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Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Tarkus - Album Of The Week Club review

Side one is an acknowledged prog masterpiece... but how much does side two drag the overall score down?

Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Tarkus
(Image: © Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Tarkus

(Image credit: Emerson, Lake & Palmer)

Tarkus
Jeremy Bender
Bitches Crystal
The Only Way (Hymn)
Infinite Space (Conclusion)
A Time and a Place
Are You Ready, Eddy?

“This album really changed my life," says Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess. "I had no idea who ELP were when it came out, but a high school friend came over and put the record on, and I was totally floored. 

"For the next few days, I kept listening to it and trying to understand what was going on. I’d never heard keyboards played with such power. It was a whole new thing to me.

“I was already experimenting with some of harmonies and suspended chords that Keith Emerson was playing, so that made sense to me. But it was the way he made his keyboards sound – overdriven and distorted – that made a big impression on me. 

"The ensemble playing was brilliant. It was like classical music played with a rock energy. I loved it. This album marked a real turning point in where I would go as a musician."

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

For Emerson, Lake & Palmer the year 1971 represented an opportunity to establish that this union of three giant talents was more than a mere supergroup, but the chance for the band to become a firm fixture on the prog scene. Their self-titled debut album from the previous year had displayed some spectacular performances, even if the songs themselves had been a little uneven. Tarkus was their opportunity to address that.

“After the release of ELP’s first album and during the live recording of Pictures At An Exhibition, it was coincidental that Carl Palmer and I were working individually on the same sort of complex rhythm ideas,” recalled Keith Emerson. “He was doing this on his practice drum pads, while I was at home on an upright piano in London and a Steinway in Sussex. As my ideas seemed to complement what Carl was up to, I pursued this direction.

“We focused on a centrepiece first to establish a concept. Sometimes we didn’t know if it would become a conceptual piece of work at all. All of the compositions had to bond and work together, and if they didn’t they were used somewhere else.”

Other albums released in June 1971

  • Budgie - Budgie
  • Golden Bisquits - Three Dog Night
  • Blue - Joni Mitchell
  • Byrdmaniax - The Byrds
  • Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren - Todd Rundgren
  • Indelibly Stamped - Supertramp
  • Stephen Stills - Stephen Stills
  • Aerial Pandemonium Ballet - Harry Nilsson
  • Angel Delight - Fairport Convention
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears 4 - Blood, Sweat & Tears
  • First Pull Up, Then Pull Down - Hot Tuna
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers - The Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Grin - Grin
  • Historic Dead - Grateful Dead
  • It Ain't Easy - Long John Baldry
  • Link Wray - Link Wray
  • Live at Carnegie Hall/What You Hear is What You Get - Ike & Tina Turner
  • Mick Abrahams - Mick Abrahams
  • New York City (You're a Woman) - Al Kooper
  • One World - Rare Earth
  • Randy Newman Live - Randy Newman
  • San Francisco Dues - Chuck Berry

What they said...

"Appearing less than seven months after their debut and following a European tour, Tarkus came to a young and craving fan-base happy with almost anything the band produced at the time. For all intents and purposes the album could not have been timed better, but timing is a factor that rarely has bearing on quality. In quality-terms however, Tarkus is vastly inferior to its predecessor." (Jazz Music Archives)

"There's a whimsy behind the whole thing; however grim the music and lyrics sound, it never sounds as if the band members themselves place so much dire importance in the "message" or "concept" or any of that. It's just fun. Playing huge, outrageous, overblown music is fun. They have fun doing it, and I have fun listening to it. (The Rocktologist)

"Tarkus is a thoroughly written, focused piece of music. It remains among the Top Ten classic tracks in progressive rock history. Because of the strength of side one, the material on the album's second half has been quickly forgotten – with one good reason: it doesn't match the strength of its counterpart – but Bitches Crystal and A Time And A Place make two good prog rock tracks, the latter being particularly rocking. (AllMusic)

What you said...

Luke Henson: Side one is my favourite Emerson, Lake & Palmer song of all time. Besides the obvious instrumental virtuosity, I always thought Greg's vocal performance was as moving and powerful as it comes. Not as big on Side two, but I do love A Time And A Place and Bitches Crystal. I'll always welcome an excuse to listen to more ELP!

Graham Tarry: Side one is definitive Prog Rock, at its finest. Never play the other side so much, though it's still better than most. Catches the band at the height of their creative powers, and as indulgent as you want. Can't be beat!

Steve Gardiner: One of my all time favourites. A fantastic album. Had to replace my vinyl a couple of times. They were on when they created side one. Side two isn't bad either.

Randy Banner: My sentimental favourite album by ELP is Brain Salad Surgery because it was my introduction to the band and to prog rock in general, but this is top-shelf and arguably the better album. 

The 20-minute title suite is immaculate. The instrumentation is beautifully on-point and Greg Lake's vocals are seriously underrated. A lot of people may just hear pointless noodling, but having a background in classical music, I hear how all the pieces fit together to make a perfect whole. 

