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3.32 | 15 ratings | 4 reviews
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Album · 1971


A1 Eruption
A2 Stones Of Years
A3 Iconoclast
A4 Mass
A5 Manticore
A6 Battlefield
A7 Aquatarkus
B1 Jeremy Bender
B2 Bitches Crystal
B3 The Only Way (Hymn)
B4 Infinite Space (Conclusion)
B5 A Time And A Place
B6 Are You Ready Eddy?


Drums, Percussion [Assorted] – Carl Palmer
Organ [Hammond, St. Marks Church Organ], Piano, Celesta, Synthesizer [Moog] – Keith Emerson
Vocals, Bass, Acoustic Guitar, Guitar [Electric] – Greg Lake

About this release

Island Records – ILPS 9155 (UK)

Recorded at Advision

Thanks to snobb for the addition


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- Tarka the metallic otter (sent for an early bath) 0 - A very badly drawn mythical beast 1 -

'Tarkus' - The title 'suite' has now quite rightly entered into history as a hitherto unprecedented measure of how we now appraise those occupied in the creation of progressive rock music of any conceivable style, and is perhaps this records greatest and enduring legacy. It served almost as a 'blueprint' for much of the Italian symphonic prog movement and has been a source of inspiration for musicians and composers ever since.

I do think it significant that Emerson's compositional style has been an acknowledged influence on other instrumentalists apart from just keyboard players, in contrast to Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, Tony Banks, Dave Greenslade & Rod Argent etc.

There are palpable traces of Bartok, Ginastera and perhaps Zappa throughout Emerson's creation and he chose wisely in allowing for the danger of the whole 20 minutes alienating his audience, to contrast the 'Eruption - Iconoclast - Manticore - Aquatarkus' instrumental sections with some more conventional song based material utilising Greg Lake's vocals. This technique served ELP well throughout their career and the overwhelming success achieved by 'Tarkus' simply endorsed its repeated use on subsequent albums.

The material that comprises the remainder of the album is often either overlooked or dismissed as inferior to the 'Tarkus' composition, but I feel that this is unduly harsh and think it long overdue for reappraisal.

'Jeremy Bender' - Where Floyd Cramer meets a defrocked cross dresser and after a boisterous night on the turps, duet on this whimsical number at 3am before being led away to the cells in preparation for the trial. Often dismissed as ' filler' but good fun and Emerson's piano is always worth some of your time.

'Bitches Crystal' - The waltz rhythm's stubborn refusal to 'kick ass' has been a constant source of frustration to many a rock muso, and it took Palmer and his two buddies to teach them how to make this normally 'effete' pulse decimate hindquarters. All manner of stylistic bases are covered from jazz piano, blues rock, classical and even that tinkling 'ice cream van' music alluded to in the title. I also love the way ELP achieve a satisfying blend of the acoustic instruments and the Moog. Judging by some of their contemporaries efforts at around the same time, this is not as easy as they make it sound here.

'The Only Way' - The lengthy Bach quote is used I suspect, not for any musical purpose but to set up the right 'pious' atmosphere for Greg Lake to subvert with his attack on religious hypocrisy and self serving belief systems. It's not very often that ELP ever strayed anywhere near political, religious or social controversy as they do here, and whether they got their fingers burned or not, I do wish they had been as forthright with their views as they are on this very moving atheist rallying call. Compared to Greg's usual preoccupation with mythical beasts, love affairs that dwarf entire solar systems and fantasy literature, this is 'gritty realism' by comparison.

'Infinite Space' - A criminally ignored track in their repertoire, probably because of its pungent Bartok harmonies and incessant bludgeoning 7/4 meter. I love this unreservedly for its sheer immovable force and the way Emerson harnesses some startling (Hungarian?) modes and scales in the creation of what seems at the outset, an extremely unlikely melodic denouement.

