The ELP Permutations, Part 3.2: The Rules Have Changed (2018)

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Now for what this three-week trip down this strange tangent is really about. If you didn’t read the last entry about 3 (the one-off supergroup featuring Keith Emerson, Robert Berry, and Carl Palmer), here’s the gist of it: To the Power of 3 pretty much bites, but Live Boston ’88, released in 2015, kicks ass. Upon receiving a promo copy, Emerson phoned up Berry to say so himself, leading Berry to ask if he’d like to record another album together. He agrees, funding is secured, and soon the two start working parts out over the phone and saving them in ProTools. If you’re reading this, then you know what happens next. The album is shelved.

This means the final compositions of Keith Emerson laid in Robert Berry’s hands, and after a few months of contemplation he decides it’s his God-given duty to buckle down and finish the album. Unfortunately, he’s not offered much help – Carl Palmer didn’t want to be involved without a big paycheck, and Emerson’s estate, in all their wisdom, declined to allow Berry to use Keith’s recordings. He tries to get help from Emerson’s son Aaron, a fine player in his own right, but unsurprisingly the keyboard bits are too tricky for him.

Well, you know what they say…if you want something done right, then you have to do it yourself. And so he does. As it turns out, when you’ve run a studio and been a journeyman musician for over 30 years, you start to pick up a number of skills. Despite handling every instrument on here, this really does not sound like a one-man band record, especially given Berry’s talents on the keyboards. Keith Emerson’s style has been imitated by many but I haven’t heard many nail it the way Berry does. Though to be fair he’s mostly just replicating tracks Emerson already recorded that he couldn’t use for some reason. I’m guessing you won’t be able to tell the difference.

Still, what can I say…I’m impressed. Impressed not only by how good this album is but also that it came from a guy who was basically a footnote in the ELP legacy. Certainly some of Berry’s AOR tendencies are still there (particularly in “Powerful Man”, which sounds like something that could’ve been a hit for Asia/Styx/Journey 30 years ago), but this is a lot more proggy and creative than the first album was. Ironically, you can hear the presence of Keith Emerson on here a lot more than you could on the other 3 album. Not only does Berry do a fine job co-opting his style, he also throws in a number of quotes or near-quotes; the climax of “Our Bond” is a medley of famous Emerson bits, while part of “Your Mark on the World” goes all out to imitate “Tarkus”. The album is full of classical flourishes, little marching sections, big honking keyboard solos, tricky chord progressions…all the things he loved.

But there is one other thing you don’t hear much of in Emerson’s work after 1973: songwriting. Berry is sort of a natural in that area; even though the songs bounce all over the place and make room for a lot of disparate Emerson bits, he’s able to find ways to glue everything together, mostly through his ability to write a great chorus. It’s got some dreary moments – “One by One” is the grand, overblown opener, while the title track sort of gets lost in a mess of vocals (though, as always, it results in pretty kickass solo). It’s all pretty damn good though, particularly the tracks in the second half, which have this sort of progressive power pop feeling to them. Both “What You’re Dreaming Now” and “Somebody’s Watching” have monster hooks, while “This Letter” evolves from a fun acoustic ballad to a thunderous keyboard jam. “Your Mark on the World” is an entire prog suite in about five minutes.

It all begs the question: why didn’t progressive pop sound like this in the 80’s? Too concerned with hit singles, I guess, along with perception that prog rock was dorky or old hat or whatever. I mean once upon a time there was this idea that progressive supergroups like Yes or ELP could play shorter and poppier songs while keeping everything that made them so special in their back pocket, but we all see how that worked out. The Rules Have Changed is not just the album that 3 should’ve made in ’88, it’s the blueprint for what could’ve happened in a pop album when you combine instrumental talent with a songwriter who actually gives a shit. Of course in this case it’s all the same person, but imagine what could have been…

In the meantime, we have this, which has got to be one of the most unexpectedly great albums of the decade. I mean, Robert Berry, really? Who knew. The thing’s only been out for a couple weeks and already I’m pretty sure I’ve played it more than the Powell album and To The Power of 3 combined. I thought that Keith Emerson Band record with Marc Bonilla was a fitting send-off, sorta…it wasn’t great exactly, but at least it sounded like him. But this feels like a send-off proper, proof that latter-day Emerson still had some great ideas, and at least one friend willing to put in the work to fully realize them.

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