ELP was always at their best when wallowing in the bombast, so Jeremy Bender (like Benny The Bouncer on Brain Salad Surgery) seems a bit too twee for my liking, and the throwback rock of Are You Ready Eddy? just seems out of place among the proggier tracks surrounding it. These minor quibbles do nothing to diminish my fondness for this album. 9/10

Shane Reho: While I would rank the debut higher than this, this is a good album. The title track is better than anything on the first, and definitely one of the best things they ever did. It's even better on the Welcome Back My Friends live album, which is one of my favourite live albums (poor sound quality aside). 

Side two is good most of the way, Jeremy Bender is fun enough and Bitches Crystal works. The Only Way has some one of Lake's better sets of lyrics, and flows perfectly into Infinite Space, which is a great performance. After that it goes downhill, A Time And A Place isn't that memorable and Are You Ready Eddy is a waste. Overall, a good album with a few great moments (one of which takes up the entire first side). 8/10.

Joe Paullus: Tarkus was their best-produced album, clear and powerful. Subsequent records seemed to lose impact, sounding thin and lacking in bass energy. Love Beach sounded the wimpiest.

John Stout: My favourite of theirs. The boys were still enjoying playing together and it shows on this album. They were all settled into each other's ways of working and the good of the many outweighed the good of the one. The Tarkus track is the trio at their best, imho, with every note and beat where it needs to be. The sound isn't over-produced so it still has the freshness and grit of the debut, and the excitement of musicians hitting their stride.

Fred Varcoe: Take out Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? (they're b-side fillers) and you have a great album. ELP were derided for their excess and bombast but they could write beautiful tunes (Lucky Man) and rock like mofos. It sounds very strange to say it, but I think they were underrated.

Bill Griffin: The title track, of course, is classic prog. The second side, for the most part, seems to be the lads lightening the mood up. This kind of thing was usually relegated to just one track (on Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery anyway) but this album gets several. For that reason, these songs don't get as much attention as most of the rest of their original output. It's also why I own every ELP album except this one. The live version of Tarkus on Welcome Back... is all one needs from this album.

Ian Kingston: If only they could have found one more good track to replace the pointless fluff of Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? this would score 10/10. Side one vies with Karn Evil 9 as their most impressive work, but those two tracks drag Tarkus overall down below Brain Salad Surgery.

Jonathan Novajosky: Definitely not for the faint of heart. Tarkus is an all-out blitz of everything prog. I don't think it's as accessible or strong as Brain Salad Surgery, but it's good nonetheless. The album lightens up after the twenty minute epic Tarkus and includes some fun tracks like Jeremy Bender that provide nice variety. As always, the keyboard/organ playing by Emerson is out of this world – truly an all-time talent. Tarkus won't change anyone's mind about prog, but if you enjoy the genre, you can't go wrong here. 7/10

John Davidson: I liked Tarkus back in the day but never really got why ELP were revered. Sure they played long songs, with plenty of pomp and classical influences but they didn't uplift and excite like Yes and Genesis and they didn't have the acerbic bite of Floyd.

When I rediscovered my love of prog in the early 2000s, I repurchased Tarkus to see if it had improved with age. Sadly not. Whereas the guitar work and keyboard genius of Gilmour and Wright, or Hackett & Banks or Howe & Wakeman still worked wonders, the keyboard oriented ELP sounded even more dated than they did in 1978.

While the sheer skill of Tarkus and Infinite Space can still be appreciated, there is no redeeming the risible humour of Jeremy Bender and the old time rock n roll of Are You Ready Eddy? sounds like Chas 'n' Dave on speed (albeit with a classically trained pianist on the old joanna).

Never more than a 7 for me, this had dropped to a 4. More guitars please.

Mike Knoop: Tarkus is the epic in residence and certainly the masterpiece here, but I don't know if that's where I'd start the curious but unfamiliar listener. Maybe ease into the shallow end of the pool with a mini-Tarkus like Bitches Crystal or A Time And Place, or maybe the jazzy instrumental, Infinite Space. Splash around a little, get used to all the time changes and florid flourishes, all the Hammonds and Moogs swirling around. Then go back to the start and jump in the deep end. 

I still have no idea what Tarkus is about, aside from what's on the gatefold art, which makes me feel that poor armadillo's having a spectacularly bad day. But that's OK, because Tarkus is an epic that stays epic throughout. Then once we're out of the pool, worn out and gasping for air, we towel off with Are You Ready, Eddy? to show that, hey, these mad gods of prog can just boogie woogie and have a little fun too.

Roland Bearne: The little devil on one shoulder is telling me to write that this is twiddly parpy guff of the sort the punks wanted to bury in a cess pool. It's certainly tempting as the combination of over complicated muso-ing and flights of terribly English whimsy do rather invite the micky! 

But being vaguely grown-up one puts on one's big boy headphones and you have say it is an extraordinary piece work. The line between bonkers and genius is very fine but the sounds they create are compelling and to dismiss them would be rude. I missed them, only picking up the Emerson, Lake and Powell release in the 80s (Touch And Go is a stonking single!) There's a lot of listening to be done here if you can invest the time, so I doff my hat with due respect but I'm not sure I'll ever be a devotee. Great AOTW choice though!

Final Score: 7.07 ⁄10 (232 votes cast, with a total score of 1641)

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