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From The Beginning

Emerson, Lake & Palmer Albums Ranked Worst To Best

by Benjamin Ray

The sad news of Keith Emerson's death on March 11, 2016 was a blow to longtime progressive rock fans and acolytes who rightfully identified the British keyboardist as a visionary and inspiration. Although he began his career with the Nice, he was best known as one-third of 1970s prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and quickly became a flamboyant, beloved and/or reviled showman in the grand prog tradition. A composer in his own right, Emerson was famous for taking modern composers like Joplin, Mussorgsky, Brubeck, Copland and Ginastera and making their music his own, exposing many to artists they may not have heard of. He also was no stranger to stabbing knives into his keyboards during performances of "Rondo" and "America," as well as taking endless solos on multiple keyboards – in short, embodying the excesses and entertainment that was progressive rock. Modern prog artists owe a lot to him, so we here at the Vault have decided to rank all nine of ELP's studio albums from worst to best.

9. In The Hot Seat (1994)emersonlp_hotseat_150

The last studio album from the group also is their worst by far, not because it's not professionally played, but because it's dull, uninspired and so out of step with the time. Granted, so was The Division Bell, but at least Pink Floyd had something to say about communication. ELP just ran out of things to say for the most part, and this album has no reason to exist.

emersonlp_lovebeach_1508. Love Beach (1978)

Long regarded as the worst ELP album by most fans, this album was nothing more than a contractual obligation. The Works project had drained the trio creatively, and so this disc amounts to a much lesser rehash than Works Vol. 1, in which the first side is boring Greg Lake songs and the second side is a 20-minute Emerson-led song that is never more than solid. Stripped of ambition, desire, bombast, humor and engagement, this is ELP's most mature effort to date...which is to say, their most unnecessary, even if it's competent.

7. Black Moon (1992)emersonlp_blackmoon_150

Rather than try to retool their sound for the ’80s like Yes and Genesis, ELP simply called it a day after 1978. But for whatever reason (bank-account related, most likely), they regrouped for this 10-song comeback. For better or worse, the guys opted against the long songs and pretension of their heyday, instead condensing their attack into shorter, punchier songs. About half the disc is solid – the "We Will Rock You" stomp of the title song, the greed screed "Paper Blood," the lush acoustic "Affairs Of The Heart," and the stomping keyboard instrumental "Romeo And Juliet," about the only time the album recalls Brain Salad Surgery. Things get fairly mediocre from there, unfortunately, but for fans this one may hold a gem or two.

emersonlp_works1_150 6. Works, Vol. 1 (1976)

The band's magnum opus, this was supposed to be the culmination of their previous work, their magnificent work of art that would stand the test of time as a progressive rock milestone. Only, they had already achieved that twice, and their decision to release a double album with each member getting one side – and a fourth side consisting of two band songs – smacked more of pretension and ego than artistic necessity. Most of Greg Lake's songs are acoustic solo pieces that run together after 20 minutes, with only "C’est La Vie" standing apart. Palmer's side is the most interesting, especially on "The Enemy God Dances With The Black Spirits," but even all the instrumentals get old. Emerson's side is one long 20-minute concerto, with some good parts and a lot of dull parts, and only on the Aaron Copland rewrite "Fanfare For The Common Man" does the band find their groove again. I can live without "Pirates" – it's far too long and hokey – but others enjoy it, so to each their own. There's a fantastic single album in here somewhere, but this bloated effort spelled the end for the group.

5. Trilogy (1972)emersonlp_trilogy_150

Considering the bombast that had come before and would come after, Trilogy seems downright low-key, particularly its sleepy but entertaining title track and "The Endless Enigma (Part 1)." Balancing it out are the raucous "Hoedown," a successful American honky-tonk instrumental of which this band was inexplicably fond, and the absolutely lovely "From The Beginning," a captivating acoustic ballad of sorts with a restrained keyboard solo. The disc runs out of idea toward the end with the puzzling growl of "Living Sin" and the overlong "Abaddon's Bolero," but the balance of this album is a solid effort that proved these guys had some self-control after all.

elp_works2_150 4. Works, Vol. 2 (1977)

Essentially the band's "odds and sods" effort, this collection is the exact opposite of its counterpart, consisting of B-sides and fun, lightweight songs recorded during or around the time the turgid, overblown Vol. 1 was being painstakingly assembled. The thing is, this is actually a decent album for fans of the band - others will find it weird, goofy and/or inessential, but fans will enjoy seeing the band loosen up on instrumentals like "Close But Not Touching," "Honky Tonk Train Blues" (Emerson's best effort in this vein bar none), "Tiger In A Spotlight" and "Bullfrog." Lake's solo acoustic ballads are among his best, and as a whole there really aren't any bad or embarrassing songs except for "Brain Salad Surgery," making this a necessity for ELP fans.

3. Tarkus (1971)emersonlp_tarkus_150

Like Pink Floyd's Meddle from this same year, it took a sidelong suite to really establish what this band could do given the chance. Unlike that disc, the songs on the other half of Tarkus aren't that good, but these are usually overlooked in favor of the title song, which contends with "Karn Evil 9" for best long-form ELP song. It's an onslaught, to be sure, but Emerson's variety of keyboard textures, solos that alternate between bombast and hypnotic, and a very strong emphasis on melody and momentum throughout make this feel a lot faster than its runtime. Sure, there's a story about war and mythical creatures, but it never detracts from the music; the opening buildup of voices that gives way to the kinetic odd-time Palmer drumming is one of the trio's best examples of tension and release, and the song is only 30 seconds along.

emersonlp_brain_200 2. Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

Many consider this ELP's finest effort, and on some days I'm inclined to agree. "Karn Evil 9" pushes all the boundaries with a 30-minute, four-part song (separated into "impressions" and running through traditional prog-rock, jazz-rock, proto-metal and as many keyboard sounds as Emerson could cram into one song. The rest of the album stacks up; "Toccata" is as spooky and Gothic as these guys ever got (and composer Ginastera loved it), "Jerusalem" loudly and nicely murders a sacred English hymn so as to ruffle some feathers, a pretty punk move (from a guy who stabbed knives into his keyboard), and "Still...You Turn Me On" is an odd, effective Lake ballad with the worst line in band history ("Every day a little sadder, a little madder / Someone get me a ladder"). Only "Benny The Bouncer" is stupid, and it's only two minutes long, a palate cleanser before the carnival comes to town. Welcome back, my friends. 

1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)emersonlp_s-t

This is the essence of the band and an album they never bettered on a song-by-song basis. Each of the six pieces has a distinct personality but they flow together perfectly, from the bass guitar and Lake growl of "Knife Edge" to the two-part instrumental attack of "The Barbarian" to the timeless, enduring classic "Lucky Man" to Palmer's showcase "Tank," with that cool mechanical-sounding keyboard opening. Only "The Three Fates" is indulgent (and was the only song here left off the box set), but "Take A Pebble" more than makes up for it; Lake's lovely singing, Emerson's tasteful piano, and the confidence of the song moving through its sections adds up to a masterpiece and the album's true classic, one that they would continue to play in concert through the Brain Salad Surgery tour. This one gets overlooked when discussing great debut albums, which is a shame; it is ELP at their most appealing, entertaining, and necessary.




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