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ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Mar 13 2016 10:34PM

Already 2016 seems to have been blighted by more high-profile musician deaths than previous years. I was still reading articles about Sir George Martin’s legacy as late as Friday last week when news began to filter through about Keith Emerson. Is the death of a septuagenarian rock musician especially surprising? As I type this the single rumour that his death might have been suicide has gained more credence and though tragic for family and friends who might think they could have done something to prevent such an horrendous outcome, it comes across to this fan in the UK as shocking; the world of prog has lost a genuine pioneer.

After Yes, The Nice was the next band I became familiar with and though this was in late 1972, two years after their demise, it was before I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Page family Nice collection was acquired in roughly reverse chronological order, beginning with either Elegy (1971) or Five Bridges (1970.) Tony was responsible for these purchases and it was only when I was a student in London that I bought my own copies. I remember that Nice (1969) was relatively difficult to come by; we called this album ‘red cover’ to distinguish it from the other releases as well as the group itself even though it had an ‘official’ alternative title, Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It. My copy of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was a 1976 reissue on the Charly label with a Magritte-like cover illustration of a grand piano breaking through ice, credited to P Larue (Patrice Larue?)

I’d class most Nice material as proto-prog but the first two albums, Thoughts and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) are psychedelic, with a link to another early British psychedelic act, Pink Floyd, through guitarist Davy O’List who stood in for an incapacitated Syd Barrett. The short songs are largely throw-away, not as original or as good as the early Floyd efforts, but Rondo, War and Peace and Dawn hinted at the greatness to come. Keith Emerson’s ability to blend jazz, rock and blues with classical music was the basis of the success of the Nice and subsequently, ELP. Whereas Pink Floyd developed space rock and dallied with the avant garde, Emerson took another route: rocking the classics. Equal parts virtuoso and showman, Emerson stood out as the first important keyboard player in rock; having ousted guitarist O’List as unreliable he showed that a keyboard trio was equal to any guitar-based band and influencing a number of other fledgling progressive acts. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison were solid enough and would later show they were more than capable in Refugee with Patrick Moraz but the Nice was really all about Emerson. The Dylan adaptations were barely recognisable as songs by Bob Dylan, who I didn’t like but She Belongs to Me was a bit of an epic in the hands of Emerson, Jackson and Davison; Country Pie on the other hand was only acceptable because of the inclusion of Bach. The classical excerpts morphed into rock interpretations of lengthier pieces, so that the intermezzo from The Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, the tune used for the current affairs TV programme This Week became a staple live number and forms the track of main interest on side one of Ars Longa Vita Brevis, acting as a neat prelude to Emerson’s first recorded orchestral piece, the title track taking up the entirety of side two; there’s a naivety about this composition and it’s not really helped by poor production but I really like it.


If the Nice helped Emerson cut his arranging skills they were perfected early on, with more challenging compositions, in ELP. Their eponymous debut album remains high up in my personal prog top 10 and though I do like Take a Pebble and Lucky Man, it’s for the beautiful, flowing piano and the marvellous Moog respectively. Emerson may have dabbled with the modular Moog while still with the Nice and played the instrument from the beginning with his new trio but it’s on Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) where it makes its stunning first recorded appearance. Emerson’s ‘sound’ was defined as much by his synthesizer work as his organ or piano and the use of the ribbon controller allowed him to incorporate showmanship into his Moog playing, in the same way that attacking his L100 with knives and wrestling it to the floor or playing it from behind demonstrated his incredible ability on organ or sitting at a piano that revolved around in the air enhanced the live performances. School friend Keith Palmen was converted into a big ELP fan and it was probably at his house that I first heard Pictures at an Exhibition (1971), a brilliant example of both the excitement that the band could generate live and of the interpretative skills of Emerson.

In 1973 or ’74, when I started to become interested in ELP, I became aware how ELP divided opinion, such that my original vinyl collection included second-hand copies of Tarkus (1971), Pictures, Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Works Volume 1 (1977) as disgruntled friends decided they’d outgrown the bombast and turned to either punk or smooth jazz. It could not be disputed that the 1974 tour promoting Brain Salad was something of a monster because it was turned into a road documentary and a triple live album. The version of Aquatarkus on Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974) remains one of my favourite ELP tracks; the solid rhythm of Palmer and Lake allows Emerson to really shine on organ and Moog, reminiscent of the backing provided by Jackson and Davison in the Nice.

The subsequent studio hiatus signalled the beginning of the end for ELP; while they toured and rested punk was hoiking over music fans. ELP came back strongly with a pretty good effort but the decision to allow one side of the double LP Works Volume 1 to each of the members and only one side of real group collaboration may, on reflection, have been the wrong approach. Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1 is very enjoyable, building on his previous orchestrated pieces with the Nice and reflecting his admiration for Aaron Copeland but the ELP side has an updated sound, coming from the Yamaha GX1. Emerson is reported to have been quite smitten with this keyboard, eschewing Moog and organ on side 4 in favour of the new piece of technology. I find the sound thin, like so many late 70s and early 80s synthesizers, and would have preferred it if he’d stuck to his analogue instruments.

Having been unaware of the Royal Albert Hall gig in October 1992 that resulted in the excellent Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1993) I thought that I’d never get to see them play live. I’d managed to get to see the reformed Nice during a period of ELP disbandment in 2003 at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, the venue for the recording of much of Five Bridges where the band were augmented by guitarist Dave Kilminster. Though at times the sound was quite poor and there were problems with Emerson’s Moog, it was a fantastic occasion, with the performance divided into a Nice portion and an ELP portion where Jackson and Davison stepping back to allow two other musicians to take over on bass and drums.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the debut album and though I’d have preferred a more intimate venue than London’s Victoria Park, it was an occasion not to be missed. The music was incredible and the atmosphere was rather special at this huge event. This would be the last time that the three would play together.



Jim and I went to see the Keith Emerson Band with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican last year, the highlight of which was an orchestrated Tarkus, but it was good to see Emerson taking the conductor’s baton for the encore Glorieta Pass. I believe this was Emerson’s last ever concert performance and though he seemed to relish his raconteur role as much as his musical contribution, he did appear somewhat unsteady. If it’s true that there were no more live concert appearances, I feel quite privileged that I attended two significant events, even though I missed out on classic ELP back in 1974 and only discovered the Nice two years after they’d broken up.



Emerson was an inspiration to keyboard players. He will be sadly missed.


Keith Emerson b. 2nd November 1944 d. 10th March 2016



By ProgBlog, Jul 12 2015 10:43PM

I’ve just spent another night at a not-your-usual-kind-of gig. I’ve been signed up to the Barbican Centre’s mailing list for almost 18 months now and the kind of show it puts on are often on the fringes of ordinary prog: the Lindsay Cooper tribute last year and Goblin performing a live soundtrack to Profondo Rosso earlier this year are prime examples and mean that appearances by Van der Graaf Generator lie relatively safely within the boundary of the genre. The Keith Emerson Band would have been straightforward crossover prog but for the performance on 10th July they were joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Terje Mikkelsen playing The Three Fates Project, an album of orchestrated works by Emerson, largely but not exclusively originally presented as trio pieces with ELP, and also featuring a couple of tracks by guitarist Marc Bonilla. I was personally rather thrilled by the prospect of the concert, imagining it hinted at the Works tour with orchestra in the late 70s which sadly had to be curtailed because of the negative financial impact, so it was good to see Emerson performing with an orchestra.

Emerson’s love of classical music is indisputable and his classical adaptations for a rock group format are legion. He also has a long history of integrating a rock band with an orchestra dating back to his days with The Nice: The side-long title track of Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968); the commissioned title track from Five Bridges (1970); and ELP’s Works (1978) which included his Piano Concerto no.1, the first true formal classical piece he’d written. However, this concert also formed part of the Barbican’s Moog Concordance series, marking 50 years since Dr Robert Moog unleashed his modular synthesizer on an unsuspecting world; a modular Moog formed the centrepiece of Emerson’s keyboard set-up.

