Brain Salad Surgery
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Released: December 1973
Chart Peak: #11
Weeks Charted: 47
Certified Gold: 12/12/73
Onstage, EL&P usually overcome the shortcomings of their records -- insufficient intensity and lack of worthy material -- by working hard and busting their asses to play with incredible tightness (witness Pictures at an Exhibition). In the studio, their vision and grandiose schemes dilute the tightness, resulting in things like Brain Salad Surgery, on which their shortcomings outweigh undeniable moments of brilliance. The result: another sadly uneven album from a group with technical gifts equal to that of any British trio.
Save for an occasional blast like "Lucky Man" or "Take a Pebble," songs have not been EL&P's strong suite. When Lake is good as a writer, he's very good; when he's off, he has a tendency toward overblown lyrics. Hence, lines like "Do you want to be the lover of another/undercover/ you can even be the man on the moon," which drag the conceptually sound "Still You Turn Me On" to near-farcical proportions. And variation or no, each EL&P disk has contained a needless nonsensical whimsey like this one's "Benny The Bouncer" -- each a terrible waste of the band's talent and the listener's time.
The real meat of this platter, though, is the "Karn Evil 9" suite whose three movements compromise roughly a side and a quarter of the disk. Another tour-de-force where EL&P pull out all the sonic stops, this time around the theme's of a tripart epic battle between man and his surroundings. Emerson's keyboards whiz and speak, Lake and Carl Palmer hustle to keep perfect, imaginative time. Nonetheless, it's but a shell of its onstage self -- where here they cook, in concert EL&P's presentation of this number boils over and vaporizes.
This LP only convinces me that EL&P really ought to record all their material in concert, for short of that I fear we're doomed to more albums like Brain Salad Surgery, -- another record that shows this fine band to mixed effect.
- Gordon Fletcher, Rolling Stone, 1/31/74.
The packaging of this album is like one of those Chinese puzzles, and after spending five minutes getting the disc out of the sleeve I snarled (I snarl sometimes), "By Neptune's toothcomb, this record had better be worth it!"
It's not, really. Emerson, Lake & Palmer (for convenience, EL&P from here on in) play a kind of Baroque-rock, dominated by Emerson's organ. But you might as well call the style "conservatory-rock," since most of its players are graduates of or fugitives from music schools. The trouble with the conservatory-rock groups is that, like jazz-rock groups, they studiously avoid having any fun and are pretentious from the word go. There is one song here, "Benny the Bouncer," where EL&P loosen up a bit, but the rest of the album is pretty dull. "Toccata," an adaptation of a piano concerto by Alberto Ginastera, is a misfire; they try to see how loud they can play it and throw in a drum solo (listed as a "percussion movement") that is meaningless clunka-ta-boom stuff. "Karn Evil 9," which takes up part of side one and all of side two, is a hash of gurgles and beeps from Emerson's keyboards fraught with portentous vocals. Perhaps this type of show-off music, touted as being "meaningful" or "opening new vistas," is meant to be listened to while drugged. It certainly sounds silly when the listener isn't.
The theme of the album seems to be that Evil Lurks. EL&P illustrate their point in opening the proceedings with "Jerusalem," that hoary old English hymn with its righteous sentiments about steamrolling holiness over "England's green and pleasant land" (it is comparable to "Onward Christian Soldiers" over here). If they had simply taken some of the more bellicose and necrophilic hymns available, following the idea that much of Eastern and Western religious music teeters on a very thin line between spirituality and deviltry, they might have made a very interesting album. As it is, they sound like toddlers playing rhinoceros; their music is huffy-puffy and wasteful.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 7/74.
Do you ever get the desire to completely saturate your brain with sound? To take your headphones and put the volume up full and let your whole being, every nook and cranny of your grey matter, cease to be anything but music? Have you been afraid that if you choose the wrong album for this little experiment you might find yourself permanently damaged? Then, this is your chance. Pull out the new ELP album Brain Salad Surgery, plug in the old set of 'phones' and put the needle on to the first track on side one, "Jerusalem," then close your eyes and listen. Never has any band filled a groove with such music: beautiful, fulfilling, totally spiritual, perfectly executed sounds. From Greg Lake's choir boy vocals of the well known English hymn, to the carefully and well-tempered synthesized melody lines from the master himself Keith Emerson, and the drums...well it's all unbelievable.
By comparison the "Toccata," an "adaptation of Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto, 4th movement," sounds totally avant garde to these staid ears and terribly chaotic. "Still...You Turn Me On," a lovely and fluid Lake ballad, is similar to many of the other Lake ballads from preceding ELP extravaganzas. "Benny The Bouncer" is terribly reminiscent of the Nice's Ars Longa Vita Brevis days and the memories of those long lost and totally endearing days, when it wasn't all pomp and the boys could still laugh at the absurd role of the rock and roller.
