3.2: THE RULES HAVE CHANGED

(FRONTIER RECORDS; 2018)

In 1988, Geffen Records released an album of pop music with haughty (some would say pretentious) rock overtones by a band called 3. That band featured two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (the sixty-six percent that wasn’t Greg Lake) and multi-instrumentalist journeyman, Robert Berry. The partnership was an attempt to play the more melodic style of progressive rock which had given Palmer and Berry (with Asia and GTR, respectively) some successes in the previous few years. Maybe the impetus grew from Keith Emerson’s desire for a wider audience than he ever experienced in the Nice or ELP; a growing need to be accepted. Whatever brought the three together, the resulting record, … To THE POWER OF THREE, was well received. With the band doing well on the road, Keith began to feel stifled by the record company’s insistence that they strike while the iron was hot, virtually demanding that they return to the studio to begin work on album number two; Keith’s answer was simple: He quit. Fast forward to 2015. Robert found himself in conversations with Italy’s Frontier Records regarding a new project from 3; After consulting with Emerson (but, apparently, not Carl Palmer) regarding the possibility of resurrecting the band, the two began writing and demoing new material, scheduled studio time, signed contracts with Frontier and… as quickly as it began, it was over: Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Reeling from the loss, Berry set aside the project; after a time of grieving and reflecting, Robert decided to once again resurrect the project – utilizing songs and snippets of ideas that he and Emerson had shared – as a final farewell to his friend and band-mate. Working as a one man band, he began work on what would become THE RULES HAVE CHANGED under the name 3.2. Does it work? For the most part, I think so. The record is split fifty-fifty with new Berry compositions and pieces that he and Keith had been working on before the latter’s death. Still, Emerson’s larger-than-life character and overwhelming musical sensibility are felt throughout what Robert has accomplished here.

3.2 (Robert Berry) (publicity photo)

“One By One” starts with a magnificent, cinematic piano piece before a grandiose, symphonic blast of power propels the song into the first verse, where Mister Berry’s pop leanings are on display front-and-center. Here, the number takes on the feel and scope of an Asia-like progressive ballad; the instrumental passages convey a blend of piano-driven Jazz and Classical phrasing, which informed much of Emerson’s career. Time changes and sudden shifts in style over the tune’s seven-plus minutes, while off-putting at first blush eventually come into focus as the ultimate tribute and a heartfelt homage to Keith Emerson. On “Powerful Man,” the original intent of the group is brought into sharper focus, with what could be considered a more radio friendly sound within a simpler – by comparison – more compact and focused five minute rock song, led by Robert’s Emerson-inspired keyboard work. This certainly would not sound out of place nestled between the poppier works of GTR, Asia or even Trevor Rabin-era Yes. With the title track, the pomposity almost crushes the feel of what the artist was trying to convey, lyrically. The song is a double-edged sword, as the words could be taken as a betrayal by a lover or, more deeply, it may also be construed as an open letter in which Robert attempts to heal the wounds torn open by Emerson’s suicide. Perhaps “The Rules Have Changed” would have been better with a more stripped-down approach but, then, Keith Emerson was never known for his subtlety. Referencing many of Emerson’s most well-known riffs, “Our Bond” is, finally, Robert Berry’s soul stripped bare over the loss of a dear friend. Likewise, the music is stripped of any pretensions of grandiosity. This, the third of four numbers written solely by Berry, brought a shiver to my spine, particularly the perfect, lone piano that closes out the piece. It is, by far, my favorite track thus far.

“What You’re Dreaming Now” has the unmistakable mark of Keith Emerson and the glory days of ELP (as well as a bit of ELPowell ‘80s bombast) all over it; Berry’s vocal phrasing even shares a certain quality, if not timbre, with Greg Lake while his drumming exhibits the power of Cozy Powell along with the finesse of Carl Palmer. It may not be the strongest composition on the album, but for sheer progressive physicality, it’s hard to beat. The playful, almost joyful sound of WORKS-era Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I’m thinking something like “Tiger In a Spotlight” from …VOLUME TWO) are in full effect on “Somebody’s Watching,” with a pumping bass and a guitar set to “power chord stun.” The keyboards sound as if they could have been recorded by Emerson at any time over his illustrious career; as Keith has a co-writing and co-arrangement credit on the tune, one does wonder if Robert used a snippet of a demo that Keith had provided and built the track around that unfinished framework. “This Letter” starts off as beautiful ballad, with a nice acoustic guitar lead and hints and echoes of piano playing around and beneath a ragged vocal; an synth-derived orchestra plays in as the pace begins to quicken at about the halfway mark. All well and good but, the piece begins to morph into a sort of gypsy parody of itself shortly after the introduction of a ragtime piano and we are soon witness to the number devolving into something so far afield from where it began that the joy – for me, anyway – is sucked right out of it. It’s as if Berry has taken two very different songs and jammed them together in an attempt to… what? The first half borders on exceptional while the second half borders on theatrical overkill. Things are definitely back on track with the final track, “Your Mark On The World,” with power chords aplenty and the return of the Emerson penchant for verbose noodling on every keyboard he could get his hands on. As much as I dislike the second half of “This Letter” for that same verboseness, it works in the context of this more upbeat number. Oddly enough, the thing seemed to end way before it was actually over – at 5:20, Robert just… stops! It really felt like it could have and should have gone on for another two minutes, at least. Oh, well… such are the vagaries of Rock and Roll and, if it took me almost an entire record to find something to complain about, I’d say that Robert Berry has done Keith Emerson proud. Well done, Mister Berry!

