SiX by SiX’s Robert Berry: The Progarchy Interview

After decades behind the scenes, Robert Berry has unquestionably stepped into the spotlight. In the late 1980s Berry hit the big time alongside Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer as vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer of the progressive-pop trio 3. Afterwards, he parleyed his new-found visibility into decades of fine work in both mainstream rock (Ambrosia, Greg Kihn, Sammy Hagar, his album-oriented rock band Alliance) and the prog scene (numerous tribute albums for the Magna Carta label, discs and tours by the holiday-themed collective The December People). Though Keith Emerson’s suicide in 2016 thwarted a planned reunion, Berry honored Emerson’s legacy with his deeply felt, impressively realized 3.2 project, releasing the posthumous collaborations The Rules Have Changed (2018) and Third Impression (2021) and mounting a career-retrospective tour in 2019.

But the Robert Berry I spoke with last month is focused on the future, not the past — namely, his brand new, very different trio SiX by SiX. Collaborating on songs with Saga’s guitarist Ian Crichton and anchored by Saxon’s drummer Nigel Glockler, Berry sounds like he’s having the time of his life. The new band’s self-titled album, released by InsideOut/Sony on August 19th, doesn’t really fit into any prog or progressive metal pigeonholes — and it’s all the better for it. One minute SiX by SiX is making an almighty, rifftastic noise; the next comes a killer singalong chorus; the next you’re reveling in a lush, impressionistic soundscape. Wrapping up our interview, Berry said, “we want a wide audience of all kinds of people that just like good music,” and this album has both the ambition and the substance to hit that sweet spot. There’s plenty here for your head, your heart and your guts to grab onto!

When I interviewed Robert Berry at his California homebase Soundtek Studios, he managed to be supremely casual, pumped about his new music (as well as about a graphic novel based on the album by Chicago artist J. C. Baez) and genuinely interested in what I thought of SiX by SiX’s debut, all at the same time! I think both of us had fun; join us by watching the video below or reading the transcript that follows.

So, first of all, tell us about the way SiX by SiX, this new project of yours, came together.

It’s sort of magical, really.  My manager Nick [Shilton] who’s in the UK – we were talking, he goes, “well, what are you gonna do next?  You’ve said that there’s gonna be three 3 albums, right?”  The original one [made in] ’88, and we had The Rules Have Changed and we had Third Impression.  I said, “yeah, I feel that’s all we had from Keith, material-wise.  I don’t wanna do that on my own; it needs to feed off him.”

“Well, what are you gonna do?”  I said, “I’m either gonna hang it up and tour with the past, or I’d like to find a guitar player to work with that was like Keith Emerson, that made up these incredible parts.  But except for Steve Howe, who’s very busy, what guitar player makes up parts?  Orchestrates a song, doesn’t just play power chords and a smokin’, rippin’ lead?”  He goes, “Let me think about it.”

He called me back the next day; he says, “what about Ian Crichton from Saga?”  I said, “why didn’t I think of that?”  Now I didn’t know Ian at the time.  I said, “he plays parts and you could almost sing his solos; they’re so great!”  So he tracked him down, got us on the phone.  Ian was, like everybody, having some down time with the COVID, not touring.  And we decided to start sending some things back and forth – and it couldn’t have been better for me, inspiration-wise!   I mean, if I could have written down, really thought about “I’d really like this, I’d like this.”  Also, all these parts kept coming!  He’s so prolific, making up that great stuff that I only thought of in my head, like “what guy does this?”

And the songs started coming out; we committed to this band once we found the right drummer.  Which of course, it was an old friend of mine.  I felt anyway; didn’t know if he’d say yes, cause he’s in a big band too, Saxon.  And Nigel said yes and bang!  It was organic, actually; just happened just like that!  But it took a whole year to get it to the point of that now.

OK!  What I’m hearing you say, and from what I’ve listened to of the album, I agree with you on what Ian brings to the table.  Two or three great riffs on just about every single tune, plus that unique solo voice that, as you say, is so melodic.

