Friday, August 17, 2018

Review of 3.2's "The Rules Have Changed"

I posted this just a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This album serves as a fitting tribute to the late Keith Emerson.

By the late 1980's, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were more than a decade away from the period of their greatest success. They had released a few albums in the late 1970's, and although they still sold reasonably well, neither the critics nor the public were especially thrilled by them. After taking a break for half a decade or so, in the mid-'80s, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake were ready to reunite. Carl Palmer, however, was busy drumming with Asia. So Emerson and Lake hooked up with Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell for one album as Emerson, Lake & Powell, and broke up shortly thereafter. At this point, Emerson and Palmer were keen to have another go at ELP, but this time it was Greg Lake who either wasn't interested or wasn't available. Not to be discouraged, however, Carl Palmer had come across a musician he was impressed with, California multi-instrumentalist Robert Berry. He introduced Berry to Keith Emerson, who was likewise dazzled by Berry's talents. So the trio formed a band and named it "3" (although some insisted in referring to it as "Emerson, Berry & Palmer").

3 decided to change up the ELP formula a bit, and to focus on shorter, more radio-friendly songs. Their one album together, To the Power of Three, did manage to generate one fairly successful single, "Talkin' Bout". But the overall reviews were mixed, and Emerson found himself savaged by certain fans and critics who just couldn't accept the idea of one of their prog-rock heroes trying to move in a more pop-friendly direction. (There was also some unfortunate blowback about the live band's decision to work with a female backup singer). After touring to support the album, 3 broke up, and it seemed that this was the end of the 3 project.

Cut to 2015, when Emerson listened to an upcoming 3 live album from their 1988 tour that was being released by the record company. Emerson was pleased with how good the band sounded together, and contacted Berry (with whom he had remained friends over the years). Berry suggested getting together for another 3 album, and much to his surprise, Emerson was interested. Palmer was off at this time working on other projects, but Berry and Emerson began throwing around some ideas, and collaborating long distance on some music. Then came the tragic day in early 2016 when Keith Emerson took his own life, and once again, it seemed that a new 3 album would never see the light of day. After a period of mourning, however, Berry became inspired, and began to complete the work that he and Emerson had begun. The result is The Rules Have Changed. Released under the name 3.2, it features Berry singing and playing all of the instruments, on music that was mostly written with (and partially arranged by) Keith Emerson. It may be that these are the last new compositions we'll ever hear by one of the greatest and most highly acclaimed progressive rock keyboardists who ever lived.

I'll admit that before the album came out, I wasn't sure what to expect here. I wasn't really familiar with Berry or his work, and being something of a skeptic, I wasn't certain whether or not this was a case of someone trying to cash in on the popularity of an iconic musician who is no longer with us. After listening to the album, however, one thing became clear -- The Rules Have Changed is a sincere and fitting tribute to Keith Emerson. Berry obviously admired and had a great affection for the older synthesist who apparently served as something of a mentor to him, and this album is his way of honoring an old and deeply missed friend.

Having said that, I can't say it's a perfect album. I don't love Berry as a vocalist. He has one of those powerful voices that insures that he'll always find work as a rock singer, but his voice, while competent, isn't particularly beautiful. This is especially true when you make the inevitable comparison with Greg Lake, who I've always felt had one of the most pleasing voices in rock history. On the other hand, as an instrumentalist, Berry brings a lot to the table. And while he's mostly known as a guitarist, perhaps the most impressive thing about this LP is Berry's ability to mimic Emerson's keyboard style. The playing here is sometimes grand, sometimes bombastic, but it's always recognizably Emerson-esque. Berry stated in an interview that once he began recording, he felt as though he was channeling his old friend, and with one listen you can hear what he means.

The songwriting is pretty good throughout. While it doesn't match the best work of ELP, it is certainly credible prog rock, which I would equate with some of the music of Asia in terms of sound and overall quality. There are only eight tracks here, but each of them has its charms. My favorite is "Powerful Man", which is one of two singles released from the album. This one was written entirely by Berry, but it sounds like something Emerson might have composed, thanks to Berry's use of a chunky keyboard theme throughout. Other highlights include the opening track, "One By One", which opens with a majestic piano intro, and "Our Bond", a track that Berry wrote after Emerson's death. This one includes little snippets of some of the highlights of Emerson's career, including pieces of "Hoedown", "Fanfare for the Common Man", and "Desde La Vida", the one extended track from the first 3 album. 

I'm sure that this album is a one-off -- there won't be a 3.3. However, many Keith Emerson fans will be glad for the work that Berry put in on this LP, to give us an idea of some of the music that Emerson was working on in his last days. It might even whet their appetite to check out some of Berry's other work. Either way, The Rules Have Changed ends the 3 project on an appropriately high note.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars