Emerson, Lake and Palmer – ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Those of you old enough to recall the 1970’s golden era of progressive rock will also fondly remember the classic, groundbreaking albums of the time. High on anyone’s prog-rock list will be Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s provocatively named ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, one of those statement concept albums that so lent themselves to the whole 1970’s psychedelic, substance-assisted ‘experience’.

Recorded in August and September of 1973, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ is a strange fusion of classical, rock and jazz played on organ, harpsichord and early, crude synthesisers – custom built Moog Apollo and a Moog polyphonic ensemble – electric guitars and percussion. Many groups attempted similar styles in the 70’s, most without much success, but Emerson, Lake and Palmer managed, at least for the majority of the time, to produce something worth listening to, due in no small part to their outstanding, sometimes eclectic musical abilities.

As a whole, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ is, in my opinion at least, one of the most pretentious and difficult of ELP’s works; Keith Emerson (keyboards) often gets completely carried away on a personal journey into the unknown, leaving most of us to wait until he returns. Conversely, however, Greg Lake’s outstanding, expressive vocals provide a greater sense of worth and it often comes as a relief when the melodic lead changes hands from one to the other. There is no denying the groundbreaking nature of the album, self-indulgent at times but ultimately of great influence to many artists who followed. After ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ it was all downhill for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, their subsequent albums were often stale by comparison, which is hardly surprising given the dizzy heights attained here.

In many ways, the three-part opus ‘Karn Evil 9’ could be considered the ‘heart’ of the piece. It is a strange progressive rock fusion, the inspiration for which is a work by Stravinsky, albeit in greatly mutilated form, accompanied by unforgettable lyrics that will be familiar even to those who may argue they’ve never heard an ELP song. ‘Karn Evil 9’ provides an excellent introduction to ELP for the uninitiated, it and ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ being ‘typical’ examples of the group’s work. The story behind the three Karn impressions illustrates the creative minds involved; Karn Evil 9 was conceived as a planet to which all evil is banished, where citizens are manipulated and all manner of atrocities occur, brought to life in the first and second impressions. Written when electronic data processing was in its infancy, the third and final impression investigates a world where computers reign, a dark inhumane place.

Around ‘Karn Evil 9’ lie the elements typical of ELP’s four preceding albums; from the reverent opening of ‘Jerusalem’, anthem of the Women’s Institute, to the mainstream Lake segment ‘Still… You Turn Me On’ and a classical ‘interpretation’ in the form of ‘Toccata’, taken from Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto (4th movement).

Given the vintage of the original recording elements, I was utterly amazed by the fidelity of this DVD-Audio release. There are subtle variations between tracks, but on the whole, the clarity, presence and vibrancy of the delivery is breathtaking for someone like me, who is familiar with the old two-channel Compact Disc. The standout track is ‘Still… You Turn Me On’, the subtle acoustic guitar and Lake’s vocals are frighteningly realistic, a perfect foil for the occasional weighty low-end.

I asked John Kellogg, the disc’s producer and the person responsible for conceiving the DVD-Audio project, just what it took to achieve such stunning fidelity from material almost thirty years old…

We mixed the MLP 5.1 track from the original multi-track analogue tapes – a ‘safety’ copy – 30ips with Dolby SR – and printed the mix to 2” analogue – 30ips with Dolby SR. That analogue master was then re-mastered and captured to 96kHz 24-bit digital on a Sonic Solutions HD system using three Pacific Microsonics Model 2 A/D converters (which are about $25,000 per two channels and are the best things I have ever heard). Then resulting digital audio was finally MLP packed and put on the disc. I tried to be as purist as possible, maintaining analogue until the very end, then mastering to 96/24 and so on. The original tracks were very clean, and very good quality. We were surprised and delighted.

It’s hard to believe one is listening to the same material, so much so folks have been convinced that some elements of the DVD-Audio mix were not the same as those used for the two-channel CD, especially as the vocal elements now have such clarity. I questioned John to ascertain if this was indeed the case.

We mixed from the original multi-tracks – same vocal track – but very different processing and equalisation. The same elements, the original 16 and 24 tracks, were used in the original and the new mix. We had the advantage of current studio equipment – a Euphonix console, Studer tape machines and outboard gear, equalisation, and processing none of which existed in 1973. We also had automation; back in ‘73 automation was four guys standing at the console mixing at once ‘on the fly’. Moreover, we were able to re-create the mix in 5.1 and “bring more out of it”, so all these things will have a big impact on how the final product sounds.

In terms of fidelity, the Dolby Digital DVD-Video compatible track doesn’t have quite the presence or effervescence of its loss-less counterpart, but it is an outstanding work none-the-less. Created in the same way as the MLP track, the Dolby Digital mix was sourced from a 48kHz 24-bit digital master before encoding at 448kb/s.

As you would expect given the nature of the material, the new 3/2.1 mix is especially creative, but in such a way as to enhance the entire experience. Occasionally there are fairly radical pans – circling keyboards during ‘Toccata’ and the wandering vocals of ‘Lucky Man’ (a bonus track taken from ELP’s 1970 album of the same name) – that do make you sit up and listen, yet in a good way. You’ll also discover a number of tricks used to focus your attention, such as the whole soundstage collapsing inwards for one brief moment during the first impression of ‘Karn Evil 9’. All six channels are in use throughout, with the centre providing a minor fill or discrete instrument according to track.

A DVD-Audio title with this much going for it hardly needs additional content to help it sell, but the disc does contain some bonus material in the form of short video clips from ELP’s ‘Return of the Manticore’ rockumentary, (none of which is longer than three minutes) still images and biographical information on the band and its members. When you watch the blurry, scratched monaural video clips, it brings into perspective just what an amazing feat the producers of this disc have accomplished in the shape of the MLP and Dolby Digital audio on offer.

The music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer may be an acquired taste, much of their work couldn’t be further from mainstream, but even if ELP aren’t entirely your cup of tea, this is one disc worthy of any collection. ‘Still… You Turn Me On’ sends shivers up and down my spine and should be considered a standard for DVD-Audio productions to come.