Emerson At the Movies and Banks’ Seven

Where do ex-progressive keyboard players go? Into film scoring and/or classical music, of course.

Thanks to Edward Macan’s positive assessment in his Endless Enigma ELP book, I had to check out Keith Emerson’s Inferno soundtrack. In general, horror movies and soundtracks aren’t my bag, but Macan described the Inferno score as Emerson’s best solo album, virtually a concerto in a different guise. I found it on a three-disc set called Keith Emerson - At The Movies (released in 2005), which also contains music for a few other flicks I’ve never seen.

The Inferno music, from 1980, is based on a couple of attractive themes that are developed on piano and in larger orchestrations. It maintains a suspenseful mood, but not in a corny way (except for a couple of climactic shrieking/pounding moments), and the main theme often takes an uplifting turn (e.g., “Mark’s Discovery”). There are nice instrumental contrasts, like church organ (“The Library”) versus dreamy electric piano (“Elisa’s Story”), and a couple of driving rock pieces, too, in “Taxi Ride” and “Cigarettes, Ices, Etc”, which suggest a funkier, alternate ELP universe.

Speaking of, I think Inferno is much stronger than any of ELP’s late output, except for “Pirates”. Without having to accommodate popular expectations, or Greg Lake’s bland songs, Emerson can write on his own terms. Well, lest I forget, this music was partially created on the movie’s terms, but it sure works by itself.

Sifting through the remainder of At the Movies, I enjoy the melodic piano pieces like “The Dreamer” and “Prelude to Candice”, the Best Revenge “Orchestral Suite”, and some of the excerpts from 1981’s Nighthawks. “Flight of the Hawk”, from the latter, begins with a poignant theme and then turns to what Macan often refers to as Emerson’s “heroic” style. Harmagedon (1982) produces a few interesting tracks, like the “Zamedy Stomp” march that recalls early ELP in its shifting keyboard colors and counterlines. Emerson ventures into a techno realm for 2004’s Godzilla Final Wars, which gets repetitive but has a few small gems nonetheless.

I’d easily recommend At the Movies for the Emerson aficionado. If you need any justification, think of it as the superior Inferno album plus 51 bonus tracks, several of which capture Emerson at his best. On the other hand, some of the music misses the visuals and sounds like a soundtrack, if you know what I mean. Also, the discerning listener will have to sidestep a few cheesy songs here and there, like the overeager disco number “Nighthawking” and a couple of cringing ballads.

Let’s now turn to Tony Banks, who began a string of solo albums and soundtracks in the late 1970s to complement his Genesis activity. All that was fine for what it was, but just because he’d written so much successful Genesis material didn’t mean the public would automatically swallow him as a solo artist making quirky pop/rock records with generic singing. And given the scope of his 1970s compositions, shouldn’t Banks have been aiming higher? What I’m getting at is that Banks’ 2004 classical effort Seven - A Suite for Orchestra seemed long overdue, and more in line with his creative strengths. (As were some of his previous soundtrack efforts, to be fair.) This music was free of commercial concern, recorded with the London Philharmonic and released on the Naxos label.

Now, Tony Banks is not a classical composer, and Seven sounds like Orchestration 101 next to Stravinsky or whichever unfair comparison you’d care to make. But it’s a pleasant attempt to bring Banksian ideas into the classical idiom. Instead of virtuoso displays or extreme harmonic exploration, these pieces have a reflective, pastoral nature. In an interview, Banks mentioned Sibelius and Vaughn Williams as stylistic influences, and parts of Seven definitely evoke a romance of days gone by. I also hear echoes of Genesis, like “Mad Man Moon”, “One for the Vine”, “Guide Vocal”, and a few others.

“Spring Tide”, “The Gateway”, and “The Spirit of Gravity” are grand, luxurious works with simple melodies. The overall tone of these pieces is a little too consonant for my taste, but I enjoy Banks’ creative modulations between passages, or in reharmonizing the themes. “Neap Tide” is a shorter exploration with a bittersweet character, while “The Ram” features more forceful rhythms and an epic feel that would fit a movie. My main complaint about these compositions is that the themes aren’t developed very far, and this sometimes leads to repetition and unintentional blandness. “Spring Tide” and “The Ram”, for example, both milk certain ideas longer than necessary.

“Earthlight” wastes nothing, beginning with an aching lilt that recalls Bach, bringing in some Debussy-like flutes, and generally sounding like “real” classical music, albeit not in any academic form. It’s quite a lovely work. The masterpiece of Seven, though, is “Black Down”. This composition for strings moves at an elegiac pace, starting off pensively, and as the harmonies morph and the basslines cycle upward, it takes on a rich feeling of hope. It’s tough talking about absolute music in terms of emotions, and my favorite classical works never sit easily in one zone, anyway. Most descriptions seem trite when you’re faced with a multiplicity of moods in one piece that creates an emotion instead of trying to express one. “Black Down” achieves this, and I find it as evocative as any other composer’s string works. I can’t pin the music to any of Tony Banks’ earlier compositions, either. “Black Down” finds him on brilliant new ground, and it brings credence to the whole Seven enterprise.

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