Sound: "Tarkus" is the second studio album by the Progressive Rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer and also their second album to be published. Although their live album "Pictures At An Exhibition" was recorded first, their record company was unwilling to release it, afraid that it wouldn't sell well because of the classical influences. It didn't get released until "Tarkus" gave them the kind of breakthrough and proved that progressive rock could cater to mainstream audiences.
"Tarkus" yielded one of the first side-long suites in popular music, only preceded by Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart Mother" in 1970. The title track "Tarkus" is over 20 minutes long and consists of multiple movements, telling a story of a giant armadillo-tank hybrid war machine, called "Tarkus", from its birth in a volcanic eruption, to its battles with similar creature-machine hybrids, to its defeat by the monster Manticore. In the end Tarkus is reborn as an aquatic version of itself, Aquatarkus.
"Tarkus" kicks off with an unusual time signature with Keith Emerson's intense organ and synth playing, Carl Palmer's storming drums and Greg Lake's booming bass line. Emerson's Moog synth plays a cascading theme. This part is called "Eruption". Greg Lake's vocals come in the second movement "Stones Of Years", a slower-paced section followed by a short instrumental section "Iconoclast". After that comes a very interesting part, called "Mass". Once again Emerson plays a catchy synth theme in the background of Lake's vocals. After that comes the battle with the Manticore, followed by the apocalyptic "The Battlefield". Greg Lake plays an unusual guitar solo, which is indeed quite cool. When playing it live they often included in the end of this section a part of "Epitaph", a song of Lake's previous band King Crimson. The final part is "Aquatarkus", a kind of a funny outro to the menacing suite. Just when the instruments fade away and you think the song is over a reprise of the Eruption theme kicks in, and the suite finally ends.
Side 2 of the LP consists of mostly filler songs, although they are by no means bad songs. "Jeremy Bender" is an honky-tonk piano song about a guy who becomes a nun and seduces several women, and finally leaves them. "Bitches Crystal" is a fast-paced song abut magic, rituals and spirits featuring Emerson on grand piano and synth and Greg Lake on aggressive raspy vocals.
"The Only Way (Hymn)" and "Infinite Space (Conclusion)" segue together so they are basically the same song. Emerson plays church organ and Lake sings... Well, like in a church. The lyrics, however, criticize religion and state that people should not depend on God or gods and instead follow their own path. "A Time And A Place" has Emerson again on Hammond organ and Lake sings about being trapped and begs to be saved.
The closer track "Are You Ready Eddy?" is a humorous Rock & Roll piece with Emerson on jangle piano and it's about their sound engineer, Eddy Offord and it was propably improvised in the studio. I can't say for sure, though. // 9
Lyrics: Greg Lake supplies epic and conceptual lyrics to complement the awesome music of the album. On "Tarkus" the lyrics are very indirect, instead of narrating a straightforward story his singing is more symbolic and poetic. It fits the suite perfectly and leaves a lot for the listener to imagine. The lyrics aren't really the central point of the album, however; the emphasis is on the instrumental virtuosity of the band and the music.
Greg Lake is an awesome singer. Unlike many rock and roll singers his vocal register isn't very high-pitched. That doesn't stop him from singing more epicly than most singers, though. He has a very warm and strong voice and his style ranges from an aggressive, roaring tone to a gentle, soft voice reminiscent of a church choir. His voice fits the music perfectly. // 10
Overall Impression: "Tarkus" reached number 1 on the UK album charts in 1971, the year it was released. It was a significant progress from their eponymous debut album, and the title track was recorded and mixed in a mere 6 days. Just leaves you wondering how long the other songs took to make.
The "Tarkus" suite is often considered one of the best compositions of the Prog Rock era, and it's definitely been an influence on loads of other artists. What is so stunning about Emerson, Lake and Palmer that while they are usually remembered for mixing rock with classical music, they could play any style. On "Tarkus" you can hear old school rock & and roll, classical, jazz, gospel, funk, blues, folk, and electronic music. Keith Emerson, surely the greatest rock keyboardist, is a pioneer of the synthesizer in not only popular music but any music. He used the Moog synth on their first album and with "Tarkus" the synth earned its place as a formidable instrument forever. Carl Palmer is unquestionably one of the top drummers of Progressive Rock, playing loudly and subtly at the same time. Greg Lake is up there with all the great rock singers and bassists, but sadly he is vastly underrated.
I think the second side of the album pales in comparison to the first side, although it's really hard to match the awesomeness of "Tarkus" with shorter songs. I don't really listen to the other songs on my MP3 but if I'm listening to the whole album at home then I always go through the whole thing. If the album were stolen or lost I would definitely buy it again just for the title track. // 9