Thursday, March 18, 2010

Requested Review: "Tarkus" by Emerson Lake and Palmer

eh heh... hahh.

I've been having a hard time expressing my disappointment with Emerson Lake and Palmer's 1971 prog-rock-opera Tarkus. Because, honestly, what did I expect? I've never been a fan of the band, never listened to them voluntarily (with the exception of "Lucky Man" and maybe "Karn Evil 9," but then again those are played on FM radio every five minutes so I guess they don't count). I've just always heard that they were the pinnacle of 70's rock excess - musical virtuosos who performed an adaptation of "Pictures At An Exhibition", released triple-live albums, and appeared on TV with a real tiger onstage because one of their songs had the word "tiger" in the title. Their goofy bombast is so notorious that it is impossible to watch ANY punk rock documentary nowadays without seeing a clip of Keith Emerson noodlin' on his keyboard - to show what punk was "up against."

So, naturally, I have a tendency to poke fun at them from time to time. Because it's easy.

Of course, blogfriend Adam Spektor - a longtime ELP fan - was having none of this. So he challenged me to put my money where my mouth is and actually sit through a full-length ELP record, which I had never done. Tarkus was the album he chose, and even now I haven't the slightest clue as to why. Did he think I would be "charmed" by the twenty minute opening title track about an armadillo with tank treads? Or did he just think it would be funny? (I'm guessing the latter.)

My first, honest reaction to the aforementioned title track: anger. Pure, all-encompassing rage. I had no idea what I was listening to! Twenty minutes of directionless, non-rocking, un-catchy prog rock masturbation, featuring Keith Emerson bangin' on his keyboard a whole goddamn lot. I don't even - I'm not even sure if he's enjoying himself. It's more like some kid on the playground told him he "couldn't play piano good", and this is his way of saying "nuh-uh!" "Tarkus" is filled with so many long and winding passages of Emerson playing his keyboard really really fast and in such crazy complicated time signatures that it entirely loses focus. Often it is hard to tell where one part begins and another ends, because Keith just keeps on playing. It is a song you can get lost in, and I don't mean that in the good way. I mean that in the literal sense. It is the musical equivalent of those woods in The Blair Witch Project, only without the luxury of dying at the end. (Weak burn, but you get the idea.)

Now, I will be fair. That was my first listen. I've heard "Tarkus" a few more times since then, and I will admit it becomes easier to wade through once you've gotten used to it. The obvious highlight of whole ordeal would be Greg Lake's parts, mostly because they sound like actual honest-to-goodness songs. With, you know, melodies and structure and all that. And, I will admit, Greg Lake's songs can be pretty cool, especially "Tarkus"-parts "Stones Of Years" and "Mass." They are goofy and embarrassing lyrically, yes, but they have a lot more personality than Emerson's endless, boring solos. I don't think I'll ever like "Tarkus," but I can at least bear it now.

Oh, and like I said, it's apparently about an armadillo with tank treads. The one on the cover. I don't know anything about that and I don't care.

Tarkus's second side is markedly better than the first, and it's not hard to see why - it's six separate songs, each one a collaborative group effort. That is, not primarily written by Keith "I Can Just Noodle On My Hammond Organ Really Fast For Ten Minutes And Slap A Cool Song Title On It!" Emerson. And they aren't even all stereotypical prog! Side opener "Jeremy Bender" is a silly piano goodtime song that stands in stark contrast to the overly serious "epic" that preceded it, and "Are You Ready Eddy" is an intentionally jokey 50's rock spit-take. And the songs that are stereotypical prog rock aren't bad! "Bitches Crystal" is essentially a more likable take on the musical themes "Tarkus" wore thin; the organ heavy dirge "The Only Way" is oddly appealing, despite its ridiculous welcome-to-1971 lyrics ("Can you believe / God makes you breathe? / Why did He lose / Six million Jews??"); "Infinite Space" is an appealing instrumental, and "A Time And A Place" features a dramatic and engrossing Greg Lake vocal. So I mean - these guys clearly could have made the first half of this record a lot better than it is. But Emerson just had to have his way, I guess.

