EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER — Tarkus (review)

EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER — Tarkus album cover Album · 1971 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
Chicapah
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.
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