Sunday, July 11, 2010

Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Black Moon & The Atlantic Years (1992)

(As published in Rock & Roll Disc ... )

Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Black Moon
Victory 383 480 003-2
Producer: Mark Mancina
Engineer: Steve Kempster
Total disc time: 48:57 (no SPARS code)

Merit: **½
Sound: ****

The Atlantic Years (2 CDs)
Atlantic 7 82403-2
Producers: Various
Engineers: Various
Total disc times: 74:19, 76:26 (no SPARS code)

Merit: ***
Sound: ****

With the possible exception of the Knack, no band that emerged and made its fortune during the '70s has endured more negative criticism than Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Although four of their albums went top ten in the U.S., three more top twenty, and all of them even higher in Europe, no critic that I know of except Lester Bangs has ever been willing to risk his credentials and admit that ELP were anything other than a trio of pretentious dilettantes.

Which isn't to deny that on one level they were pretentious dilettantes. But they also possessed an anarchic streak that could be counted on to erupt with a magnificently perverse lack of propriety, especially live, where Keith Emerson's multi-keyboard screechfests fostered many a heavy-metal fantasy and Carl Palmer's drum solos encompassed a dazzling variety of percussion wizardry.

The group's weak link was Greg Lake--or, rather, his role in the group. As a bassist anchoring Emerson to Palmer, he was perfect; as a cosmic folksinger whose job it was to emote throughout fifteen-minute jams, he was hopeless (as anyone in his position would be). But democracy and pacing demanded that he take center stage as often as the other two, so he did, and therein lay the band's Achilles' heel.

Therein also lies the explanation for why Black Moon--named, apparently, for a lunar eclipse--shines forth only dimly. As the featured performer on seven of the ten songs, Lake ends up hogging the spotlight. His voice has gained resonance over the years, but he still writes lyrics like "Take my love into your breast. / Commit my spirit to the test. / You will see him like a knight. / His armor gleams..." and so on. Meanwhile, although Emerson piles on his share of industrial-strength progressiveness, Palmer's role has shrunk to little more than maintaining a steady four-four. All of which means that Black Moon finds ELP at their most conventional instead of at (or even near) their most daring.

The same can hardly be said of The Atlantic Years, a great-sounding two-CD, two-and-a-half-hour compilation featuring many of the lengthiest and most extreme exercises of ELP's first decade. "Tarkus" (twenty minutes), "Karn Evil 9" (thirty), "Pirates" (thirteen), and a fourteen-minute excerpt of the group's album-length Pictures at an Exhibition receive the digitally-remastered-from-the-original-master-tapes treatment to good effect. Now more than ever, one can admire the technological architecture of these rock equivalents of the Tower of Babel.

Yet ELP were at their strongest when blowing up that architecture, and by including only one cut, Ginastera's "Toccata," from the three-LP live album Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends (where many of these pieces are available in louder, gnarlier versions), and by editing the band's demolition of Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" from nine minutes to five, The Atlantic Years gives ELP's metal-machine power short shrift.

Not that fans won't find pockets of pleasure in these discs. Among Black Moon's highlights are Palmer's plundering of Queen's "We Will Rock You" beat for the entire seven minutes of the title track (even heard it on the Olympics!) and the unabashed virtuosity of the two full-band instrumentals, "Changing Staes" and Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet."

And The Atlantic Years, although it features too much Lake, sticks mainly to hummable Lake like "Lucky Man," "From the Beginning," and the surprisingly enduring "I Believe in Father Christmas" (in its original seven-inch, as opposed to the Works Volume Two, version).

But there's a lot of foggy-headed filler too, especially on Black Moon. And most of it bears Lake's name.

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