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Main Category: Prog Rock
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Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Rick Wakeman fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Rick Wakeman fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1973

Wakeman's first serious solo record came out more or less at the same time with all those wonderful (or not so wonderful, considering my darned scepticism concering Yes as a phenomenon) 1972-73 Yes records, so it's no wonder that a whole slew of Yes members are there to back him up - everyone, actually, bar Jon Anderson, which is a) understandable, since there are no vocals altogether and b) good, since Jon Anderson is a moron. Pardon me for my straightforwardness, I just happen to be in good spirits. :) Not that Six Wives sound like Yes, of course - not at all, even if Wakeman did get to perform some excerpts from the 'suite' on Yes concerts and two of them are even included on Yessongs. In fact, I have always complained about Rick being way too overshadowed by the other Yes members; he rarely had a true chance to shine in all his 'multi-keyboard' splendour even on the most 'prominent' Yes albums. Well, this might have been good or this might have been not, but here you get it: Grand Master of the Keys in all his splendour.

Six Wives is not a spectacular record and it certainly has not dated all that well. But due to only one factor: its being rather gruesomely overrated back then. In 1973, this stuff was new and exciting; of course, the world was already used to Keith Emerson's merger of pop, classical, and dirty synth noises, but Wakeman made the experience more diverse, more entertaining, more accessible and more complex at once. Since then, Six Wives and whatever followed have been derided as pseudo-classical self-indulgence. Where's the truth? In between, as usual.

Six "movements". Six different themes. Six wives of King Henry VIII. Of course, it's virtually impossible to tell how do the tunes link to the actual wives. Not only do the wives seem to come in a broken chronological order (am I crazy or was Anne Boleyn, the later-to-be-beheaded one, Henry's second passion and why then is she occupying the fifth place here?), but the actual music is hardly medieval. I remember reading a complaint from a reviewer on that 'I'd rather listen to music that was actually made in King Henry's time'. Well, this music doesn't even pretend to emulate King Henry's time. Instead, the primary influences for Rick seem to be Mozart and Bach; the former's presence is seen in his piano playing, where he sometimes inserts direct quotations from Amadeus, and the latter's presence is seen in the organ noodling - notably in the 'Jane Seymour' part, all played on a church organ in its entirety.

So we'll just have to assume that the "conceptuality" of this album is completely fake and was probably added later on as an afterthought. Instead, dig it as cool popular entertainment; the album transformed Wakeman into a superstar in his own rights and initiated his brief period of commercial reign. It's easy to see why - this stuff is really cool from the point of view of a Seventies' rock lover wanting to add a streak of 'classical' to his everyday menu. Even if the listener might be baffled by the strict piano-only approach of 'Catherine Howard' or the organ-only approach of 'Jane Seymour', he will still be left in awe over the seven-minute long 'Anne of Cleves' - wonderful classical keyboard playing over a steady rock beat with the addition of a squeaky distorted rock guitar in the background from time to time. And, of course, an outburst of mystical electronic noises from time to time. Cool, isn't it?

It's not that I'm in deep love with the album, of course. The last two tracks kinda leave me cold, and the mood set by most of the tracks is practically identic, apart from the eerie 'Jane Seymour'. But two factors save the whole experience for me. First, the themes are compact and consistent enough to always form a good groove that sucks you in, and second, Rick is indeed a great keyboard player - and he does it in a 'no-bull' style, so those who have shed many a tear over many an organ or a synthesizer brutally mutilated by the likes of Mr Emerson will definitely breathe a sigh of relief. Good record.



Year Of Release: 1974

Well, I can't say that I dig the hell out of this record, but it sure is an interesting listen. Arguably, this was Wakeman at his most pompous, and "Wakeman at his most pompous" logically means "one of the most pompous, if not the most pompous, art-rock records". This is a multi-part suite based on Jules Verne's novel of the same name; and mind you, "Journey To The Centre Of The Earth" is Jules Verne's most grandiose and epic novel, with fantasy unlimited and and running over the acceptable borders, so Rick couldn't have made a better choice to base himself upon. The suite itself was recorded live in January 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall, and so predictably features a full-scale orchestra and a full-blown chorus of singers, along with Rick himself, a text narrator and a couple electric instrument players whose names mean nothing to me so I won't be telling them.

