When it comes to Emerson Lake & Palmer, one of two pieces is usually voted the band's pinnacle of achievement: "Karn Evil 9" from 1973's BRAIN SALAD SURGERY or the titular suite from 1971's TARKUS. And if "Karn Evil 9" is one of my top candidates for Best Prog Work Ever, "Tarkus" is a monolithic achievement nevertheless, one of the first sidelong epics in the annals of progressive rock, and one of its greatest.
Flying high on Keith Emerson's savage keyboards, grounded by Carl Palmer's seismic drumming, embroidered with Greg Lake's dour vocals and complementary bass licks, "Tarkus" alternates peaks of the loftiest beauty with storms of the basest profanity. There's a plot in Lake's overblown lyrics somewhere - I think it has to do with war, and the armadillo-tank on the LP cover, and something about a manticore as well - but lyrics have never been all that important in prog. They sound profound, and that's all that matters. The suite is partitioned into seven movements, but it's often difficult, amidst the hail of screaming organ solos and percussive whiplash, to discern where one ends and another begins. Besides, I listen to "Tarkus" as a whole, a mammoth example of everything good (and bad) about prog rock, so it's rather pointless to focus on the individual parts. It's a monster, to be sure, some of the most intricate, bloodthirstily confrontational music of the rock era.
Two prog workouts ("Bitches Crystal", "A Time & a Place"), a pair of goofy throwaways ("Jeremy Bender", "Are You Ready Eddy?"), and a bipartite mini-epic ("The Only Way (Hymn)"/"Infinite Space(Conclusion)") flesh out the remainder of the disc. After a behemothic opening like the title cut, the rest of TARKUS should be an anticlimax, and in many ways it is. But if it doesn't achieve the demented grandeur of Side I, Side II allows the band to calm down, stretch out, and defuse their self-conscious pomposity a bit. "The Only Way (Hymn)"/"Infinite Space (Conclusion)" in particular is great, featuring ecclesiastical organ, blazing bass figures, and a couple melodies "borrowed" from Bach.
If 70s prog ever needed a "poster band", there would be few acts better qualified to fill that role than ELP. By the same token, TARKUS plays about as near a 70s prog "poster album" as any album possibly could.
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