'A Time and a Place' - Starts off rather unpromisingly as a simple syncopated hard rocker but improves significantly once we reach the solo and the glorious ending. The former contains what must be the most visceral and 'bowel emptying' organ sound since records began while the latter is a classically hued feast of Moog synth that you just wish would never end. Stunning. The cake ain't too hot but Emerson's icing makes up for it.

'Are You Ready Eddy? - If only the answer had been 'No'...... we would at least have been spared this sub Pythonesque 'dicking about' that has become the ultimate ELP stocking filler. File under 'hammy' AND 'cheesy'

If memory serves me correctly, I think this was the unholy trinity's sole Number One album in the UK, and on the evidence of what is presented here, seems slightly ironic that such widespread endorsement was granted to what is perhaps the weakest of ELP's first five. That it not to say it was undeserving of such sales figures, but of all their early 70's records this is the one that has aged the least gracefully.

I would guess that the reasons are mainly down to the use of some rather dated studio techniques and effects which although de rigeur for the time, stamp '1971' indelibly onto the production to its detriment. Lake's multi-tracked harmony vocals and Palmer's phased drum kit rolls are two such instances, together with some rather kitsch and self-parodying 'freakout' rock guitar. From what little documented evidence I can gather, there was apparently considerable pressure brought to bear on the band by their record company to get the album out and into the shops as quickly as possible to appease fan demand, so this may have engendered some production 'short cuts' being used.

However, what has always been abundantly clear, is that we are not going to pull down the Taj Mahal just because it does not conform with our idea of modern architecture.

PS 'Tarkus' really IS named after Tarka the Otter (check Emo's autobiography if you don't believe me)
After bedazzling the music world with their brilliant debut, this terrific trio set out to do something even more challenging. Follow it up with an album that was just as good. And, to their credit, they almost did. "Tarkus" is a well constructed record that further advanced their reputation as progressive jazz/rock music trailblazers in the early 70s. You gotta admit, no one else was doing it quite the same way as Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Side one of the LP consists of the adventurous and legendary "Tarkus" suite. The first segment, Keith's "Eruption," is one of the most intense, jam-packed 2 minutes and 43 seconds in jazz-related rock. The 5/4 track is tighter than Pavarotti's waistband and it is a textbook case of organ, synthesizers, bass and drums working together like a well- oiled, high-torque machine. On top of all that its extremely complex arrangement will make your head spin. Few albums start this splendidly so it's not a big surprise to find that the next phase, "Stones of Years," struggles a bit to keep the momentum rolling on that spectacular level. It's a heavy, slower-paced tune with Greg singing cryptic lyrics about a metallic armadillo but, while Emerson's organ solo is interesting, things take a much-appreciated swing upward when they rip into Keith's "Iconoclast" and tear it up again. It's got a supercharged riff that they steer through difficult and intricate changes, showing how amazing these guys are when they're in sync.

Next Greg sings "Mass" with conviction yet it's the staccato organ lead that gets your attention as the spicy interplay between Keith and Carl grabs the spotlight. After the short-lived "Manticore" section we get a brief taste of Lake's still-developing electric guitar skills that mark a low spot in the proceedings (He would get much better in the years ahead, thank heaven). The pity is that his amateurish noodling takes away from the majestic theme of "Battlefield" going on beneath it. An unusual Moog sound performed over a marching drum beat takes us into the finale of the piece, Emerson's "Aquatarkus," which also reprises the stupendous 5/4 power hook of the opening salvo that got things off to such a wild, driving start. The big finish is suitably flamboyant but somehow I get the feeling that the side-long saga just didn't come off as well as they had hoped it would. Having said that, however, if they would have had six weeks to polish it in the studio instead of six days I have no doubt that it would be near perfect.