I confess, I like the idea and I do get the concept. And the concert does have its fair share of interesting spots - too bad my knowledge of classical music is limited and I can't really do justice to all the stolen ideas and reinvented melodies. It must be noted, that Journey is not a purely classical record; it is, indeed, a synthesis of rock and classical, and at times the music veers off into entirely different directions. Thus, around the thirteenth minute Rick hits a very funky synth rhythm, and together with the guitarist proceeds to pump out a typical 'fusion' performance. And Wakeman's keyboards are pretty diverse on here, too, with less emphasis on the pure piano playing than before; he prefers sticking to the organ or, even more frequently, to those hi-tech 'futuristic' synths that fit the overall fantasy mood quite fine. But sometimes he does play pure piano, and sometimes he models his synths after harpsichords, anyway, you won't really get bored.

It's hard for me to discuss the individual sections - I guess that if the name "Wakeman" means something to you, you'll probably be able to realize how all this should sound. Some are more memorable and pretty than the others, particularly the sung part at the beginning and the majestic finale, some are a bit too repetitive for my personal tastes. I'll just say this: I consider the record to be an excellent achievement for Wakeman and one of his musically finest, but there are a number of obstacles that prevent me from giving it a five- or even a four-star rating. These are:

a) What's with that narrator dude? I hate those intonations. I realize that if we really want to follow Verne's story and be able to associate parts of it with actual musical themes, not just stand around gaping as was the case with poor King Henry's wives, some kind of narration was needed. But not that kind of stupid narration, with icy theatrical intonations. They could have done better, or at least Rick could have written more sung parts.

b) Is it just me or is he running out of ideas by the second side? There are several recurrent themes there. For Chrissake, Rick, this ain't Tommy!

c) More electric guitar is needed. Too much classical here, not enough rock. After all, this is supposed to be something like 'band and orchestra', not just an orchestra, and with such a good guitarist, a little more rockin' energy couldn't have hurt.

Otherwise, the record is very involving indeed - not a grand triumphant union of rock and classical, as some of the raving critics called it at the time (and since then these same critics have mostly been pouring dirt on it), but a fine example of 'classical motives popularizing'. Like all Wakeman records, it does sound boring on first listen, but the theme and its gradual development will eventually pull you out of boredom if you're willing to give it a chance. In any case, it's a definite must for all progressive rock fans.



Year Of Release: 1975

Geez, does the singing guy suck on here. Oh, by the way, a certain school of Russian Tolkien-addled thought considers this to be one of the greatest albums ever made - but to tell you the truth, I don't see anything that would seriously distinguish Arthur from any other Wakeman album of the ones that fall into the 'good Wakeman album' category. For one, it is extremely close in sound to its immediate predecessor. It wasn't recorded live, as far as I know, but it was also recorded with a full orchestra and the thing that was now known as English Rock Orchestra (Wakeman's backing band, with names that don't really tell me anything - and who friggin' cares, anyway?).

The dedication to a 'storyline' has somewhat progressed, as all of the tracks here contain sung or declamated lyrics that tell the tale of King Arthur, with heavy emphasis on certain crucial moments (Arthur's 'initiation', the battle with the Black Knight, Arthur's death, etc.). However, musically it's not that stable: while medieval motives do grace the tracks from time to time, for the most part it's just the same overblown brand of symph-rock as before. And again, I don't really know what to say about this stuff. It doesn't particularly move me - Rick's performances are ultra-professional as usual, but for the most part it's nothing but ultra-professional noodling, dazzling and amazing on first listen but quickly becoming disappointing on subsequent ones.

Still, at least I can't blame the man of not being diverse or entertaining enough, plus, one can hardly overlook the excellent construction of the album. First, we have the grand opening - 'Arthur', with pompous Beethoven-style (?) synthesizer passages, grand chorales and an overall optimistic, energetic atmosphere. Didn't get it? We pulled the sword out of the anvil. Takes time, effort and tons of ambition. The singing guy sucks, too. Then a moment of "passion and beauty" - 'Guinevere', with soft romantic piano chords, soft chorales, soft weepy synthesizers, and an unexpected hard guitar break. (Sir Lancelot crawling from the back alley, no doubt?). Then a moment of "chaos and battle" - 'Sir Lancelot And The Black Knight', where Wakeman plays as fast as possible and the singing guy still sucks.

