Sit back and enjoy rediscovering this fruitful artistic collaboration between two prog giants!
I don’t know about you, but I am a little bit tired of listening to re-releases of albums where the only novelty is the inclusion of added remixes which leaves any but the most ardent fan struggling to detect any difference. This three-CD set therefore comes as a breath of fresh air because not only does it reproduce the two rock operas released by the two keyboard wizards in 1999 and 2002 but it adds the core of what was intended as the third piece to complete a loose trilogy – no, not as a bunch of poor quality demo tapes, I hasten to point out, but as freshly recorded new tracks for this release including very probably the best tracks in the entire set. As well as the fabulous music, we get a sixteen-page booklet for each of the three pieces (with brilliant artwork by Peter Pracownik), plus individual art prints of the three covers, so it all adds up to a tremendously interesting package. And if you want to know even more interesting facts about this release then you need go no further than Velvet Thunder’s recent interview with Oliver Wakeman.
Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman are of course two of the most familiar names in progressive rock and need no introduction here. Nevertheless, back in 1999, that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, Nolan had already been in Pendragon for more than a decade, and Arena for four years, but this was his first dive into the rock opera format that would flourish later in his own career with his own rock opera She as well as two full blown musicals (Alchemy and King’s Ransom). Oliver instead was still really just the son of his father with his only release being the 1997 solo effort Heaven’s Isle. So, in many ways this release allows us to look back at the early development of the young Wakeman and the first exploration of the rock opera field by Nolan.
When we think of Victorian times then one of the strongest images is of gas lights struggling to illuminate dark and foggy city streets. It’s therefore fitting that this compilation is entitled Tales By Gaslight because the three stories are all based on Victorian literature: Jabberwocky (a poem by Lewis Carroll); Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes classic The Hound Of The Baskervilles; and the third incomplete piece based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Jabberwocky was perhaps a bizarre choice for their debut in 1999. It is a very short poem – a mere seven short stanzas full of childish invented words – about a young boy who overcomes his fear to kill the monster that goes by the name of Jabberwock, thus endearing him to his beloved young girl, with whom he presumably lives happily ever after. This light-hearted story is beefed up a good deal by Nolan And Wakeman with the Overture being filled with dramatic and lush keyboard themes, not dissimilar to the approach used by Wakeman Senior in King Arthur. While Nolan’s keyboards are excellent, he doesn’t really step too far out of the shadow of dad and the similarities in style are almost uncanny sometimes. The influence of dad seems to extend to one of the main themes which is remarkably similar to a descending theme from No Earthly Connection (if you are familiar with that piece, it is the theme usually accompanied by the vocal line ‘wait, wait, look at the sun’). I always thought it was one of Rick Wakeman’s most inspired themes so no qualms about Oliver being influenced by that one. Other serious and dramatic sounding elements include two tracks where vocals are chanted by a chorus in Latin or in Italian. There are also spoken sections (again courtesy) of a very serious sounding Rick Wakeman. Offsetting this are some more humorous moments such as the beginning and close of Dangerous World which sounds a lot like a pantomime piece. The middle section of the same song is instead quite serious prog music and this mixing of styles neatly reflects the mood of the poem.
As you might guess, the album is awash with keyboards, but our keyboard duo do not trip over each other’s proverbial toes (or fingers). As Wakeman explained in the Velvet Thunder interview ‘Though Clive and I are both keyboard players, we’re both quite different types of writers. And in fact we’re both different types of keyboard players. So we actually bring almost four different facets to it, which is two different keyboard styles and two different writing styles.’ While keyboards dominate, they are accompanied by an impressive list of guest artists including the late Peter Banks who contributes some fine guitar touches with the solo in Enlightenment standing out for me. That made me re-evaluate his status as simply The-Guitarist-Prior-To Steve-Howe-in-Yes. Vocals are from a very impressive team including Bob Catley and the superb Tracy Hitchings. All in all, it makes for pleasant listening throughout in what is in many ways a quintessentially English album. The only rock opera that comes to my mind as sharing the mood of this piece is The King Of Elfland’s Daughter by Steeleye Span stalwarts Bob Johnson and Peter Knight.
Three years later, our duo returned with their second rock opera, this time the subject being The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Spoken sections are now courtesy of actor Robert Powell whose perfect English diction is ideal here. Needless to say, the humorous elements have been dropped in the face of a serious and sinister story. Similarly, while it is again a keyboard heavy album, the lush and jocular elements of Jabberwocky give way to much more drama. The overture for example is dark and the use of the organ gives it a slight Phantom Of The Opera feel at times. The guest list has grown even longer on this album with Peter Banks being joined by both Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen and Karl Groom from Threshold. There are no credits on the album so it can be fun guessing who is contributing which guitar pieces but in the Velvet Thunder interview Wakeman reveals that it was Lucassen playing the solos on Shadows Of Fate and Seldon (two of the heavier tracks and therefore well suited to Lucassen’s more metal sound), and Groom furnished the short but blistering solo towards the end of Run For Your Life.
Standout tracks include The Argument which has a stunning melody sung initially by Catley but returning gloriously in unison with Tracy Hitchings at the climax and Waiting which again has a wonderful vocal phrase sung by Hitchings (to the words ‘set me loose’). These two songs are characterised by three voices that interweave effectively and would certainly fit well into many a West End musical (Les Miserables comes to mind). In comparison with Jabberwocky, The Hound Of The Baskervilles is a little more safer and predictable but it’s best moments are more impressive. Lyrically, while Jabberwocky needed fleshing out from the original short poem, the challenge with Conan-Doyle’s novel was the opposite: how to tell a relatively complex story concisely. Nolan admits in the album notes that this proved difficult, and they ended up having to simply turn one of the tracks into mostly narrative (Death On The Moor)!
To the third disc then, Dark Fables, and we get yet another wealth of talent in a supporting role including Gordon Giltrap, Paul Manzi (Arena) and Andy Sears (Twelfth Night). Wakeman Senior makes an appearance too reciting the full Jabberwocky poem which is the only piece here related to that first opus. We do get three tracks which didn’t make the cut on The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Two of these are two keyboard-based instrumentals entitled 221B and The Baker Street Irregulars, both of which are jaunty upbeat tracks that in canine terms seem closer to Scooby-Doo than slathering hounds! The third of these tracks though is a fine piece entitled The Man Called Sherlock which has enough bombast and good music to make one regret it not being part of the original release. Then we get the really interesting stuff: the eight newly recorded songs that would have formed part of the Frankenstein rock opera. Musically, the usual trademarks are there: a pompous overture, a couple of ballads and some more upbeat rock efforts with plenty of keyboards of course, all given a modern sheen. There are two real gems that stand out for me, not only amongst the Frankenstein material, but within the whole three CD set. The first of these is The Mirror, a ballad penned and finely sung by Nolan with one of those leisurely and anthemic melodies that Nolan is so good at churning out. The second is a Wakeman composition called The Wedding Approaches which opens with a very different soundscape – quiet piano with some exquisitely tender acoustic guitar courtesy of Gordan Giltrap and violin from Trim Nunes. The magic continues with the entry of the ethereal voice of Charlotte Dickerson who carries the song to a gentle but emotional climax, always accompanied by the intricate sounds of piano, acoustic guitar and violin. Wakeman might have written the song but it’s the musicians around him and especially the superb Dickerson that turn a good song into a great one. Listening to this new material certainly left me a bit frustrated that they never had time to flesh out the full story because Frankenstein might well have been the best of the trilogy. But, no point dwelling on what might have been – just sit back and enjoy rediscovering this fruitful artistic collaboration between two prog giants!