Progressive rock is easily one of the most polarizing genres of music; people either adore it dutifully or dismiss it instantly, finding it far too bizarre, complicated, and pretentious to endure. Emerson, Lake & Palmer has often been touted as the poster child for the latter (just look at their tours from the 1970s for justification). Still, no one can argue that they aren’t extremely talented and prolific, having composed some of the most iconic and ambitious work the genre has ever had. Fortunately, the trio’s newest release, Live in Montreal 1977, is a lengthy collection that contains incredible performances of classic material. However, the sound quality leaves something to be desired, as does the distancing nature of the music.
Formed in 1970 by keyboardist Keith Emerson (ex-The Nice), bassist/vocalist Greg Lake (ex-King Crimson), and drummer Carl Palmer (ex-Atomic Rooster), ELP is considered the first supergroup in the genre. It’s fair to say that noband was bigger than ELP at the height of its career, and with seminal releases like Tarkus, Trilogy, and Brain Salad Surgery, it’s easy to see why. Conversely, though, many regard the group’s music as being too virtuosic and cold, favoring showmanship and odd effects over emotion and songwriting. Interestingly, Live in Montreal 1977 seems to validate both opinions, for its contents are brilliantly complex and bold yet also isolating, self-serving, monotonous, and shallow.
“Abaddon’s Bolero” provides a grandiose and militaristic opening, with thunderous orchestration (led by Emerson’s trademark timbre, which resembles a dental drill) and steady percussion. It energizes the crowd effectively, paving the way for “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Pt. 2” to wow them even more. It’s definitely one of their most famous songs, and for good reason—it’s catchy as hell and wildly creative. They seem to play it a bit faster than on the record, too, which makes it even more exciting. Afterward, two of Lake’s most beloved songs—“C’est La Vie” and “Lucky Man” (the first song he ever wrote, I believe)—are recreated well. In his prime, Lake was easily among the best vocalists in all of progressive rock, and he definitely lives up to it here. Luckily (no pun intended), ELP cuts out the distracting and irrelevant keyboard outro to the latter track, choosing to showcase the purity of Lake’s song instead. It’s a wise choice.
They do a fine job replicating longer pieces like “Pictures at an Exhibition”, Tank”, and “Fanfare for the Common Man (including Rondo)”, too. Although all three pieces sound a lot alike (as does much of their catalog), they’re still miraculous. “Pictures” features some thoughtful melodic choices and calmer moments, while “Tank” feels like a chaotic overture, complete with some solo anarchy from Palmer. Finally, “Fanfare” is especially dynamic and thrilling, with the two rhythmic giants helping Emerson alternate many timbres and styles every minute or so. It’s easily his time in the spotlight, and he doesn’t waste a second astounding all.
Despite all of its strengths, Live in Montreal 1977 still suffers from a major issue: poor sound quality. Granted, the audio is from several decades ago, but that’s really no excuse considering countless other live records from that era exist and sound fantastic. In a way, it’s like the band is performing underwater (particularly during the first half of the set). Everything sounds slightlymuddled and far away. In addition, there are the unavoidable flaws of the music itself, which, as I’ve said, can be overwhelmingly repetitive, aggressive, and just plain heartless. ELP may be masterful composers, but the group has never had the warmth, gripping melodies, or colorfulness of, say, vintage Genesis or Jethro Tull. Of course that’s fine if you’re into their style, but it’s still something to consider.
Live in Montreal 1977 is a fine collection of ELP doing what ELP was known for—flashy sounds, lengthy compositions, and gaudy playing. ELP’s music has always been of a dual-edged sword because of its soulless extravagance and superficiality (save for a few examples of solid songwriting). The trio can play their asses off, but it rarely amounts to anything affective or memorable. They basically provide musical fireworks, so besides the sound issue problem the only factor in considering this a worthwhile release is, quite simply, whether or not you’re a fan of ELP.