Then the really cool, really weird track of the album which actually earns it its extra half-star. 'Merlin The Magician' is really cute and intriguing, if only because it's the least predictable musical statement of the album. It incorporates lots of sections (reflecting Merlin's chameleonic nature?), including a couple fast silly ragtime excursions and a terrific 'hard-rocking' part with the only guitar riff on the album - but what a riff! Crude, mean, and menacing, just the way it needs to be when you're dealing with such a serious-looking bastard as Merlin. (I am, of course, referring to the guy's evaluation by Mark Twaine).

Then we return to predictable territory, with the brave-sounding, audacious-feeling 'Sir Galahad', and then we fizzle out with the grand finale of 'Last Battle' that ends in, naturally, Arthur's death. It goes on for ten minutes and I can't still remember a note even after numerous listens, but who am I to judge? It was cool and ear-pleasing while it was on. WHY DOES THE SINGING GUY SUCK SO MUCH?

All in all, listening to these records has really made me understand what is the true meaning of the word 'dated'. Once upon a time, this was looked upon as the ultimate in contemporary music (although it must be noted that Wakeman lost the love of the music press at around that time - which is only natural, as prog rock was gradually 'losing its cool'); now, this is just... eh... interesting. To a certain extent. Good background music. Remember, if you want your music to be more than just background music, you'll have to think of some original melodies and stop ripping off classical composers so shamelessly. Or at least - rip them off so that you'd emerge with something more memorable than one cool guitatr riff and a couple funny fast ragtime pastiches. Over and out.



Year Of Release: 1975

Heck, I don't like throwing out serious accusations on the spur of the moment, but what the... This is total, absolute, self-indulgent, the most superficial and senseless dreck I've heard in a very long time. Geez, this is the main reason punk rock had to happen (if it ever really needed to happen in the first place, that is). Mind you, I don't have anything against Mr Wakeman in person, and I actually respect his music a lot, particularly the three albums released before this stuff. But everybody should stay away from this.

Lisztomania was actually a movie, and a pretty bizarre one - filmed by Ken Russell (the same guy who filmed Tommy before that), it was dedicated to a very radical reinterpretation of the life and actions of the composer Franz Liszt and his relations with Richard Wagner. Starring none other than Roger Daltrey himself as Liszt (apparently, Ken was that pleased with Daltrey's part in the Tommy movie!), the film was tacky, obscene, stupid, and aimless at the same time - is said to be, at least, because I've never seen it and wouldn't want to (I did see Tommy, after all!). And so is this soundtrack.

Now I'm no expert on either Liszt or Wagner; I only know that most of the soundtrack is based upon Wakeman's rather liberal reinvention of extracts from both composers' works. But expert or no expert, there is hardly even a single, even the tiniest reason on Earth to make somebody want to go out and buy this collection of rag-taggy "musical pieces". All the actual pieces can be divided in two major groups: Wakeman fiddling around on piano solo (occasionally with a very light touch of orchestration) or Wakeman making some bombastic arrangement or other, hopping on top of a synth or two and making the formerly classical composition 'rock out'. Group number one is more tolerable in general, but more pointless, because, like I said, I don't see any use in hearing Wakeman play Liszt. Perhaps he would have done a better job if he just, well, you know, recorded an entire album of 'Wakeman plays Liszt'. This would just look like a normal thing. And it would liberate us of the necessity to hear group number two, i.e. synthesizer-treated and at times rock-band-treated reinterpretations of Liszt and Wagner. In their banality and ugliness, these passages easily beat ELP's Pictures At An Exhibition - at least, the latter displayed some true creativity, innovation, improvisation and great band playing. Here, everything just sucks.

I won't even name or review individual tracks because that would be a waste of time. I just want to say that I'm really really sorry that this record still exists and even isn't out of print - it's albums like these that give progressive rock its dirty reputation. Unfortunately, Wakeman never had that much 'fine taste' in him: he was primarily a showman, and he was probably only too glad to get involved in such a bizarre and 'sacrilegious' project. And thus, all the bad seeds that were sown in his previous three good albums suddenly came to life: public-teasing, lack of a truly unique creative vision, and ambitions over the top. That's not even to say that all of the music passages on here are bad individually - taken in small amounts, Rick could have inserted just about every selected one of them inside something like Six Wives, and nobody would give a damn. But taken together, assembled together in one place, this stuff is just unpalatable and irritatingly corny.

