I was really surprised at how low people rate this album given that it is probably the strongest ELP studio release since 'Brian Salad Surgery' appeared in 1973.
Given that a reunion was completely unexpected and that our three heroes now found themselves aboard a sinking ship adrift on the choppy high seas of corporate 'rawk'(a.k.a. HMS Victory Records, who went under) they deserve great credit for producing a record as good as this one.
Stories abound that Victory originally approached Emerson to compose a soundtrack for a movie and 'suggested' that he get Lake and Palmer on board.
The fact that no-one involved can even name the film in question begs some questions. There are many others who view this version of events as apocryphal and would consider more plausible, Emerson's urgent need of huge amounts of cash after a vicious divorce had 'cleaned him out'
Short pieces are the order of the day here, with no extended suites as in days of yore. Some reviewers are convinced that the band were 'under instructions' to write concise, sharp and snappy radio fodder for this but Emerson's version of events is quite different. He has stated that he had 'carte blanche' from the record label to write and record whatever he wanted, irrespective of genre or track length.
OK, this ain't 'Trilogy
' or 'Tarkus
' but neither is it 'Love Beach
' or 'In the Hot Seat
' either. There is not a bad track on the album and although rather bereft of any obvious ELP instant classics, we have a very fine collection of symphonic Prog tunes where a welcome 'modern' economy is evident.
The only real niggles I have are that Carl Palmer appears to have decided that in 1992 there is no place for 'interactive' drumming anymore, so his contributions are no more than a very elaborate 'click track' for Lake and Emerson to keep time. Although this adds considerable weight and power to the rhythm, and is consistent with a desired contemporary feel, much of the previous subtlety and dynamic interaction between the trio is lost as a result.
Also, Greg's voice has understandably lost much of its range and tone down the years, but I do miss that unique 'tenor sings rock' texture that only he and say, John Wetton
seem to possess.
- A real 'grower' this one, as on first hearing I relegated it to 'stadium grunt' due to its use of the 'We Will Rock You' drum beat (are you squirming yet Carl?) but after repeated listens, the overall structure and complexity reveals itself, layer by layer. Check out the closing organ solo over the very inspired 'folky' bridge chord progression. True killer.
Why, even fatboy has honed a social conscience for this one with his depiction of the planet ravaged by eco unfriendly nations etc
PAPER BLOOD - a simple 'rocker' but damn fine for all that. Greasy organ open fifths from Emo hammer out the deceptively simple riff over which Lake intones a tale of the futility of the acquisition of wealth (Right on sister! Greg's tits appear to have been firmly in the wringer when they booked the
studio) Rather refreshing 'solo' from Mr E, which consists of some incredible stabbing of an ambiguous 'cluster' chord over the incessant rhythm. (You have to hear it)
AFFAIRS OF THE HEART - Greg's first contribution to the album, and a very fine acoustic ballad it is too with Emerson playing a very minimalistic (by his standards) and beautiful accompaniment on ethereal piano and synths. Like so much of his 'background' work on this record, the textures and timbres are exquisite. From memory, I think a version of this song was recorded by Lake and Geoff Downes?
ROMEO AND JULIET - Prokofiev gets thrust into the ELP blender and comes out screaming. The beat has a real 'Hendrix' vibe and the synth sound used for the main melody is spine-tingling. Emerson has stated in an interview that before arranging this piece for the band he played the original piano sheet music over and over again until he got it down perfectly...then threw the manuscript
paper away (Prokofiev might have thrown it back, but who cares?)
This track was a particular standout on the subsequent world tour.
FAREWELL TO ARMS - Perhaps the first 'baby clanger' on the album. Quite a decent tune but spoiled by Lake's rather mannered vocal (you know those really irritating instances when he 'speaks' the tagline of a song) and the feel is not dissimilar to a rather sluggish adaptation of 'Elgar' The closing synth solo almost saves the day however, and there is more than a passing nod in the
direction of 'Lucky Man
CHANGING STATES - this is an ELP version of a tune that Emo composed for a solo album (where it was called 'Another Frontier')
Not really that different until the slowed down bridge section appears that precedes the ending. I actually prefer the solo album version but the superior organ, bass and drum sounds here make this a real treat. Bach is the obvious inspiration here and Emerson whips up a real storm with his own inimitable appropriation of what the 'fugue' form should sound like.
BURNING BRIDGES - Surprisingly, this was a song written with ELP in mind, by the album's producer Mark Mancina and very fine it is too, replete with a strong melody and memorable chorus to boot. The organ sound and melodic shape employed throughout is redolent of Procul Harum and never fails
to summon the hairs on the back of my neck to attention. Exhilarating.
(Mr Mancina is now a very successful and prolific composer of movie soundtracks).
CLOSE TO HOME - Emerson's solo piano piece and unfortunately not one of his best. Hardly a stinker by any stretch of the imagination, but this tune has always struck me as having 'odd' phrasing in the main hook and fails to satisfy despite some masterful playing and an interesting developmental section in the middle. Perhaps 'A Blade of Grass' would have made a better choice?.
(I think this alternative solo piano track was included as a bonus track on
subsequent reissues of the CD)
BETTER DAYS - Mercy! this is almost (gulp) funky?, with staccato clavinet and as close as Carl will ever get to approaching an 'urban' vibe on his kit. This type of modernity had been attempted before by ELP, but compared to other (atrocious) efforts on 'In the Hot Seat
' and 'Love Beach
' it proves they
could assimilate contemporary developments within the broader context of a progressive style. I am advised that the storyline was inspired by an incident in Emerson's life where he (anonymously) gave a considerable amount of cash to a homeless person in the street.(NOT his ex wife presumably)
The ending section to the fade out is magnificent. No pyrotechnics or 200 notes a minute here, just fantastic use of timbre, texture and dynamics to get the job done. Breathtaking (and simple)
FOOT PRINTS IN THE SNOW - Emerson must have loosened the reins to give
Greg TWO solo pieces on the one record? Anyway, this is another fine acoustic song with a particularly memorable hook and although very
understated, rather surprisingly provides the album with a satisfactory conclusion. (ELP usually started with a hurricane and built up to a climax)
So in summation:
This album is NOT even remotely AOR or POP and I am puzzled by the charges of same leveled against it from previous appraisals. Certainly, the tracks are shorter than we have come to expect and there is no overriding 'concept' piece upon which to focus our attention. So what?
I just wish that those anodyne and soulless charlatans like Marillion
, IQ, Pallas
et al get the chance to hear what their own mutant baby christened 'Neo Progressive' COULD have been if put in the hands of the masters.