Listen. Don't get the impression that I have a bias against 20-minute songs and that is why I am getting all upset about this. Not true! I mean, I don't love them, but it really depends on the band. Look at Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here or Animals for example - both contain multiple songs reaching past the ten-minute mark, and in Animals' case they even cover the same "War Is Bad" themes as Tarkus. The difference is, of course, that Pink Floyd understood how to gradually build mood, atmosphere, and dramatic tension - not to mention they were much better songwriters than anybody in ELP. Say what you will about the Floyd, but man, they knew what they were doing in their prime. I don't think you can truly appreciate a band like Pink Floyd until you've given Tarkus a listen.

So here is my final word on Tarkus - not as awful as I thought it was, but not an album I will ever find myself listening to again. And like I said, it's hard to say I was actually disappointed with this result, but honestly? I was hoping for a surprise. After all these years making fun of ELP without actually listening to them, I was hoping that all my preconceptions of the band would be entirely falsified and that I would be - beyond all logic - blown away. I did not expect this album to be, well, exactly what I expected it to be. If that makes any sense.

What I will say is this - nobody outside of the year 1971 could record an album like Tarkus. Absolutely nobody.

...except maybe the Mars Volta.

P.S.: If the previous review was a lil' too long for you, a more succinct overview of my feelings toward this record can be found here.

P.P.S.: Did you hear? Alex Chilton died. Man, that's fucking horrible. A retrospective post will come soon, I am sure.


Anonymous said...

Tarkus is one of the best progressive rock pieces ever written. I defy you to identify a better example of keyboard playing at the beginning. Obviously you don't know what you are talking about. Go throw up after listening to the clatter of punk rock. Yeah I love the Ramones too but they didn't progress much with their concept albums either. You got one thing right there isn't a punk documentary that did take a shot at ELP and what the screamers with teenage angst "were up against."

Sean Rose said...

Oh well yes, on a technical level Keith Emerson's playing at the beginning of the album is excellent. I am sure that if I were learning how to play the keyboard, I would be very impressed by his skill.

But to me technical skill isn't worth bull-hickey if you can't write a song. Emerson, to me, is more skilled as a session player than an actual songwriter. But that's just me bro!!

Dave Winchell said...

Just cause he can play doesn't mean he should.

Yes manages to make prog fun so why can't ELP!?

perry said...

I'd rather pay money on a guy who knifes and destroys his organ live on stage than watch some mamby pamby frustrated guitar player jab his ax into his amp. boo hoo. please, just leave that to jimi and pete already.

Von Zeke said...

Really? All songs must be radio length, have lyrics with the melody strictly confined to the presentation of those lyrics, and for God's sake just stick to playing chords because everybody hates melodic instrumental lines?
If you had said that to Beethoven he wouldda kicked your ass.

Sean Rose said...

Von Zeke: I think we might have a misunderstanding here! Yes, I personally prefer shorter songs, but I also mentioned in the post that I like 20-minute epics if they're done well. I just don't think "Tarkus" is done well. That's all.

There was a whole paragraph about this! Near the end of the post. You might have missed it.

Also, with all due respect, Keith Emerson is not Beethoven. He is just a guy who knows how to play piano real good and THINKS he's Beethoven.

Jeff said...

Have you ever listened to The Nice?
Bullwhips, buring the American flag...those guys.

Anonymous said...

Hey man , it looks like you never listened to classical music in your life where 20 minutes pieces is nothing.The way you speak about ELP reveals that you are quite ignorant,and dumb.And I guess you didn't listened jazz music either.Your whole article about Tarkus is almost worthless.Now I'm sorry that I wasted my time while reading it.

Anonymous said...

Hey man , it looks like you never listened to classical music in your life where 20 minutes pieces is nothing.The way you speak about ELP reveals that you are quite ignorant,and dumb.And I guess you didn't listened jazz music either.Your whole article about Tarkus is almost worthless.Now I'm sorry that I wasted my time while reading it.

Sean Rose said...

Twenty minutes feels like a very long time when you aren't enjoying what you are hearing! Clearly this is how I felt when I wrote this at age 22 or whatever.

