Variations by Keith EmersonRelease date: October 13, 2023
Label: Spirit of Unicorn Music
In the winter of 1998, my mom drove me to Blockbuster Music after getting some Hanukkah and birthday money. I went to the music store, took my time and bought Queen’s sole self-titled 1973 debut album, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. And my life was hooked after hearing ELP’s music on KKRW Classic Rock 93.7 The Arrow hearing songs like ‘Karn Evil 9: First Impression (Part 2)’, ‘Lucky Man’, and ‘From the Beginning’.
It was like nothing I ever heard before. There was the charismatics, the sci-fi stories, classical textures, insane time changes, pomp and circumstance, it was all there. The band were way ahead of their time by putting progressive rock on the map as a super group from the realms of The Nice, King Crimson, and a combination between Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
25 years later, and seven years after we loss both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake the same year in 2016, their legacy lives on. But for Keith, he was more than just the big names I’ve mentioned earlier. He was a composer, collaborator, solo artist with his own band, and writing music for TV and film. This 20-CD box set entitled Variations consists a journey of going beyond the four-letter P-word.
It goes through his bands, the solo albums (Honky, Changing States, Emerson Plays Emerson, Keith Emerson Band), the soundtracks (Inferno, Nighthawks, Murderock, the 1994 animated series of the first season from Iron Man, Best Revenge / La Chiesa (The Church), Harmagedon: Genma Taisen, and Godzilla: Final Wars), and his collaborative work from Marc Bonilla (Keith Emerson Band, Boys Club), Rachel Flowers, his grandson Ethan, Terje Mikkelsen, and Glenn Hughes (Boys Club) of Deep Purple fame in a live recording from 1998 in California.
Going through this massive set is like going through an old scrapbook that you haven’t seen for a very long time. Not only is it a trip down memory lane, but an introduction for the next generation who are discovering Keith’s music for the very first time. The sense over a loss for a true friend where Keith wrote a beautiful piano piece, ‘Lament for Tony Stratton-Smith’ who was The Nice’s manager and founder of Charisma Records since 1969.
When he passed away on March 19, 1987 due to pancreatic cancer, Keith wrote the composition, with excerpts from ‘Hang on to a Dream’, ‘Rondo’, and ‘America’. Followed by the concerto-sque dance routine between ‘Bach Before the Mast’ and going into this Gentle Giant route which is unexpected for Keith to do during the Honky sessions on ‘Hello Sailor Finale’.
It was like continuing where ELP had left off in a parallel universe where they made a sequel to Brain Salad Surgery but with sax and clavinet funk to the groove. And his love of ragtime music not just on ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ and ‘Barrelhouse Shakedown’, but returning towards a Turkey in the Straw routine for the ‘Big Horn Breakdown’, ‘A Cajun Alley’, and the 1930s with ‘Roll’n Jelly’.
The scores from the set were intriguing. Most of them were okay. One of which was his score he did for Dario Argento’s 1980 film Inferno, a thematic sequel to his 1977 horror classic Suspiria, and 1989’s La Chiesa (The Church) which he did three pieces for the film.
Originally, he was going to compose the entire film of La Chiesa, but after Argento heard the 12-track demos Keith gave to him, he didn’t like it. So only three of the tracks appeared in the film. From the nod to the opening of Tenebre with ‘La Chiesa’ with an electronic drum kit, Keith paying homage to Italian prog legends to Banco with ‘Taxi Ride (Rome) followed by some slap-pop bass textures, and a piano hanging over the edge on a tightrope with ‘A Cat Attic Attack’.
And who couldn’t forget the music he did for the first season of Iron Man when it was on UPN Kids either in 1995 or 1996. Sunday morning, I would watch that show along with The Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four. But this was where I first heard Keith’s score to the animated series which featured the voices of Robert Hays (Airplane!) as Tony Stark / Iron Man, James Avery (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) (later Dorian Harewood in S2) as War Machine, Jim Cummings (Winnie The Pooh, Darkwing Duck) as M.O.D.O.K., and later in the second season (which Keith didn’t compose the music for) Jennifer Hale (Totally Spies!, Mass Effect trilogy, BioShock Infinite) as Spider-Woman / Julia Carpenter (Casey Defranco did Julia’s voice in Season 1).
The music for the animated series wasn’t just an epic fanfare sound, but it had these supposedly symphonic structures to the episodes that were ambient, strange, terrorising, pipe organ themes, medieval, maddening, and at times very chilling. It made me think at times not just the Tarkus and Trilogy years, but giving Argento a tip of the hat during the time he was making the music for Inferno.
Looking at his solo albums in his later years, there were moments he revisited elements of ‘Abaddon’s Bolero’ which for me is the one from the Three Fates Project he did Mikkelsen and the 70-piece Münchner Rundfunkorchester (Munich Radio Orchestra) which gives more power and ambition, followed by an unearthed take of The Nice’s galloping version of Frank Zappa’s ‘Lumpy Gravy’ for John Peel’s Top Gear sessions in 1968 from 2006’s Off the Shelf.
And the theme song for the British sitcom with its wacky ragtime textures from 1983 to 1985’s (Does Mr. Belvedere ring a bell to you?) ‘Up the Elephant and Round the Castle’ starring comedian Jim Davidson who was an avid ELP fan, as Jim London before going Punk-Rock with Affinity’s Mo Foster, Pat Travers, John Doukas and Cozy Powell and going into a ‘50s rockabilly take of Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’.
