Emerson Lake & Powell - Complete Collection

Emerson, Lake & Powell – The Complete Collection [3CD Boxset]

Quoting myself from my review of Greg Lake’s Magical career retrospective box set:

“I’ve never listened to the Emerson, Lake & Powell album for much the same reason I’ve never listened to any of Lake or Emerson’s solo stuff before, but I came close to hearing most of that album through these recordings, which feature several live takes from this short-lived line-up. I was impressed by just how ‘progressive’ The Score was; even if it didn’t quite scratch the itch that the classic ELP line-up was able to, I reckon that I shouldn’t have slept on this album for as long as I have.”

Well, It seems that Spirit of Unicorn Music has made just the boxset for me, combining (almost) all of the recordings this ELP offshoot made in their brief career. If the Keith Emerson Variations set and Magical chart the history of the two musicians after their ’70s heyday, then this Emerson, Lake & Powell box set provides a crucial missing piece of the puzzle and puts the other two boxes in context.

It can be quite easy to dismiss the group’s lone studio album as a lesser work by these prog maestros, but it’s important to remember the context in which it was released. By 1986, the heyday of progressive rock must have seemed like a distant memory, with most of the main players either adapting their style to radio-friendliness or getting relegated to history, and only a scarce few bands putting out truly adventurous music. Like a lifeboat adrift in the ocean, the notion of Emerson and Lake reuniting (albeit with Cozy Powell in place of Carl Palmer) must have seemed like an island on the horizon. So while Emerson, Lake & Powell is certainly not the place to start when exploring the ELP catalogue, I can certainly see how it would be a bastion of prog in a wasteland of pop mediocrity. Not to say I hate ’80s pop, mind!

The set begins with the studio album, the only material that was available by the group officially until 2003, when the other two discs in this set were released separately. The group put their best foot forward with The Score, a dramatic nine-minute workout that sees Emerson and Lake dig deep to put on the illusion that this is still 1974, and nothing since the Works albums ever happened. This is clearly an Emerson construction: loud, bombastic and complex, though not quite as intricate as ELP’s early work. To really sell the group as the next incarnation of ELP, Lake even sings “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends”. Quite proud of that, isn’t he? While entertaining, I felt as if the piece could have used more contrast – some quieter bits – as it tends to sound like just one long chunk of loud music. Fortunately, the song does come to a stop before it runs out of steam.

After the bombast of The Score, the plodding Learning How to Fly certainly comes as a let-down. The steady, uninteresting pace and repetitive melodies make me yawn through this one. The song segues into The Miracle, which also suffers from a slow pace and repetitive themes, but at least it has a bit more contrast to it. It’s hard to believe this song is a whole seven minutes long because there is not enough going on to warrant that length. However, given that this song was written by two washed-up musicians desperately reforming their old group in search of financial success, I do find it ironic that the lyrics include “It’s gonna take a miracle / We’re searching for a miracle.”

Beginning the original Side Two is the infamous Touch and Go… well, it’s infamous to me as I had already heard it twice on Variations and three times on Magical, as well as when I heard it live at ELP’s farewell concert at the High Voltage Festival. The blaring anthem played on the synthesiser but made to sound like a chorus of trumpets is really not my favourite thing. Following this, Lake finds so many words that rhyme with “go” such as “banjo”, “U.F.O.” and “status quo” that the song really does start to sound silly by the end. Clearly, the group were very happy with it as they decided to use it in their concerts forever after, but I reckon they overestimated its value.

A string of short songs leads us to the epic conclusion. The poppy Love Blind feels as if it would have been more at home on one of Lake’s solo albums, but I can’t help but like it. Step Aside is a slightly jazzier number, a little out of place but with the feel of a classic film noir. If the band had continued making music together, I would have liked to have heard more songs in this vein. Lay Down Your Guns is an anti-war anthem, and I can’t help but be cynical because it’s one of the cheesiest things I’ve ever heard. I’m sure most people love it, but it’s pretty easy to sell that sentiment.