3.2 (Robert Berry, Keith Emerson) (uncredited photo)


ASIA: SYMFONIA – LIVE IN BULGARIA 2013 WITH THE PLOVDIV OPERA ORCHESTRA

(FRONTIERS MUSIC; 2017)

Ain’t gonna lie… Asia’s self-titled debut album was one of my favorite – if not my absolute favorite – and most listened-to releases of 1982. Why? This type of supergroup progressive pomposity was well out of favor by the time of its release. Well, first and, perhaps, foremost was the fact that I would buy anything… make that ANYTHING that featured John Wetton on bass and vocals; the former Mogul Thrash, Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, UK and Wishbone Ash player was and remains one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players. Mister Wetton did not disappoint with this record! Next, Carl Palmer (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Atomic Rooster and Emerson, Lake and Powell… er… Emerson, Lake and Palmer) was much more than a drummer… he was a percussionist who could pound out a beat like John Bonham or lay down a swinging Jazz groove, a la Bill Ward or any number of his early influences like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, plus… BRAIN SALAD SURGERY and “Karn Evil 9.” Need I say more? The final pieces to the puzzle were 40 percent of the band that recorded my favorite Yes album, 1980’s DRAMA: Steve Howe, an innovative and virtuoso level guitarist and Geoff Downes, keyboard genius and former Buggle. I was in Prog Nerd Heaven even though I had been listening to tons of Punk Rock back then, including the Damned, XTC and the Jam (though those bands had taken their music down a more inventive, progressive path by that time). So, anyway… I was hooked from that very first power chord to “Heat of the Moment.” These guys were the real deal and I was more than ready to snatch up their next offering, ALPHA, released the following year. Yeah… it suffered from what many call “the (dreaded) sophomore slump” and the discouraging reception to the album led to the exit (temporary, though it was) of Wetton. John was back in time to record the next set, ASTRA, though Steve Howe had headed out the back door as the bassist was reentering through the front; Wetton’s return and Howe’s replacement, Mandy Meyer, couldn’t salvage the sinking ship and Asia became a distant memory as everyone moved on to other projects. The original four (Downes, Howe, Palmer, Wetton) reformed in 2006, releasing three albums of new material before Howe left once again in early 2013 (citing the wear and tear of juggling touring and recording schedules with both Asia and Yes). Which brings us to this album, featuring current guitarist Sam Coulson on what was his first tour with the band; released, unfortunately, six weeks after John Wetton lost his years-long fight with cancer, the quartet is in fine form – even if the set list is a bit spotty, which may have to do with the involvement of the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra during the second half more than anything else.

ASIA (Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Geoff Downes) (publicity still)

The album is broken up into two distinct parts: Asia performing as a standard four-piece rock band (Disc 1 of the 2 CD set) and accompanied by the orchestra on a somewhat more sedate set (Disc 2). The first set gets off to a rousing start with “Sole Survivor,” a track from the debut album. The core members of the group – Wetton, Palmer and Downes – are in fine fettle here. John’s voice is strong; Geoff’s keyboard work enters into (Jon) Lordian realms, heavy and intense; Carl’s drumming borders on hyperactive, with thunderous fills and a slightly quicker tempo than I remember from the original. Sam Coulson’s guitar parts offer a bit more heft than did Howe’s original which, alongside Palmer’s jackhammer delivery, gives a certain urgency to this updated arrangement. “Time Again” is a propulsive proto-metal behemoth, somehow reminiscent of Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The guitar is more in line with the original and the backing vocals are on point, as well. It’s another great version of one of the prime cuts from the first record. Truth be told, when I first heard the lead track to 2012’s XXX album, “Face On the Bridge,” I did not like it. At all! It sounded like a sappy, sentimental “time has passed me by” ballad from a band whose time had, indeed, come and gone. Brother, was I wrong! How could I have missed on this one so badly? Here, the song bristles with a vigor that belies that inevitable passing of time. Compared to the original, though the song was barely a year old (release wise), in this setting, Wetton’s voice sounds even stronger, Downes delivers some inspired live flourishes and Coulson’s guitar adds a little somethin’-somethin’ that even the legendary Steve Howe couldn’t bring to the original. “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want),” from the group’s second record, is very much a product of its time. ALPHA saw the band move further into the realm of schmaltzy MTV/Journey balladry, leading to divisions within and an eventual split. This particular song isn’t really too bad, just not what Asia’s fans were expecting after that monster debut; now, thirty years later, the tune seems to take on a new relevance, especially with Wetton fighting various major illnesses. I’m sure the other three men on stage felt the emotional power that their singer put behind these lyrics during this tour.