I was accompanied on this sonic adventure by Jim, who pointed out that the recent back-room deal between the BBC and the government, in which the corporation agreed to pay for the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s, estimated at £650 million, was likely to require further cuts to services provided by the BBC, such as their orchestras. The Myerscough report Delivering Quality First from 2012 about the future funding of the BBC, talked about job cuts and rationalisation of Performing Groups: the five full-time orchestras and the BBC Singers. The size of the funding cut was to be of the order of 10 per cent but it swiftly became apparent that this figure was not to be shared out equally: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic got away with single-figure cuts whereas the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers had to bear the brunt of the cuts. Of course I think that the TV licence fee should be reviewed and restructured, as should the current governance structure of the corporation after the awful handling of the last round of negotiations with the government, but the BBC remains an important organisation, largely unbiased, that offers not only some incredible programmes accessible to everyone and facilitates live culture through its Performing Groups, one of which was supporting Keith Emerson. Hands off the BBC!

The show began without Emerson but with the orchestra, drummer Ralph Salmins and bassist Travis Davis who inadvertently created a huge crunching noise over the quiet orchestration at the start of Abaddon's Bolero as he plugged in his guitar. The appearance of Marc Bonilla as the number built to a crescendo drew a burst of applause from the audience which was repeated, louder, when Emerson, replete in a sparkly dark suit appeared to play a few bars on the Moog at the end of the piece. At this juncture Emerson explained a little bit about the concept of The Three Fates and cracked some feeble jokes when he really shouldn’t have bothered. He even asked if Rick Wakeman was present in the audience, suggesting that Wakeman should do the jokes. It also appeared that he expected Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess to be in the crowd but it wasn’t clear if Rudess was to supply any humorous material... The music fitted the classical treatment really well and it was during the second piece, The Endless Enigma that I realised how Emerson’s scoring for strings was quite identifiable, harking back to The Five Bridges Suite. Emerson didn’t contribute to Bonilla’s American Matador but the composition didn’t seem at all out of place, showcasing the guitarist’s technique and genuinely providing a Spanish feel. We were sitting quite close to the front of the stalls and over to the left side of the stage close to where the band had set up and from this position, though the full orchestra was distinct, the only part of the band that was consistently audible was the drums. I could hear the cellos and double bass better than I could make out the bass guitar; the volume of the guitar became more acceptable as the concert progressed but the keyboards, with the exception of the grand piano, were for the most part indistinguishable, lost in the swell of the brass, woodwind and strings. It was only when Emerson played solo lines like for the encore Lucky Man that he could be made out clearly.

The weakest songs may have been After All Of This (which Emerson described as also being And all of that) and a piece from a film that never surfaced The Mourning Sun but that might have been due to their relative brevity. It was interesting to hear the performance of an Alberto Ginastera piece other than ELP’s version of Toccata, Malambo and the presentation of Fanfare for the Common Man, preceded by a story about asking Copeland for permission to use the piece, was a clever comparison of the score as written followed by a version just featuring the electric group that had originally appeared on Works. The highlight was of course Tarkus in its entirety, which didn’t sound out of place as an orchestrated piece.

Emerson took up the conductor’s baton for part of the encore and seemed to do fairly well. Lucky Man, dedicated to Greg Lake and featuring the only vocals of the evening, ably provided by Bonilla, brought the event to a close. With ELP never likely to play together again a concert like this was a must not miss occasion. Despite some difficulty with the sound (at least from our seating) the performance was exceptionally enjoyable, far more so than the last rock band and orchestra I went to see – the disappointing Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It's just a bit ironic that there was no attempt to play The Three Fates from the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album when the night's performance was dubbed Three Fates.



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