Ironically enough, the group follow their anti-war song with Mars, the Bringer of War, a rather faithful adaptation of Gustav Holst’s dramatic original. I would have liked these two songs to segue somehow, but alas this does not happen. If the tune feels familiar, it’s because Greg Lake played this song with King Crimson, and it was released as The Devil’s Triangle on In the Wake of Poseidon. The two versions are very different however; Crimson’s version losing some of the intricacies and opting for a psychedelic (and slightly boring) experiment based on the 5/4 theme, while Emerson’s version is about as close to the source material as you can get with three rock musicians. While this version is likely to delight prog fans and works just about as well as it can, it doesn’t come close to having the power of an orchestral recording.

The band produced two B-sides as well, the first of which is an unexpected cover of The Loco-Motion, which I learned as a child (and haven’t listened to since). I wonder if the group were thinking what the daftest song they could cover was, and settled on that. Once you get over how silly it is, it’s a pretty dull cover. Vacant Possession, the other B-side, is a forgettable and predictable ballad that is typical of Lake’s style, but Emerson does add a fun little instrumental. Last on Disc One is the single edit of The Score, which shaves three minutes off its run-time, although it’s such a repetitive and low-contrast track that I can’t tell which three minutes are missing. I guess that means they did a pretty good job with editing this track down, but doesn’t six minutes seem too long to be a single?

Disc Two includes The Sprocket Sessions which are live rehearsals the band made in Sprocket Studio in London before their American tour in 1986. Plenty of live versions of ELP and ELPowell can be heard here, but The Sprocket Sessions has a vital advantage over the studio album: the mixing. You see, the mixing of Emerson, Lake & Powell is such that it sounds like it was recorded in a giant cavern. The reverb on every instrument in every song makes it difficult to enjoy the tracks fully. Listening to the album is the equivalent of trying to read a book without your reading glasses, everything hazy and unfocused. Was this just an ’80s thing? I prefer crisp, clean and crunchy sounds, and The Sprocket Sessions gets us closer to that, although Lake’s vocals paradoxically get even more of a delayed echo on the first three tracks. No crap, I genuinely feel as if these should be the official versions of these songs.

It’s a pretty incredible tracklist and I was absolutely buzzing when the group started to play Tarkus. I didn’t even mind when Powell lost his way during the admittedly befuddling Iconoclast section, but to my dismay, the song petered out after Mass, just ten minutes into the recording. Whatever the musical version of “blue balls” is, ELPowell just gave me that; no Aquatarkus, no likey!

The third disc is Live in Concert, which chronicles one particular concert the band played in Lakeland, Florida on 4th October 1986. The band once again begin with The Score and I had to check whether this was the same live version that had impressed me on Lake’s Magical set. I found that it was the same version but also made another discovery: Lake’s From the Underground sets have some missing tracks from both The Sprocket Sessions and Live in Concert, which he even admits in the notes. The missing tracks are Step Aside from The Sprocket Sessions and Still…You Turn Me On and Learning to Fly from Live in Concert – I went to setlist.fm to verify that these were the only missing concert tracks. The first exclusion is understandable as there was literally no more room on an 80-minute CD for Step Aside, but it’s a little cheeky of Sound of Unicorn not to restore the full live set of Live in Concert, forcing completist buyers to purchase all sorts of other CDs to complete their collection. That’s why I said “(almost) all of the recordings” earlier. At any rate, these missing tracks are hardly essential.

The concert itself is decent and – like The Sprocket Sessions – sounds better than the actual album. Having already heard most of the setlist in the sessions, the usual guesswork of what the band will play is taken away, although I was gutted that they didn’t play Tarkus in any form at this concert. As far as I can tell, they played the ten-minute version of it at every other concert on that leg of the tour, so perhaps this was some condensed setlist to fit on a CD. Very disappointing. Pirates seems an odd choice to me; it’s not one of ELP’s best-known songs and it seems like it would be quite tedious to perform all thirteen minutes of it night after night. I’ve never been able to get into it, and the two versions in this boxset still failed to draw me in. Perhaps it was simply closer temporally to the group back then and would have still been considered ‘recent’.