Displaying what would become a distracting habit for this band, "Jeremy Bender" is a detour into corny playfulness that stumps me to this day. It's pretty much a nutty saloon-style drinking ditty complete with honky-tonk piano and silly limerick phrases that must have amused them no end. Whatever. At least the next song redeems them as it's one of the highlights of the album. "Bitches Crystal" is a jazzy piano-driven number that benefits greatly from tasteful synthesizer work and mood-changing dynamics to create a fascinating kaleidoscope of musical colors. On top of that, Greg's passionate and almost furious vocal is strikingly arresting and shows a completely different side of Mr. Lake.

"The Only Way (Hymn)" has Keith manning a huge cathedral organ as Greg sings some virulent anti-religion lines that include a strange reference about God losing six million Jews before telling us that we have to do it ourselves (or something). Emerson manages to throw in a little bit of Bach to liven things up halfway through but the best thing occurs when they segue into "Infinite Space," a 7/8 piano-led instrumental that moves at a fast clip. As much as I like Keith's organ virtuosity, his skill on the eighty- eights is often breathtaking and that's the situation here. Excellent job. The mighty Hammond B3 makes a triumphant return on "Time and a Place," a typical ELP tour de force that rumbles like a freight train for three thrilling minutes. "Are You Ready Eddy?" is a stress-relieving, spontaneous session outtake aimed at their burgeoning engineer, ending the album on a lightheartedly loose but undeniably rock & roll note.

I can't help but think that this record might have sold a few more copies if it weren't for the horrendous cover and inside liner art. It's ugly and it certainly made me (and probably others) think twice when I first saw it in the racks in 1971. When compared to the other beautiful and stunning pictures that adorned their debut and the incredible one for "Brain Salad Surgery," this cartoon-ish nightmare looks like it was done by a kindergarten toddler. Inexcusable. Anyway, as far as the dreaded sophomore jinx goes, "Tarkus" beats that superstitious myth to a bloody pulp. While it's not the acme of their career, it still has the ability to make your hair stand on end time and time again. You could do a lot worse than to spend forty minutes with this impressive collection of progressive jazz/rock, that's for sure.

Members reviews

The snag.

"Jumping the shark" is a common phrase that references when a television show, in danger of losing it's audience to the ever-decreasing quality of the program, does something ridiculous to rekindle interest. Named after a moment in an episode of Happy Days in 1977 where Fonzie, clad impractically in his signature leather jacket, takes a water- ski jump over a lake-area in which swims a shark. In the long-run the show didn't have much to worry about because it took seven more years to kill the damn thing, nonetheless the term stuck around and was subsequently applied to pieces of entertainment which acted similarly.

However even before Happy Days and the Fonz, new shining stars of the progressive rock scene Emerson, Lake & Palmer decided to jump the proverbial shark with Tarkus in 1971. For many progressive rock bands, jumping the shark was a common thing to do...in the eighties. Exhausting their creative muscle in the 70s, many bands got burnt out and fell back upon the 80s pop-rock music scene instead, and as many saw it went inadvertently into retirement from the business. However this wasn't the 80's -- as mentioned before Tarkus was in 1971, a period where albums like Meddle by Pink Floyd and Nursery Cryme by Genesis continued to emerge with gusto. Appearing less than seven months after their debut and following a European tour, Tarkus came to a young and craving fan-base happy with almost anything the band produced at the time. For all intents and purposes the album could not have been timed better, but timing is a factor that rarely has bearing on quality. In quality-terms however, Tarkus is vastly inferior to it's predecessor.

