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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Tarkus CD (album) cover


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

4.06 | 1669 ratings

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4 stars Look at that cover! That, my friends, is an ARMADILLO TANK. Now, there have been many weird, weird album covers in the history of rock music, but for sheer psycho and bizarre effect, Tarkus has to take the cake. Plus, the theme extends to the pictures on the inner sleeve, which apparently are supposed to illustrate the 'epic story' told by the side- long title track. Basically, this creature is born on the side of a volcano, kills a giant grasshopper with a ... something-shaped head and a large robot pterodactyl, does battle with a metal manticore, and afterwards retreats into the safety of a nearby river....

But never mind all of the weird imagery and insane story, one that confused Lake so much that he came close to quitting during the album's sessions. What matters is that ELP solidifed their greatness amongst early prog bands by immediately following their best ever album with their best ever song, one that has had a longtime solid hold as my favorite ELP track. And it wouldn't be if it were totally faithful to this story (well, maybe it would, but I'm trying to make a point here). See, although the seven sections of the track have names like "Eruption," "Manticore," and "AquaTarkus" (?), the lyrics have almost nothing to do with the 'story.' Rather, the whole piece, when you get down to it, is (as stated in the intro) nothing more than three Lake ballads and pop songs highly augmented by complex and VERY interesting arrangments. Not that the instrumental themes are bad either. For instance, the opening "Eruption" has a terrific groove, with highly aggressive drum playing and Emerson's amazing keyboards leading the way and setting the tone for the rest of the piece.

Following that, we get the very solid "Stones of Years," which has yet another great melody, good singing, and of course lots more of Keith. Actually, come to think of it, that's probably what bothers people most about this song. The playing is fantastic, sure, but Emerson was in a highly experimental mode when it came to the various tones he could coax out of his mellotrons and other keyboards. This unfortunately causes many to denounce the piece as dated as anything can possibly be - I mean, these keyboard tones really have no equivalent to anything that had ever come in ANY format of music to that point. But dagnabbit, they're novel, and if you're a dork, they're so freakin' fun to listen to. And speaking of fun to listen to, next comes the instrumental "Iconoclast," which it does a great job of creating in your mind the image of a psychotic tank moving through the countryside and blowing things to bits (all of those tight rolling keyboard lines with fast martial drumming actually can create imagery, fancy that). Plus, it's short, so one can never accuse it of becoming boring vis a vis an overstay of welcome.

But then ... what the heck?? "Mass" has NOTHING to do with the story, but that's just fine with me. It's too bad that Greg couldn't be in a band with less, um, ambition, since with a less intimidating arrangment it most likely would have been a hit. I mean, that melody, regardless of how annoying Keith's synth tones might be at times, is SO CATCHY AND SO MUCH FUN. And besides, I don't want to give the impression that this part is an otherwise great track marred by Keith, because that's not how I feel at all; the insane amount of energy and intensity and energy that goes into the keyboard playing is quite a sight to behold, weird tones or no, and that gives it a license to stick around me as much as it would like. And besides, Lake gets in some really nice guitar licks in the middle (ah, Lake's guitar, the great forgotten ELP asset), so you can choose to listen to those instead.

After yet another solid instrumental reprise of "Eruption (Manticore)," we get piece number three, the majestic "Battlefield." The lyrics rule, Lake's voice makes them come to life, and his guitar (dig that weeping solo in the middle, especially when it doubles up!) complements Emerson's organ and piano chords perfectly, which present an enjoyable sort of bizarro dignity to the proceedings (a compliment, of course). Yup, Lake makes the words come to life in that good ole "Take a Pebble" and "Epitaph" manner once more, making total nonsense find a way to resonate in a way only he can. And, of course, no symphony (heh, rock-symphony) would be complete without an extended, grandiose finale, and for that we get the synth-fest "AquaTarkus." Now, if you want to punch a hole through your stereo while listening to Keith conjure up all of the most annoying synth tones possible (while Palmer plays his military rhythms, heh), I won't blame you in the slightest. I myself once felt that way, but now I wouldn't think of it. Maybe my tastes have just down the drain through the years, I dunno, but it's so funny. Genuinely funny. Besides, it ends eventually, and we close out with another short reprise of "Eruption" and the huge, important-sounding conclusion. And there you go; seven entertaining and short parts, with a good balance of original themes and timely reprisals, showing all of ELP's good sides and none of the bad (except for the key tones, but that's not so much bad as it is "just part of ELP.")

Oh, by the way, there's a second side to this album too. And it's good! The opening "Jeremy Bender" introduces to us a side of the band that we hadn't heard before, the lightweight cabaret-style piano band. I used to not be very fond of it, considering it too lightweight and even bland, but now I don't see much reason for that; the lyrics are amusing, talking about a guy who decides to become a nun, among other things, while the vocal melody and piano lines are perfectly enjoyable during its two minutes, so what else should I ask for? Well, actually, I guess I'd want something that sounds like a "Tarkus" outtake, like the very next track, "Bitches Crystal." Yup, the synth-drum-bass pattern is quite like "Eruption," but is also augmented with much more piano than the majority of "Tarkus" has, and whenever Lake brings out that insane "Knife Edge" belting, it's just ELP heaven for me.

Unfortunately, we finally crash into a low point of the album with the next two tracks. The seven minute "Only Way"/"Infinite Space" suite is quite on the dull side, and the anti-religion lyrics are absolutely pathetic and childish. In fact, I feel no choice but to subtract a full point from the album for this lame and dreary piece of crud. Sorry, Greg, you should've known better - if you want to put together an anti-religion rant, that's fine, but you'd better avoid such tasteless lines like the one about six million Jews. Give me "Aqualung" RIGHT NOW... To be fair, though, the "Infinite Space" part is alright on its own, with some low key discordant piano wanking that's pretty moody, so this part isn't as much a black hole as it could potentially be.

Let us forget the bad things of this world, though, and think of the good. The next track, "Time and a Place," RULES. Greg is belting his lyrics like there's no tomorrow, and Keith is playing his synths and organs LOUD and AGGRESSIVE (of course Palmer is great, but that just goes without saying). Like I've inferred before, I like the majestic Lake as much as anybody does, but when the band gets into a "Knife Edge" mode like this, giving Lake a chance to have screaming moments like "Show me those that underSTAAAAAAAAAAAND!" this is when ELP becomes a great band for me. Three minutes of aural bliss.

And finally, to remind us that they're not all serious, though, they close out with the absolutely HILARIOUS 50's R&B parody, "Are You Ready Eddy?." It's just neat to hear one of the most serious and majestic singers in rock belting "Bop me Eddy, bop me all night long." Or maybe it's just me. "Sock it to me"!

A great album this is. An acquired taste, yeah, and a VERY guilty pleasure, but once you can realize just how funny the title track is despite all of its pomp, and how neat these second half tracks mostly are, you should have a blast. Unless, of course, you can't get past all of those weird synths, in which case you should just give up ELP for good.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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