ASIA (Carl Palmer) (publicity still)

Holy War,” a song from the OMEGA record, is a heavy prog ballad propelled forward, primarily, by Carl Palmer’s ferocious percussion and Geoff Downes’ keyboard artistry. Wetton seems to be loosening up by this point as his vocals become a bit more aggressive with a raspy sort of growl that fits perfectly within the context of the tune. An overblown symphonic intro from Geoff leads into the overblown progressive balladry of “An Extraordinary Life.” The lyrics are this number’s saving grace. John delivers his words with conviction, though – in the hands of lesser singers – such fare could well have been expressed in an overly dramatic, overwrought fashion. Finally… going all the way back to THEN AND NOW, the 1990 compilation of new and old, comes a power ballad that actually works! “Days Like These” is a great example of how well the Palmer/Wetton rhythm section complimented each other. This version also features a simple organ part from Downes and a spot on solo from Sam Coulson. It’s very nice to hear this one in a live setting. With “Open Your Eyes,” a weird vocoder intro turns into a very nice mid-tempo rocker featuring Wetton’s newly-positive and uplifting lyrics. Carl is particularly… uh… restrained here, showing us that, yes, he can be a true team player. There are more vocoder shenanigans during the middle break, which is a very operatic, chorusy thing that simmers just below John’s improvised vocals. Sam’s guitar fits quite comfortably within the confines of the song, shining especially bright on some very tasty solos and, his interplay with Downes’ organ to end the number is just awesome.

ASIA (Sam Coulson) (publicity still)

As the album’s name implies, Asia is joined for the second set by the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra. The first song with the orchestra, “Only Time Will Tell,” one of the many favorites from the group’s stunning debut, still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did the first time I heard it, with Sam Coulson echoing that amazing Steve Howe riff, while adding a bit of his own flair to the tune. At this point, I’m not certain how the addition of the orchestra is going to work, as everything in this arrangement sounds exactly like Downes’ original keyboard embellishments. Even with the inevitable intermission between the band set and the introduction of the orchestra factored in, it seems strange to bookend the progressive power of “Only Time Will Tell” with a pair of the group’s more sedate numbers, “Open Your Eyes” and ALPHA’s “Don’t Cry.” With a slightly quicker tempo and Downes pretty much sticking to piano on the latter, the orchestra definitely adds to the overall sound of the piece. I’ve already praised John Wetton’s vocal performance but, really haven’t mentioned his bass work; as always, it is superb (in my estimation, Wetton was one of the best ever) and especially so on this song. Palmer again proves to be a master craftsman, playing deep in the pocket and offering a tasteful fill only when required. Next up is “Heroine.” Uh… okay… not a fan of this one. At all. Wetton’s voice is okay, Downes’ piano and the orchestra sound fine but, “Heroine” is just… BAD! It’s a sappy ballad that simply cannot escape its own sappiness.

ASIA (John Wetton) (publicity still)

I’m not too sure what this says about Asia’s recorded output but, with five songs from their stellar debut and another four from the artistically disappointing follow-up, ALPHA, it certainly seems that, as of 2013, the group was content to bask in the glory of those two records. “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” the fourth tune from that sophomore release, starts slow and features the epic build inherent in all early ‘80s power ballads, though with a bit of an edge due to Carl driving the band and orchestra with an accelerated tempo that is not unappealing for an all but forgotten thirty year old single from a mostly forgettable album. The final two numbers come from the formidable ASIA album. “Wildest Dreams” somehow seems more relevant today than it did 35 years ago. I’m not even sure how they even managed to pull this off (unless the Plovdiv Opera Orchestra also brought along a hefty chorus) but, the massive background vocals sound… if not over the top, at least completely out of place. Regardless, this is the quartet hitting on all cylinders, with an aggressive arrangement that highlights a cool duel between Sam and Geoff. The first song on the first side of that first record, “Heat of the Moment” may sound somewhat dated lyrically (featuring one of the most well-known couplets in Prog Rock history, “And now you find yourself in ‘82/The disco hotspots hold no charm for you”), but the power of the music and the conviction in Wetton’s voice still make it a crowd-pleasing sing-along… even in Bulgaria. The sheer firepower that the combined talents of John Wetton, Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer and then-newcomer Sam Coulson bring to bear on this version delivers a fantastic finish to a rather uneven show that may very well have suffered due to the limitations of playing with an orchestra.

I fully understand that this is a very different band than the one that recorded that 1982 debut offering… they are far more thoughtful and introspective, particularly after the health scares faced by their frontman throughout the latter part of their history and, well… let’s face it, apart from Coulson, they aren’t exactly young men. Even when considering the phenomenal accomplishments of Palmer, Wetton and Downes before and after ASIA, it must have been a hard pill to swallow realizing that the group was at their creative peak on their first album; it couldn’t have been easy trying to equal or outshine a record that could quite easily be released under the title ASIA’S GREATEST HITS with no additional material needed to bolster the original nine-track sequencing. However, having said that, shortcomings aside, this album does work as a fitting memorial to John Wetton, one of the true legends of Progressive Rock. I should point out here that I was privy only to the music tracks that make up just a part of the SYMFONIA package, which also contains a DVD (or Blu-Ray) of the concert; there is also a double vinyl set available, without the additional video media.