Yeah!

Can you talk a bit more about what Nigel Glockler brings to the party?

Nigel and I were in GTR together, back [in] 1987.  And Steve [Howe] brought him in to replace the guy that had done the first album with them.  And I had said to Steve Howe, “the drums are kinda muddy; don’t we need something a little more solid?”  They brought Nigel in; I didn’t know Nigel at all.  And he was just the greatest drummer and the nicest guy, that we stayed friends, stayed in contact.

When he came through town here – I’m in Silicon Valley, San Jose, close to eBay and Apple and all that – I went to see him and we just chatted a bit and I said, “Man, the guy, he’s still in good form, still playin’ solid and hard.”  And so, he was a top of the list choice for me!  And Ian didn’t know him, but they had bumped heads on tours a little bit maybe, and seen each other but not really got to know each other.  So once Nigel said “I’m really interested in this,” and then we got his drums on a couple of songs.  And it was like having John Bonham in the band, you know?  [Laughs]  Really heavy hitter, solid!  It was a little to me like Cozy Powell in ELP; it just cinched it up!

That comparison just had occurred to me as well; that when Powell was with E[merson] and L[ake], there was this rock-solid bottom.  I heard them live.  He’s so completely different from Carl [Palmer], but what he brings to the table is amazing.

And it was a good album they did too!  Not that we need to talk about that . . . [Laughs]

That’s true!  And you can tell that Nigel isn’t just a pounder.

He’s a big prog rock fan, which is probably why Steve Howe brought him in originally.  He and Phil, the bass player for GTR, were pretty good friends, and they’d done a few things together before.  So, Phil knew about the intricacy of what Nigel could bring.  He just doesn’t get to expand that in Saxon, of course.  He hit the fine line between “let’s do a few things” and “let’s keep the thing really solid”.  So again, Ian’s guitar can do what it does, and if the power chords [makes guitar noises with his voice] aren’t always there, something has to keep it solid.  And Nigel just made it happen, really.

And again, hearing what I’ve heard from the album, there’s a lot of elements going into what you do.  But there’s also space for all of those elements.  It doesn’t feel cluttered or crowded; it feels like everything just locks together.

And it’s mainly the guitar!  The keyboards on this, I use them very sparingly, and it’s really just a sort of glue, a little background in there sometimes when the guitar’s gotta do other things.  Even onstage, my thing is to once in a while, during a solo or something, I’ll change to the keyboards and left-hand bass and cover the fullness and the bass on keyboards, then get back to the bass guitar when Ian comes back into playing the full chord and whatever he’s doing.

So, you’ve described the creative process.  You and Ian are working together and the songs come up out of his ideas; obviously you add to that.   What was the recording process like?

Continue reading “SiX by SiX’s Robert Berry: The Progarchy Interview”

Rick’s Quick Takes for July

In addition to this month’s new music, I’ve taken a few column inches to double back on “Blasts from the Past” — albums that I missed the first time around or haven’t heard in a while, but have become firm favorites as I discovered (or rediscovered) them during the first six months of this year. For new releases, purchasing links are embedded in each artist/title listing, with playlists or samples following each review as available; Blasts from the Past have listening links embedded in each album title.

Tim Bowness, Butterfly Mind: As Bowness mentioned in his latest Progarchy interview, the concept of his 2020 album Late Night Laments‘ was of a fragile refuge, however imperfect, from current societal storms. Butterfly Mind drops those defenses, confronting protest (“We Feel”), polemics (“Only A Fool”), fear of the future (the album frame “Say Your Goodbyes”) and, yes, death (“About the Light That Hits the Forest Floor”) with Bowness’ typically thoughtful, allusive lyrics and rich, warmly delivered melodies. But there’s also a gritty energy welling up from the roots of the music (bassist Nick Beggs and drummer Richard Jupp are a fabulous rhythm section), toughening the musical tendrils nurtured by soloists like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Magazine’s Dave Formula, Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton and former No-Man bandmate Ben Coleman. Urgent art-rock that compels multiple listens, as beauty takes on today’s ugliness without flinching. Preorder now for August 5th release.