The extra half-star is given only for one thing: sometimes Wakeman's (er, Liszt's) piano passages are graced by very nice vocals from Roger Daltrey. He actually salvages a couple of tunes like 'Love's Dream' and 'Funerailles' and makes them sound like normal, pretty, even moving ballads, particularly if you're able to listen to them on their own, without any extra (aka: movie) associations. But the other vocalists are equally crappy, and apart from these one or two ballads, I wouldn't really know where to insert at least one word of praise. Avoid this at all costs.



Year Of Release: 1976

Among the most widely spread Myths and Legends of King Rick you can count the following: the guy's record company actually insisted that he drop all the hyper pretentious efforts of the past three albums and go back to something moderate and less extravagant. Either they were sensing the coming of the punk epoch or, more probably, their budget just couldn't stand up to all the pressures that arise when you regularly work with a full orchestra. So what does our friend, the witty sly son of a jackal, decide to do? Why, he just says one large fuck you. No Earthly Connection is easily the most pretentious and ballsy project Wakeman has ever gotten himself into. And he ably proves that he dusn't need no friggin' orchestras: the seven-piece English Rock Ensemble does all the job by itself.

Actually, while Rick himself might not have consciously realised it, the lack of orchestra is a big plus. It gives him and the band the perfect opportunity to concentrate on the meat of the compositions: the melodies, that is. Instead of having to sit down and write all kinds of pompous strings arrangements just to drown the music in waves and waves of sonic grandiosity, Rick now has to sit down and write all kinds of really memorable and meticulously created themes and ditties to compensate for the lack of the Big Sound.

Amazingly, he succeeds - as usual, I was greatly bored on first listen, but this was a false boredom. The worst enemy of this album isn't its being boring at all, but rather its tremendously overblown nature. Having tried to grapple my way through the lyrics once, I never tried doing it for the second time; it's all supposed to be about the mystical 'musical soul' which supposedly hasn't got no earthly connection, plus there are certain Atlantean motives scattered all around in big bunches, but I challenge you to tell me what it's all about. Never mind. Worse is the fact that the guy who does most of the singing (Ashley Holt, I suppose, the guy who did most of the vocals on earlier albums as well) is just abysmal. Completely unexpressive, artificial voice which gets even worse as long as he tries modulating it or simulating anger, admiration, reverence or any other kind of emotions. Makes me want to puke. Makes me want to call for Jon Anderson!

That said, I have to turn to the positive sides of the album. The first side is the enormous multi-part suite 'Music Reincarnate', more or less typical of Wakeman's style, but better than on the average, because Rick doesn't go as much for self-indulgent soloing as he goes for interesting and intriguing keyboard riffs, different moods and careful, minimalistic arrangements. If you manage not to pay attention to the lyrics and the worthless guy croaking 'em out, you'll find this somewhat of a Wakeman's analogy to Thick As A Brick: the sections include pretty ballads ('The Maker' part, the one where they keep chanting 'music of my soul, music of my soul'), energetic rockers (the second part of 'The Warning'), and raging corny melodrama ('The Realisation') which is nevertheless excellently written. You can see how Rick is desperately trying to retain his commercial flavour - the melodies are indeed accessible. All kinds of clever goodies... 'The Reaper' which concludes the suite actually kicks ass all along! Glorious pop anthem!

The second side is broken into two different compositions, both of which nevertheless continue the, ahem, 'ideas' of the first side. 'The Prisoner' is more melodrama, with a terrific 'you shall hang, you shall hang, YOU SHALL HANG' refrain that could be shiver-sending if only they had a different vocalist. As it is, I can only imagine it as shiver-sending, being also vastly aided by Rick's gloomy harpsichord. 'The Lost Cycle', on the other hand, is a rather timid way to finish off the record (less hooks and more pomp - the usual bane for Mr Rick), but it still works on some level at least. Yeah, it's definitely ironic that Wakeman, who left Yes because Yes were getting way too puffed-up, became far more puffed-up than Yes themselves (Tales From TO is little children games compared to the mystical bollocks of NEC), but whatever the case, it's still one of Rick's most easily accessible and most solidly written records.

Oh! What's that you're asking? Would I recommend that one? Now, now, you can't quote me on that...



