Weird, Overlooked, Wonderful 02: Tarkus

In Which There’s an Armadillo Tank

The strangest thing about progressive rock is nothing really inherent to the genre. Not the extended keyboard solos, the constantly shifting time signatures, the tributes to both classical composers and jazz musicians, nor the tome like lyrics describing imaginary lands. No the oddest thing about progressive rock was, that, for a time in the early 70’s, it was extremely popular.

That such pompous, portentous, and pretentious music could fully cut through the mainstream of the popular consciousness induces two reactions: the much vaunted artistic freedom of the 70’s, and the much derided excesses of the same time. The album length songs, mammoth live shows, and oblique musical themes all came together into a heady stew. Poured directly into a culture that was ready to imagine the cosmic shortly after things like the moon landing and contemporaneously with the ills of the world.

Such grander — songs of fairies, flying machines, and long organ solos — eventually became calcified culture. Relics of the past, and unable to sustain the energy and power of punk, new wave, and synth pop. After it’s initial blast of success, progressive music was shunted to the deep end of cultural respect. A genre reserved only for the jeers of Pitchfork writers, and the seemingly out of touch parents of the world.

It is then interesting that the prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake, and Palmer came to embody all the above sentiment.

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The band was an amalgam of members from previous progressive acts: Keith Emerson (keyboards) from The Nice, Carl Palmer (drums) hailed from Atomic Rooster, and Greg Lake (bass, guitar, vocals) from an early incarnation of King Crimson. They were unfulfilled with their current projects and came together to make a singular group. One that focused on their musical dexterity and appreciation for the classical form. ELP’s popularity begun bubbling up because of their monstrous live shows, with the group reinterpreting classical composers with a rock group kick. Much of the early days were filled with covers of Pictures at an Exhibition or Dave Brubeck tunes. Such songs were a display of technical mastery, but the group wanted more.

So after the completion of their eponymous debut album, ELP brewed up Tarkus. A totemic piece of prog iconography that, much like the group, represents the peaks and valleys of the genre. The album and title track are not exactly the stuff of legend, but they certainly feel like something mythic. A deep pull from the recesses of unknown histories for the pleasure and answer of the listening audience.

The title track of the album is a sonic representation of metaphorical kaiju battles. As the Armadillo tank is born and enters a series of melees with his sworn opponents, the listener is treated to a suite of rumbling organs, pounding drums, and opaque lyrics. The production and sound of the song certainly paint the sonic landscape of some fantastic war, even if the the lyrics a touch more obtuse.

It is difficult to divine that the our favorite armed armadillo is going through a sequence of Mortal Kombat-esque encounters from words alone. Decidedly it sounds like Lake had more of an axe to grind with organized religion more than a full blown interest in battling beasties. The fourth movement of the song is rife with anti-clerical gems like, “The high priest took a blade/ To bless the ones that prayed/ And all obeyed/ The messenger of fear is slowly growing, nearer to the time/ A sign/ The weaver in the web that he made!” According to plot descriptions of the song, this section is where Tarkus fights a lizard/grasshopper that can shoot rockets. Sounds cool as hell, but it’s not exactly well conveyed.

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Despite its supposed story and thematic heft, Tarkus the song and the album are both rather fracturous. Pieces of art pulled in different directions before being stitched back together by some eye-searingly memorable designs and raucous instrumental works.

In fact the theming of Tarkus is almost entirely guided by the visual designs of artist William Neal, whose iconic cover inspired the titling of the project (Tarkus being a portmanteau of Tartarus and carcass). The disparate elements don’t end there, as the band was almost torn asunder by the construction of Tarkus. Keith Emerson spent most of the time composing the track, and only brought Greg Lake to write lyrics and provide finishing touches. The disunity of composition rubbed Lake the wrong way, and he threatened to disband over what he saw as an Emerson side project. Luckily the two worked things out, and were able to produce such a towering testament to prog-rock pomposity.

But the diffuse elements of the album is more acutely felt on the remaining tracks. Side two is a smattering of musical ideas that rarely fully coalesce into anything more than there component parts, and in fact lay bare accusation that many prog rockers use their virtuoso skills to commits acts of musical forgery. Indeed pieces like Jeremy Bender, The Only Way, and Are You Ready Eddy all feel like cheap pastiche. Blending genres to fill time and because ELP thought they had the chops to do a honky tonk song, a hymn, and an old school rock and roll track respectively.

These tunes also house some truly gasp worthy lyrical missteps, the highlight being it The Only Way’s scathing critique of the theistic with the laughable lines of, “Can you believe/ God makes you breathe?/ Why did he lose/ Six million Jews?” The best of the bunch on side two is the unfortunately named Bitches Crystal, surviving the gauntlet by being a fully thought out track.

Truly Tarkus is then a land of contrasts. On one side is metonym for progressive rock at large, and the other is a sputtering affair that illustrates its failings. Such contrasts can be seen through the prism of ELP as their careers continued, each got pulled apart from each other as successes mounted, before tumbling apart under a pile of pretentious affectation. This cannot deny the spark of something that makes the genre so compelling. A strain of music that could produce an image as memorable, silly, and time weathering as a tank Armadillo pointing a gun at the listener.

Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful?

Tarkus is primo 70’s pop culture oddity, both beguiling and incoherent with what it represents. So it’s got weird stitched up. The album is definitely overlooked musically, culture favoring the bizarro aesthetics instead, and the title track is worth the price of admission, so yes, it’s up to snuff.

Odds and Ends

  • What is interesting is that ELP will go on to execute the structure of Tarkus to near perfection on Brain Salad Surgery. A record that kind of bowls over all their previous efforts, and overshadows the rest of their catalog enough for stuff like Tarkus to be considered here.
  • Prog hasn’t had a resurgence exactly, but a recognition of what made it special and unique. Hell even the curmudgeons at Pitchfork graced the 50th anniversary of In the Court of the Crimson King with a 10.
  • Speaking of which, King Crimson is by far the group from the genre that has weathered the best and remained a touchstone of cool musicians. Maybe I’ll cover them one day.

Next Week: we try to unravel the The Riddle of The Traveling Skull a bizarro pulp novel.