Emerson Lake & Palmer: Trilogy

Downplayed by some of the group and often dwarfed by its famous follow-up, the supertrio’s third studio album has been overlooked for far too long.

TODO alt text

Before prog stopped being a four-letter word and was rehabilitated into polite society, Emerson Lake & Palmer were more often than not the go-to prog rock pantomime villains of choice. To be fair, many of the band’s actions and pronouncements back in the day provided the naysayers with plenty of low hanging fruit: Emo’s airborne piano; Lake’s costly Persian rug; Palmer’s stage-sagging stainless steel drum kit.

Add to this their taking a symphony orchestra out on the road as a backing band and their Olympian capacity for partying, and the trio offered easy pickings for those wanting to dish out the snark and satire. Even in these more prog-tolerant times simply listening to ELP is sometimes regarded as a covert or ironic undertaking, perhaps justified as a guilty pleasure. While there are certainly points in their catalogue which fall well short of qualifying as anything like their finest hour, no such furtiveness is needed when it comes to their third studio album, originally released in the summer of 1972.

At that time Emerson apologetically downplayed Trilogy’s contents, describing the record as a mere collection of songs after the long-form conceptual pieces contained on previous releases. The impression of being overshadowed and, in longer-term critical assessments, overlooked was reinforced by the monumental reputation subsequently accorded to 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. However, what’s abundantly clear from the new stereo and surround sound remixes – undertaken by King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk – is how short-sighted a view that is, and just how well this work has stood the test of time.

Given the ubiquity of synth-driven music nowadays it’s easy to forget how thrillingly exotic ELP appeared in 1972. While some electronic elements have palled due to over-exposure or hapless novelty, the choices on Trilogy remain vibrant and to the point, serving the compositions rather than the other way round. Jakszyk’s perceptive surround remix actually provides the kind of perspective that was always implicit but necessarily limited within the stereo picture.

Emerson’s classical leanings find their most convincing integration and expression during the two-part The Endless Enigma, whose cinematic vocabulary flows seamlessly into contrapuntal eddies, eventually resolving into an anthemic coda topped by Lake’s rich vocals. Hearing this in 5.1 is as close as you’ll get to being in the studio with ELP. That same sense of being inside the performance applies to the title track. Sparkling, intricate detail is revealed around each instrument; it’s as if you were being shown a complex, interlocking mechanism in full flight.

It’s easy to forget how thrillingly exotic ELP appeared in 1972.

One of Jakszyk’s decisions is to give priority to a synth line normally buried in chordal support as Emerson executes one of his most memorable solos. The effect of this shift in harmonic colour is initially startling but ultimately fascinating, providing a new take on a familiar story. Living Sin was an intriguing experiment that was never touched upon again by the band. Here, as the snake-like melody tightens its coils around Lake’s creepy basso vocal, Jakszyk chooses to reinstate an extra bar or two excised from the original version prior to the final verse, along with an extra few lines from Lake.

Undoubtedly some will view such alterations and amendments as sacrilegious but that surely misunderstands the nature of these remixes. There’s no suggestion that Jakszyk has set out to usurp the definitive imprimatur of the original mixes as first issued. (The original mix is bundled within this three-disc set.) Rather, this is simply another artist being invited in to offer their perspective on how this music might be reinterpreted and represented.

As every new instrumental voice falls in step behind Palmer’s insistent snare during each of its eight reiterations, the theme of Abaddon’s Bolero swells to mighty proportions, taking on the mien of an army marching to certain victory. In the face of this expansive sound unleashed, any doubts about the format or the wisdom of commissioning such remixes becomes completely irrelevant.

Eventually, the engines of ego and excess saw the trio’s creative tensions curdle into personal enmity. At this moment, Hipgnosis’ cover artwork renders them in idealised form, and conjoined as if by a unity of purpose. Lacking any of the padding that bedevils their later works, Trilogy stands proud as an outstanding release.