The Dear Hunter, Antimai: having cleansed their palette with 2017’s relatively straightforward All Is As All Should Be, Casey Crescenzo and his crew of emocore/musical theater/prog rockers settle in for some serious world-building. Exploring the dystopian culture that underlies Crescenzo’s short film The Indigo Child from bottom (“Ring 8 – Poverty”) to top (“Ring 1 – The Tower”), his lyrics portray the variations of despair, complacence, and self-deception each imagined caste falls prey to. Honestly, it’s the music that provides sharper differentiation between social strata, with surprising amounts of sonorous brass — plus jazz/funk, R&B and even hip-hop — snuggling alongside TDH’s trademark power chords, mallet percussion riffs and singalong choruses stacked with Beach-Boys-meet-Queen harmonies. It feels a bit like an aural version of a cinematic trilogy’s middle installment — lots of set-up, with the ultimate payoff beyond the horizon — but with TDH’s sonic and structural ambition clicking so often, Antimai is quite a dazzling trip.

Fernando Perdomo, Out To Sea 4: Even with this year’s return of Cruise to the Edge (the series’ initial impetus), this fresh installment of nautically-themed prog instrumentals comes as a surprise — but then it did to Perdomo as well! Written in the heat of inspiration, his new compositions are sure-footed and energized from first to last, immediately appealing while packed with depth. Playing all the instruments, Perdomo lays down powerful, propulsive grooves on bass and drums and sets up sparkling, jangly chordal textures and fires off his arresting themes on guitar with confidence and aplomb. And his guitar solos! Never pat or predictable, always heartfelt and daringly executed, each solo is a ravishing song in itself. The only reason I haven’t mentioned any standout tracks: every single one is equally excellent. If you’ve heard Out To Sea 1, 2 and 3, you’ll definitely want this; if Fernando Perdomo’s name is new to you, you won’t regret giving OTS 4, the high water mark of a really fine run of albums, a spin.

Robert Berry’s 3.2 Alive at Progstock: Berry’s recent posthumous collaboration with Keith Emerson (an extension of his work with Emerson and Carl Palmer in the 1980s band 3) gave him renewed exposure and the chance to command prog festival stages in 2019. Surrounded by chops-heavy compadres Paul Keller, Andrew Colyer and Jimmy Keegan, he delivers with a thrilling mix of 3 and 3.2 highlights, prog classics as reimagined for 1990s tribute albums, solo tracks and even “Deck the Halls” a la 1980s Rush! Plus, Berry’s unpretentious spoken introductions, peaking behind the curtain to reveal how the music came to be, are nearly as riveting as the performances themselves. All in all, this CD/DVD set is a worthy showcase for a remarkably underrated musician, finally in the spotlight after decades behind the scenes. (Watch for a Progarchy interview with Berry about his next project, SiX By SiX, coming soon.)

Blasts From The Past:

  • Battles caught my ear opening for Primus back in May; their first two albums, 2007’s Mirrored & 2011’s Gloss Drop, turned out to be especially exciting. Glitchy electronica that defies predictability with every asymmetric loop, candy-coated melody, whipsaw rhythmic shift, and whomping backbeat, with each album meant to be experienced in one extended go. As proggy as dance music gets!
  • Tears For Fears’ The Tipping Point inspired a deep dive into the lesser known corners of their catalog. Roland Orzbaal and Curtis Smith’s 2004 reunion, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (which I never heard at the time), lives up to the same high standards as their latest; unstoppable riffs and hooks abound in killer songs like “Call me Mellow”, “Who Killed Tangerine?” and the delectable “Ladybird”.
  • Andy Tillison’s reflections on soul music in his recent Progarchy interview sent me back to Stevie Wonder’s masterful 1970s albums, where Wonder blended soaring melodies, sophisticated chord structures, groundbreaking synthesizer work and heaping helpings of funk rhythms for one innovative, irresistible breakthrough after another. 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life remains Wonder’s most expansive, fascinating and welcoming classic, ranging from the swing of “Sir Duke” to the drive of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely” to the sardonic classical gas of “Pastime Paradise”. And the songs you don’t know from this double album are just as good — or often better! Sheer genius at its peak.