Once you go into ‘Another Frontier’ it feels like as if Keith in a parallel universe, had continued to write more music for Iron Man during its second season run with its fanfare and galloping drum beats to see what happens in the latest episode from the series. And returning to Sibelius’ world in The Nice’s Five Bridges-era with ‘The Band Keeps Playing’ but going into an ‘80s arena rock groove as Gary Cirimelli’s vocals go from rock-styled beats into soulful chorus whilst Emerson’s concerto synths lay down the adventure that awaits us.
Alongside his tribute to “Strat”, ‘For Kevin’ which is off on Emerson Plays Emerson, is a tribute to Kevin Gilbert, known for the contribution to Sheryl Crow with the Tuesday Night Music Club, progressive rock music projects, Giraffe, and Toy Matinee, is a lifting arrangement to bid farewell to a man, who not only died too young, but how far could he have gone had he lived.
Once you listen to those rare recordings, he did at the age of 14 by tackling Steve Race’s ‘Nicola’, ‘Silver Shoes’, and ‘I’ll See You in my Dreams’ on the piano, you can see someone who was going to make it big one day. And laying down those ‘60s soul/R&B/trumpet routine with The T. Bones with Chris Barber on ‘Rock Candy’ by going into a 12-bar shuffle.
Notice there are some similarities to the climax on King Crimson’s ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic, Part II’ thrown in to the mix while Rachel and his grandson Ethan lend a helping hand on the blaring roar of the ‘Toccata Con Fuoco’ and the escapism into Slumberland on ‘The Dreamer’.
And let’s not forget guitarist and vocalist Marc Bonilla who joined forces with Keith in 1995 on the Changing States album, followed by the Magna Carta tribute album for ELP; Encores, Legends, & Paradox. When he joined Emerson for his own band in 2006, you can feel the chemistry and the vibrations that was needed.
It helped him get away from the Prog trio that he was known for and showed how much he can do by removing the tension between Greg and Carl. Bonilla, whose voice resembles the sounds of John Wetton, adds the energy, spirit, and fire that was needed for the Keith Emerson Band. And he was like a breath of fresh-air to lend Keith a helping hand throughout the band’s sole self-titled debut in 2008 and the Moscow live 2-CD set.
From the ghostly spirits calling for their loved one into a heavy blistering rocking voyage on the 2-parter ‘Miles Away’, the William D. Drake approach into a soaring train ride from ‘Crusaders Cross’ to Fugue’ and returning once more to the pipe organ with a ‘2nd Presence’, it feels like a continuation where Tarkus had left off.
The Moscow Theatre from the 2-CD set live recording shows more of the attitude, chemistry, and fun there was as they take audiences into the ‘Marche Train’, the folk dance with a Premiata Fornernia Marconi approach of the Argentinian folk dance of the ‘Malambo’, a blistering take of ‘Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression (Part 2)’ with Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and excerpts of the ‘Nutrocker Suite’ from Tchaikovsky makes them enjoy the fun for what is about to happen next.
A rare live recording the Keith Emerson band did at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in New York on May 21, 2004, will make you close your eyes and being at the club, witnessing the band going from takes of The Nice’s controversial hit of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’ from West Side Story, followed by ‘Rondo’ with its arpeggiated textures, Dave Kilminster (Roger Waters, Steven Wilson) doing an incredible take of ‘Country Pie’ with Phil Williams’ nod to Lee Jackson’s motif on the Bass, ‘Karelia Suite’, audiences clapping along to the ragtime arrangements on ‘A Cajun Alley’, and Kilminster’s acoustic ballad ‘Just Crazy’ sets up this scenario of finding hope and sympathy.
Now closing the story of ELP. After the band’s one-off gig at Classic Rock’s High Voltage festival at Victoria Park in London on July 25, 2010, the trio came full circle. Despite the technical problems, you can tell it was their last farewell, saying goodbye and thank you to their fans.
When Keith and Greg released Live at Manticore Hall which was recorded at the Ridgefield Playhouse on May 8th, two months before their farewell gig at the High Voltage Festival with Carl Palmer, it was a reflection of revisiting their golden-era between ELP and the gentle, mournful, and acoustic crisp of King Crimson’s 1969 classic, ‘I Talk to the Wind’.
You could feel the love, the emotion, and beauty the duo have brought a different form of the classic’s fans know and love. The stories and the humour they talked about the origins behind the songs, the meetings between these two comrades between The Nice and King Crimson at the Fillmore West for four nights at the end of that time period in December of that year, and the rest as they say is history.
From the ragtime take of ‘Bitches Crystal’, a brutal version of ‘The Barbarian’, a Monk-sque turned hypnotising approach of the ‘Tarkus’ suite that clocks in at 17-minutes, a haunting version of ‘C’est La Vie’, and the roaring sailing to new adventures of ‘Pirates’ makes it a perfect evening to give audiences a night they’ll never forget. And closing it off with ‘Lucky Man’.
When Keith died on March 11th, 2016, it marked the end of an era. It was very much like losing a friend, friend, and a family member that you have known for a very long time. Nine months later, Greg joined him on December 7th due to a private battle with cancer. The legacy and the music will live on to inspire the next generation to come.
More than anything, Variations will give fans and newcomers, discovering Keith’s Post-ELP years, and explore how much he was loved and completely ahead of his time. Between the scores, the solo work, and collaboration, the next journey was always one step ahead from moving forward and never looking back. And this box set is the right place at the right time to give Keith Emerson, the proper recognition he deserves.