Music Review: Keith Emerson, At the Movies

Published on February 6th, 2015 in: Movies, Music, Music Reviews, Soundtracks and Scores |

By Jeffery X Martin

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Progressive rock keyboardist Keith Emerson has never been known for subtlety. Concerts from the band that bore his name, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, regularly featured Emerson destroying Hammond organs on stage. Their brand of symphonic rock was so popular in the early 1970s that they almost tied Led Zeppelin in concert revenue, which is hard to imagine with the way the music business is now. You can’t release a 12-minute long single based on a classical work and expect to get airplay.

When ELP went on hiatus, Emerson turned his attention to film soundtracks. This three-disc set from Esoteric Recordings, At the Movies, well. . . that’s pretty self-explanatory, I suppose. Each disc highlights Emerson’s work for films from different countries.

The first disc is Emerson’s American work, starting with the soundtrack from Sylvester Stallone’s 1981 action film, Nighthawks. In many ways, this is one of the best action soundtracks ever composed. It is consistently tense, filled with bongo drums, brass instruments, and fluid jazz bass lines. Each song seems to end on a cliffhanger. Fans of the film will notice that “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones is missing, but Emerson’s weird, off-kilter version of “I’m A Man,” originally performed by The Spencer Davis Group, is here for your listening enjoyment.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack for the film Best Revenge is a sodden mess, opening with an orchestral suite that doesn’t employ an orchestra or a recognizable idée fixe to hold things together.

Emerson’s Italian work, which comprises the second disc, is the most cohesive. The music for Dario Argento’s supernatural thriller, Inferno, is grounded by some haunting piano work which, while not exactly nightmare fuel, is Gothic enough to suit the film and get stuck in your music-loving brain. Even the insane “Mater Tenebrarum” fits, and it’s one of the few songs with Latin chanting that you could dance to.

His soundtrack for Michele Soavi’s The Church is even stranger, mixing pipe organs with a heavily gated New Wave drum sound; it reminds me of Go West on downers. The combination is jarring, but there is some lovely stuff buried in there, especially a track called “The Possession,” which takes on a ghostly waltz rhythm for a bit.

Murderock, however, is a fantastic cheesefest. The New Wave influence is even more pronounced here, with electronic cymbals so bright and sharp, they could slice meat. The music is not as memorable as his other Italian works, and the song, “Not So Innocent,” is a forgettable throwaway ballad. It isn’t until the track, “New York Dash,” that things begin to pick up and start sounding like what we have come to expect from an Emerson soundtrack.

The third disc is Emerson’s work for the Japanese films Harmagedon and Godzilla: Final Wars. The music for Harmagedon, which is an anime film, takes on an interesting 1950s sci-fi tone, with keyboard sounds reminiscent of a theremin. It veers into some wackiness, but with Harmagedon being an animated film, I surmise there is more room for whimsy and humor in the soundtrack.

The biggest surprise on the whole set is the music for Godzilla: Final Wars which is club-worthy and made to pop Molly to. Tracks like “Earth Defense Forces Theme” and “Rodan Attacks NYC” are fast and fierce, filled with scratching and snazzy beats. And Emerson’s interpretation of the classic “Godzilla Theme” speeds up the familiar melody, imbuing it with a sense of menace Godzilla hasn’t had for a while.

As with any product from a Cherry Red records imprint, the sound quality is exceptional, even if not all the music is. Emerson’s work runs the gamut from brilliant to hot garbage, but fans of the man and his music will be able to pick out their favorites and focus on those. Regardless, At the Movies is an important collection, finally getting all of Emerson’s film work into one boxed set and helping to complete our picture of one of rock’s greatest exhibitionists.

At The Movies was released via Cherry Red Records/Esoteric Recordings on July 28, 2014.

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