"Karn Evil 9, part I" introduces a new/old friend into Emerson, Lake and Palmer's creative quarters. Combining with the gavotting mellotron, synthesizer and organ riffs of Emerson, Greg Lake has collaborated with Pete Sinfield. Again it's all quite complex and not at all rock, but listening to "Karn Evil 9, first impression part 2" it's suddenly evident that Greg Lake's voice has taken on a whole new side. It's stronger now, more ballsy...more vital and working better than it ever has before. With Emerson rocking behind him as only he can (the element of "swing" is terribly important to him) the long variation moves along at a staggering pace. There are weak moments to Brain Salad Surgery, but on the whole it's a very well done LP.
- Janis Schacht, Circus, 3/74.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer are a band with a real Achilles heel and no matter what they do, there always seem to be a few minor flaws that deny them the technical perfection demanded by their chosen musical genre. For the most part either problems in sustaining intensity or substandard material have marred their technically incredible workouts; only on Pictures At An Exhibition could ELP outdistance these twin bugaboos.
That album's live format had a lot to do with its success, for onstage presentations force ELP to limit their scope to attainable high-energy levels. In the studio such restrictions are lifted, giving the band a lot of rope with which they can hang themselves. Thus lots of great ideas and veritable tons of great playing grace Brain Salad Surgery, yet the fact that ELP try so hard to do so much again results in lapses that make for a disappointingly uneven album.
ELP again waste their time with an off-beat "song," "Benny The Bouncer," and Greg Lake's lyricism takes a turn for the ludicrous on "Still You Turn Me On," going from lovers to spies to "the man on the moon" in 20 words or less. And though the playing on the lengthy "Karn Evil 9" suite is quite zesty, ELP fail to sustain an intense mood throughout its duration, reducing its overall effectiveness.
Great technical players, an incredible live band, the snake-bitten ELP certainly possess the ability to conquer their studio faults. They may well yet put it all together.
- Gordon Fletcher, Circus Raves, 4/74.
Although their last album was boring dreck, the same cannot be said of Brain Salad Surgery. The group manages to be interesting a fair percentage of the time (mostly during the songs of Greg Lake), and they succeed at making a lot of noise. How utterly impressive, ELP haven't made a really solid album since their first, and the major problem is that Keith's ego needs badly to be stomped upon. How does one tell a keyboard virtuoso that he can't write worth shit? In the case of Mr. Emerson, just make sure he doesn't have one of his golden daggers in his hand when you break the news to him.
- Jon Tiven, Circus Raves, 4/74.
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Science-fiction rock, virtually a soundtrack to a non-existant film. Well-produced and overpowering, but fully rewarding only on the tracks that fall outside the concept. * * * *
- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
A deliciously grandiose opus that solidified this trio as one of the premier practitioners of progressive rock, this artistic piece of epic magnitude is just short of pretentious making it, well, brilliant. Their supreme mastery of instruments (long live the Moog synthesizer) and blending of classical music was way ahead of its time, perhaps too far for a few who bristle at its overblown, bombastic UK excess. * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
Synths imitating trumpets! A track based on the work of a classical composer from Argentina! A half-hour suite pitting man against computer! What's not to love? An essential classic-prog album.
- David Browne, Entertainment Weekly, 5/13/05.
Show-offs, these guys were. Technically obsessed geeks in artists' clothing. Led by Keith Emerson, demonic overlord of organ and synth, the trio, which included drummer Carl Palmer and bassist Greg Lake, cooked up a heavy music that, even in the prog-happy early '70s, was exotic. First, ELP bludgeoned listeners with dense chords and drums like cannon fire. And then it blew them away with regrooved hits of symphonic music pumped to larger-than-life grandeur.
Formed in 1970 when Lake left the imploding King Crimson, the trio hit paydirt on its first try: Among the songs on the band's debut was the wistful "Lucky Man," which became a staple of album rock radio. That emboldened the three, and over the next few records ELP would create highly dramatic renditions of classical pieces (Aaron Copeland's "Hoedown," Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition"), and originals built on intricate, if sometimes bombastic, syncopations ("Tarkus"). The fourth effort, Brain Salad Surgery, stands as the most fully realized -- and still decidedly brazen -- ELP statement.
The album opens in a mood of great import, with Lake singing William Blake's poem "Jerusalem." Then comes another appropriation -- this time of twentieth-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1, which Emerson retooled into the intense and episodic "Toccata." That's followed by a Lake ballad, "Still...You Turn Me On," perhaps the most graceful music these three ever made together.
The centerpiece is a sprawling four-movement futuristic keyboard fantasia, "Karn-Evil 9," which opens in a blaze of up-tempo rock, then travels through mystical sci-fi settings so that Emerson can show off his electrifying Moog synthesizer creations. Listen as they navigate the fast-moving rapids of the opening section of "Karn-Evil 9" and the knotty polyrhythms of the suite's "Third Impression," and you'll first be stunned by the fitful, thrashing, jaw-dropping technique involved. Hang out a little longer, and you'll pick up the intellect and sensitivity behind the technique. Lots of progressive rock bands played hard and loud. The power audible in ELP at its peak comes from the trio's extraordinary unity and cohesiveness, not volume.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
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