— Rick Krueger

kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: New Albums

Here are the albums of new music from 2018 that grabbed me on first or second listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for those that achieved Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to the ones I’ve previously reviewed are embedded in the album titles.  But first, a graphic tease …

Continue reading “kruekutt’s 2018 Favorites: New Albums”

3.2, The Rules Have Changed: Rick’s Quick Takes

“And I hold the love of who you are
The passion your hands brought to my ears
The music’s blood became our bond
A good man, that we honor here.”
— Robert Berry, “Our Bond”

Robert Berry has pulled off something remarkable.  The Rules Have Changed, Berry’s new effort under the moniker 3.2, succeeds at a daunting task — paying deeply felt homage to the late, great Keith Emerson, whose shocking death thwarted the collaboration the duo were planning after 30 years apart.  Painstakingly crafted, packed with inspired musicianship on songs that tackle weighty, thoughtful themes — matters of life and death, in fact — it’s music created to touch the heart, and to last.

My first, astonished impression was how completely Berry assimilates Emerson’s style and sound, makes it his own, and takes it to thrilling new places.  True, there was already material to work with before Emerson’s death — an unused composition from the early days of 3, Emerson’s ideas that later formed the backbones of three more songs, as well as Berry’s Celtic-tinged “This Letter” and the upbeat single “Powerful Man.”

But beyond the achievement of playing every instrument himself — Carl Palmer-style drums, bass, guitar, and virtuosic keyboards — Berry is absolutely dialed in to what made Emerson’s music so special.  The eight songs here take expansive, unpredictable forms, launching inventive salvos of extended melody and harmony,  deployed in a dizzying mix of classical, jazz and rock idioms that shoulder each other aside with gleeful abandon.  Whether the tune’s a collaboration or a solo effort, Berry nails this every time.  All the classic Emerson colors are present and correct, too: lyrical grand piano; detuned uptempo boogie licks; spitting, sinuous Hammond organ lines; majestic multi-tonal synthesizer riffs and pads; and of course, lead Moog solos that will melt your face off.  (Berry’s no slouch on lead guitar and bass, either.)

Crafting lyrics to match the impact of this music had to have been an uphill struggle — but again, Berry has risen to the task.  He celebrates the sweet mystery of love for all it’s worth — love of parents and children in “Powerful Man,” love of a spouse, kids and grandkids in “This Letter.”  He confronts the challenges of leaving a legacy (“What You’re Dreamin’ Now” and “Your Mark on the World”) and time’s inevitable passage (“One by One”).  The title track, in memory of Magellan’s Trent Gardner, and the Emerson tribute “Our Bond” look loss, despair and death itself in the face, courageously grieving without flinching.  Even the ultimate question — does anyone guide our path? — turns up as the subject of “Somebody’s Watching.”  In sum, these lyrics are powerful, rich and mature, with nary a cliche in sight — exactly what was required.

I’m not exaggerating: this fine album pays the best tribute possible to Keith Emerson, taking the potential embodied in 3’s 1988 debut, To the Power of Three, and realizing it to the full.  Robert Berry never stood still after his halcyon days with Emerson and Palmer, as his solo albums, production work, and collaborations with Greg Kihn, Ambrosia, Alliance and December People attest.  Still, The Rules Have Changed may well be the achievement of his career; it honors a mentor he respected and loved and reveals his own talent and passion in action at the highest level.  Here’s hoping Berry can bring the planned international tour of 3.2 (complete with 3’s live guitarist Paul Keller) to a town near you soon!  In the meantime, listen for yourself:

robertBerry_keithEmerson

— Rick Krueger

“Eight Miles High” — Three Views

The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” was released as a single on March 14, 1966, eventually reaching number 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.   Influenced by Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass album, it was one of the first (if not the first) glimmerings of psychedelic rock.  And thus a progenitor of prog?  I think so.

