EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER Albums Ranked

ELP albums ranked

Emerson, Lake and Palmer helped to usher the classical style of progressive rock. When they respectively left The Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster and came together as a trio, finding that their playing styles were complimentary, they created the first progressive rock supergroup. Dominated by Emerson’s neo-classical abilities, The Nice was the first symphonic rock band to adeptly fuse true classical motifs and passages with psychedelic rock and jazz. ELP is pretty much the continuation of that group, but managed to completely overshadow the aforementioned band, due to their superior technical abilities. ELP explored their capabilities to an extreme, breaking ground, pushing the boundaries of the symphonic rock genre.

Epic, ambitious, and overflowing with technical mastery, ELP paved the way for the success of such prog artists of the ‘70s like Yes and its gone-solo keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who would become their chief rivals for much of the decade. Greg Lake and Carl Palmer were the strong counterparts Emerson needed to unfold his creativity and energy to full-scale. The band was unusual for its three-man structure, and the emphasis of keyboards over guitar. If ever there had been a lead guitarist added, it would have been none other than Jimi Hendrix, who expressed an interest in playing with the trio. The band took the time to organize a jam session with the famous guitarist, with the possibility of him joining, but he sadly died less than a month later. On the other hand, ELP have always confessed their preference for a trio format, which provides more liberty regarding the songwriting, for instance.

Since their inception in 1970, ELP went on to release nine studio albums with exception of their 1986’s record which was released under the name Emerson, Lake & Powell (which featured drummer Cozy Powell).

The trio reunited in the original line-up in 1992 to release Black Moon which was a big disappointment for fans, and with the following and final studio album, released in 1994, In the Hot SunELP reached the very bottom of their studio opus.

Keith Emerson died on March 11, 2016, and few months later Greg Lake passed away too.

We are looking at ELP’s legacy and ranking the trio’s work below.

09. In the Hot Seat (1994)

In the Hot Seat, is the ninth studio recording from Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. It is also the weakest, most uninspired recording this usually magnificent trio has released in their 24 years of making music together. The intricacy, intensity, and delicacy which characterized ELP in their prime are missing. The trio opts for simplistic pop and completely ignores their considerable instrumental talents.

In the Hot Seat lacks several ELP trademarks. Greg Lake‘s acoustic ballads, for example, are missing. His song, “Daddy,” is a melancholy piece about the abduction of a man’s daughter. Rather than play the part of an acoustic ballader, Lake allows miserably simplistic drumming keyboard playing to weigh down what could have been a hauntingly powerful song. The album is also bereft of instrumental pieces that marked the earlier ELP albums, such as Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery.

However, some songs contain brief flashes of ELP‘s fire. “Hand of Truth” and “One by One” are particular standouts. This album shows, more than anything else, an aging group making a last effort. The CD release contains a bonus track, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the only studio recording the trio has made of Mussorgsky’s piece is a sweeping, majestic work that contains every aspect of the greatness for which ELP is known. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the album.

08. Love Beach (1978)

In 1978 ELP decided to put out something more pop-oriented, which is how we came to have the remarkable LP that is Love Beach. Its cover of the “trilogy” standing open-shirted in front of a palm tree looking like the Brothers Glib is a million miles away from the psychedelic “tankadillo” of Tarkus, and with the exception of the 20-minute “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” and the short but definitely prog “Canario” so are its songs, which are short and Mussorgsky-free. Not a bad idea, to try something completely new, but something went terribly wrong, and the results ranged from the instantly forgettable title track to the inadvertently Spinal Tap-esque “Taste of My Love.”

From William Blake to Spinal Tap in a flash; you have to hand it to ELP, they proved perfectly capable of lowering themselves. They just didn’t know when to stop. Reviews of Love Beach were mostly scathing; Rolling Stone’s Michael Bloom said it “makes washing the dishes seem a more creative act by comparison,” while Robert Christgau, who once said “these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans,” wrote, well, nothing about Love Beach actually. But suffice it to say that Love Beach’s desultory sales helped make it the last ELP album until 1992, when the band rose like a phoenix from its own ass and started shitting prog nuggets on our defenseless noggins all over again.