The box set is completed with a booklet containing an extensive essay by Prog Magazine editor Jerry Ewing. While containing a lot of well-researched factual material about the briefly-existing trio, I was a little put off by Ewing’s three-paragraph digression about the state of progressive music in the ’80s. I found it a bit excessive to dive into so many other unrelated groups’ activities such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull in an essay about ELP. It seems as if Ewing went on some sort of epiphanic journey of his own, by starting with the argument that the early ’80s was a prog wasteland, but ultimately reaching the conclusion that prog bands still had it good. Ewing even seems to have a chip on his shoulder, mentioning “purists and gatekeepers” that differ with his own opinion. There are a couple of mistakes too: Ewing asserts that …And Then There Were Three… and Love Beach were released in 1977 and 1979 respectively; in fact, both were released in 1978.

But what I was more interested in was why Emerson, Lake & Powell came to be united in the first place, and where Carl Palmer fit into the equation. In 2014, Palmer said “it was a little petty” that Emerson and Lake couldn’t have waited four weeks while he finished his recording for Asia to play with him again. I do wish I’d brought this up when I interviewed him in 2016 as his story conflicts with what Greg Lake had to say in 1986: “I won’t knock Carl. The question of using him in this group never came up. We wouldn’t have had a comfortable future working with him again.” The truth must be somewhere between the two statements, although I’m more inclined to believe Palmer who mentions more specifics. After all, why wouldn’t Emerson and Lake think of re-enlisting Palmer, especially as they did so just a few years later in 1991. Thankfully, both of these statements by the musicians are presented in the booklet, although Ewing seems to take Lake’s side, stating “[Palmer] was reluctant to leave his new band”.

While all three band members have sadly passed on, the music in this set sounds just as fresh and full of high spirits as when it was recorded, a time capsule of sorts. Perhaps the main element that dates this set is the damn reverb on the studio album; seriously, who thought that was a good idea? Having heard all of Emerson, Lake & Powell’s work, I groaned when I realised my ELP journey was not yet complete: Carl Palmer has just announced his own career retrospective boxset due in April, although it is laughably short at three CDs, compared to Lake’s seven and Emerson’s twenty. Interestingly, this one is not handled by Spirit of Unicorn Music but by BMG. Another piece of the ELP puzzle that is still missing from Sprit of Unicorn’s catalogue is 3, the late ’80s group founded by Emerson, Palmer and Robert Berry that released To the Power of Three in 1988. If they release another ELP-related box set, I’ll be sure to listen to it.

Disc One: Emerson, Lake & Powell

01. The Score (9:10)
02. Learning to Fly (3:52)
03. The Miracle (7:04)
04. Touch and Go (3:39)
05. Love Blind (3:11)
06. Step Aside (3:48)
07. Lay Down Your Guns (4:24)
08. Mars, the Bringer of War (7:58)
~ Bonus Tracks:
09. The Loco-Motion (4:40)
10. Vacant Possession (4:45)
11. The Score [Single Edit] (6:12)

Time – 58:37

Disc Two: The Sprocket Sessions
01. The Score (9:23)
02. Learning to Fly (3:59)
03. The Miracle (6:45)
04. Knife Edge (5:39)
05. Tarkus (10:19)
06. Pictures at an Exhibition (5:35)
07. Lucky Man (0:48)
08. Still…You Turn Me On (3:10)
09. Love Blind (3:15)
10. Mars, the Bringer of War (12:03)
11. Touch and Go (3:36)
12. Pirates (13:28)

Time – 77:56

Disc Three: Live in Concert
01. The Score (9:05)
02. Touch and Go (3:44)
03. Knife Edge (5:51)
04. Pirates (13:14)
05. From the Beginning (3:40)
06. Lucky Man (4:26)
07. Fanfare for the Common Man (7:33)
08. Mars, the Bringer of War (12:48)
09. Medley – Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression / America / Rondo (8:38)

Time – 68:55

Total Time – 205:27

Keith Emerson – Keyboards
Greg Lake – Vocals, Bass, Guitars
Cozy Powell – Drums, Percussion

Record Label: Spirit of Unicorn Music | Cherry Red Records
Catalogue#: SOUMBOX004
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 12th April 2024

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