3.2 – Third Impression

Back in 2015, Keith Emerson and Robert Berry hatched a plan to follow up their album ‘To The Power of Three’. That album (released in 1988 under the band name 3) became a cult classic, beloved by prog rock devotees and AOR fans alike, so the mere idea of a second record (no matter how belated) seemed to be cause for celebration. Various musical ideas were set in place for the new record over the next few months. Unfortunately, any future plans for the reborn 3 were put on hold in 2016 after Emerson’s untimely death.

Berry eventually paid tribute in the best way possible by ensuring all of Keith’s final musical ideas finally came to light. The resulting album ‘The Rules Have Changed’ (released under the 3.2 moniker) captured so much of the spirit of the original 3 with it’s melodic rock/prog crossover sound, but despite some great press, some of the fans seemed less enthusiastic. Those who viewed the album negatively insisted there couldn’t be a 3 album without Emerson, completely ignoring the fact that Berry had painstakingly structured a whole new work from Keith’s ideas. As always in prog circles, those who would never be pleased – no matter how good the outcome – made far too much noise and showed themselves to be wholly un-progressive in their attitudes. Those fans who seemed absolutely appalled by the idea of Berry releasing a second album based on Emerson’s ideas will surely explode with anger at the audacity of a third release, this time created solely from Berry’s own compositions.

Before getting into any of the details, ‘Third Impression’ isn’t all great, but that has nothing at all to do with a lack of Emerson related input. For a man often associated with melody, Berry spends half of the album working through some fairly laboured and ugly instrumental passages, some of which come at the expense of what should be good songs. In some ways, it’s important that this isn’t just a quick and easy carbon copy of‘The Rules Have Changed’, but for every brilliant, melodic track, you’ll find something that’s complex and arty purely for the sake of it. If approached in a less than tolerant mood, it’s a record that could legitimately be called frustrating.

Almost as if to appease the prog crowd, Robert offers the longest and grandest track as opening bait. ‘Top of The World’ moves through various musical moods, each one offering something in the way of interest. From the busy acoustic openings where he channels bits of Greg Lake, Steve Howe and even Snuffy Walden, the number kicks into some grand pomp. A pure AOR verse battles with loud, proggy instrumental passages; the musical motif from the intro underscores a bigger rock sound before huge parping keyboards instantly seem to awaken memories of Emerson’s uglier side. The cut and paste approach places the listener on edge, never making it clear where things are headed. Eventually, everything settles down into a rather forceful arrangement where Berry plunders the grandiosity of the previous 3 album and peppers it with grinding basses and keyboard flourishes that sound as if they’ve been lifted from Yes’ ‘Gates of Delirium’, while offering an uncharacteristically angry vocal. By the time things reach fever pitch with a world of squirly keys, it feels as if it’s half a world away from where it began. In unashamed prog terms, it’s a track with a bit of everything…except for an obvious hook, but that’ll be more than made up for later. With everything considered, the only peculiar choice here is the number’s climax: there isn’t one. After spending nine minutes working through at least five different moods and slowly cranking the tension, this is the kind of number that should ultimately explode. Instead, Berry merely reaches for the faders and the riffs subside into a slow and anti-climactic silence. Given everything else he’s chucked into the track, this is obviously a minor point, but it seems a little…odd. At the other end of the album, another nine minute epic, ‘Never’, fares less well in that it often sounds like a four minute rock tune padded out with lengthy keyboard solos and other bells and whistles for the sake of it. A heavily rhythmic chorus of sorts where Berry drops into the kind of AOR supplied by Frontiers Records’ own State of Salazar promises so much, too – such a shame for an enjoyable element such as that to be lost within the noise. In so many ways, a constant desire to be too clever in this way is the album’s ultimate undoing.