07. Black Moon (1992)

What keeps this from reaching “those” heights is the lack of what made ELP so special (read: both beloved and hated) in the first place. Carl Palmer‘s drumming is quite basic, sounding more like his work with Asia (complete with electronic drums in spots) than his previous complex and skillful work. Greg Lake‘s voice has succumbed to aging; inevitable, perhaps, but still a bit depressing to hear him sing or growl in a much lower register than he employed on, say, “Take A Pebble” or “Karn Evil 9.”

The music also rarely strives for anything special. Nothing about this is progressive, as it tends to purloin from older ELP works or else mine a generic rock vein. Again, that is not to say what’s here is bad—about half of this is decent, in fact—but it’s not really ELP, and it doesn’t seem to have been worth the trouble.

What works is the lovely “Affairs Of The Heart,” an acoustic Lake piece written in the late ‘80s with ex-Buggle and Yes man Geoff Downes, which relies solely on guitar and some light piano and strings for accompaniment. Lake‘s closing “Footprints In The Snow” is similar and also good; though that voice takes some getting used to for longtime fans. “Paper Blood” is not bad, trying for an attitude similar to 1970′s “Knife Edge” set to an anti-greed lyrics (the paper in question being money).

Emerson gets three solo spots here, but only the synthesized take on Prokofiev‘s “Romeo And Juliet” is worthwhile, recapturing that bombastic spirit of yore while thumbing his nose at the classical establishment, the way he has always done. “Changing States” is a six minute instrumental with absolutely no ideas to offer, while “Close To Home” features some fine piano work but functions mostly as background music, except for the parts that steal outright from “Take A Pebble.”

The rest is uninspired, tired arrangements and trite lyrics, with only a hint of fire in the title track. Trying for something menacing and meaningful, Black Moon falls apart because of its computerized drumming (swiping the “boom-boom-PA” pattern from Queen‘s “We Will Rock You”), the squiggly dated synth fills and Lake‘s lyrics (sample: “We never learn / Even deserts burn / And all politicians lie“). The song has a rough charm that grows on the listener, I suppose, but it is nowhere near the epic statement it thinks it is.

This places Black Moon in the for-fans-only category, and even they will probably be turned off by most of this. Better than most latter-day ELP, this is still far from being a classic to the point where the listener may wonder what the point of the 1992 reunion was.

06. Works: Volume 1 (1977)

Emerson, Lake and Palmer were already reaching the end of their glory days after finishing Brain Salad Surgery. This was the point when creativity would begin to run short, and botchery, treachery, pretentiousness, overindulgence, and disaster would begin to run wild out of control. All of this would begin in Works, Vol One, an album with a mixed bag of treats and tricks.

The one only real treat in this album that should deserve respect and stands on level with “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil” is “Piano Concerto No. 1,” written by Keith Emerson and the acclaimed London Philharmonic Orchestra. This is perhaps one of the last songs with no loss of creativity, and should easily get across to the listener. Composed into three movements, this entire piece demonstrates Keith Emerson’s classical musical prowess on the piano, which is quite impressive, along with the incredible chemistry with the orchestra. It really especially emanates a contemporary mood to the music, creating a wave of calm soothing piano passages as well as intense, hot, blistery fast movements, and a brilliant overall sound to the beginning of the album. This has to the only real impressive piece of Works Vol. One.

The rest of album is a trick at work. It is ruled by the realms of mostly overindulgence. It is also overdriven, putting too much emphasis on each of members rather than the band as a whole. Whether this was meant to be an ego-stroke or not, this ultimately results in a lack of real creativity and an almost fake taste of emotion and quality. Take for example; while “C’est La Vie” is a very calming, emotional ballad done well by Greg Lake, it’s just another repeat of “Still…You Turn Me On,” French style. Plus, the mood created in the song seems almost a little fake, and not as charming as what Lake, or ELP for that matter, would create in their earlier albums.

