All Access Review: A-
Virtuoso drummer Carl Palmer pulls out all the stops on the third installment of his Working Live series, taking on some of the most complex pieces his old band, the classical-rock adventurers Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ever attempted.
Never ones to shy away from a challenge, ELP was, perhaps, the most daring threesome of all the brainy, hyper-ambitious 1970s progressive-rock expeditions, King Crimson included. And though they revered the works of such musical geniuses as Prokofiev and Mussorgsky, Palmer and company didn’t see it as their mission to simply regurgitate their works in those halcyon days. With their imaginations working overtime, they wanted to do them their own way and in the process, make them palatable to audiences whose ears were more attuned to The Beatles than Bach. And if the moment called for it, ELP committed sublime violations that would make classical-music purists squirm – as evidenced by keyboardist Keith Emerson famously stabbing knives into his organs to generate blood-curdling howls from his instruments. Still, ELP won their grudging respect.
Such theatrics, shockingly funny and irreverent as they were at the time, aren’t revived in Palmer’s latest project, another trio that finds Palmer now collaborating with lead guitarist Paul Bielatowicz and bass guitarist Stuart Clayton. A concert album of inspired musicianship and envelope-pushing reinvention, Working – Volume 3 is Palmer and crew at their most ambitious, tackling such touchstones as Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” as a brazen ELP once did.
Less whimsical than ELP’s original version, but more dynamic and heavy, the centerpiece of the six-track Volume 3 has to be the lengthy “Pictures at an Exhibition.” There’s nothing cautious about how Palmer and company approach this, or any other, composition. It’s sinister and disturbing in parts, with Bielatowicz’s frenzied guitar work going off in unpredictably wild directions but never veering off course and Clayton providing thoughtful and flexible melodic support. Heads will spin at all the directional shifts and changes in mood that occur, and the three handle them all with the utmost skill and feel. It almost sounds like free jazz. And at the heart of it all is the controlled chaos of Palmer’s thrilling stick work, the action reaching a free-for-all around the 16:30 mark.
Naturally, with Emerson’s keyboards replaced by electric guitars, everything sounds more modern and edgy. This time around, Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn,” as fun as ever, is propulsive, psychedelic and throbbing with mind-fucking kaleidoscopic color and raw energy, the kind usually found in garage rock. “Romeo and Juliet” has a deep, menacing groove and occasionally, there’s a Hendrix-like schizophrenia that seeps into the track’s carefully plotted action and messes with the chemistry in wonderful ways. And while their take on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” is riddled with clichés, the stop-on-a-dime tempo changes and crazed fury of the Emerson and Lake original “Bitches Crystal” more than makes up for the momentary lapse of reason, as does Palmer’s inventive and intricate drum work on “In a Moroccan Market.”
Working – Volume 3 shows that Palmer remains restlessly creative and unafraid of challenging himself and his band. In the liner notes, he says, “Playing in a trio is his passion.” And if nothing else, this set of live renderings of old ELP numbers indicates that “3” is, indeed, Palmer’s lucky number.