Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but their work confounds me. On the one hand, I recognize that their oeuvre is pockmarked with the kind of self-indulgent bombast that ultimately caused progressive rock to fall out of favor. Conversely, there are moments in their catalog that represent the finest progressive rock of the 70s, so every now and then I put one of their albums in rotation just to make sure I haven’t missed any of those moments.
About two weeks ago, this great video of them playing Take a Pebble from their self-titled debut came up through my feed, so I revisited Emerson, Lake, and Palmer this week.
On their debut, the dichotomy between successful group expression and pretentious self-absorbed rambling is readily apparent. Taken as a whole, it’s quite obvious that ELP houses three distinct personalities. The songs are often structured in a way that gives each player a turn to step to the microphone and show what they have. Even Take a Pebble, a song with memorable sections that feature the band as a unit, digresses into a relatively rare Greg Lake folk showcase followed by an extended jazz-tinged theme and variation section by Keith Emerson.
In the band's defense, ELP was essentially a progressive rock supergroup formed of three already established players. It could be argued, quite convincingly, that they were feeling each other out on this first release. Progressive rock was about experimentation, and the style certainly could bend to include their public exploration of each other's potential. More often than not, however, the ELP captured on their debut sounds less like a band and more like a vehicle for the soloing voices of its constituent members. The chemistry that they would develop on subsequent releases is only sparsely represented.
Keeping that in mind, however, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer is an interesting specimen precisely because of its patchiness. Emerson and Palmer are clearly responsible for the majority of the band's musical pyrotechnics, but Lake’s effortless, expressive, and somewhat folky tenor exerts a force of gravity on his bandmates’ flights of fancy. His songwriting grounds the album while buoying its less focused excursions, allowing the members of ELP to explore each other's idiosyncratic styles.