05. Works: Volume 2 (1977)

After the rather dull Works, Vol. 1, the highly underrated Works, Vol. 2 is a godsend. Works, Vol. 1 took their pompous, bombastic, keyboard-driven prog rock epics to the limit; had it been stripped of its excesses and coupled with the strongest cuts from Works, Vol. 2, the band may have had an enormous success with critics and fans alike.

Volume 2‘s brief, eclectic compositions cover an array of musical styles, combining stimulating originals and handsomely orchestrated renditions of “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” Lake peppers the tunes with guitar and bass flourishes, resulting in some of his most challenging instrumental work, and both he and Palmer deliver incredibly strong performances. Meanwhile, Peter Sinfield contributes some of his most mature and accomplished lyrics. Emerson‘s work is solid and creative, but sounds a bit dated, which is part of why the band couldn’t endure.

Unlike some ELP albums, Volume 2‘s brief pieces sustain interest; there really isn’t a weak tune in the set. The five instrumentals are highlighted by two short prog rock tunes, including the jazzy “Bullfrog,” which features Lake‘s brief jazz bass solo and Palmer‘s fluid, versatile drumming. “Barrelhouse Shake-down” and “Maple Leaf Rag” showcase Emerson‘s superb ragtime and barrelhouse piano playing, and Palmer‘s jazz fusion/marching band piece, “Close But Not Touching,” features horns and Lake‘s psychedelic electric guitar lines. The vocal pieces are equally interesting. “Brain Salad Surgery” is progressive jazz-rock that bears some resemblance to King Crimson‘s “Cat Food,” unsurprising since each features Lake singing Sinfield‘s lyrics. And, of course, there is the hit “I Believe in Father Christmas,” a beautiful Lake/Sinfield composition that highlights Lake‘s strong voice and vibrant acoustic guitar.

04. Tarkus (1971)

Emerson, Lake & Palmer‘s 1970 eponymous LP was only a rehearsal. It hit hard because of the novelty of the act (allegedly the first supergroup in rock history), but felt more like a collection of individual efforts and ideas than a collective work. All doubts were dissipated by the release of Tarkus in 1971. Side one of the original LP is occupied by the 21-minute title epic track, beating both Genesis‘ “Supper’s Ready” and Yes‘ “Close to the Edge” by a year. Unlike the latter group’s cut-and-paste technique to obtain long suites, “Tarkus” is a thoroughly written, focused piece of music. It remains among the Top Ten classic tracks in progressive rock history. Because of the strength of side one, the material on the album’s second half has been quickly forgotten—with one good reason: it doesn’t match the strength of its counterpart—but “Bitches Crystal” and “A Time and a Place” make two good prog rock tracks, the latter being particularly rocking. “Jeremy Bender” is the first in a series of honky tonk-spiced, Far-West-related songs. This one and the rock & roll closer “Are You Ready Eddy?” are the only two tracks worth throwing away. Otherwise Tarkus makes a very solid album, especially to the ears of prog rock fans—no Greg Lake acoustic ballads, no lengthy jazz interludes. More accomplished than the trio’s first album, but not quite as polished as Brain Salad Surgery, Tarkus is nevertheless a must-have.

03. Trilogy (1972)

Trilogy, the appropriately titled third studio album from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, was released in 1972 and welcomed with open arms. Tarkus, its predecessor, was conceptually brilliant, but Trilogy refined the band’s sound and mixed up the repertoire with both long-form epic pieces and shorter, more accessible songs. Striking this kind of balance is perhaps why Greg Lake has repeatedly said that Trilogy is his favorite ELP album. He is certainly not alone in that assessment.

When it was released, Trilogy reached #2 on the UK charts and #5 on the US Billboard chart, a peak for an ELP album in the States. By most accounts, it serves as a blueprint for pretty much everything ELP was about—spins on inspired classical pieces like Aaron Copland‘s “Hoedown” and “Abaddon’s Bolero”; epics of their own like “The Endless Enigma” and “Trilogy”; a radio-friendly acoustic number a la “From The Beginning” (ELP‘s one and only Top 40 hit); and tongue-in-cheek send-ups like “The Sheriff.” Produced by Greg Lake, Trilogy‘s cover and gatefold were designed by the legendary Hipgnosis. When you add the music, it’s easy to recognize the album as a high-water mark in the often loopy career of ELP.

02. Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)

ELP’s debut album presents all three musicians interacting at a furious level, throwing awe-inspiring licks around with uncanny ease, with plenty of octopus-armed drumming from Palmer. The man is considered to be one of the all time greatest drummers. His playing is a combination of precision, speed and finesse. Greg Lake‘s voice is nothing short of superb (as he already had proven in Crimson); always note-perfect. Both “Lucky Man” and “Take a Pebble” profit from his wistful tone. Lake felt much comfortable with their melodic drive, while keeping a hard edge in a large amount of his dynamic bass parts.

The sound of the band is strongly dominated by the Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer of maestro Emerson. Their compositions are mainly influenced by classical music, with jazzy touches. Their instrumentals are rich, deep, complex and plentiful. As a whole, the songs showcase varied ambiences that result from the threesome’s different individual interests converging into a unique, solid offering. A third of the tracks are the ELP’s interpretations of pieces by classical composers, and the band has given them a good twist. The astounding instrumental opener “The Barbarian” is based on a piece by Bartok, named “Allegro Barbaro,” and contains all the elements of a classic ELP song, while “Knife Edge” takes its cues from Janacek’s “Sinfonietta.” This track is a bit more heavy than your usual ELP, even flirting with hard rock, but it’s got a really nice melody and a thrilling crushing riff. The solo part for the organ is really groovy and heartfelt. Emerson’s skill in harmony and theme development is undeniable. Also remarkable are his smooth transitions between composed and improvised parts.

While being technically excellent (only Rick Wakeman could compete with him at that time), Emerson regularly comes off as a showman rather than a composer. The band’s complicity and interplaying were as recognizable as enviable, the only gripe being the overdone, overdramatic keyboard playing, causing the risk of ruining the flow in spots.

The album’s first half showcases their group efforts, and the individual prowess of the three band members on the second. “The Three Fates” suite allows the flamboyant Emerson to exhibit his extreme virtuosity, making love to his keyboards for eight minutes, while “Tank” is a delightful piece to show off Carl Palmer’s overpowering drumming talent. Finally, the last song is the famous radio hit “Lucky Man,” an acoustic guitar ballad with beautiful vocal melodies and its well known synthesizer solo. The song features what would become Greg Lake‘s trademark acoustic guitar work. Side two is somewhat weaker than side one, but in the end, the album works out very well.

Unbalanced as it is, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s debut still features strong compositions and awe-inspiring musicianship. Emerson takes the group’s music a little too strongly in his own hands on many occasions, but it is his virtuoso skills on organ and keyboard that have become the defining factor of ELP’s music. Although fantastic musicians such as Greg Lake and Carl Palmer deserve a more prominent spot, this is how the group turned out, and by no means is that a bad thing. This overall excellent record definitely has its flaws, but is also more coherent than later, more known works such as Tarkus that focus too much on one epic and leave the rest of the album’s material lagging behind. Emerson, Lake and Palmer is an album that any progressive fan will find something to enjoy in, and is one of the better efforts of one of the defining acts in the genre.

01. Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

Emerson, Lake, & Palmer reached their progressive climax with their fourth studio album Brain Salad Surgery. It was the group’s most ambitious and commercially successful album, with a mixture of rock and classical along with some cutting edge electronic sounds, used for the first time on any of the group’s records. The album was the first on the trio’s new Manticore label and was produced by the group’s guitarist, bassist, and lead vocalist Greg Lake. Lake co-wrote the album’s lyrics with former King Crimson bandmate Pete Sinfield, who was also signed to the group’s new label. This was the first time any outside musician appeared on an album by the trio.

Brain Salad Surgery was a concerted effort by the group to produce an album which could be performed in its entirety live, unlike the highly overdubbed material of their previous album Trilogy. Employing some of the tactics used by Pink Floyd, the band wrote some of the music in a cinema, “live” on stage, reworking arrangements to capture the emotion of the film. Most of the material was composed as instrumental pieces with lyrics added to some later on. Three instrumentals remained on the final album, while three more (“When the Apple Blossoms Bloom in the Windmills of Your Mind I’ll Be Your Valentine,” “Tiger In a Spotlight,” and the title song “Brain Salad Surgery”) were omitted because of time constraints.