Year Of Release: 1976

Wow, really nice! This, by all means, can be called the first relatively unpretentious solo album recorded by Rick, and needless to say, the music only gains from that. It isn't particularly special, and lacks both the epochal qualities of the "grand three" of 1973-75 and the solid melodic hooks of No Earthly Connection. But both of these flaws are compensated by the general good-naturedness and coziness of the music. White Rock is a fully instrumental record (so we don't have to hear that Ashley Holt dork inflicting illness on our ears), dedicated to the Winter Olympics that were held in 1976 at Innsbruck; I'm not sure whether any of these compositions were actually used for the Olympics or if the album was just supposed to commemorate the event postfactum, but who cares now? I mean, heck, ask a sportsman "Where were the Winter Olympics held in 1976?" and be prepared to wait a long time. (Better still, ask a sportsman: "Where's Innsbruck?" and be prepared to wait for an even longer time...).

All the compositions on here - and there are many this time - are more or less equally atmospheric, more or less original and more or less perfectly recorded. And Rick doesn't even use the entire band: it's just him, playing the usual array of pianos, organs and synthesizers, plus a drummer to add some rhythmic punch where it is necessary. Thus, the record is sorely stripped down, and this brings it closer to the listener. Good call. My favourite track, for purely psychological reasons, is the aptly titled 'Loser'. I mean, it was really nice of Rick to prepare something for the loser, wasn't it? The poor loser who always gets forgotten and lost in the roaring crowd that's only keen on the winner? Eh? Here we have track number three, 'The Loser', which is a very nice and emotionally resonant piece of gentle piano improvisation. And I suppose it's not a coincidence that the track comes right after the equally soothing 'Searching For Gold' (which features some nice female harmonies in addition) - it might be treated as some kind of personal story.

Other impressive highlights on here include 'The Shoot' - a magnificent aural impersonation of a sportsman in preparation, that reaches its culmination in some real "synth-shooting", and the gracious, solemn and measured 'Ice Run'. But really, I don't know how to speak of the record in terms of 'stylistic differentiation'. The mood is more or less the same, winterish, majestic and yet friendly and cozy at the same time, and the melodies aren't exactly hummable - and anyway, I don't have the least idea of why you should ever consider listening to White Rock over and over in order to memorize the melodies. It's just the kind of 'easy listening' album that's supposed to accompany an event rather than be self-contained. Even if it's as far from "ambient" as possible.

One big exception is the oddly-titled 'Montezuma's Run' which actually borrows from Central European folk dance motives instead of following the usual Wakeman 'neoclassical' formula. Why is it here? Why Montezuma? Why folk dances? Who knows? But boy am I ever happy it's here. It sounds hilarious. Rather like all those wild ELP excesses, you know? To tease the purists and amuse the illiterate. Count me an illiterate in this case. I won't disagree.

Anyway, for such a throwaway record it sure sounds more than adequate and deserves its three and a half stars. And remember, this is actually the first record on where you get Wakeman really playing solo, if that is what you wanted most. Wank, wank, wank! I love this goddamn record. After that, Wakeman felt he no longer felt safe alone and rejoined the old pals in Yes. Which didn't stop him from continuing his solo excesses, of course. Keep that studio away from that wanker! Save the population! Don't let the boring cheesy old piano people take over! Where's that ROCK'N'ROLL that smelled so sweet?

Sorry, that was the inner punk in me. He's a quiet little fella usually, but two Rick Wakeman records in a row are enough to wake him up for a moment. Guess I'll have to go put on some Noo Yoik Dolls instead.



Year Of Release: 1977

If you're only planning on getting one Rick Wakeman record - get this one. It'll definitely cost you some problems, seeing as Criminal Record seems to be almost completely out of print all over the world at the moment. But try to track it down anyway, and it will provide you with more insight into Rick's wonderful world than a whole bunch of his Eighties/Nineties stuff.

