Of all the names on this disc, there was only one that caught my interest enough to introduce it to my collection: H.R. Giger.
My previous experience with ELP certainly wasn’t enough to invite me any further into their discography. But the legendary artist behind the Alien films’ production design (and the assertion that Works, Vol. 1 was their worst album by far) was enough to get me there.
By all accounts, Brain Salad Surgery is Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s opus. And while it has all of the same opulent sonic indulgence that prog rock is criticized for, it isn’t aimless.
There might be a misstep here or there (notably the honky-tonkin’ “Benny the Bouncer,” which has no purpose being here), but overall the album is a massive work of immense talent.
While all three members are undisputed virtuosos, Keith Emerson’s keyboard work is the star here. Whether on organ, piano, or synthesizer, he plays with the dexterity of a classical pianist.
That said, the mere fact that Greg Lake’s guitars and Carl Palmer’s rapidfire drumming aren’t stuck behind Emerson’s keyboards is testament to their enviable skill. The keys might get more tape time, but Lake and Palmer keep pace with him through the entire disc.
While most progressive rock bands have a noticeable fascination with classical music, Emerson Lake & Palmer are a little more obvious with theirs. Brain Salad Surgery opens with two arrangements of classical pieces, Hubert Parry’s 1918 “Jerusalem” and the fourth movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st piano concerto, performed here as a synth-laden flurry called “Toccata.”
Even their original moments have a classical flair to them—Palmer even has a timpani on his set. “Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression” could almost pass for a classical piece, save for Lake’s nimble bass guitar.
Though I admit, if anyone dismisses Emerson, Lake & Palmer—and progressive rock in general—as self-important, overblown, and more concerned with technical proficiency and complex composition than writing good music, there’s very little on Brain Salad Surgery to change your mind. It is the embodiment of every criticism you might levy against prog rock. But, if that’s the reason you enjoy prog, dig in.