If there's one thing you've gotta give ELP, it's balls. Not only did they take one of the most staid standards from the annals of "serious" music and do it in an ampedup electronic version that must drive seconal freaks wild, but they added their own elaborations and improvisations and lyrics as well. Compared to this, the conceit and tastelessness involved in Jon Lord's Gemini Suite or the "Concerto For Rock Group and Orchestra" he and Deep Purple performed with the Royal Philharmonic were nothing, the modest work of quiet craftsmen. Emerson, Lake & Palmer are bombastic and tasteless and they probably know it, but tastelessness has never been far from the sense of fun at the core of rock & roll, or bombast either, these days.
Back in the days when people spent a lot of time sitting stiff-backed in drawing rooms and there were no child labor laws, Mussorgsky wrote a piano chart called "Pictures at an Exhibition," which was later rearranged for full orchestra by Maurice Ravel, whose smash hit "Bolero" was (comparatively) recently covered by Jeff Beck. "Pictures" is basically a series of short compositions meant to describe some paintings hanging in the Louvre, I believe, and back in the Kennedy Sixties before I got my sensibilities corrupted and attention span obliterated by the Beatles et al. it was one of my fave classical raves. If poor old Mussorgsky and Ravel can hear what Emerson, Lake & Palmer have done to their music, they are probably getting dry heaves in the Void; speaking strictly as a fan of M & R and heretofore certified disdainer of EL&P, however, I can say that I listened to it twice tonight, beating my fists on the floor and laughing, and I got my kicks.
The proceedings, recorded live in England, begin with Mussorgsky's basic and conjunctive theme, the "Promenade," played in a somewhat Bach-ic style, as if Keith Emerson were whacking away at the biggest pipe organ in the oldest church in Vienna. The "Gnomes" theme from the original work, here credited to give such where it's due to (Mussorgsky/Palmer), enters abruptly to whistles and yells from the audience, swizzled out on Emerson's mellotron or customized organ or whatever, with wah-wah counterpoint by Lake. After some strange, kinetic soloing, "Promenade" returns with lyrics by Lake: "Lead me from tortured dreams/Childhood themes of nights alone ... From seeds of confusion illusion's dark grasses have grown."
You said it, brother. Because from this point I begin to lose track of Mussorgsky and get caught up in the ELP furor for the rest of the side. Beginning with a Lake compo called "The Sage" that has about as much to do with "Pictures at an Exhibition" as ELP's lyrics do with the programmatic significance of the original piece, but it's vintage ELP anyway, except for one boring bit where Lake indulges himself in some gossamer Laurindo Almeida-isms.
Luckily, however, they don't last long. A minute later and we're hit in the face: Whizz! Whirrr! Whee! It's a fullblown slashing, crashing, urping, burping electronic freakout and boy does the crowd eat it up, along with the "Blues Variation" which follows and takes the side out in gales of applause and more space bleeps.
But what's this? I look in the album jacket and I see one of Mussorgsky's original themes, "The Old Castle," listed (and supposedly elaborated on a bit by Emerson). Well, he must have elaborated the thing clear to Aldebaran, because I hear nary a hint of "The Old Castle" anywhere on this record. Come to think of it, the original piece also had a couple of sections called "Tuileries" and "Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells" (a sexist fantasy about a troupe of danseuses vacationing at the Black Sea being devoured by giant clams) that aren't even mentioned here. Oh well, fuck it, ELP know what they're doing and there's no sense having any dross cluttering up an otherwise fine album.
Side two begins with the "Promenade" rendered stately as hell, heavy on the bass drum. They could play it at your high school graduation. Followed by a chart scripted by Mussorgsky completely without Limey and this time, called "The Hut of Baba Yaga," which in the original was about an old witch who went around snatching children and parboiling them for supper or some such. With such meaty subject matter, it stands to reason that it's done pretty much straight (except for the wah-wah mellotron farts). Segueing into an ELP song called "The Curse of Baba Yaga" which for once seems to have some relation to Mussorgsky's themes, with a quick vocal that's almost impossible to catch and even quicker riffingKeith Emerson really does know his axe inside and out, the Alvin Lee of Bach Rocksurging back through the original "Baba Yaga" theme and right up to "The Great Gates of Kiev."
And man, when those gates open you better have some waterwings, 'cause the whole grand sprawling mess that's Emerson, Lake & Palmer at their best comes gushing out: not only a reprise of Whizz! and Whirrr!, but also Boink!, Grrr!, Skizzrrlll!, feedback and applause falling together like the walls of the Red Sea right after Moses' troops tramped through, and, yep, more lyrics: "They were sent from the gate/Ride the tides of faith/In the burning all are yearning/For life to be ..."
Be what? He leaves the line to trail off in the air. The tension is unbearable, and the audience is fairly seething. But suddenly, abruptly, we are treated to the coda vocal and it all comes clear, sort of: "There's no end to my life/No beginning to my death/Death is life." Hmmm, don't know if I like them lines, sounds kinda like Charles Manson to me. But don't let the seeming obscurity fool you, because that inference is part of the grand plan too: the encore is "Nut Rocker." (RS 103)
(Posted: Mar 2, 1972)
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Review 1 of 1
This album basically sucks ass. If you are an ELP fan boy you might like it. If you know and love the Mussorgsky piano piece and/or Ravel's orchestral version you probably won't. People who like this CD will often tell me something like "you just hate it because ELP dared to a rock version of a famous classical work". When I hear this I feel like going and banging on the nearest piano and asking how they like my version of Brain salad surgery. For some reason it's OK to do a suck ass version of Pictures but if you were to butcher say Stair way to heaven I'm sure rock fans would be all over you. When you cover something you are supposed to try to add something to it without completely loosing the original intent or feel. The old castle is meant to conger up something mystic and somber. Flailing away on the keyboards just doesn't cut it. Neither does adding horrible lyrics to the great gate of Kiev. For those of you who still think its good, go out and find a copy of the original piano work. Sit in a room by yourself and listen to it from start to finish. If you are like me it will take you on a journey through darkness and light. This is why it's been a classical standby for over 100 years. It’s an emotional roller coaster. The ELP bastardization just doesn’t touch this.
Dec 27, 2006 00:09:35