One glaring and inadmissible trait the album has is it's VERY obvious pompous nature. ELP went from a mild release with a bit of grandstanding to a overblown and ultimately ridiculous concept album in one fell swoop. Tarkus, and by that I mean the 20 minute title-track suite, follows the adventure of a sentient armadillo tank as he battles his way through a universe filled with ludicrous characters, spotlit ones including a manticore and an aquamarine version of Tarkus himself, so cleverly referred to as "Aquatarkus", the latter to which he ultimately loses against. This concept sounding ridiculous on paper is unsurprising, but what really matters is how the band adapts this concept to sound good. And if you were envisioning something tough, explosive, and chivalrous to depict such a surrealist battleground, you'll be disappointed. On the other hand however if you yearned for an overbearing collection of synthesizer, constant and sometimes heavy guitar noodling and lackluster vocals, then consider yourself acquainted with Tarkus. In simple terms, 'Tarkus' is an out-and-out mess. The song, while mostly being a fast-paced journey riddled with inconsistent progressive ramblings with Carl Palmer rattling around much more flamboyantly than necessary, does have it's odd enjoyable moments. For instance in the latter half there is a short-lived space rock section, but it's quickly pushed aside in order for misplaced quirky keyboard. A dichotomy I mentioned in my review for ELP's self-titled was where each band member seemed like they were trying to out-do each-other with their respective medium. If that was prominent on the first album, then it is even more so on Tarkus. Each member practically trips over eachother, almost like their playing different songs at the same time. It creates an unpleasant mishmash of half-baked ideas that becomes a drag after listening to the same inconsistency for 20 whole minutes.

What's this? A second side? It almost seems strange that there even exists a second side, but even after Tarkus seemed to have gone through each checkbox, ELP continued the album anyway. Unsurprisingly, the second side is just as if not more monotonous than the title-track. Not much is different, other than that Emerson uses some sort of Barrelhouse-esque piano on a few of the early songs, which sounds absolutely horrendous because of a tendency of ELP to turn the keyboard up higher than the rest of the instruments until it becomes overpowering. There is one exception to the second side, however. 'A Time and a Place' is a bit of a throwback to the self-titled, along the lines of the 'The Barbarian' or 'Knife-Edge'. Heavy and atmospheric, this track is so powerful that I've listened to it multiple times with continued interest. Greg Lake's vocals are at their best on this track, his blistering screams channeling Burton Cummings of the Guess Who with their raw intensity. It is truly a memorable piece of music, but unfortunately remains solitary on the second side as the only one noteworthy.

Tarkus is not only a big disappointment, but is also an excuse for ELP to continue to become more and more vapid and self-aggrandizing than they already are with it's widespread success. Some hope still remains, however. The next album may be able to rectify the problems created with this one. Right?
If this album consisted of Tarkus on Side A, and then Tarkus again on Side B due to some sort of horrible manufacturing error, I'd give it five stars. The title track to this one is a classic, easily the best track ELP ever recorded, wonderfully original and a showcase for all the band member's talents.

But oh, that second side...

First off, the guys decide to include not one but two comedy songs. One is pushing it for any band which otherwise tries to adopt a serious tone. Now, comedy is a very personal thing and everyone has their own likes and dislikes. But personally, I find ELP's comedy songs incredibly grating. To me, they come across as though they are trying really hard to be funny, as opposed to just naturally being funny, and that's just fatal to comedy. Are You Ready Eddy is a simplistic rock and roll tune - if it took the guys more than five minutes to write and record it, it's bloody shameful. Jeremy Bender, meanwhile, is a corny piano ditty that's dated horribly not just in its style but also in its lyrical content - alluding to homosexuality for a laugh might have been socially accepted in the early 1970s, but these days it just comes across as homophobic.

Then there's The Only Way/Infinite Space, which isn't a comedy song but I kind of wish it was. Now, I have nothing against atheism - it'd be odd if I did, considering that I *am* an atheist myself - but the lyrics to this one sound like the sort of thing an angry teenager would write. "How did he lose/Six million Jews?" is not just a simplistic restatement of the essential problem of theodicy which is far too complex for the lyrical abilities of the band to really grapple with; it's also just plain crass.

The second side isn't completely meritless - Bitches Crystal is a good fast song and A Time and a Place is quite dramatic - but it has few saving graces. There is no way in good conscience I could give this album five stars, even though its title track is legendary, and side B is *so* bad that I can't even justify four. I'll give it three and no more.

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