Dressing for ELP's "Brain Salad Surgery": Prog Rock Countdown #12

Dressing for ELP's "Brain Salad Surgery": Prog Rock Countdown #12

Brain Salad.jpg

Brain Salad Surgery (1973) is the kind of thing I was hoping to discover when I began this project of listening through Rolling Stone’s top 50 prog albums. Not that Emerson, Lake, and Palmer is a new band for me. I’ve tried to get into ELP before, but their sound leans heavily on classical influences and rambling keyboards, turning me off repeatedly in the past. The band’s try-anything approach and rapidly shifting soundscapes can be alienating, making it music you have to work hard to appreciate.

Yet forcing myself to listen to this album has been a real treat. Granted, “Toccata” is an off-putting display of Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer’s facility on keyboard and drums. But still, I like that the band wanted to showcase the work of a 20th century classical composer, Alberto Ginastera, by recording their own arrangement of his work, even if it is not nearly as successful as their rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” that appeared on ELP's following album. I could also live without the saloon-brawl silliness of “Benny the Bouncer”.

Some forgivable, self-indulgent missteps aside, Brain Salad Surgery is a staggering whirlwind that checks many of the prog rock boxes: multi-part epic with post-apocalyptic themes, check; bombastic character-driven story-song, check; dazzling instrumental sections rife with jazz and classical influences, check; almost-but-not-quite-conventional ballad, check. With such different styles of song on one album, Brain Salad Surgery avoids sounding fragmented thanks to the always buoyant percussion. Moreover, Emerson finds a way to distill all the genres of music here into a consistent hybrid keyboard sound that carries throughout the album. If there’s one take away, it’s that Keith Emerson was an incredible instrumentalist, an impression inescapable when listening to the thirty-minute “Karn Evil 9” suite.

On the subject of impressions, “Karn Evil 9 1st Impression” reveals some interesting functional limitations of music at the time. The track was originally divided into two parts that link the sides of the record. The neat thing about this was the need to create a transition making it clear that the two parts are really one song. So, the line “welcome back my friend to the show that never ends” is included at the start of side two. This really has no bearing on the quality or impact of the song and is just a behind the scenes sort of detail that I find interesting.

Beyond “Karn Evil 9,” which represents more than half the album and the main draw of it, the highlight for me is “Still … You Turn Me On.” On the surface, it’s just a light guitar ballad with pleasant keyboard. The chorus, though, does something crazy: pizzicato scales accompany the line “still you turn me on,” followed by a wah-guitar riff. This choice is just one of the many signature abrupt changes in tone that occur throughout the album, here used to great effect to make this harmonious but wistful love ballad turn suddenly dark.  

Another notable feature of the album is the opening track, an arrangement of William Blake’s “Jerusalem.” Although intended for radio play, the song was barred in England because radio authorities felt that a rock and roll version of the song, commonly used as an Anglican hymn, would be controversial. But the track is quite beautiful and reverential. The album ends very differently. Rolling Stone notes how “Karn Evil 9” describes a computer intelligence surveillance state that uses carnivalesque sideshow entertainments to distract humanity from its own oppression. How prescient these sorts of political allegories remain.

 Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Yes – Close to the Edge

  3. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  4. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  5. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  6. Rush - Moving Pictures

  7. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  8. Yes - Fragile

  9. Rush - Hemispheres

  10. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  11. Can - Future Days

  12. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

Pink Floyd's "Animals" Tamed: Prog Rock Countdown #13

Pink Floyd's "Animals" Tamed: Prog Rock Countdown #13

Rush’s “Hemispheres” Subdivided: Prog Rock Countdown #11

Rush’s “Hemispheres” Subdivided: Prog Rock Countdown #11