Emerson, Lake and Palmer are very competent musicians, as rock performers go. They're agile, flamboyant, and sensitive to their instruments' limitations. You could easily go through Tarkus and, passage by passage, point out who they competently sound like Zappa here, Black Sabbath there, Brian Auger, Dave Mason, Pink Floyd, Spirit but in the end, all that's happened is that you've been competently reminded of lots of other performers, and have been left with nothing unique by which to remember Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Beatles turned their eclecticism to their advantage by stamping everything they synthesized with their own unmistakable insignia. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, musicians but not auteurs, have no personal mold in which to cast their music.
Realizing this deficiency, they've tried to compensate for it on their second album by arranging some of their material into a musical suite, a sort of tone poem for rock instrumentation: Out of an erupting volcano, the giant beast Tarkus is born. Part armadillo, part Sherman tank, and part geodesic dome, Tarkus sets off across the land, destroying whatever monsters cross his path. After a showdown with the deadly Manticore (in which Tarkus loses an eye) our victorious anti-hero goes off into the deep sea.
So what? you ask. Musically, the unfolding of this drama is as uninvolving as the sketch I've just given. Beneath the surface level all the dramatic conflict we're supposed to witness in the "Tarkus" suite is non-existent. The melodic themes are incapable of capturing our allegiance, and the piece itself has no palpable purpose or justification for itself. Here's just one more example of a sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The second side is less ambitious but much better than the first, in that Emerson, Lake and Palmer don't try to live beyond their means. Keith Emerson really shines on this side as the pop keyboard virtuoso that he is. "Jeremy Bender," a fresh and bright song in the "John Barleycorn" style, doesn't last a moment longer than it needs to. "Bitches Crystal" and "A Time and A Place" are the kind of numbers upon which Emerson, Lake and Palmer have built their concert reputation: fast, shiny, seemingly complex, but in essence glib and hollow stuff. Easily forgettable.
"The Only Way" is a pitiful composition infested to the core with fakey and fashionable religion. "Can you believe\God makes you breathe?/Why did he lose/Six million Jews?" All this is preceded by a Bach Prelude, which was an incredibly bad choice on Emerson's part, since it only serves to show, by comparison, how shallow is their depth of religious feeling. Bach's music, expressive of the most committed religious states of mind, can be exalted or anguished; Emerson, Lake and Palmer's can be neither.
"Infinite Space," the track on the album most worth paying attention to, has a nicely constructed system of rhythms. Emerson's left hand and Lake's bass take turns establishing an exotic foundation rhythm, while Emerson probes and spaces with his right. It's a muscular piece of music which, like Brubeck's "40 Days," reveals some of the lyric possibilities of a percussive piano style. And to match Emerson's Brubeck technique, Lake and Palmer on this cut sound like Brubeck's rhythm men Wright and Morello.
"Are You Ready Eddy?" is a good-humoured Little Richard-type bop. Emerson's playing is at its unselfconscious best, Lake's vocal has that John Lennon echo that we're all so accustomed to, and at the tail end of the number there's a wonderfully inhuman whining that sounds as if it were coming straight from Yoko Ono's lips.
Tarkus records the failure of three performers to become creators. Regardless of how fast and how many styles they can play. Emerson, Lake and Palmer will continue turning out mediocrity like Tarkus until they discover what, if anything, it is that they must say on their own and for themselves. (RS 89)
(Posted: Aug 19, 1971)
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