Pictures At An Exhibition

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Cotillion Records, 1972

REVIEW BY: Dan Smith


There are certain albums that no self-respecting music fan should like, according to the mainstream music establishment. Pictures At An Exhibition is one of these. Further, there are certain progressive albums that no self-respecting prog fan should enjoy. Pictures At An Exhibition is, it seems, also one of these. The low-culture "populists" can't deal with classical music in their visceral three-chord "rawk" while the high-culture twits can't deal with the "mutilation" of Mussorgsky's piece (and God help us that ELP should actually dare to write more music and - GASP! - add lyrics to some of the extant movements). I guess my iconoclastic martyrdom will be complete when I utter the following dangerous phrase: I FREEKING LOVE THIS ALBUM!

Pictures At An Exhibition is a live recording of prog supergroup Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's 35-minute electric treatment of Mussorgsky's classic suite (you've probably heard the famous orchestration by Maurice Ravel) from 1970, the group's first major tour. It has been the subject of constant revulsion since its release from rock critics (who consistently pick it one of the worst albums of all time) and fans of "serious" rock music who usually consider it an embarassment.

I think this is more a phenomenon of "follow the leader" than anything, because Pictures is one of the most uniquely conceived and performed rock pieces in the history of the genre, and one of its most adventurous. Perhaps the notoriously anti-ELP critics saw it as a chance to take the pentultimate shot at their foes, but whatever the reasons behind it, this is a helluva performance by three musicians in their prime who simply loved to play fast, loud, and complex.

ELP is often accused of being pretentious and pompous--trying to somehow elevate their 'common' genre by bringing in the tunes and forms of a "higher", "more intelligent" brand of musical expression. However, my experience of ELP has been that they are among the most joyful, fun, and least serious progressive bands - the "pomp" is often done for ELP's own amusement (the song "Living Sin" in particular seems to be the trio making fun of their own occasionally ponderous style) and Emerson's critically reviled "desecrations" of the classics are always done with a sense of humor and used as a showcase for the group's virtuosity.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Pictures also is unique because it is a living document of the band's exciting first phase when they sounded more like the Nice with a decent vocalist and a speedfreak drummer than a prog-rock dinosaur. At the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, the group's momentous performance of Pictures (topped off by Keith setting off a cannon at the piece's climax) blasted them into national prominence.

Beginning with the familiar "Promenade" theme played at a stately pace by Emerson on organ, Pictures stays close to the sound of Mussorgsky's original for the first couple pieces - "The Gnome" follows closely the orchestral version, although Emerson's Moog and Hammond give it much more bite and the Lake/Palmer rhythm section provide a plodding, bluesy beat. The second incidence of the "Promenade" section is a pretty vocal/organ duet between Lake and Emerson (the first example of the group adding lyrics to the piece) and fades into "The Sage", a sublime Lake acoustic ballad, with unbelieveable choirboy vocals over neat Spanish-sounding flourishes.

This is where ELP begins to take Mussorgsky and rock and throw them in a blender, fire it up to "puree", add a Moog and some fat Hammond sounds, and see what happens. What happens is "The Old Castle/Blues Variations", a considerably louder version of the original that features some of ELP's best jamming. The group really seems to swing here, with Emerson's jazzy soloing (taken in part from the Nice's version of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages") taking center stage.

This ends the first side of the album. The second side offers the last 12 minutes of the Pictures suite, and must be considered among their most intense bits of music ever. Starting with a slow, stately full-band return to the "Promenade", it leads into an intense "Curse Of Baba Yaga", with Palmer pushing the group faster and faster into the lightning-fast main theme, with Hammond abuse galore. "The Hut Of Baba Yaga" features a quick bass solo from Lake, some weird space-noises from the Moog, and then into a blistering main theme, with intense vocals from Lake punctuated by blasts of Hammond.

A return to the "Curse" theme builds the tension further before it explodes into the lengthy, dramatic "Great Gates Of Kiev." This is the one place in which ELP fails to match the Ravel orchestration's dignified pace. ELP's is taken too fast, and Emerson's organ freak-out during the middle (just what in the hell is he doing with that thing, anyway?) is kind of inappropriate (although some would say the entire thing qualifies for that).

Oh, and it ends with "Nutrocker", which is just unspeakable.

Whether you think the idea behind the album is stupid, groundbreaking, or insulting, and whether you think the performance is awe-inspiring, wankery, or just plain silly, I challenge you to give this one more listen and just erase all the negative reviews and attitudes from your mind. What I hear is three tremendous musicians laying it all on the line, having a great time, and definitely enjoying themselves.

Yeah, I love this album. So sue me.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1999 Dan Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Cotillion Records, and is used for informational purposes only.