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Emerson Lake & Palmer - Pictures At An Exhibition CD (album) cover


Emerson Lake & Palmer


Symphonic Prog

3.86 | 901 ratings

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4 stars This is where I proudly make my stand. One of my favorite online reviewers gave this album a 1/10, and even solid ELP fans often wrinkle their noses at this one. But you know what? I LOVE this album. It's tasteless, it's ear-destructive at more than a few points, and it bleeds white-bred anglophile academic pomposity throughout. In short, it's a complete and utter massacre of a great, well-known classical piece. Man I love this album.

If you're not familiar with the circumstances surrounding this album, allow me to fill you in. One of the most infamous features of early ELP live shows was that, at some point in the middle, the band would perform its own, um, "interpretation" of the Modest Mussorgsky (a 19th century Russian composer) classical piece of the same name as this album. Hence, this is a live recording of one of these performances, which may or may not have been one of the better renditions the band ever did, but is interesting as hell nonetheless. It's more or less built around the same structure of the original classical piece, albeit lacking several themes from the original (for time considerations, I suppose), but it's the differences that really raise eyebrows throughout.

So ok, we start out with the standard "Promenade" introduction of the original, played majestically and close to the vest on a churchy sounding organ. But then "The Gnome" comes in, with the same general themes as Mussorgsky's "Gnomus," but with a decidedly different and rawer texture than one would be used to in a 'normal' rendition, with clever placements of each of the three's instruments as the primary theme carrier at any one moment. Not to mention, of course, that Keith provides an interesting mix of dirty hammond sounds and 'futuristic' moog sounds that may make you twitch a bit but that are nevertheless quite interesting to listen to ... if you're in the mood. The end effect is that it is easily recognizable as Mussorgsky's piece, but with enough changes to definitely warrant an extra composition credit to Palmer. But whatever, it's still quite neat, and yet only a prelude to the storm to come.

Faithful to the original, the "Promenade" theme comes up again, but this time, instead of being a rote copy of the introduction, it features Lake singing a bunch of meaningless lyrics in his heavenly voice to the melody. At this point, though, the album diverges into an acoustic ballad (after a short moog interlude, of course) that has no connection whatsoever to the original, but that I'm dreadfully glad is here nonetheless. "The Sage" is yet another example of Lake at his songwriting best, with a lovely set of simple acoustic lines underpinning a BEAUTIFUL vocal melody with some more totally meaningless (yet nice to listen to) lyrics. And besides, it gives the listener a chance to have a slight rest from Keith and Carl, if by chance their sonic choices for this album aren't your cup of tea.

Up next is "The Old Castle," where the album starts to REALLY diverge from the original and causes even some ELP fans to fidget like mad. There's a vague, vague resemblence to Mussorgsky's piece of the same name, in parts, but that's largely obfuscated by the band's, um, *creativity* (not to mention the Moog, nyarrgh) ... and then all resemblance to the original totally evaporates into a blues jam. Man, this is a complete, total massacre of what "good" music is supposed to be; a rock band, adapting a classical piece, by sticking in a blues jam, and then doing the jam all wrong by having the primary instruments be a Moog and a Hammond. IT'S SO GROTESQUE. WOW THIS IS AWESOME.

After another "Promenade" (the last, don't worry), we hit the part where people start running away screaming. The original piece here goes into "The Hut on Chicken's Legs," which in legend was the home of a witch named Baba Yaga. A fine piece of eerie, majestic discord this is, with all sorts of great volume and mood shifts in the course of three-and-a-half minutes. Well, ELP decided to expand on this a bit, all the while preserving the mood and essence of the original. There are two sections called, appropriately enough, "The Hut of Baba Yaga," where the melodies of the original are kept, but between these is the AMAZING original "The Curse of Baba Yaga." There's Lake screaming out all sorts of incomprehensibilities, his guitar distorted as hell when carrying some parts of the original melodies, there's Palmer keeping a solid groove, and above all there's Keith beating the living daylights out of his Hammond when not squeezing every possible sound out of his Moog. Maybe it's unlistenable, but dagnabbit, I just look at it as some prog S&M, because this is a pain that I definitely enjoy listening to. Not every day or every week, of course, but definitely once in a while.

Finally, we hit "The Great Gates of Kiev," the grand finale of both the original and of ELP's rendition. In some ways, this part is actually a bit too pompous for me, as the only major modification to the original (aside from arrangement changes, of coruse) is Lake adding a bunch of grandiose lyrics. Still, I enjoy it, right up until the end where Lake belts out his "DEEEEEEAAAAATH IIIIIIIIIIIS LIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!!" line, albeit with less oomph than I'd like, heh. I gotta say, though, that my favorite moment of the track is probably the kitchiest, the one where the feedback coming out of the keyboards sounds like the buzzer one might hear in a high school gymnasium at the end of a basketball game.

So that's your album, (except for the closing 'encore' - a rendition of the Kim Fowley piece "Nutrocker," which is funny but kinda stupid even by the standards of ELP), one which doesn't deserve anywhere near the hatred it so often seems to breed. I can't give it a higher grade than a low ****, if only because while I enjoy it a lot, it's also one of the albums I'd be most embarrassed to play in front of friends, which tells me that my enjoyment is largely a function of my own geekiness. Regardless, though, it's a fine addition to ELP's catalogue, and a nice reminder of the cultural impact, for better or for worse, that ELP had on the music scene in the early 70's.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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