Demos: ELP in 5.1
This just may be the first in a series of blogs on music that finds its way into demos I'm constantly staging for loudspeaker and a/v receiver reviews. Hence the subtitle: Demos. Music is the reason I became an audio critic in the first place. In fact, I was a published music critic long before I became a technology critic, starting in 1979, writing for Spin and Trouser Press and editing the Trouser Press Collectors' Magazine. Tech criticism turned out to be a better way of earning a living but I still see it as an outgrowth of my identity as a music (and movie) critic. As I note in my book: "We master technology so that art can take precedence over technology."
Art is in the eye of the beholder, as any fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer knows. Steven Wilson's fresh 5.1-channel mixes of ELP's first two albums offer new glimpses of a band that's been controversial since these two albums were released about 40 years ago.
The keyboard-based trio has always sold lots of albums but attracted mixed reviews from first-generation rock critics. Lester Bangs wrote approvingly of them while Robert Christgau was scathing, and quite a few other critics agreed with Christgau, dismissing the band as bombastic, unoriginal, and emblematic of the worst excesses of progressive rock. But where ELP is concerned, I cease to be a licensed critic and revert to the 12-year-old kid I was when I first heard "Take a Pebble," from the untitled debut album, played on freeform FM radio when I was home sick from school. That voice, that piano, that languorous melody, those fluid changes in rhythm and mood: I had no idea what it was, but instantly knew I wanted it, and it wasn't long before the LP was under my skinny arm and headed out of the store. To this day I have no regrets about buying it except that the spine was printed off-center, despite my earnest effort to find a good one. I always like my LPs to read nicely on the shelf.
As it turned out, I was already familiar with Keith Emerson. A childhood friend got me interested in his previous keyboard-dominant band The Nice while we played checkers. Though The Nice were successful, Emerson stepped up his game by forming a new trio with singer, songwriter, bassist, and guitarist Greg Lake from King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Ever the thieving magpie, Emerson stole melodies from Bartok, Janacek, and Bach, and critics gleefully name-checked their absence from the credits (omissions redressed in these re-releases). Adaptive gusto aside, ELP's originality always lay in its sound, which was distinctive as a fingerprint. Key elements were Emerson's Hammond organ, his pioneering use of the Moog synthesizer in a rock context, Lake's golden-cornet voice, his twangy bass guitar, and Palmer's ability to drum authoritatively at any speed, in any meter, and stop on a dime to shift seamlessly into something completely different.
That's a whole lot of attractive ingredients for an ambitious musician turned remix king, in this case Porcupine's Steven Wilson, who has given us ELP's debut album and the follow-up Tarkus in high-res 5.1. Each album comes in a "deluxe" three-disc edition with two CDs and one DVD-Audio disc. The first CD is a remastering of the classic mix with as little tampering as possible. The second CD, billed as The Alternate ELP, features 2012 stereo remixes and a different track roster. That alternate album reappears in high-res form on the DVD-A along with a 2012 mix in 5.1 channels. That gives you a bunch reasons to buy each set: the new 5.1 mix, the new stereo mix, the high-res versions of both, the bonus tracks, and the original mix, in case you didn't already have it in digital form.
Given the dominance of stereo in music production, every surround-for-music mix has to justify the medium as well as the music. If it doesn't enable us to hear the music in a new way, it's not worth the bother. Wilson's approach is You Are Keith Emerson and it becomes apparent with the opening chords of "The Barbarian" (thank you, Bela Bartok) from the first album. The organ is in the surround channels, effectively making the listener feel as if he were playing it, while the rhythm section is toward the front, though not limited entirely to the front. When the piano interlude begins, same thing. As a practical matter, this is not going to work well if you're using bipole/dipole speakers which provide more diffuse surround effects in the rear. You don't want Emerson's keyboard parts, especially primary ones that carry the main melody or riff, to be diffused by drivers aiming hither and yon. I would also avoid any kind of 7.1-channel processing that moves the side-surround material to back-surrounds (some listening modes will do this with a 5.1 signal).
Another recurring Wilsonism is the treatment of Greg Lake's vocals as he shifts from single to doubletracked parts or even to an entire chorus. The single voice is concentrated to the front center speaker with just a hint of leakage to the sides for subtle spatial fullness. This would be noteworthy in itself: Wilson is using movie-mixing aesthetics for a lead vocal. It works—I wish more surround mixes worked this way. But then the multiple voices kick in and they spread from front and center to the surrounds. Lake's voice is a thing of beauty to begin with, but to hear it flowing through the soundfield is just breathtaking. Wilson, knowing a good thing when he sees it, does this a lot.
As for Carl Palmer's drums, they've never sounded so solid. His mighty kick drum finally gets the LFE love it deserves. Without being overdone, his kit in general has an impact and speed that I've never heard on vinyl. Some secondary percussion parts are moved to the rear. Of course the surround treatment opens up the mix, as they generally do, and Palmer benefits from having more space around him. In stereo these two albums aim to get the fullest sound possible from a keyboard-based trio. In surround, with that battle confidently won, ELP are free to stand more apart from one another without losing their ensemble power.
In Tarkus Wilson mixes it up a bit, so to speak. In side one's sprawling suite, the synth fade-up begins predictably in the surrounds, but the primary organ part is in the front, with secondary piano and synth wails in the rear and drums all over. There are times when You Are Keith Emerson doesn't quite satisfy: In "Jeremy Bender" and "Bitches' Crystal," Emerson's detuned honky-tonk piano is in the surrounds, often leaving only the rhythm section and vocal in front, and the result is unbalanced. Of course, if You Are Keith Emerson begins to feel like Who Moved the Furniture?, you're always free to listen to one of the stereo mixes.
The alternate track rosters on the second and third discs are subtractive as well as additive. Unluckily for everyone concerned, the multitrack elements of the debut album's "Tank" and the first two of "The Three Fates" are missing. You get them on the first disc of original mixes but not on the others, so you can't hear them in either surround or high-res. Bonus tracks for the first album include "Rave Up," a jam with Lake on electric guitar; a "Drum Solo" that sounds like a formative version of Palmer's live "Tank" showpiece; alternate takes of "Take a Pebble" and "Knife Edge," with slightly different instrumental parts and no vocals—longtime listeners will find their minds filling in the melody lines; and two versions of "Lucky Man," including a solo demo and a multitracked Lake-and-Palmer version without Emerson's famous portamento-crazed synth solo. Bonus tracks for Tarkus include Lake's "Oh My Father," a moving ballad about the then-recent death of his own father. It might have made an excellent album closer. "Unknown Ballad" is a curiosity featuring Emerson on multitracked vocals (emulating Lake) and piano. On another alternate take, "Mass," once again the missing vocal melody line snaked inexorably through my brain.
Will these two high-res surround releases force a critical assessment of ELP? Probably not. Most listeners as well as critics either love 'em or hate 'em and are not likely to relinquish long-held positions. But I'd be curious to know what a younger listener unfamiliar with this music might make of it. Say what you will about them, ELP sounded like no one else. Not then, not now.