Not that it was that easy 'getting' into it, you know. I'm a rock'n'rollin' man meself, ya know? Hate all that pompous meaningless whacky gimmicky stuff. Gimme some good ol' Genesis or King Crimson instead (see the irony in me?). However, after a while you kinda start to realize: 'Okay, so what's so whacky pompous gimmicky about it?' Nothing. Unlike earlier albums that were thoroughly marinated in Rick's 'just-watch-me-synthesize-rock-and-classical' ambitions, or stuff like No Earthly Connection, which was musically satisfying but atmospherically disencouraging, Criminal Record is just a good, solid, normal album of classically influenced... er, wait, poppily-influenced classical. There. No gimmicks on here whatsoever - Rick shows enough restraint so the music never sounds dated. No stupid pomp either - sure, many of the passages are 'overblown' in a standard sense of the word (i.e. lush synth backgrounds, chorales, church organ, etc.), but they're overblown in a nice way.

I used to think that the record's main defect was in it not having any kind of 'central theme' - superficially, all of the tracks seem to deal with crime, law and justice, but you couldn't tell about it, apart from the track names (and 'Breathalyser', but that comes later). However, perhaps it's better that way? Let those who have ears hear, and draw their own interpretations. If they can, of course: Wakeman is no 'visionary' like Brian Eno, and it's hard for me to visualise his music the way I can deal with Eno. Still, I do feel inspired by lots of the stuff on this album, and I fully agree with those fans who claim Criminal Record to have been Wakeman's pinnacle. Finally, we see a 'prejudice-free' Rick, playing something he really wanted to do, in the way he wanted to do it, and - most significantly - playing it not in order to prove his greatness and uniqueness, but simply playing it because, well, it's good stuff.

Analyzing it is another matter, though. What can I really say? Six tracks, most of them instrumental. On the first side of the record Rick is actually backed by Chris Squire and Alan White, the trusty Yes partners; yet it never really sounds like Yes, because they're there to help rather than to show off themselves (there are some really nice basslines, of course, but that's about it), plus, there's no Howe, and what's a Yes without a serious guitar underpinning? 'Statue Of Justice' starts off things on a really high note, with a sparkling piano intro and an upbeat, punchy main part, with the trademark synth and organ battery in full battle array. A splendid arrangement, with the bass and drums working in perfect unison with Rick's cheerful handling of the keyboards. 'Crime Of Passion' continues in the same vein, albeit in a slightly more energetic vein (aka Chris Squire puts on some more fuzz and Rick plays more synths than organ). 'Chamber Of Horrors' gets my attention down a bit - I was expecting something spooky, and instead I just got more of the same upbeat neo-classical stuff. This is where the record definitely lags a bit - yet Rick punches it up some with the pretty 'Birdman Of Alcatraz', an uplifting solo piano number with a melody that almost painfully reminds me of some great pop classic but I just can't remember which one. Dammit, that's the downside of having assimilated so much music. Strange thing I haven't gone totally crazy by this time.

Anyway, what was I on? Oh yes, 'Birdman Of Alcatraz' is romantic and a little bit pensive at times, and if you wanna know, it really gives you the idea of flight. Just don't take that title that literally. 'The Breathalyser' comes next, and it's a total hoot - a nice relaxation from all the serious stuff. It has all these stupid quirky little jig passages and goofy sound effects, and it ends with a brilliant blues parody - some guy whom I don't know (I just hope it ain't Ashley Holt! I'd hate to praise that dude!) steps up to the mike and blurts out some lines about being stopped for DUI and being made to use the breathalyser and then 'I refused to give a bloodtest so they went and took the urine out of me. Whoah, ow, man, it's pissing'. I was all over the floor.

And, of course, in true Rick Wakeman spirit, it's immediately followed by the epic 'Judas Iscariot'. Keywords? Epic, long, church organ, chorales, catharsis, efficiency, effectiveness, and why hadn't this son of a bitch used the church organ that effectively during his Yes tenure. Gee, I like this record. I can't believe I really wanted to give it one star upon first listen. You never can tell with neo-classical, you know? It all depends on the attitude. I can easily visualise people saying 'gee, this is derivative, boring and stupid' (I began by saying that myself), but why spit poison all over this thing if you can just change the attitude and say 'this is complex, but restrained, well-written and well-performed, diverse and entertaining'? Let us find forces to applaud a solid piece of work if it has really been worked over.



