GREG LAKE – S/T: Trading The Prog 1970’s For The AOR 1980’s

The early 1980’s were a difficult time for progressive rock.  Its musical purveyors were trying to find their footing in a commercial arena dominated by Top 40 music and dodging brickbats from the critics who detested the 1970’s-style bombast it represented.  Though there was a core of fans still clamoring for the progressive style of old, it wasn’t enough to sustain a career – and the record labels didn’t want to know.  Thus, many musicians who had found success recording prog rock in the 1970’s faced a sort of mid-life crisis as searched for a way to stay relevant.

Greg Lake’s debut as a solo artist captures this state of confusion perfectly.  Anyone looking for prog here will be disappointed as Greg Lake is a totally commercial set of AOR tunes tailored with an eye towards rock radio.  In fairness to the main attraction, this approach makes sense: Lake had always been the most commercial member of Emerson Lake & Palmer, with a fondness for balladry that favored songcraft over instrumental fireworks.  He lets his commercial instincts take the fore here, resulting in album that shows off his rich, uniquely English vocal stylings over fare that plays it safe.

However, the biggest surprise on Greg Lake is how rocked-up it is in places.  Lake recruited a backing band that featured legendary axe-slinger Gary Moore on lead guitar and a few former members of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and this unit really digs in on the album’s handful of out-and-out rockers.  For instance, “Nuclear Attack” is a hard-riffing barnstormer fleshed out by a few pomp-rock keyboard touches and “Retribution Drive” showcases a nice set of arena-friendly dynamics fueled by a well-crafted alloy of electric guitar and organ.

Elsewhere, Lake has his group bring their full-blooded rock band heft to plenty of ballads.  However, they lack the distinctive identity that informed his Emerson Lake & Palmer ballads:  if the ballads on those albums had a continental style that blended English folk with a classic torch-song moodiness, the ballads on Greg Lake pursue a blander, middle-of-the-road style in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with a Top 40 audience.  “The Lie” and “It Hurts” have the right power-ballad dynamics but are conspicuously bland in terms of melody.  They also suffer from lyrics that can be downright mawkish at times. When Lake intones “did you know that love can actually hurt you enough to make you die?” on “It Hurts,” the on-the-nose, maudlin nature of the sentiment is enough to make you cringe.

However, Greg Lake remains worthy of excavation for ELP diehards and AOR historians because of its strong accent on craftsmanship.  The band is really top flight for this style of music and Moore liberally laces the songs with distinctive riffs and solos.  Better yet, Lake’s distinctive vocal style are in full force from start to finish and his regal tone does a lot to boost the album.  There is also the occasional stylistic curveball that will please the prog fans: “Someone” is a clever tune that mixes pop melodics and rock bombast in a unpredictable, prog-minded arrangement while “For Those Who Dare” has a stirring melody that benefits from an unusual Scottish folk treatment it gets (complete with bagpipes!).

In short, Greg Lake is more of an intermittently compelling curio than a great album due to its calculated attempts to court a mainstream-circa-1981 audience.  However, there’s a certain class to its musicianship that will appeal to Lake fans and AOR enthusiasts alike.  Others might be left wishing that Lake’s level of ambition had been as strong as his work ethic.

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