forbade any conceptual pieces or classical adaptations and therefore conspired to abort a version of the 'Karelia Suite' by Sibelius with Allan Holdsworth on guitar appearing on the album, although by way of self-serving recompense, we do get to hear his own daughter speaking on one track)
We can't blame Olsen entirely for this debacle, but he has become tantamount to the midwife of choice for the soulless, having delivered to the expectant world the air-brushed platinum blonde diaper burritos of Fleetwood Mac, Whitesnake, the Scorpions, Saga, Starship, Rick Springfield, Pat Benetar and Emmanuel (Who? a Mexican hair-gel counterfeiter, that Interpol are probably still looking for)
Hand of Truth - In contrast to the horrors that lie in wait this is as good as it gets. Even a compound proggy meter is involved for the opening piano motif plus a subsequent tempo change into an impressive slower section but compared to an unimpeachable past, it is distinctly humdrum for ELP. Keith perks things up with some signature squealing Moog and Greg's vocal is at least a damn sight more robust than his prose:
'I hear the cry of freedom, We have the power to change the world'
I doubt if Olsen would have even let the trio change their socks unsupervised.
Daddy - a very attractive chiming guitar arpeggio certainly, but it just never goes anywhere. The treatment of a serious subject (child abduction) just comes across as mawkishly trite due to Greg's bathetic delivery and despite some tasteful piano textures from Emerson, 'Daddy' smacks of an effective intro being stretched into a pseudo song. The aforementioned Olsen 'fille' gabbles the title and I have to confess, such shallow manipulation and emotional bankruptcy means I've never yet made it through to the end of this shameful tear-jerker (pun intended) I could swear Palmer's entire drum part consists of just a sole thwack of the snare on the 4th beat of every bar.
One By One - Don't be deceived by the contrapuntal and fugue like intro as it just degenerates thereafter into stolid US 'rawk' keech*. (*The latter being a Scottish pejorative which the rest of you should not find hard to orient to your own vernacular. Tip: use your sense of smell) Keith presumably was the last person in the navigable universe to be told that orchestral stabs were considered passée at least 10 years prior. The chorus is memorable in the sense that inoculation shots leave an indelible mark on their recipients but Emerson's descent into sub Asia cliche sus 4th chord resolutions on a polysynth patch reeks of desperation.Greg's lyrics alas, just reek:
'Out of the cocoon reaching for the moon'
There 'is' a lovely cathedral organ segment but it's over far too soon and similarly the instrumental section to the fade is entertaining but gets buried beneath those wince inducing orchestral stabs. Enough already.
Every time I listen to this album I cannot help but imagine the beetle-browed Olsen sat in the producer's chair peering through the control room window with that reproachful look on his face that says:
'If just one of you guys tries any of that fancy dan progressive flashy shit with me, I'm nuking the critter'
Heart on Ice - Imagine a collaboration between Elgar and the Scorpions on a '3am in the morning' ballad written specially for those forbidden from staying up beyond 7pm. Lake once again double underlines his credentials to be the undisputed James Joyce of prog:
'We just flicker like a candle in the cathedral of our dreams'
Thin Line - Palmer's shuffle is about as stiff as the inhabitants of a Mosh pit at a Brahms recital while Keith does at least get to contribute some guttural Hammond but the 'faux' jazzy Steely Dan harmonies and female backing vocals in the chorus are but a gentle slap on the bottie off deserving of a firm kick in the backside for all concerned.
Man in the Long Black Coat - Possibly the best/least wretched track on the album and there is finally some mood building atmosphere invoked on this Dylan song. Carl Palmer has claimed that this was the centrepiece of a 20 minute Emerson conceptual piece ditched by producer Olsen, although it's hard to see how even Keith could have expanded such a modest musical seed as this to epic status. If nothing else, it was capable of getting me to seek out the original and all things considered, Dylan has served Emerson well over the years. (see 'My Back Pages, Country Pie, She Belongs to Me')
Change - Borderline endearing but it just doesn't suit an Englishman like Lake's voice. Vaguely redolent of something that might have popped up of the 'To The Power of Three' album with Robert Berry. One of those 'unfinished' songs that most people leave unreleased because they couldn't come up with even a mediocre verse melody for the rather ordinary chorus.
Give Me a Reason To Stay - A royalties cheque? Joking aside, this is decent MOR penned by the aforementioned Disney and Sony hacks Steve Diamond and Sam Lorber respectively (sic). Nice chord progression and a well crafted development but it ain't even remotely an ELP song. Someone like Neil Diamond or (gulp) Tom Jones could make this very good indeed. (Hey I'm trying to accentuate the positives here OK?)
Gone Too Soon - Depending on whose version of events you believe, Emerson and Palmer don't even play on this critter. Yes, there's audible clockwork synth and metronomic drums but these were allegedly provided by session-men. Both certainly sound like stock 'off the shelf' parts without a vestige of personality to betray their origins. Pat Benatar astride a Jefferson Skateboard and never was a track so inappropriately named.
Street War - Like Euro synth pop from the mean streets of Hampshire as if parodied by an English REO Speedwagon tribute band, but possibly even less gritty than that. Keith's inspired chromatic descending organ lick is kinda cool but once again this just ain't right for Greg's limey tonsils and he sounds about as credible as my Dad tackling an Ice-T medley.
It saddened everyone who wasted their ill-gotten gains buying this album that our favourite prog band of all had been reduced to the malleable puppets of their corporate paymasters. There was no tour and precious little marketing that I can recall after its release and in hindsight such a diplomatic withdrawal was probably a blessing. I do however still hold out a strand of hope that the aborted 'Crossing the Rubycon' project will one day be completed and released. By all accounts this shelved album was a fully fledged progressive beastie that even if it were the final 'hurrah', would prove a much more elegant exit than this ignominious whimper.
BTW You can get the utterly fab and groovy bonus Dolby Surround version of 'Pictures At an Exhibition' via other ELP reissues. I'll let you do the maths.