Check out three views of this pioneering tune for yourself.  First, a Byrds promo appearance lip-syncing for an unknown TV show.  Note David Crosby’s brilliant outfit, complete with Russian hat:

Of course, “Eight Miles High” has been covered numerous times.  Back in 1988, it was the one of the key tracks on To The Power of Three, the collaboration of Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer and Robert Berry.  How Eighties is this?  Check out Berry’s headless Steinberger bass!  Emerson’s keytar!  Palmer wielding a Dynacord electronic drum controller at the front of the stage!  Plus the, uh, dancers “playing” snare drums in the background.  Goodness!  (Though it does serve as a reminder that Robert Berry releases his posthumous collaboration with Keith Emerson, 3.2: The Rules Have Changed, on August 10.)

Three years later (ouch) in 1991, “Eight Miles High” was one of the cover tunes on Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s album Spin.  Since their 1981 version of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” had snagged number one on the British single charts, Stewart and Gaskin had been bringing a thoroughly proggy attitude to the synth-pop duo format.  Spin is no different, mixing quirky originals with fresh takes on Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog,” Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia,” Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — and the Byrds.  One bonus feature of the album: the precocious pre-Porcupine Tree percussion of Gavin Harrison.  Check out the spectacular drum fill that kicks off this version!

Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s new album Star Clocks, featuring “eight Dave Stewart originals alongside a cover of an iconic 1960s song,” is out on August 17.  Pre-order it at Burning Shed.

Bonus track: Stewart & Gaskin’s samurai/Beach Boys/cathedral bells version of “It’s My Party,” with special guest video appearance by … Thomas Dolby?

— Rick Krueger

3.2, The Rules Have Changed

After Emerson Lake & Palmer’s late-1970s collapse, the separate members of the trio didn’t stop making music, releasing solo projects, launching new bands — and often working with one (but never both!) of their former colleagues.

The last such project before ELP’s 1990’s reunion was 3, a Geffen Records brainstorm to bring together the post-Lake & Powell Keith Emerson, the post-Asia Carl Palmer and guitarist/vocalist Robert Berry, a hot young gun from Los Angeles in the Trevor Rabin mold.  Aiming for another 90125 (or at least another GTR), the 1988 album To the Power of Three had some solid, intriguing moments — but it wasn’t pop enough to yield a substantial hit, or prog enough to reactivate ELP’s fanbase.  When Geffen cut off tour support and ordered 3 back into the studio for another album, Emerson pulled the plug on the band.

Fast forward to March 2016.   With an archive live release from 3’s US tour stirring fresh interest, Berry and Emerson planned to collaborate on a duo album, updating and re-energizing their sound for an environment where prog of all stripes had found an audience again.  Then, succumbing to depression on the eve of a Japanese solo tour, Emerson killed himself.

Nevertheless, using co-written songs and musical ideas Keith Emerson left behind, Robert Berry (also a classically trained pianist) persisted, playing all the instruments himself for the now-solo project 3.2.  The result is The Rules Have Changeddue for release on August 10 from Frontiers Records.  No less of a progressive music authority than Innerviews editor Anil Prasad calls it “an expertly-executed and performed album that takes the spirit of the first 3 release and propels it into edgier and more adventurous territory, while retaining the melodic qualities of its predecessor.”

I got to meet Robert Berry a couple years back, when his charity band December People (playing Christmas songs in the styles of classic rock and prog artists) toured Michigan for the holidays.  Our brief conversation revealed him as a down to earth guy, with fond memories of his time in 3 and deep respect for Keith Emerson.  Based on the sample track “Somebody’s Watching,” which absolutely captures the sound of the original band at their most daring and delightful, I’m definitely looking forward to The Rules Have Changed, and I wish Berry’s 3.2 project all the success in the world.

— Rick Krueger