Balancing out the grandiosity of the opener and closer, a short three minute rocker ‘What Side You On’ sounds like a throwback to ELP’s underrated ‘Black Moon’ LP – something that’s hammered home by a choice of very Emerson keyboard sound. The main musical hooks are solid; those keyboard sounds are very much of a love/hate variety – but crucial to making this feel like the 3 of old – and within three minutes Berry pays tribute to his departed friend while simultaneously flaunting his own AOR credentials. In terms of quick musical fixes, it’s enjoyable enough, as is the similar ‘Killer of Hope’ – a tune loaded with rigid rhythms and ugly keys – but both pale into relative insignificance compared to the brilliant ‘Black of Night’, a tune that feels truly natural and with Berry finally letting his own song writing gift shine through. At its best, between the 80s keyboards, soaring vocal melodies and shameless AOR flourishes, it could easily pass for a Berry solo recording circa 1995. There’s something in a couple of the vocal melodies and arrangement that make it seem as if it’ll lapse into John Farnham’s ‘You’re The Voice’ at any moment, but set against militaristic drums and pulsing AOR synths – and the sounds from ‘King In A Catholic Style’ by China Crisis, Berry sounds as if he’s in his element. There are still a couple of moments where over-egging the arrangement detracts from its overall goodness, but there’s a fine song here. A further dive into AOR is provided by ‘Missing Piece’, which deserves to be a highlight due to its more commercial edge. A re-recording of a track from Berry’s old band Alliance, it’s redressed here with a sharper keyboard sound but otherwise seems to be played straight. It sticks out half a mile, not just due to it not being peppered with proggy flourishes, but because it’s such an obvious reminder of Berry’s superior past… Although this provides some welcome respite from 3.2’s more pompous offerings, it also has the effect of making the listener realise that the newly written material on ‘Third Impression’ could – and should – have been better. When stripped of the bells and whistles and armed with a great riff and big chorus, Berry is one of the true greats – and this only proves it.

‘Bond of Union’ (a track named after Alliance’s Japanese-only debut CD), also leans more towards AOR, and in doing so, it helps bolster this album’s quality. A big ballad driven by sweeping piano lines and 80s synth sounds, its more sedate and spacious arrangement finally allows Berry’s vocal to take centre stage…and he’s in great form. The slightly cheesy angle – often sounding like an old Asia tribute – might not appeal to the prog fans in general, but between a more obvious chorus and a lovely coda where neo-classical piano is joined by emotive, soaring lead guitar work, it’s easily this album’s highlight. Taking an unexpected sidestep, ‘The Devil of Liverpool’ fuses another Asia-esque vocal with jarring rhythms and rattling grooves, the best moments of which sound as if Berry has been taking tips from Toto at their most obtuse. While the bulk of the track is great, it suffers a massive setback once a lengthy instrumental section takes over. Here, Emerson-esque keys sound as if they’re being bashed by a man wearing mittens and the shift into ugly prog is neither necessary or interesting. As with a couple of other tracks, this is an obvious example of a great three minute pop-rock number being smothered by completely unnecessary bloat and mullered by Berry attempting to be too clever for the sake of it.

Thankfully, if you can make it through that, you’ll find another pair of tunes that go a long way to making ‘Third Impression’ an interesting addition to the Berry catalogue. ‘Emotional Trigger’ takes a dramatic turn – with Berry introducing some late night piano jazz in the Marc Jordan mould. This is fantastic; the simpler structure combined with clearer production values really allows the song to breathe. The strident piano playing is superb, as are the upright bass sounds. Even Berry’s natural voice really shines. It’s all rather wonderful right up until the instrumental break, where – rather unfortunately – something sounding like a mangled Stylophone plays a solo in place of a deserving saxophone. From a more obvious perspective, ‘A Fond Farewell’ brings back a strong AOR/prog hybrid where busy keys and chunky guitars battle against each other, while Berry offers a strong vocal between the more complex elements. It’s verses, again, sound almost Asia-esque at times; by never shying away from more of a pop-rock perspective, the pre-chorus gives another glimpse of Berry in his most natural environment and while a chorus of any sort would have been useful, the track seems to work despite a lack of hook. Fans of old will surely rise a smile at a massive pompy riff that – again – could be the work of Emerson in the late 80s. Although that’s a feature you’d expect to provide the necessary memorability, this performance’s defining moment actually comes from a confident vocal set against a minimalist backdrop where Berry – rather unexpectedly – seems to revisit something that could’ve been drawn from his ‘Pilgrimage To A Point’ album from 1994. Again, this flourish of melody really helps remind the listener of Berry’s greatness and it goes a long way to helping this track stand up reasonably well, even if you’ll find better in the man’s back-cat. [If you’re listening to this album and enjoying it – or not – and haven’t heard ‘Pilgrimage To A Point’, you should definitely do so at your earliest convenience. It’s a hundred times better than most of this.]

Obviously, if you’re a fan of the 3 debut purely for the Emerson/Palmer connections, there’s nothing for you here. There are even times when it feels like Berry is trying to alienate his own fans, since for everything brilliant on ‘Third Impression’, there’s something fairly horrible. As difficult a listen as it may be, however, its four or five strongest tracks still make it a necessary collection filler for the more obsessive fan. Whether many other people will gain much listening enjoyment from this third instalment in the long term seems rather debatable.

January 2021