EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER — Pictures At An Exhibition (review)

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER — Pictures At An Exhibition album cover Live album · 1971 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
- Unravelling the Old Castle in Newcastle -

Live albums as good as this one have something of a 'fluky' element to them i.e. Many of the early 70's concerts given by ELP were at the mercy of the mercurial Moog and it's tuning mood swings. You can hear examples of this on the disappointing video version of this piece (recorded at the Lyceum in London) where there are unscheduled 'atonal' moments which spoil the otherwise magnificent music. Similarly, the 'Mar Y Sol' performance captured finally on the 'From the Beginning' boxed set, is somewhat sullied by Dr Robert's pet beast wilting in the Caribbean humidity.

No such niggles here though, as the band are captured on a great night, mercifully free of the aforementioned technical gremlins (Newcastle can be many things, but certainly not humid in November).

The sound is simply stunning, you are placed right there in the front row (c.f 'Welcome Back', where we appear to be seated in the car park) Emerson's Hammond has never sounded this feral on a live recording, being neither too distorted (the Nice live) or too squeaky clean (Royal Albert Hall) It's just a perfect balance and lets his playing illuminate a detail and depth all too often obscured by prodigious technique funnelled through a fuzzbox.

I read somewhere that the intro to Mussorgsky's work was played on a real pipe organ (did they have one at Newcastle City Hall?)

As we have come to expect, the contributions of both Emerson and Palmer are damn near flawless but perhaps the greatest surprise here is just how much of the creative workload is taken up by Lake, whose contributions over the passing years became less and less significant in the band's output. Perhaps the only real timekeeper in the group, his bass underpins beautifully the technical maelstrom whipped up by E & P, with distortion and wah-wah effects used judiciously to spice up the timbres in this heavily organ dominated piece. Lake's solo spot 'The Sage' is beautiful, and apart from being a lovely Spanish tinged ballad brilliantly sung, displays his highly skilled classical guitar technique. From this point on, there is no similar example of this type of virtuosity from fatboy in ELP's catalogue.

There is a very liberal quote from a Bill Evans tune during the exhilarating 'Blues Variation' but I cannot remember what the song is called ('Interplay' perhaps?) If there is a greater example of jazz/blues organ over a swinging shuffle beat in the history of rock, then I have yet to hear it.

'The Curse of Baba Yaga' represents something almost encroaching heavy metal (without the requisite guitars) and has an intensity and edge that slowly left their subsequent work. Some ELP fans relegate this track to filler and, although I recognise their trepidation about the 'head banging' aspect of it, am puzzled at their dismissal of a ferociously driven heavy rocker containing a spine cracking tritone in the main riff and some real visceral gusto from Lake.

(Ya want jam on it lads?)

Lake's vocal on the climactic ending of 'The Great Gate of Kiev' must be a highpoint in the band's career, a sweening and soaring full stop to a magnificent part of ELP's recorded history.

I have heard other rock artists attempt portions of this work and have to conclude that it is ELP's unfailing grasp of the techniques of symphonic arrangement and interactive counterpoint that gives their version such a huge sound. You can layer 30 synth patches together if you like via MIDI and make the bass and drums sound like they are played in the Taj Mahal, but it will still come nowhere near the sort of power and weight realised here with considerably more modest equipment.

(The whole is greater than the sum of its parts).

If there is a negative aspect to this wonderful record it may be interpretive i.e.

Emerson has often bemoaned the disrespectful nature of pop music's bowdlerization of the classical repertoire and saw himself as respectful to the original composer's intentions. Why then encore with B Bumble and the Stinger's 'Nutrocker?' - unless you want to shoot yourself squarely in the foot?

Notwithstanding the foregoing, ELP's version cooks up a storm and is yet another example of this supposedly cold and po-faced band having a huge amount of fun.

Although they did not deliberately set out to sell classical music to a rock audience, ELP are certainly responsible for millions of people, who would otherwise have baulked at the idea, listening to such works and having their musical horizons widened. Perhaps we really should give them credit for that didactic aspect of their very influential presence in music.
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