(Island, Manticore 1971)
- a. Eruption
- b. Stones Of Years
- c. Iconoclast
- d. Mass
- e. Manticore
- f. Battlefield
- g. Aquatarkus
2. Jeremy Bender
3. Bitches Crystal
4. The Only Way (Hymn)
5. Infinite Space (Conclusion)
6. A Time And A Place
7. Are You Ready Eddy?
Their joke album. No, let me finish; well past the master epic on the first side, which probably is when most critics have turned it off in order to head straight into their self-indulgent, sanctimonious, marxist-orientated prog-bashing, writing ELP off as preposterously overblown pomp with no place in the history of rock (hhhh...phew), it serves us with some of ELP's most obvious examples of their self-distance so severly overlooked. You see, upon hearing songs like "Jeremy Bender", "Are you ready, Eddy?" and "Bitches crystal" it's impossible to take them seriously, and not in a so-pretentious-it's-ridiculous kind of way but in a self-assured and sincerely conscious kind of way. It only goes to show that they all are having fun in the studio and not above allowing the results onto the record. Take a song like "Jeremy Bender" for instance, often quoted as commencing the trinity of joke tracks (alongside "The sheriff" and "Benny the bouncer"), on which they simply greet us with some playful lyrics telling the story of a cross-dresser disguising as a nun in order to lay down the other nuns, accompanied by a honky-tonk saloon piano, and it works. It's a joke, and they are well aware it is.
As is "Bitches crystal", continuing the western feel set by "Bender", albeit a bit more dexterious and complicated in structure and it doesn't really account for much musically. Neither do the Deep Purplish "A time and a place", which doesn't even boast much of a melody, although Lake proves himself an amazing singer on that one. "The only way", subtitled "Hymn", seems to strive for being just that at the beginning, although its hymnal purposes seems dubious, especially when consulting the pathetic lyrics, including the infamous line "Why did he lose six million jews?" (not that I'm opposing the condemnation of the holocaust or anything; nazism is bad mmmkay, but there's no need to rub it in my face in such a blatant way). It certainly doesn't convince past the seemingly hymn-like intro when it descends into a jazzy piano shuffle and I'd say that their later adaptation of "Jerusalem" definitely succeeds where "The only way" fails in the strife for sacral atmosphere. And then it's the concluding send-up "Are you ready, Eddy?" which once again is nothing more than just pure fun. I'm definitely not a fan of primitive 50's rock'n roll but this one is more an ample proof that ELP where perfectly capable of throwing a fit of rockabilly if they wanted to, and I don't mind them making fun of the genre by the deliberately sloppy piano playing and the ridiculous lyrics at all. Rockabilly fans would probably mind though, but then again, why would they ever listen to an ELP album anyway?
Of course, none of these casualties matter in the shadow of the gargantuan title track which commences the journey, and if anything, it's by this track alone this album should be judged and remembered. Now, if the rest of the album is more or less a joke, "Tarkus" certainly is not. Armadillo tanks are serious business (as are pink robots)! As any good prog epic, it takes you places, in this case an imaginary battlefield as depicted on the inner sleeve where the tarkus in question is hatched from an egg erupted by a volcano, and commences to battle a manticore and... what are you laughing at? Seriously, however ridiculous one may find the underlying concept (and I don't find it that
ridiculous, certainly not any worse than the written-on-yer-nose concept of "Dark side of the moon"), one cannot understate that the main factor with prog and art rock is not the actual story but rather how
the story, whatever it may be, is carried forth by the music. So the question is: Does "Tarkus" engage? Yes, it does. It's basically several short songs, or snippets of songs, attached on a musical skeleton loosely built upon a tricky organ theme in 5/4. Legend has it that when Emerson presented the basics for the theme, Lake resented it and threatened to leave the band, which he thankfully did not at the end of the day.
After the first instance of that very theme, complete with synth fanfares ("Eruption"), it crashes into the first real part "Stones of years", delivered by Lake in trusty old King Crimson fashion (even half-quoting the "Talk to the wind" stanza). Even Palmer seems to imitate the somewhat sloppy playing style of Michael Giles here. A brief variation of the main theme ("Iconoclast") before it completely shifts gears and breaks into the hard-rocking "Mass" which once again has a Purplish feel to it; ELP sure rocked harder than people at first might believe. The most catarthic part comes with "Battlefield" with crownes the whole story with yet another Crimsonic vocal melody and a piano-punctuated organ theme which instantly grabs you by the collar, and the soaring guitars say more than any selected David Gilmour solo ever has. If this doesn't convert you, then nothing will. And then there's the bolero-like ending in which they literally march off the battlefield, with all those synths playing along the trampling rythm giving the impression of pure victory. The beast is defeated! (Oh yeah, and they reprise the main theme once again as if to remind you how it all began).
So it's obvious that they spent it all on the title epic, and thus it's next to the only reason for the album's existence, even if I insist that side B, however slight in comparison, still remains a token of their humorous side. But oh, what reason it is! They would rarely match the conceptuality of "Tarkus" ever again. As an album though, I personally think that they managed a more even balance on "Trilogy", but that's a future story. Until then, indulge in armadillo battles!