Brain Salad Surgery

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Atlantic Records, 1973

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


To the skeptical critic, the dark underbelly of progressive rock has always been its tendency to embrace excess—as in, make it bigger, and bolder, and weirder, with all the pretension and theatricality you can possibly muster. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery offers a virtual master class in prog excess, with some of the finest recorded examples of bold, dynamic prog arriving alongside at least one or two genuine head-scratchers.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer was regarded as one of the first supergroups, combining the talents and ambitions of keyboardist Keith Emerson from The Nice, bassist/vocalist (as well as guitarist/producer) Greg Lake from King Crimson, and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster. But the group made its mark by progressing from those fertile roots into a brasher, grander, keyboard-heavy sound that, like Crimson, seemed at times as though it was playing the darker yang to fellow progressive rockers Yes’s lighter, airier yin. In concert, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman would don a sparkly cape; Emerson, on the other hand, was known to wedge certain keys down with large knives while soloing. The contrast is telling.

Brain Salad Surgery found the by-now veteran trio ELP continuing to push farther and farther outside of the rock box, combining overt classical influences with jazz, music hall, and theatrical styles, even as keyboard maestro Emerson, alongside comrade/competitor Wakeman, was busy pioneering electronic experimentalism within the rock context. Boundaries were the enemy, and ELP attacked them with determination and vigor.

Opener “Jerusalem” presents a strikingly pretty reimagination of a traditional English tune, with stately Hammond organ fanfares and a reverent, resonant lead vocal from Lake. The mood shifts immediately, though, as “Toccata” finds Emerson transforming the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto into a showcase for The Deranged Keyboard Scientist let loose in his lab. It’s seven-plus minutes of Moog-driven madness, strange and dissonant, occasionally compelling but more often baffling, as when Emerson unleashes a barrage of seemingly random electronic sound effects over a chaotic Palmer solo between roughly 5:15 and 6:15. Lake is more or less a bystander throughout.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

For neck-snapping contrast, it’s hard to beat following the discombobulating “Toccata” with the gentle precision of Lake’s terrific ballad “Still… You Turn Me On.” This virtual solo track finds guitarist Lake alternating gorgeous acoustic picking on the verses with flashes of wah-wahed out electric on the choruses, as Emerson and Palmer keep to the edges of the frame. The bridge (“Every day a little sadder / A little madder / Someone get me a ladder”) might feel like a clever thought taken a step too far, but isn’t that ELP in a nutshell? As if to prove the point, the shimmering “Still…” is followed by “Benny The Bouncer,” a bizarre little 2:21 novelty tune sung in ragged cockney couplets that ends up feeling like a bad joke explainable only by drugs and/or poor judgment.

All of this is really just the opening act, though, for the headliner waiting in the wings. “Karn Evil 9”—all three “impressions,” four parts and 29 minutes of it—is one of the milestone epics in the entire progressive rock genre. Audacious and urgent from the start, its dynamic arrangement provides multiple opportunities for each player to shine. The opening section finds Emerson complementing his own forceful organ work with superb synth accents while Lake parries with assertive bass and powerful vocals, and Palmer drives the band from the bottom end. The lyric, with contributions from frequent Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield, is a circus of horrors and quite macabre, but delivered with such musical and vocal flair that it feels celebratory.

The first movement (“1st Impression”) is a bundle of nervous energy and arguably the high point of the group’s entire career; this is prog bombast at its finest. The second is more classical in structure, a seven-minute instrumental jam featuring some of Emerson’s zippiest speed-jazz piano excursions, with Palmer counter-pointing from behind his massive kit. Emerson’s long rippling runs soon transition into a syncopated world-rhythm section with synthesized steel drums and all manner of other electronic wizardry, before falling back to a quiet, atmospheric middle section and eventually finishing up with a fresh, new upbeat piano segment.

Lake returns in force for the third movement, er, impression, which starts off with an apocalyptic, doomsday feel. A bright, steady bridging segment then transitions into a final five-minute jam that’s full-tilt aggro, managing to be both earthy and avant garde, gritty and pompous. The suite wraps with a final flourish, a pulsing, channel-phasing synth loop that puts an exclamation point on the proceedings.

(Side note: The 2011 Sony CD reissue adds two tracks issued on the subsequent Works Vol. 2 collection that originated with the Brain Salad Surgery sessions; neither is at all essential. “Brain Salad Surgery” is a throw-away, with Lake growling an incoherent lyric over a funk-inflected backing track, while the annoyingly titled “When The Apple Blossoms Bloom By The Window Of Your Mind I’ll Be Your Valentine” is a spacier, more experimental instrumental bit.)

Widely regarded as a classic—and certainly the ELP album that I gravitated toward in my own prog-rock glory days—Brain Salad Surgery might be uneven in the early going, but it finishes with one of the most memorable and musically potent epics in the entire prog genre. It would be this trio’s last great recording, but it was a corker.

Rating: A-

User Rating: C



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