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Thriving 'dinosaurs'

Music | Emerson, Lake & Palmer alums show that progressive rock has managed to survive

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

If the emergence of jazz during the Harlem Renaissance represented the blending of African spontaneity and European precision, the emergence of "progressive rock" in the late 1960s represented the blending of European precision and rock 'n' roll iconoclasm.

No small accomplishment that. Yet "prog rock," as it has come to be known, with its penchant for 20-minute songs and over-the-top grandstanding, has remained the red-headed stepchild of popular music ever since punk rock took the stuffing out of its pretensions over 30 years ago. Not for nothing did critics malign its practitioners as dinosaurs.

But, unlike actual dinosaurs, prog rock has managed to survive. In fact, as the latest live albums by the Keith Emerson Band (Moscow [Ais]) and Carl Palmer (Working Live, Volume 3 [Eagle]) attest, it's healthier than it has been in some time.

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Emerson and Palmer were two-thirds of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the pre-eminent prog-rock act of the 1970s. Despite an abundance of competition (the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush), it was ELP who bestrode the post-Woodstock wasteland most like colossi, becoming famous less for their own compositions than for transforming those of Bartok, Mussorgsky, Thchaikovsky, Copland, and Mancini into vehicles for Emerson's shrieking keyboards and Palmer's whirligig drumming. (At least one composer, Alberto Ginastera, wholeheartedly approved, endorsing the version of his "Toccata" that ELP recorded for both their 1973 studio album Brain Salad Surgery and their 1974 live album, Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends-Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake & Palmer).

Both Emerson, 66, and Palmer, 61, have intermittently taken a stab at achieving independence from their ELP identities, the former as a composer of soundtracks, the latter as the drummer for Asia. But these days both of them include generous portions of ELP in their live sets.

Moscow, for instance, finds Emerson leading his band through versions of "Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression)," "Lucky Man," and "Tarkus" (all 36 minutes of it) that practically duplicate the originals, from Emerson's undiminished synthesizer wizardry to guitarist Marc Bonilla's ability to sing almost exactly like Greg Lake in his youthful prime.

Palmer, on the other hand, has forgone vocals and keyboards altogether, leaving it to his band member Paul Bielatowicz to recreate the melodies on electric guitar. As one might therefore expect, the ELP songs on Working Live, Volume 3 ("Peter Gunn," "Romeo and Juliet," all 22 minutes of "Pictures at an Exhibition") sound leaner and meaner than ever. As one might also expect, even when he isn't soloing, Palmer's still-breathtaking drumming is the focal point.

Once again once more

While it was pyrotechnic musicianship that made ELP-and now just E and P-top draws on the concert circuit, fans of the genre also knew a good respite when they heard one. And they seldom heard one better than 1971's Once Again, the second album by the British band Barclay James Harvest.

Newly reissued in a bonus-track-enhanced 40th-anniversary edition replete with a 5.1-surround-sound mix of the album on "audio-only" DVD, Once Again picks up where the Moody Blues circa Days of Future Passed left off, enhancing the pastoral elements beloved of prog rock's more laid-back fans with the mellotron (a now-­antiquated, orchestra-replicating keyboard) and melodies that evoked memories of green and pleasant lands when they weren't evoking hallucinations of the cosmos.

Unlike the Moody Blues and ELP, Barclay James Harvest were not well known in the United States. But John Lees sang better, or at least less affectedly, than both Greg Lake and the Moodys' Justin Hayward. And no prog-rockers on either side of the Atlantic ever recorded a more gorgeous song than "Mockingbird."

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