“A remarkable legacy that’s celebrated in this impressive collection, warts and all”: Keith Emerson’s Variations

20-CD set offers deep dive into late maestro’s career, focusing mainly on his solo work

Keith Emerson - Variations
(Image: © Spirit of Unicorn Music)

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This massive, 20-disc box set opens with a recording of a 14-year-old Keith Emerson playing ragtime piano, so it’s clear this is going to be a deep dive into the late keyboard maestro’s music. The focus is squarely on his solo career, with just one track from The Nice and eight from ELP, although music from the ELP years appears repeatedly in live recordings throughout the collection.

Much of Emerson’s solo output from the 1980s was written for film soundtracks, some of which sound rather dated now with their synth strings and electronic drums. The main offenders on that front are the soundtracks for Nighthawks and Murderock, which trespass into the realm of 80s muzak. The most compelling of the film work is the atmospherically creepy score for Dario Argento’s Inferno

Elsewhere, Emerson Plays Emerson is a standout, displaying the incredible breadth of his vocabulary, from jazz and boogie-woogie to classical. There’s an abundance of live performances, which often capture Emerson at his most energised and expressive. Boys Club Live From California sees Emerson joined by guitarist Marc Bonilla and former Trapeze/Deep Purple bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes for an absolutely rollicking set where the group’s energy bursts out of the speakers. Moscow, from 2011, captures the Keith Emerson Band in vigorous form, with the prominent presence of guitarist Bonilla offering a fresh spin on a set that draws heavily on the ELP catalogue.

There are two discs of previously unreleased recordings, Live At BB King’s, from 2004. Sonic limitations mean it often sounds like it’s been recorded from somewhere in the audience, with Emerson’s vocals more distant than the noisier members of the crowd, particularly the punter who keeps yelling “Yeah!” with such gusto.

The classical and symphonic side of his career is well represented. 2012’s Three Fates Project and 2018’s Beyond The Stars find the keyboardist working with conductor Terje Mikkelsen and either the Münchner Rundfunkorchester or the Academy Of St Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra. Emerson doesn’t have the orchestra accompany the rock musicians; he foregrounds the orchestras in the arrangements and the result is some spectacular and beautiful music.

This box set includes a book of photos of Emerson onstage and hanging out with famous friends. There’s also a booklet with an introduction by Prog Editor Jerry Ewing that includes comments from musicians who knew him, plus an insightful discussion between Marc Bonilla and Terje Mikkelsen about the impact Emerson had on them. It’s a remarkable legacy that’s celebrated in this impressive collection, warts and all.

Variations is on sale now via Spirit of Unicorn Music.

David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.