The album’s unique title came from a lyric in Dr. John’s song “Right Place, Wrong Time,” released earlier in 1973 which stated: “just need a little brain salad surgery, got to cure this insecurity.” The album cover artwork was done by the artist Giger, integrating an industrial mechanism with a human skull along with the latest ELP logo (which Giger also created).

This album packed with dynamic flourishes of musical virtuosity begins in a rather subdued, if not standard way. “Jerusalem” is an adaptation of Hubert Parry’s hymn with lyrics taken from the preface to William Blake’s “Milton” poem. This only managed to get it banned by the BBC for potential “blasphemy”. Musically, the organ is a little overwhelming in the mix with not much bass presence at all, but it is also notable as the first known track to use the Moog Apollo, the first polyphonic synthesizer still in prototype at the time. The album quickly picks up with the instrumental “Toccata,” sounding more like the top-end prog rock of the era, which the group was known for. Keith Emerson’s deeper rudiments are of the type that would be replicated by the band Rush on guitar and bass years later, and the mid-section contains a long percussive solo by Carl Palmer with more synth effects mixed in. “Toccata” draws from the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto, whom Emerson flew to Geneva to discuss his arrangement with in order obtain permission.

Lake’s acoustic ballad “Still, You Turn Me On” is poetic and beautiful with layered riffs and a nice counter-balance of melody and song craft to the furious instrumental which precedes it. This short but poignant song contains profound yet romantic lyrics which earned it a fair share of radio play:

Do you wanna be an angel, do you wanna be a star, do you wanna play some magic on my guitar / Do you wanna be a poet, do you wanna be my string, you could be anything…

Sinfield’s first lyrical contribution comes with “Benny the Bouncer,” an electronic honky-tonk of sort with comical lyrics which are oddly vocalized, giving a bit of light fare before the album moves into its side-plus extended piece.

“Karn Evil 9” is a suite whose three movements comprise roughly a side and a quarter of the album where the band pulls out all the sonic stops. The most well-known section is “1st Impression, Part 2” with the famous “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…” lyric, which was later used as a title for a live album. The story of “Karn Evil 9” tells of a futuristic world from which “all manner of evil and decadence had been banished.” The decadence of the old world is preserved through exhibits that are part of a futuristic carnival show, which exhibits depravities. This story is told lyrically through the first and third impressions, with the second impression being a three piece jazz improv with Emerson on piano, Lake on bass, and Palmer on drums. The piece also includes its share of synthesizers with a steel drum part and Emerson’s voice fed through a modulator to sound like a child’s voice, Emerson’s only official vocal credit on an ELP record.

Following the success of Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson Lake, and Palmer went on some very successful (albeit extravagant) tours through 1974, including one performance broadcast nationwide in the United States. Then then went on an untimely three-year break to re-invent their music, but never again were able to capture their momentum, leading to the group’s break by the end of the decade.

4 Comments

  1. Paul Gardner

    May 18, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Interesting if you look at the ranking versus timeline. For me their greatest opus was their first Emerson Lake and Palmer and the variety of music. Bought it the day it came out (on the pink Island label I think, predated Manticore). Going to the Keith Emerson tribute concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall in the next few weeks.

    • Tristan Heat

      May 25, 2017 at 12:36 am

      The first 4 albums (including the live “Pictures…”) were on Atlantic’s “Cotillion” label.

  2. abigsoxfan

    May 23, 2017 at 9:18 pm

    They got it right in that their first 4 albums were their 4 best albums. One can debate the ordering of the four, but for me not worth it. Still getting over the Rolling Stones article about the top 100 drummers of all time and Carl Palmer not being on the list. What a joke!

  3. Tristan Heat

    May 25, 2017 at 12:38 am

    Lake did not play that funky jazz bass solo on Palmer’s “Bullfrog”. It was someone named Colin Hodgkinson. Many of the Works 2 songs were solo efforts.

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