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I have to confess, I rather like prog. That's an admission that will have me resigned to the naughty step of most music critics' houses, but I don't really care. I'd rather listen to Pink Floyd than the Ramones, and I have a soft spot for Opeth, Porcupine Tree and, scarily, even some Yes. But Emerson, Lake and Palmer are a step way too far for me.
Looks are misleading. When I found a copy of this in a charity shop, the album cover stood out above all others. I love the work of H R Giger, its fusion of weird biomechanical technology and horror is one of a kind and immediately exudes darkness, discord and a feeling of discomfort. Sadly, the music inside didn't match, which only added more to the sourness of the whole experience. It's a brilliant record sleeve, but after hearing the contents it was definitely bound to be framed and hung on the wall, rather than to sit on the shelf and be played every now and then.
A swift bit of research shows that this record turns up on both 'best of' and 'worst of' album lists on the internet. Anything so divisive is naturally of interest to me, so I had to hear it. It opens with a mundane cover of 'Jerusalem', before slumping into 'Toccata', which is replete with all the annoying bits that smear prog with a big dirty brush. It's completely directionless, overly long and no doubt fiendishly difficult to play. Lots of jarring stop/start bits in weird time signatures? Yep. Crashing chords? Got those too. And can I remember anything about it? No.
There is, however, a slight reprieve in all of this. 'Still... You Turn Me On' is a surprisingly pretty piece, with Greg Lake's vocals taking on a lilting quality over this well-penned ballad. It earns the album one more star, and now that I've written off the album as a whole, I might just download this one song from Amazon. And the bonus track 'Lucky Man' that turns up on some copies is also very nice, with folk-pop overtones and some enchanting Beatles/CSNY style harmonies throughout, and tells the tale of a man gone to war for all the wrong reasons. I'm beginning to think that I would have liked them a lot more if Greg Lake had been the dominant force in the band, rather than Keith Emerson's bombastic keyboards.
'Benny the Bouncer' is horrible. It sounds like Chas and Dave recounting a tale of the Kray brothers' antics.
Spinal Tap once had the prescience to utter "there's a fine line between clever and stupid", and that line can be seen very clearly on side two. Taking up the side is a 20+ minute suite called 'Karn Evil 9', which is a very cool title and I expected something really doomy and befitting of the Giger artwork. I was wrong. What it consists of is lots more pretentious, jarring and seemingly calculated bits of keyboard wizardry that out-Wakemans Rick Wakeman. It's no doubt massively difficult to play, but it's also massively difficult not to reach for the off switch. The piece is supposed to recount some sci-fi saga about how the world has become decadent and people have sex with circus donkeys and the computers have taken over but then the humans win but maybe not and good and evil are now purchasable commodities... This is the most po-faced prog nonsense since the spoken word bits of Hawkwind's 'Warrior on the Edge of Time'. Admittedly, there are some moments in here that sound like they might just be going somewhere, but then it all falls to bits again. There's no doubt that this band can play, but this is a self-indulgence too far. But then what does one expect from an album that takes its title from 70s slang for oral sex?
No doubt the ELP fan brigade are going to track me down and run me over with a Tarkus-style armadillo tank for this review, so I will apologise if I offended anyone by slating this 'classic' album. I did try. I listened to it all the way through, and didn't like it. Then I listened to it again, and liked it even less. Now I'm going to have to listen to 'Wish You Were Here' to re-instate my faith in the genre.
Summary: great sleeve with brooding, dark artwork; limp, rubbish record within. Sort of the inverse of Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid', then.
"Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Karn Evil 9 1st Impression
2 Karn Evil 9 2nd Impression
3 Still... You Turn Me On
6 Karn Evil 9 3rd Impression
7 Benny The Bouncer
8 Karn Evil 9 1st Impression
9 Benny The Bouncer
12 Still... You Turn Me On
13 Benny The Bouncer
14 ""Karn Evil 9 1St Impression, Part I""
15 ""Karn Evil 9 1st Impression, Part 2""
16 Karn Evil 9 2nd Impression
17 Karn Evil 9 3rd Impression
18 Brain Salad Surgery
19 When The Apple Blossoms Bloom In The Windmills Of Your Mind I'll Be Your Valentine
20 Excerpts From Brain Salad Surgery"