After forming in 1970, the members of progressive rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (i.e. keyboardist extraordinaire Keith Emerson, guitarist/bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, and drummer Carl Palmer, all highly experienced and extremely technically proficient players) crafted some incredibly influential music and perhaps were the only popular music group that performed classical music and classically-influenced pieces as part of their normal repertoire. Despite all this, the group was derided by many critics who found them to be a prime example of everything that was wrong with prog rock and the criticism eventually took its toll on the band members - by the end of the decade the group had split somewhat disgracefully. There have been a few ELP-related reunion tours over the years typically involving Emerson and Lake who appear to have remained mostly amicable, and the 2014 release Live at Manticore Hall (recorded during a 2010 world tour) demonstrates that underneath all the “masturbatory excess” that ELP was accused of, there was some solid songwriting craft and musicianship.
Live at Manticore Hall presents stripped-down, mostly acoustic versions of songs written for ELP as well as early Emerson project, The Nice and even a bit of King Crimson of which Lake was a founding member. This live album’s lesser focus on production magic allows a listener to really concentrate on the songs themselves and while it’s obvious that this wouldn’t be the best place for non-fans of these two musicians to start since it doesn’t accurately represent the trademark ELP sound, there’s no denying the treat that Manticore Hall would present to those who’ve grown up listening to the music of Emerson and Lake. Intermittently throughout the recording, the duo discuss their musical careers in between numbers, telling a few amusing and sometimes quite detailed stories about how these songs came about. Though the relationship between Emerson and Lake has been trying at times, it sounds as if the two are enjoying playing together, and even with a few noticeable clumsy or awkward segments, the music itself seems to come off extremely well.
“From the Beginning,” a track from ELP’s third studio album, is the perfect one to kick off the disc. There’s a pleasantly shuffling momentum to this track that finds Lake strumming away on an acoustic guitar while Emerson plays a gentle piano accompaniment and occasional bass line on the synth. Lake’s voice isn’t quite as smooth as it once was, but it sounds robust and powerful – a far cry from the sound some performers exhibit some forty years on in their careers – and the highlight of this and most tracks here is Emerson’s keyboard solos that frequently have a ragtime sort of feel to them. Following an “Introduction” track in which Lake briefly explains the motivations for the concert, we get the early King Crimson tune “I Talk to the Wind,” a story-like song which has a more dreamy feel to it. Emerson offers up a few amusing anecdotes about his early musical escapades before the concert gets significantly louder on a pair of ELP tunes. “Bitches Crystal” finds the keyboardist banging out both thunderous accompaniment sections and more delicate melodies while Lake bellows out the fantasy-like lyrics, while “The Barbarian” plays as a hypnotic, almost sinister track derived from the music of classical composer Bela Bartok. Again, Emerson’s manic keyboard lines show why he’s regarded as one of the best keyboardists in popular music.
“Take a Pebble” begins with a lengthy monologue from Lake about the creative process and the inspiration for the slightly haunting track and the album starts to head into its final stretch by unleashing the lengthy ELP track “Tarkus,” which ranges from having hellish sections of destructive keyboard assaults to more ethereal, quiet segments of Lake’s earnest vocals before an extremely loud coda of burping and growling synthesizers. It was during this track that I began to question just how exactly this music was pulled off with only two players: there’s obviously a lot of programming and sequencing going on behind the scenes and also some amount of drumming. This last aspect only hammers home the notion that the participation of Carl Palmer would have been needed to take these tunes to the next level or truly make them complete. Surely, Emerson and Lake can perform the tracks capably, but this clearly isn’t an ELP record despite its occasional attempts to seem like one. Lake’s more pop-oriented, mostly acoustic “C’est Le Vie” provides a needed comedown after the explosive previous track, but the almost operatic “Pirates” feels entirely unnecessary in the context of this record. It's this sort of piece like this that earned ELP its reputation of making pretentious music. Finally, we get a fairly experimental version of ELP’s most well-known track “Lucky Man” which begins with a marvelously noisy vintage Moog synthesizer solo. The song itself is relatively restrained, playing as a duet between Lake’s acoustic guitar and Emerson’s loud, buzzing keyboards with occasional folk-like verses of lyrics, but it's about as satisfying a closer as one could get on an album by these two players.
Sound quality throughout Live at Manticore Hall is very good if not fantastic, particularly in regard to how Lake’s voice sounds in relation to the instruments. I also really appreciated the new arrangements heard on this album: every song here has been sort of reimagined for a pair of musicians who are forty years older than when the pieces were originally written, making the disc quite enjoyable and interesting for those already familiar with the tunes. The absence of Carl Palmer limits the album’s potential however when the acoustic portion of the concert gives way to the louder numbers, many of which feature some sort of drum programming or performance. A listener can only dream of what Palmer would have been able to add to these tracks, many of which seem to be lacking that energy that could only have been added through use of live drumming. Additionally, I noticed a few moments when Emerson seemed to be getting ahead of himself in his playing, but these moments are difficult to detect since the keyboardist covers his mistakes so well. Ultimately, I suppose one’s appreciation of this live record will depend on what he wants to get out of it. It’s probably not the best introduction to the music made by this duo and isn’t without a few flaws, but listeners who are OK with the fact that this isn’t an ELP live album would probably enjoy it a whole lot.
7.5 / 10
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