Year Of Release: 1979

While derided by many fans as a silly throwaway album, Rhapsodies is in fact a perfect closing album for Wakeman's decade of extravagance. If you're one of those guys who treasures Arthur and Six Wives as evidence of Rick's thoroughly inhuman personality, you won't like Rhapsodies at all - but I personally find it thoroughly enjoyable. Over the course of a double, 15-track-filled and incredibly diverse album, we find old Sir Richard letting his hair down a bit, interpolating serious spiritual originals and covers with lots of good-time humour-and-fun stuff. It is rather lightweight, but there's nothing wrong with that, and actually, this function of Wakeman as an intelligent, tasteful "progressive clown" seems somewhat more adequate to me than his function of 'progressive god'. Come on now, even at his best Wakeman is little more than a talented interpretator of classical values - no sane connoisseur of classical music could say Rick actually improves on his predecessors or wildly pushes forward musical boundaries. So why not let him interpret these values in a fun key now?

So don't you be offended if a typical track on this album is Rick's presentation of one of the main themes from 'Swan Lake' which he carefully and convincingly arranges as a friggin' reggae number, with the main melody played in a one-finger-on-the-keyboard manner on a cheesy synth. It's goddamn hilarious, and called 'Swan Lager' at that (isn't that some kind of really existing beer brand mark?). Or his take on 'Rhapsody In Blue', which he arranges almost as a dance-pop number. The concept itself might sound a bit Vanessa Mae-ish, but wait until you really hear these tracks - it took a lot of work to work out those "surrealistic" arrangements and it's worth it just to hear that crazy squeakin' reggae guitar in 'Swan Lager', really.

But there's much more to the album than that... after all, ain't it double? Excuse me beforehand if I don't recognize some of the other compositions on here, or simply identify the borrowed themes - I'm no Rick Wakeman and actually, if I were a connoisseur of classics, I'm afraid some of the fun factor could be smeared in this occasion. As it is, I just get my kicks out of the weird melodies. 'Pedro da Gavea', for instance, employs a synthesized Bo Diddley-esque beat over which Wakeman dubs his ringin' Beethoven keyboard impersonations and other stuff (it's also the only track to feature some electronically encoded vocals). 'Bombay Duck' presents itself as an energetic punchy jig, based on sharp, meticulously worked-over keyboard lines from Rick that are actually catchy as hell - no, really, there's no way you could dismiss this as entirely lightweight, fillerish product when it's been given so much care.

'Animal Showdown' introduces some Latin rhythms, all again carefully shaped out on Rick's magic board; and stuff like 'Big Ben' is almost like an entire symphony squeezed into 4 minutes, with its mini-climaxes, rises and falls, and culminations including a total aural rave-up when the main fast synthesizer riff is further loaded with all kinds of weird 'aerial' special effects. 'Wooly Willy Tango' is a tango indeed. And 'March Of The Gladiators' includes maybe the wildest, most abrasive and chaotic (in a figurative sense, of course - Wakeman always controls whatever he plays) synth solo I've ever heard from the man. And 'Half Holiday' sounds like the blueprint for the 'Leisure Suit Larry' theme - dammit, if that don't convert you, you have no sense of humour left whatsoever, gentleman. Go listen to your Kansas records or sulk at your Monteverdi!

But wait, like I said, some pieces on here are actually quite serious, particularly the ones where Rick is just alone with his piano. 'The Palais', for instance, is a very nice two-and-a-half minute bit of piano improvisation that again has to do with Rick merging several styles in one (here Chopin-esque passages are meshed in with a few almost boogie-style runs). And it's hardly possible to call his - fully instrumental - reading of 'Summertime' as anything but gorgeous, with the traditional vocal melody we're so used to excellently substituted by tear-jerking piano rolls. As the closing number of the album, it is certainly a big hint at the thing that so many listeners tend to dismiss: there's but one small step from the parodical to the serious. And what's more, one needn't contradict each other.

Sadly, this album (with its "cheesy" cover featuring Rick in his white suit against a white mountain that has been ridiculed by many as ABBA-esque!) is, like so many of his predecessors, out of print and isn't going to return there any time soon. If you're interested in Wakeman, though, do try to track down an old copy. It's diverse, inventive as hell and - dare I say it? - practically never boring. Well, maybe just a little, simply because a double album of (even short) instrumental compositions like these can be a little hard to swallow, and thus some of the tracks do sound samey. But it's a real work of art all the same.


