Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Pictures at an Exhibition
Mar 26, 2021
While one of the worst ways to experience Mussorgsky's song suite, Emerson Lake & Palmer nevertheless manages to fail in interesting ways. Occasionally, it manages to capture the spirit of the original work. The band's renditions of the signature Promenade are largely successful. Emerson's pipe-organ arrangement suitably evokes a grand and regal mood. In contrast, Lake's rendition is more subdued but just as successful, setting lyrics to the piece without feeling especially jarring. The other main success is side two's Baba Yaga, whose phrygian flavors mesh well with the group's aggressive hammond-organ oriented style.

Like most Emerson, Lake and Palmer projects, the album is beset by structural problems and half-assery. For some reason, the band decided to omit a large swathe of the middle section of the suite, instead seeing fit to include an out of place 12-bar blues jam, a mostly forgettable original song, and a random Tchaikovsky cover. The omission of Cattle, a lumbering crescendo of a march that explodes dramatically in the Ravel version, is a massive missed opportunity. Also missing in action are Tuileries Gardens, Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells, "Samuel" Goldenberg and "Schmuÿle", The Market at Limoges, and Catacombs. The fact that the first five and last two pieces are here in their original sequence gives the distinct impression that the band simply gave up halfway through.

Although Pictures at an Exhibition is ultimately a failure, it remains an interesting one, an artifact of an era where the horizons of rock music were inflating as fast as the egos of its musicians. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were afforded a lot of creative freedom, a byproduct of baby-boomer masses with disposable income and labels having a lock on supply. It is easy to criticize the prog rock era for its creative excesses, but at the very least, creative over-ambition often leads to compelling forms of failure. This album is anything but safe, and even if the music itself falls short, its uniqueness is something to celebrate.

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