Sound — 2
Emerson, Lake and Palmer (collectively known as ELP) are renowned masters of progressive rock. Successfully fusing elements of classical and jazz in a rock setting, they left a lasting impact on the music scene based on their short, but meteoric, rise to fame. When references are made to musical dexterity, musical indulgence and/or musical bombast in a rock setting, ELP are inevitably mentioned and, truth be told, it's all become part of their legacy which they've fully embraced. Unfortunately, ELP are also known as the masters of the repackaged product. It's inevitable that a band that has any history involving multiple releases or hits will - down the road - have various collections (i.e. greatest hits) released. This will be in the form of titles such as 'Greatest Hits', 'The Gold Collection', 'The Legacy Edition', 'Greats Hits: Live!', 'The Singles Collection', 'Ultimate Collection', etc., etc. ELP is no different than most bands, starting out with a greatest hits collection the year after first break-up (1980). This was followed by various other collections and compilations through 2 additional reunions and inevitable break-ups in the mid to late 1990's. But what band would have the gall to have a release where they only played as a band on 20% of the tracks? ELP, that's who. Taking simultaneous advantage of the ELP name and of the Greg Lake single that first made its mark in 1975, ELP released the I Believe in Father Christmas EP in 1995, shortly after their final album In the Hot Seat (1994). In the Hot Seat, unfortunately, was a major flop - with both the general and progressive audiences - and was one of several disasters that caused the folding of their (then) label, Victory Music. Thus, the chips were called in for cashing and ELP looked at their collective and individual pasts to come up with a ready-made release, i.e. no shelling out of money for studio time/original material. Much to ELP's relief, the well stocked back catalogs (band and individual) allowed for several Christmas-themed tracks, the anchor of which would be Greg Lake's solo hit single I Believe in Father Christmas. Lake scored an incredible smash with this in his UK homeland (hitting #2 in 1975, and hitting the lower reaches of the charts in 1979 and 1983), while a less enamored US audience propelled it to #95. Despite the lowly chart ranking, it would become a holiday favorite for years to come and is featured on numerous collections; most recently it was performed by songstress Sarah Brightman for her Christmas tour. Amusing, not only would I Believe in Father Christmas be the anchor for this EP, it would be on there twice, honestly. 01.I Believe in Father Christmas: Greg Lake's original solo single version featuring Greg Lake on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a massive orchestra and choir. The song features a jangly acoustic guitar line and incorporates the theme from Prokofiev's Troika throughout. The song starts with acoustic guitar and voice, and builds in intensity up to an ending which features orchestra and choir at full throttle, ending with more fortissimo fff's than you can count on 2 hands. 02.Troika: taken from Keith Emerson's solo offering The Christmas Album. Ironically enough, Troika is the classical theme that Lake used in I Believe in Father Christmas. Emerson is, of course, very dextrous on the keyboards, but the song is hamstrung by a clunky, mechanical drum program. 03.Humbug: the original B-side to I Believe in Father Christmas, an instrumental sounding much like 1940's British pub jazz with a male choir singing the word Humbug randomly over what sounds like the same guitar line from I Believe in Father Christmas buried in the background. The CD tray screams 'previously unreleased', but to no avail. 04.I Believe in Father Christmas: Greg Lake's original solo single version but with the orchestra and choir completely removed; the only musical addition is a piano ending by Emerson emulating the orchestral version. This version was actually issued on ELP's Works Volume 2 which was hastily released to recoup funds following the financial disaster of ELP's orchestral tour in support of Works Volume 1. 05.Nutrocker: taken from ELP's 1972 Pictures at an Exhibition, it's the only real band number and it's actually a cover (it being credited to Kim Fowley, it borrows the riff from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, thereby creating a Christmas connection). The ELP version is a suitable riot, featuring Keith on clavinet only as Palmer and Lake perform at a breakneck pace. So ELP's offering was as follows - 5 songs: 2 of which are exactly the same where only Lake is featured, 1 which features only Lake, 1 which features only Emerson, and 1 which features all of ELP, but it's a cover and (using the original ELP release date) is 23 years old. And, as stated earlier, the same classical theme by Prokofiev is used on 3 of the 5 tracks.
Lyrics — 8
The only song with lyrics is I Believe in Father Christmas, and it's on here twice... exactly the same lyrics. Much discussion has gone on with this song as to what Lake (who wrote the song with Crimson and future Celine Dion songsmith Peter Sinfield) really meant. Some call it anti-Christmas, others maintain it's merely commentary on the shallowness of modern Christmas. Interviewed on the subject many times, Lake has repeatedly stated that the song is not anti-Christmas, rather it's anti-Christmas commercialism. It's a wishful return to Christmas innocence as seen through a child's eyes. Greg Lake's vocals (the only ones featured on this release, except for the choir on the title song(s) and Humbug) are excellent; smooth and powerful, Lake was still at the top of his game and was probably one of the finest singers in rock at this time.
Overall Impression — 3
If not for the ethics behind this release it would be a worthwhile addition to one's collection as Greg's Christmas song truly is a timeless classic. But to present this as an ELP offering is pushing it just a bit; not only that but only Nutrocker truly features the band (it's possible Palmer hit the occasional tambourine on the non-orchestral version of I Believe in Father Christmas, but I doubt it) and it was released 2+ decades prior! At least ELP didn't go completely over the top and including the re-recording they of I Believe in Father Christmas did for their leviathin box set Return of the Manticore (1993). Humbug is mostly forgettable and Keith's offering is not what one would expect from the creative hands behind Tarkus and Karn Evil 9, sounding more than Mannheim Steamroller in grumpy mood. ELP are formidable musicians but their poor artistic and business decisions over the years have resulted in their credibility being shot to shreds, something which this release unfortunately supports.