He’s back, progging and free of vocals - at last.
Label: Gonzo Multimedia / MusicGlue
Time: 8 tracks / 55 minutes
Once upon a time, before Grumpy ‘Ole Rick and a short flurry of rather fine solo piano albums, Wakeman was known for one thing – standing becaped inside a turret of keyboards, and a tendency to excess. OK, two things.
But mainly it was his synthesizer solos with Yes, where his dazzling runs could create album highpoints. Outside of Yes and his earlier session work, his first foray was the impressive Six Wives of Henry VIII, where each instrumental track was a musical impression of one of the king’s wives.
He followed it up with overblown concept albums that he staged on ice and nearly died from, and was bankrupted. Film soundtracks like White Rock followed, but he never matched the power of Six Wives. The liner notes of his latest release, boldly state, “It has been a long time since Rick Wakeman produced an instrumental prog album and over the last two decades it has been the most requested style of music from fans around the world.”
i.e. they want more Six Wives.
I was quite concerned that this would be another patchy album, remarkable in parts, but largely disappointing by comparison with that illustrious Tudor benchmark. The good news is that it really is as good.
Like Six Wives, each track is a musical impression, this time of areas on Mars. But there’s nothing dry and dusty about this.
The opener has that vintage prog sound backed by ethereal choral tones, bold colours and bubbly synths; but it is the second track “Tharsis Thalus” that delivers everything in one go. Bookended by flute tones and a couple of very brief speedy bursts, guitars come in and ramp up the energy. He deliberately features some classic Hammond organ and then, very suddenly, bursts into the most typical Wakeman synth solo – sprightly Mini-Moog, bent notes, black notes, RSI-inducing arpeggios and a guarantee to get you playing air keys.
“Arsia Mons” is built on a lively organ riff that works as a foundation for some mellow moments of both guitar and keys, then “Olympus Mons” comes along like some outtake from Six Wives in both style and sound – and another good synth solo. On “The North Plain” he plays around with suddenly sliding notes, their impact beefed up by drum fills.
As the disc continues, the intensity mellows, giving way on “South Pole,” with its beautifully peaceful solo piano interlude, to sounds that seem better suited to lush green vistas than red dust landscapes. But no one’s complaining about that. The ten-minute album closer “Vales Marinieris” begins and ends with a bolero, and features a Memotron (updated Mellotron) background, on a piece that does evoke slightly harsher and more wide open spaces.
Trust is a wonderful thing. Wakeman sent the initial music files to drummer Ash Soan, bassist Lee Pomeroy and guitarist Dave Colquhoun without instructions, letting them do what they do, so offering them the freedom to play and the responsibility to give it their best. It paid off.
Overall, there isn’t quite the range of sounds and styles that Six Wives featured, but that means we avoid the fractured bittiness of that disc (Wakeman originally wanted it to be longer, but had to chop it down to fit vinyl's 40-odd minutes). This is more tightly constructed and simpler sounding (he has nothing to prove now, unlike on a first solo outing), so it's a more relaxed collection that still has plenty of the sonic pyrotechnics that fans look for.