on July 27, 2008
Given the extraordinary influence of this band this compilation is long overdue and, apart from the expected "and worth the wait" coda, it has to said the layout of the 6-disk collection is the best I have seen since Led Zeppelin's gorgeous "desert-motif" 2-DVD collection which likewise sets out to sample a potent group from earliest manifestations to their last. In this case we are dealing with 5 CD's and one DVD, the last featuring a "Manticore Special" giving an interesting glimpse of their 1973 world tour. Don't expect too much with that though as it is uneven, at times risible but fascinating, and the sound quality is poor. Better to have included their "Pictures at an Exhibition" film (1971) for all its flaws perhaps, but what is achingly missing is a good quality film with first-class soundtrack of an exceptional performance from their Brain Salad Surgery tour in 1973 when the band was at their incandescent peak--more on that below.
The point here is that the compilation is all about their music, not the visuals, and the sound quality and sequence of songs are very well chosen, chronologically as well as the given balance between studio and live numbers. Unique to such an offering is a sample number by each member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the bands they were in directly before forming their trio (The Nice, King Crimson, and Atomic Rooster respectively). Incidentally, the release has fortuitously appeared at about the same time as musicologist Edward Macan`s 800+ page opus ``Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer" (Open Court Publishing: 2006), which is the perfect prose accompaniment to this musical journey as Macan--a Professor of Music in California--takes their musical influence and virtuosity very seriously indeed.
One thing Macan clarifies, and this is a question that has really bothered most ELP grognards down the years--why is this "Pictures at an Exhibition" film the only serious live performance recording of the band extant? The fact is, it was made in 1971 but not released until 1972 (UK) and 1973 (USA), and was highly problematic in terms of the sound quality to say the least (not to mention the horrible "psychedelic" visuals endemic to the times--pulsing blobs and cartoons). But the late release of this film, as Macan notes, actually had a lot more to do with preventing a serious filming of the band at their absolute peak on their Brain Salad Surgery tour in 1973. For any of you lucky enough to have seen this band power through "Jerusalem" (lyrics by Blake), the Argentinean composer Ginastera's "Toccata" (their/Emerson's version, and approved by Ginastera personally) and "Karn Evil 9", live as I did, it is simply hard to believe that not one film of this amazing set was made with a proper film and recording unit. Astonishing! A full four years later the band performed with a 58-piece orchestra on tour in 1977 (a financially insane move that caused the orchestra to be let go mid-tour, but you can see the wave they were still riding at the time)--and even this was not properly filmed or recorded. BTW if you take all 6 disks out of their translucent backings, you will see a large (10.75" x 18"!), nighttime pre-show wide-angle shot of ELP at the Montreal Olympic Stadium in 1977--the band obviously recognizes this as their peak. I would also mention that, here at last (along with the recently released chefs d'oeuvres by The Who and Led Zeppelin mentioned elsewhere), the horrid "jewel-case" CD format is moving back towards an artistically perfect LP-size album art. The CD "jewel-case" is an abomination.
The fact is the band was moving too fast (417 live shows 1970-1977) and peaked just when so-called progressive rock lost its audience for reasons I won't go into here. Also, to be fair, this was the early `70s and recording and filming was an elaborate undertaking. As for 1977, it is inexplicable and I hope Macan's book will explain this when I get near the end of it.
Finally, the 58-page tall-format insert booklet with photos and interviews with band members is one of the best I have seen. Compare this entire package with the supposedly definitive Pink Floyd "Pulse" double-DVD set coverage of their last `94 Albert Hall concert (sans Waters of course--see my review of that) which comes off as startlingly low budget, disparity of costs notwithstanding and the contrast is remarkable. In short, in terms of giving this band their musical due in a luxurious and tasteful format and, most importantly, one that is musically substantive, in my view it ranks up there with the recent deluxe edition of the 2-CD Who "Live at Leeds" edition (and Led Zep mentioned above), and that is saying a lot. You can hear Emerson's version of Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" in any stadium sports spectacle to this day--this guy invented classically influenced moog rock. This was one of the most seminal groups of the 70's and only a full-spectrum compilation could do their diversity, virtuosity and yes, bombast, justice. It succeeds very well indeed.