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Pictures At An Exhibition (Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1971) 10 June 2007

Posted by Basilios in Emerson Lake & Palmer.
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Today this ELP album sounds like an oddity. It’s a full-blown rearrangement of Modest Mussorgsky‘s composition of the same name, but done 70’s style, and reinterpreted with a rock language rather than played faithfully by the note. Today, modern listeners might not see the point of that, and ask themselves why mix classical music with rock, but at the time this album was one of a string attempting the experiment. It was indeed Keith Emerson, the E of ELP, to start the trend while he still was in his previous group The Nice, rescoring some classical pieces for his group. Pictures At An Exhibition however was released in a moment when ELP was hot stuff, so it attracted a lot of attention; to top it all it was released at a budget price, so it flew up the charts in the UK and reached #3, which for a classic piece was an unprecedented first.

Another first was releasing a live recording of a classical piece, rather than a prim and properly cleaned studio recording. You can hear the audience going mad listening to this, and I mean this in a good sense: you can really feel they loved it. The group does not stick to the original score note for note, but bend and stretch it, sometimes to breaking point, and add their own compositions. One of them, The Sage, is guitar-based ballad that, to be completely honest, doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the album, but for some mysterious reasons fit really well with the music. It’s one of the best songs here (and I understand that speaking of ‘songs’ is a bit odd here), even if it is very simple and unadorned, but it has something in its lyrics.

I suppose we can also say that The Old Castle is an ELP composition, because it does not not have anything to do with the bit from the original suite. It’s a catchy jam that I like a lot, but with a gimmicky first minute where Emerson does evil things with his organ, right there in public, for everyone to see! That bit feels really out of the Psychedelic Age, and you might find it tiring. Me? I skip it sometimes, but I prefer the bit with actual music. This segues into another of the group’s pieces, Blues Variations, which is really a bluesy jam, and an entertaining one, but it’s a bit repetitive. It must have been a blast live, though!

Another of the group’s creations is stuck right in the middle of The Hut Of Baba Yaga, splitting it in two parts, and it’s called The Curse Of Baba Yaga. It’s another jammy piece, but this time Lake throws in some vocals that sound a bit like scatting.

At the end of the performance, the group plays as an encore a piece unrelated with the original Pictures At An Exhibition, and that is a cover, Nutrocker, of B. Bumble And The Stingers, which climbed to the top of the UK charts in the early 60s. It’s actually another rearrangement of a classical music piece, but a much poppier one, this time a part of Tchaikovsky‘s ballet The Nutcracker.

The rest of the pieces on this album are straight from the original composition, all reworked with more bouncy rhythms and faster playing. It all works quite well because the original Pictures was actually composed for piano, and that translates nicely to Emerson’s organ, with Palmer’s drums and Lake’s bass to enliven the pace and make the music sound richer. That this all sounds good today is the merit of Mussorgsky, however, rather than of ELP.

All in all this is quite a good listen, but it has its flaws. First of all the volume level is very uneven throughout the recording, so that I have to keep a hand on the volume control and turn it up or down all the time. The Sage has been recorded at a very low volume, and that’s a pity. If they recorded a cleaner studio version, I’m sure it would have been considered one of their classic pieces. Another problem is that Emerson really doesn’t know where to stop messing with that poor organ of his. The poor thing meows and squeals, and wheezes, and spits out a lot of feedback all over the place, because Keith had this style of athletic playing, jumping around the keyboard, pulling it and pushing it, jamming knives in it to hold keys in place and so on; this is very entertaining to look at (just look for excerpts of this performance on YouTube) but it is tiring to listen to. You nearly want to shout “Get on with it!”. These issues are not so bad to make it unlistenable, so my rating will be of…

Final Grade: 25/30

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