I haven't heard this album since I reviewed it here. Maybe I'd like it a lot now! Who knows.

Either way, thanks for the comment! Gosh this is an old blog!!

collins said...

My critics about "Tarkus" album are the right opposite to yours as the suite for me is really good and the second side is under that level, in its overall development as separate songs. "Are you ready Eddie" is a crap, considering the skills of the involved musicians. Of course you are completely free to dislike Emerson Lake (and Palmer) but I appreciate them so much...if you don't feel any listening joy I think you miss something for sure but the world is beautiful because we are all different!

Darrell said...

I love Tarkus in its entirety. Agree to disagree. That being said, I enjoyed your review, it was very funny.

The Weaver said...

Wow! I don't know what to say! You and my wife don't like Tarkus. Oh, I guess I did know what to say after all. Your both idiots!!

J G said...

Tarkus has the best beginning of any song and the worst ending, the last few minutes are a waste..

Anonymous said...

I'm an ELP fan and I agree with part of what you said. I've never owned Tarkus and never will.

I disagree with the song thing though, because there is melody and harmony and rhythm, hence, song. Lyrics are optional, unless you want to rule out a HUGE realm of music. Your comment suggests that if the key signature is strange, that somehow you don't hear the melody?

Your comments about Emerson as a song writer is fair enough. He is a composer. Saying he is less than that one again means you need to rule out a HUGE realm of music as qualifying for song. Not really quite sure what your definition of song is. The guy writes brilliantly for piano. If you have delved into jazz and classical and rock and then you listen to a bit of ELP you quickly figure out that it's not right to call them a prog. rock band,, even though some of their songs are prog. rock, such as Karn Evil 9 1st and 3rd Impressions and others. More of their music is classical or jazz, with an electric bass added in, which is fine for jazz, but not really classical. The song Jerusalem is classical, Karn Evil 9 2nd. Impression is jazz, flat out. In a way that was part of their problem, is that their knowledge of different forms allowed them to play it, and in turn lose popularity because most people have very limited tastes in music.

Tarkus uses 5/4 timing through parts of it, which is rarely used in rock, and in fact simple rock and roll is 4/4 time with accents on beats 2 and 4. 5/4 is used in jazz, along with other time signatures. The parts you said you like, where Greg is singing, I think both parts are typical 4/4 timing. Stones of years is, and the accents while he is singing is 2 and 4.

But, I don't like the studio version of Tarkus, and I like classical, jazz and rock. However, the LIVE version of Tarkus from Welcome Back .... Emerson Lake and PALMER! is outstanding, beginning to end.

Lastly, people talk about Keith a bit, and rightly so because he did most of the arrangements of almost all the music they made. He didn't have a great person with him to help write music which is the downfall of ANY band. Considering he was striving to be the best keyboard player (he had no competition in the world of rock), it's hard to expect him to have done much better than arranging music and composing piano pieces.

The one thing I can never understand though, even in your remarks, is the typical lack of acknowledgement for Carl. On a technical level, I think he fit into a handful of greatest drummers in the world, going across any form of music. I don't think the same could be said for Keith.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Listen to Jordan Rudess' remake of Tarkus - Amazing

Anonymous said...

I think you have to be intelligent to enjoy tarkus ;)))

Anonymous said...

Some people get it and some people do not.

You should continue with your Ariana grande reviews going forward. Then you can build your way up to Justin tinderlake and maybe get then maybe find you way to the black keys but I very much doubt that.

Starting with extremely talented musicians when you are not one puts you at a disadvantage and I understand your fears so it may be best to stay away, we will understand.

Anonymous said...

Jordan Rudess performing Tarkus at NAMM...mustctv

Anonymous said...

Here's an example of someone that misunderstands music and prog.
I don't blame him for not understanding this but thinking that under this suite there's not a musical sense it's wrong.
It's not very melodical but this Is one of the firsr progressive masterpieces , it was born to be something strange and innovative... A thing that only few people can understand

Anonymous said...

A lot of it depends on when/where you first heard a song/album. 1973 several of us hanging at Jeff Allen's house. Heady teenage years. ELP fan ever since.