1984 ****

Year Of Release: 1981

The Eighties are upon us, yes, and it would be silly to present Mr Wakeman as somebody who has managed escaping their curse, but relax, these are just the early Eighties, and what a better way to enter them than with one's own musical interpretation of Orwell's "1984" epic? Yes, definitely you can find references to the book and even conceptual albums loosely based around the book by just about every rock star and his grandmother, too, but out of the ones I know, Rick Wakeman's presentation seems to be the most coherent and actually coordinated with the book.

It doesn't exactly follow the storyline note by note, of course, but it's really somewhat of a rock opera, with a cast of thousands to illustrate all the personages and every track dedicated to a certain moment/motive in the book. And the lyrics were actually written by no other than Tim Rice, the fabulous JC Superstar lyricist; the guy has always been known for being able to string up a competent set of sentences by merely paraphrasing the originals without making it sound like a damn plagiarism or parody, and the lyrics to 1984 are no exception: they don't sound forced, and they don't sound too different from what you'd expect, but they also don't sound dumb or exceedingly pretentious.

As for the music, it's typical Wakeman. I mean, formula-wise this essentially follows the principles of Rick's earlier conceptual albums, but substance-wise, this is more in line with the more structured and more diverse late Seventies work - so, in a certain sense, 1984 is the final point of a lengthy musical journey that benefits from all the good things Wakeman had learned to make through the decade and almost none of its bad things. Yes, some parts of the suite are rather dull, but they come off all right in the general scheme of things. Arguably this is where you should plant a full stop if you're not a rabid Wakeman fan; there's plenty more moments in Rick's later catalog that deserve attention, but they're spread over zillions of albums in a thoroughly inconsistent manner.

The symphonic 'Overture' opens the record in a terrific manner; in certain respects, this just might be Wakeman's most accomplished "rock-classical" fusion piece, both formally and substantially. The 'movements' flow in naturally and with ease, and whether it's a flock of soaring strings or a rumbly hard rock riff, somehow everything seems incredibly well thought-out and fitting. No self-indulgent interminable soloing here and no atmosphere for atmosphere's sake, just a bunch of great melodies one after another, alternately uplifting and scary, culminating in a simply gorgeous recorder bit at the beginning of the fifth minute. There's none of that Rhapsodies tongue-in-cheek atmosphere here that pisses off the diehards, but there's none of the unbearable phoney pretentiousness that ravages the sceptics either. It's just a perfectly assembled little piece; if things like those can't convince people how rock and classical can go hand in hand with each other, then I guess nothing probably will. Pathetic.

The songs/arias/performances themselves are relatively short (hey, the album's a single LP, what do you want? 1984 <> Close To The Edge!) and usually make their point well. And the supporting vocalists have been chosen wisely. Thus, Chaka Khan makes a great appearance on 'Julia', an operatic ballad that's perhaps far less luscious and emotionally complete than, uh, 'I Don't Know How To Love Him', but it's really moving in its own "colder" way. 'The Hymn', as befits the name, is of course sung by Jon Anderson, and he does a good job on that one. I'm not sure who's the whiny lead vocalist on 'Robot Man', but it sure is a great funky number, one of the 'roughest' on the entire record, with great guitar and bass work and Wakeman's beloved "talkbox-style" synths adding to the so much required 'roboticness' of the track. 'No Name' is sung by Steve Harley, which is really weird considering that he had all but resigned from the music scene at the point... and the funniest thing is that 'No Name' actually sounds like solo Steve Harley, with that basic slightly music-hall tinged, but in reality "rootsy" melody (until it starts shifting time signatures in the middle, of course) - was Wakeman allowing his guests a little "serious participation" here or what? Finally, for 'The Proles' Tim Rice makes an appearance on vocals himself. Ever heard Tim Rice singing? He's got a real thick Cockney accent and he really can't sing worth shit, but it's still kinda funny. Well, actually, the song requires a really crude vocalist, what with the 'we're the underlings, the vulgar common herd' chorus and all, so in the end, it works. And by the end of the tune, you can proudly proclaim to be one of the few mortals who've heard Tim Rice open his mouth.

Of course, huge emphasis also lies on the instrumentals, most of which qualify, particularly the dramatic multi-part 'The Room (Brainwash)' and the ending, uhm, 'underture' in the title track. I will not describe them because multiple actions of a similar manner have been taken in previous reviews - but you can take my word that most of this stuff is highly entertaining. Yeah! Good job, Mr Wakeman! Too bad you didn't keep it up for the next 15,700 albums.


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