RATINGS: A = must own B = buy it C= average D = yawn F = puke

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery
Manticore Records, 1973

Rating: A+

A tribute to Keith Emerson.

“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, we’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside …”

While they’re not the first words one hears when listening to Brain Salad Surgery, they are certainly its most defining. This album, along with ELP’s three other studio albums preceding it, continued a journey of musical expression many hoped would go on forever. Sadly, on days like these we are forced to recognize the temporary nature of humanity and its inherent frailties. We are compelled to momentarily suspend looking forward and look back to recognize the unbelievable heights some of our heroes achieved while bringing us along for the ride. Keith Emerson has left us in a manner we may never understand. I certainly can’t grasp it. But I will always have this album, and for now I will listen to it on a constant loop with incredible memories and extreme appreciation.

Brain Salad Surgery was only the second rock album I had ever purchased, way back in that glorious haze of the early seventies. I still vividly remember listening with absolute wonderment as this barrage of meticulously crafted notes, fantastic new sounds, and unfathomable rhythms sailed past like an endless stream of brilliant meteors. I was too young to even remotely comprehend the superhuman talent I was hearing, but man did I love it!

“…load your program, I am yourself …”

To say Brain Salad Surgery was a landmark album is an understatement. It helped mark a point when rock history took a marvelous turn. Not only did Keith Emerson seemingly play the impossible on Brain Salad Surgery, he blasted open a door to an entire new world of what would become possible. We were shown with absolute certainty that the electronic age we kids were promised would arrive would bring with it a spectacular new world of music. With this album we were hearing musical brilliance being played on electronic keyboards that were hooked up with banks of cables plugged into patch bay walls that could have come straight out of a 1940’s telephone operator’s station. It was old school musical genius being played on first revision computer age technology. Damn, that was cool! Even if I could never approach the musical prowess of the great Keith Emerson, I knew upon first listen that if I could someday be able to make sounds like that then I really wanted to try to be a part of this musical world too.

Brain Salad Surgery is a wonderful example of the evolving music of the era. It beautifully incorporates old traditional classical pieces with full on synthesizer power performed with incredible virtuosity. It would be years after hearing this album before I learned that “Jerusalem” was a traditional English hymn with lyrics that date back to the early 1800’s, or that “Toccata” was an adaptation of a portion of Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto (a classical piece well worth hearing, by the way). It did not matter at the time, but it was a pleasant discovery in later years.

“…soon the gypsy queen in a glaze of Vaseline will perform on guillotine, what a scene, what a scene …”

The passing of Keith Emerson puts him in the forefront of this review. But of course there is much more to Brain Salad Surgery than just his genius. The immense talents of Greg Lake and Carl Palmer are also in force. In many ways Emerson seemed like a team of powerful stallions running at full speed. It would take an equally powerful complement of musicians to simply keep up with him. Lake and Palmer did so much more than that. Greg Lake’s voice, bass and guitars are never lost in the daunting keyboard accompaniment. “Still … You Turn Me On” is a beautiful piece that provides an acoustic respite from the intense nature of the album before it. Carl Palmer is … well … Carl Palmer at his finest. It’s difficult to pay a higher compliment than that. “Toccata” is still one of my favorite pieces that feature a drummer so extensively. The talents of this one man orchestral percussion section are amazing here, complete with brass bells, tympanis, and the ancestral beginnings of electronic percussion.

As the years go by and I play and replay this album I become more appreciative of the talent behind the sounds. I am uplifted during the extended portion of the album when Emerson plays a clean, unaltered piano. “Karn Evil 9 2nd Impression” features Emerson doing things that one man shouldn’t be able to do. How does his one brain manage to keep his left hand steadily playing those complex rhythms while his right hand is flying around the keyboard at blinding speed? Forty years later I still haven't figured it out and have given up trying. This is more than just genius; this is a passion for the craft at a level rarely seen.

But then, in true ELP fashion, the album suddenly shifts to “Karn Evil 9, 3rd Impression”, and all the electronic restraints are turned off. The listener instantly goes from a brilliant acoustical jazz-inspired past to a fully synthesized dystopian future where computers fight with man for domination. Yeah, you know, the typical stuff songwriters write about! Finally, as the grand nature of Brain Salad Surgery comes to its accelerated sequenced conclusion we’re left wanting more.

Fortunately, there would be more. There would be much, much more, and for that I am exceedingly grateful even as I am already missing the maestro immensely.

 “ … We’d like it to be known the exhibits that were shown were exclusively our own, all our own, all our own …”

An amazing album. Amazing and incredibly influential. That’s all I can say.

There will be many who will read this review and disagree with some of my conclusions. That’s fine. Many may think that perhaps Tarkus or one of the other early fantastic ELP albums was more defining of this era of the band. Please continue to do so! Please debate and do so vociferously! I can think of no other discussion I would rather hear at this difficult time. A genius has left us; arguing over which is his greatest gifts is a wonderful way to celebrate all of them, and an excellent way of continuing the show that never ends.

Track Listing:
Still…you turn me on
Benny the Bouncer
Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 1
Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2
Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression
Karn Evil 9: 3rd Impression

By Roy Rahl