Maybe armadillo tanks don't mean a damn thing, but these guys make 'em sound oh so tasty...
Track listing: 1) Tarkus; 2) Jeremy Bender; 3) Bitches Crystal; 4) The Only Way; 5) Infinite Space; 6) A Time And Place; 7) Are You Ready Eddy.
The goddamn peak. I can't think of any other ELP album which would be just as well balanced as this one - except possibly for the debut one. But Emerson, Lake & Palmer, good as it might have been, was still only a debut - and this means the band just didn't have the time or the guts to stretch itself out. Which it does convincingly on their next opus. Tarkus is a rock symphony ('rock opera' would probably be too grand a definition), based on an entirely fictitious, artificial and meaningless concept of a giant armadillo tank erupting out of a giant egg and giving battle to some horrible other-world creature, or whatever. A fantasy that's definitely worthy of a four-year old (although that's what I say - never underestimate a four-year old! Man, I wrote some great nifty plays and novels when I was four years old.) Throughout, it features pompous arrangements, weird synth solos, grandiose but shallow lyrics, and all the usual tricks which go with such records. And yet - it works. For me, at least. I must say that, as much as I'm not a huge lover of such things, I really enjoy most of the twenty-plus minutes of the armadillo suite - enjoy them to the point of proudly proclaiming Tarkus as the really high moment of the band's career.
Why? Well, first of all, the 'symphony' is very well structured: the sections are rather short, so they don't indulge themselves in lengthy dentist office jams, there are some wise repetitions of the main themes, and the links between the main sections are quite intelligent as well. Second, the sung parts are magnificent: at this point Lake still knew how to write a truly catchy tune, and knew how to render it moving and passionate with the sheer power of his voice, even though the lyrics still didn't mean a thing. So the three main sung parts are all fantastic. 'Stones Of Years' is a magnificent Moody Blues-style ballad with ominous synth and organ backing from Keith and echoey double-tracked vocals from Greg sounding like the death angel descending from the sky. 'Mass' is just a lot of fun - now here's a part that rocks pretty hard in addition to being ultra-catchy (I still insist that it's catchier than pretty much every melody ever written by any Yes member) and, well, poppy in its essence. And on 'Battlefield' Greg manages to convince you there's been a real bloody battle going on while it was just the darn armadillo freakin' out; the epic mood is perfectly emulated by Keith's keyboard battery and the weeping guitar solo. All of these parts are cleverly interspersed with the instrumental sections so that you very rarely get the feeling of something being overlong, and there is indeed a feel of an entertaining storyline being slowly developed and displayed in the process.
And finally, the instrumentation is magnificent: Keith makes truly good use of the synths, Lake adds tasty guitar solos, and Palmer is Palmer, as usual. This stuff really manages to rock, and it gets you going; the worst part, as witnessed by many, is the synth jam on 'Aquatarkus' that takes a wee bit too much time before the end, but it's still just a minor complaint. Just like Brain Salad Surgery, it is all destined to make you appreciate the guys' incredible technique and proficiency, and just like Brain Salad Surgery, it is all destined to convince you that rock'n'roll can be nauseatingly serious if you want it to, but, quite unlike Brain Salad Surgery, it is all also destined to let you have a good time. You know what I'm talkin' about. The ardor. The heat. The energy and passion. The youthful enthusiasm. The hooks. Just forget for a moment about the circus sides of Tarkus and realize that it's plainly and primarily good music - nothin' else needed.
Plus, side two is good; it definitely pales in comparison to the suite, and it's obvious that the guys were too much occupied with the magnum opus to pay special tribute to what's being on the second side, but it's still good and overall not enough to detriment my rating. The individual songs may not be as colourful as the ones on ELP, but they're tolerable. The opening silly country piano boogie 'Jeremy Bender' is pure fun; obviously, it was set to deliberately contrast with the puffed-up 'symphony' - when it comes on right after the pompous closing notes of 'Tarkus', it's a hell of a shock. (Apparently, the guys loved the idea so much that they employed the same trick on their next two studio records - with 'The Sheriff' and 'Benny The Bouncer'). Then there are some more overblown pieces in the same symphony mood that sound like outtakes from the 'Tarkus' sessions, 'Bitches Crystal' and 'A Time And Place' being the best of them and 'The Only Way' being the worst (Lake really overdoes it here with his pathetic complaints about God having lost six million Jews). And the record closes with another fun pseudo-rock'n'roll piece ('Are You Ready Eddy?', certainly a parody on 'Ready Teddy'), just to deflate things a little bit.
In all, I really wouldn't know if it's that much better than the debut album, because the songs on side two are slightly more boring than the best stuff on ELP (but slightly less boring than the worst stuff on ELP. You go figure it out). But still, over time I've come to the conclusion that there's no better introduction to the band's sound than Tarkus. ELP may be good, but it also might give you a slightly wrong impression, what with 'Lucky Man' and all that stuff. Or maybe not. Aw, what the hell. Buy both. They're worth it. Tarkus is probably a better bet to see the band gel together as an ensemble, while ELP puts too much effort into accentuating the members' individual strengths (not as overtly as Works, of course, but also far more efficiently).
Best song: TARKUS