Friday, March 10, 2017
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - In the Hot Seat (1994)
No one will ever confuse the final studio album from progressive rock giants ELP, In the Hot Seat, for the trio’s debut or following efforts like Tarkus. The hand problems eventually compromising keyboardist Keith Emerson’s career exerted a negative influence over the band’s later years and short circuited their future following this release. Emerson, vocalist/bassist Greg Lake, and drummer Carl Palmer struggled to see eye to eye on the band’s artistic direction; Lake wanted to produce the album, but Emerson and Palmer outvoted him and the band enlisted Keith Olsen, largely renowned for his work with Fleetwood Mac, to handle the production duties for this release. While even a cursory listen illustrates how Olsen’s primary concern lay with updating the band’s sound and approach for a modern audience, this misguided aesthetic could never completely squash their band’s spirit and vision. Far from faint echoes of the band’s past reverberate over the course of the album’s ten songs. It is not the end hardcore ELP envisioned for the trio, but In the Hot Seat is unjustly maligned and still engages and entertains in a manner their younger contemporaries could scarcely equal.
Emerson and Lake shine brightly on the album opener. “Hand of Truth” has some brief and compelling flashes from Emerson’s keyboards and Lake’s singing navigates through the strong lyrics with crisp phrasing and a keen ear keyed into the arrangement. Each of In the Hot Seat’s ten songs is lean and lack the self-indulgence so often attributed to ELP and other bands of their ilk. There’s a much more of a personal edge suggested by the band’s performance of “Daddy”. Lake, in particular, proves late in his career why many regarded him as one of popular music’s finest vocalists. His skill for investing strong lyrical content with a dramatic touch helps make this track one of the album’s finest. Emerson plays a key role on the track “One by One”, but the song is ultimately a memorable chorus searching for a song. Lake’s vocal redeems it a great deal despite any weaknesses. There’s some compelling lyrics and a cracking Lake bass line distinguishing the track “Thin Line”, but this track smacks much more of a concession to AOR sensibilities of the time and underplays the band’s talents.
Their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” revisits a relatively recent tune at the time and Greg Lake’s vocal taps deeply into the song’s mystery without ever overplaying his hand. It isn’t a slavishly imitative cover, unlike many who approach Dylan’s songs a little too reverentially. Their radio-friendly gloss defining “Change” still sounds fresh all these years later, but there’s a sense rising once again that the song isn’t quite living up to its potential and settles for making some experienced lyrical and musical statements. “Give Me a Reason to Stay” is, arguably, the album’s low point and finds the onetime prog icons embracing outright pop with a classy edge that, unfortunately, fails to mitigate its pandering. Emerson’s keyboard playing and Palmer’s hard-charging drums lead the way on “Gone Too Soon”; Emerson, in particular, has a nice instrumental break in the song’s second half. It is these sorts of instrumental performances that elevate what might otherwise play as a pedestrian track in inferior hands. In the Hot Seat concludes with the song “Street War”. Concluding the album with a nicely built Keith Emerson keyboard fueled showcase is an intelligent choice for these veterans, but the chorus lets the side down a little with some slightly hamfisted vocal decision. Lake’s vocal, however, has a fiery focus any longtime ELP fan will admire.
We make our own endings. Facing a far different marketplace than they did during their prime, many marquee musicians and acts from the sixties and seventies opted for the path of least resistance during the following decades rather than relying on the core strengths that brought them initial prominence. Management and record executives whispering in their ear, the paradigm shifting introduction of MTV, and fashion’s shifting tides irrecoverably altered a cultural landscape they once confidently commanded. There’s enough here on In the Hot Seat, however, to remind us why we listened in the first place.