February 14, 2023

There are not many artists that could try so many different styles and moods in one album and come up trumps in all of them, and yet that is exactly what Wakeman manages to do here. It’s an incredible reflection on the skills of the man.

January 1973 saw the release of Rick Wakeman’s first solo album, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII.  Fifty years and what must be 100+ albums later, Wakeman is not only still going strong, but regularly reaching the charts as he once did in his ‘70s heyday. To the delight of many fans, he even returned to a purely progressive rock format in his highly acclaimed 2020 release The Red Planet. For this new album, he is again joined by The English Rock Ensemble and with them delivers a broad array of musical styles, including but not limited to prog this time. Wakeman is no stranger to creating music in different musical genres but in composing the pieces for this album, that variety was so marked that it created the risk of a lack of overall coherence. The way out of the conundrum was clever and goes back to Wakeman’s first piano teacher, a Mrs Symes, who taught the young Rick that music was like painting pictures. She made him play pieces eyes-closed, allowing him to conjure up pictures in his head. From that, it was a short step for Wakeman to envisage having a musical gallery rather than an art gallery with each song representing a picture in the gallery. Hence, the invitation is for listeners to paint their own mental picture for each song, and that explains both the clever album title and the ingenious cover showing several blank canvases. It’s a neat idea for sure and manages to miraculously create a concept album out of totally unrelated pieces of music! ELP fans might baulk at the similarities of that cover to the Pictures At An Exhibition album, even if the logic of the blank canvases is different (the original paintings by Victor Hartmann which Mussorgsky immortalised in music have since been mostly lost, so in that case Mussorgsky’s music can be seen as a prop to help us imagine the original paintings).    

Wakeman, grumpy no longer! (Photo: Lee Wilkinson)

You might expect that A Gallery Of The Imagination would be totally instrumental. After all, that would in theory give free rein to the listener’s imagination.  But instead, eight of the twelve pieces are accompanied by the human voice, so we have some indication of what was in Wakeman’s mind when creating them. Let’s look first though at the four purely instrumental tracks. Two of these, called The Creek and Just A Memory, are solo piano pieces, both of which are typical examples of Wakeman’s classical style with strong melodies played on the right hand, and the left hand bustling away to provide depth and harmony. The Creek is a delightful composition, simple but relaxed and serene. Just A Memory seems a little more wistful, as if unsure as to whether the memory is totally positive or instead mixed with a dose of nostalgia. Of the two instrumentals with the full band, the opener Hidden Depths also begins with classical piano, this time with weightier and more dramatic tone that the two solo piano pieces, but within a minute the band enter and the song rocks along energetically with plenty of good guitar touches from Colquhoun and the inevitable keyboard flourishes from Wakeman.  At times this track feels like a continuation of The Red Planet and it’s certainly a good rousing way to open the album. The second piece for the band is The Dinner Party, a raucous musical romp with a very catchy synth phrase holding it together. Paint whatever picture you like but I’d be surprised if many of you opted for some polite bourgeoisie gathering rather than a chaotic liquid-driven celebration. Hidden Depths at just over four minutes is the longest of these four instrumental pieces, but despite their brevity, they all pack a strong punch and are great entertainment.

(Photo : Lee Wikinson)

Let’s move on and look at the two songs with vocal accompaniment which are so musically explicit that they tend to put your imagination in a straight jacket. The first of these is Cuban Carnival, a recollection of Wakeman’s own visit to that island. Wakeman does successfully tick the box here of creating a generic Caribbean festive atmosphere, even if to these ears the horn refrain sounds more like a Mexican mariachi from Cancun than something from Havana. It’s a rather superficial song but that is not a term that would apply to A Day Spent On The Pier which is clearly much more heartfelt. This was written with Wakeman’s own childhood memories of seaside visits in mind, with the pier in question being that at Southsea. It has a lovely lilting rhythm and a childlike simplicity in its melody, matched by the lyrics which dwell on simple but memorable seaside experiences (‘can you get the toy out with the crane’ will surely puzzle Gen Z listeners!). For those of us who were children before mass tourism and the discovery of the Costa del Sol, this delightful song will brilliantly evoke those big days out from our childhood.

The Super Deluxe Limited Edition with 2 LPs, CD, DVD and a 24 page booklet

The vocals on the album are courtesy of Hayley Sanderson. If, like me, you don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing on TV, then the name might be new, but apparently, she is well known as a singer on that TV show. In Cuban Carnival and A Day Spent On The Pier, Sanderson barely needs to get out of first gear vocally, but listen to The Visitation and you get to hear her in turbocharge! The song opens with edgy bubbling keyboards – more like Anathema than what you’d expect from Wakeman – before Sanderson enters in a high register before managing to soar even higher, all of a sudden sounding remarkably like Kate Bush. Another fantastic moment is the way last line of singing merges with a lovely burst of organ and Moog. The edgy atmosphere then returns to close the loop for this the most progressive piece on the album.  

For me, the heart of the album is in the three slightly longer pieces that share a similar dreamlike atmosphere. All of them would sound at home on the West End stage, and Hayley Sanderson’s vocal performance on all three is outstanding. They are not straight stage songs though, so for example in The Man In The Moon, there are strong prog touches in a brilliant Wakeman solo and the use of the choir, and there’s clever use of acoustic guitar and organ in the moody A Miracle In The Clouds. My Moonlight Dream at almost seven minutes is the longest track on the album and perhaps the standout too. Its gorgeous melody is delivered at snail pace speed and Sanderson’s vocal delivery is totally compelling, as are the lengthy solos from Wakeman and the short guitar solo from Colquhoun. It reminded me of Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, not in its sound but more in the epic effect of the slow pace.  

Two relatively straight forward ballads – Only When I Cry and The Eyes Of A Child – make up the twelve tracks on offer here. So, let’s just recap, shall we: we have two classical instrumental pieces, two band instrumental romps, two ballads, two upbeat band numbers; one prog piece and three stage songs! There are not many artists that could try so many different styles and moods in one album and come up trumps in all of them, and yet that is exactly what Wakeman manages to do here. It’s an incredible reflection on the skills of the man. Yes, all in all, these twelve pieces are a perfect gallery of the imagination, and the only thing that isn’t hard to imagine is the album being high up in the charts.