An air of the classical has been a part of the progressive rock genre from the very beginning. During the proto-prog outbreak in the late sixties, bands began using elements of that era (as well as folk and jazz) to expand upon the tried-and-true rock ‘n’ roll formula. It wasn’t long before the experiments expanded beyond simply bending rock songs to mirror classical compositions, and bands began to include actual orchestras with there music. The Moody Blues, for example, are well-known for their use of symphonic elements. None from the era, however, managed to grapple with the balrog of classical composition quite so convincingly as Keith Emerson.
Although he’d been in groups before, such as The V.I.P.’s, the work that is mentioned the most among Keith’s pre-world fame work is as part of soul singer P. P. Arnold’s backing band, and then of The Nice. Although his instrument of choice was the Hammond organ, the sound of which he’d managed to twist into his own, Emerson discovered a Moog synthesizer during his time with The Nice and it became a staple of his sound. With a ruthless prowess he was able to use these instruments to perform pieces of classical music from the likes of Bach and Strauss in a full-frontal style that was normal only reserved for early rabble-rousers like The Who.
When in 1970 the members of The Nice became frustrated with a lack of commercial success, they split up and Keith Emerson joined up with Greg Lake of King Crimson and Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster to form arguably the most notorious progressive rock supergroup, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Their self-titled debut album was not shy with its classical influences, what with pieces by notable composers Bartók, Janáček, and Bach taking up a chunk of the first side of the record. It also included in its coda (Greg Lake’s famous career-making ballad “Lucky Man”) the moog solo that almost singlehandedly thrust said synthesizer into the foreground of 70’s music.
Daring to delve even further into a classical/rock fusion, the band recorded their interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1971, a recording which their label was sure would ruin them. This resulted in it being shelved until after the huge success of the band’s second album Tarkus later in 1971. Four more albums followed, each featuring further interpretations of classical works. Not only did Emerson become known for his technical ability, but also for his flare on stage. You really do have to see some of the footage of him pitching around an entire bloody organ to produce ungodly noises.
One of their final grand undertakings as a band in the seventies was a tour with a full orchestra to promote their pair of Works albums. The story has been told so many times, I’m sure I don’t need to go into a terrible amount of detail. Ultimately, they lost millions of dollars trying to travel with said orchestra and had to let that element go after only a handful of dates. They recorded one more album in the seventies, an oft-used symbol for the supposed death-throes of prog rock, called Love Beach before disbanding.
Emerson went on to compose and record sountracks for several films in the eighties and reformed ELP with Greg Lake and drummer Cozy Powell, whose last name apparently started with a P purely by coincidence. A stellar interpretation of Holst’s Mars ended their only album Emerson, Lake & Powell. During the band’s 1986 tour, tensions rose within the band and Greg Lake departed. Keith and Carl Palmer would reunite soon after (Palmer having recently finished with Asia) and would found the band 3 with Robert Berry. This line-up also only released a single album, To the Power of Three in ’88. ELP proper reunited for most of the nineties, releasing a pair of albums and touring.
Keith Emerson then embarked mostly on a solo career. Among these releases is the notable Emerson Plays Emerson which saw the artist stepping away from the organ and synthesizer to showcase his pure ability to play the keys with a piano. Although guitarist/vocalist Marc Bonilla (currently of the Danny Seraphine project California Transit Authority) had worked with Emerson before, his first album as a proper part of the group, and the first under the name Keith Emerson Band was 2008’s Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla, which featured a fantastic blending of the two artists’ abilities.
Now, for a progressive musician who has spent a great deal of his grand career interpreting classical music, Keith Emerson has oddly recorded comparatively little with actual orchestra. With their upcoming release Three Fates Project, the Keith Emerson Band (Bonilla and bassist Travis Davis this time joined by Tesla drummer Troy Luccketta) have decided to step away from the standard progressive approach to fully embrace the grandeur of classical music.
This time round, Keith and his band have joined forces with conductor Terje Mikkelsen and a full 70-piece orchestra to deliver an overtly symphonic record filled with both new original compositions and reworkings of ELP tunes. Essentially, the disc offers a flip-side to what Emerson has been doing his entire career: it offers one the chance to hear his work re-interpreted as classical music. Prog fans who are also fans of full-on orchestral classical music will rejoice at being able to hear some of ELP’s signature compositions re-imagined as if meant for symphony. The strength of the album by far lies in its composition. The orchestral work, including the sombre new piece “The Mourning Sun,” is tight and spotless, although I admit occasionally one misses some of the subtlety of the guitar and keys due to the sheer vastness of Mikkelsen’s orchestral armada.
Although progressive rock for the most part takes the backseat, Emerson and Bonilla are more than present and their brilliance is featured in such a way that makes this a must have for fans of either man. Maintaining a more subtle approach, Keith does some absolutely gorgeous piano work on the new piece “After All of This” and his re-working of Ginastera’s “Malambo” is yet another fine example of his uncanny ability to add his own flavour to classical composition. Bonilla’s guitar work rather reminds me of Steve Hackett for many reasons. It weaves in and out of the background leaving you with nice little dashes of spice here and there. On the re-working of his 1993 solo tune “American Matador,” Marc Bonilla is especially memorable. I am happy that this song has been included along with the ELP tunes as it allows the guitarist to step up and strut over his own familiar turf. Essentially, it shows us why he is such an important part of this record.
Those many moments when the orchestra and the rock band come together are unforgettable. The aforementioned “American Matador” is an exceptional example of this. When the rock elements are allowed to take the lead, the briskly-paced orchestra work is absolutely an asset. If the progressive rock fan needed only a single reason to pick up Three Fates Project (besides the fact that Keith Emerson is on it, that is), I would present its triumphant centrepiece: an utterly magnificent rendering of the ELP epic “Tarkus.” Here, the guitar, orchestra, and synths go so well together it’s frightening. Emerson’s savage moog in all its glory hollering out over the massive orchestra is something spectacular you just totally have to hear. Doubtless some fans will cry out at the lack of organ but I find Emerson’s use of traditional piano instead helps to bring out the jazzier elements which jive with everything in a sensational manner.
I’ve often times been critical of “Fanfare for the Common Man” due to its having brought prog into sporting events (cringe), but it ends this album well. All three key elements (guitar, keys, orchestra… I assume that’s where they were going when they decided to name the record after the ELP song “The Three Fates”) come together in a slow-burning but ultimately riveting and climactic coda. If Keith Emerson has had a legendary career bending classical music to fit his signature, then Three Fates Project is a fascinating point of view of that struggle from the eyes of classical music. It goes without saying that it is a good listen, but the record is also important to progressive music not only as a display of the compositional skill of some of its most powerful minds, but also because it will illustrate to many just how close the two genres are to one another.