There are always things which are anticipated just a little bit more than the norm. Some of these are overwhelmingly successful (Deep Purple’s reunion with Perfect Strangers, for example, or Bruce Dickinson’s return to Iron Maiden), while others are markedly less so (the Genesis ‘reboot’ with Calling All Stations, or David Gilmour’s intensely underwhelming Rattle That Lock). Others take so long being wheeled out that nobody ends up caring, but we’ll leave Guns ‘n’ Roses out of this. Of all these, though, one of the biggest examples for prog fans who were raised on Rick Wakeman’s 1970s output must surely be this, his return to a pure prog rock full-band instrumental album. When there are so many people lighting up the internet with eager chatter about something it can be a double edged sword, though, as a failure to deliver can so easily see the result deposited into the remainder bins and looked back on scornfully. Rest assured, eager reader, that such is certainly not the case here, as the years have been Rick Rolled back to the heady days of this album’s spiritual forebears, The Six Wives Of Henry The Eighth and Criminal Record, and blow me if this isn’t standing up toe to toe against those revered recordings!
True to form though, he’s not done it the easy way. The art of writing and performing music without vocals to evoke a concept has been done in various forms for a long, long time, and the ease of making it work can depend a lot on the subject matter to be conjured. For instance, if you’re going to write music to capture events and locations in Tolkien’s writing, as Bo Hansson did with his Lord Of The Rings album, people are going to have their mind’s eye pictures of what you’re going for just from the titles. Going back much further, when Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his famous piece Sinfonia Antarctica, he was pretty much on a winner as long as he made it sound cold. Now, fast forward to the task Rick has set himself. He’s effectively saying to his audience ‘okay guys, I’ve come up with eight pieces here which musically represent eight Martian landmarks. You’ve never seen them and you’ve most likely never heard of them. Oh, and they’re in Latin’, which immediately gives you an uphill task. With no mental starting point for the listener, you’re damn well going to have to make sure the music works on its own terms, right out of the box. happily for Rick, The Red Planet does just that.
A long-term devotee of space travel, and the planet Mars in particular, Rick Wakeman is different to most of us in that he actually keeps the company of genuine astronauts, so it’s no surprise that his imagination was fired by the subject enough to make it the launch pad (pun apologetically intended) for this landmark album. Straight away with the first track, Ascraeus Mons, the album’s stall is set out as the piece is by his own admission intended as an ‘overture’ of sorts. The familiar keyboard sounds from Rick’s impressive arsenal are all delightfully present and correct, and the variety and drama of the track lets you know straight away what sort listening you’re in for over the next 55 minutes. One thing that leaps to mind immediately is the relief that the album has been recorded now and not, say, 30 years ago, because if it had, then it would in all probably have been blighted by that most hideous of all ’80s curses, the Drum Machine. This first track banishes that thought so forcefully that it actually occasions a sigh of satisfaction when, at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, drummer Ash Soan produces such a big, meaty and downright organic sound that you find yourself mentally going ‘Ahh! There it is…’, like sinking into a hot bath. It’s real, living and breathing music, and it’s wonderful to hear. In fact, the way the whole album was recorded is remarkable, in that Rick himself wrote all of the basic material on the keyboards and sent those initial recordings out, ’round robin’ style, to first dummer Soan, then bassist Lee Pomeroy and guitarist Dave Colquhoun, before then reviewing the results. He made it clear that he chose the musicians because of their longevity with him, and the fact that they would instinctively know exactly what he wanted, and he was dead right, because to listen to the album it sounds so much of a group effort that you would think they had sat down in the studio and planned the parts. Remarkable, really.
The eight pieces are somehow all different and unique, while still simultaneously possessing that familiar Wakeman stamp running through them. Second track, Tharsis Tholus, couldn’t be any more ‘old school’ Wakeman if it came with a photograph of Hogwarts, while The North Plain throws a curve ball by employing some harder. more angular sounds and textures on the keyboards, bringing Keith Emerson to mind at times (Emerson in Yes? Rick in ELP? The mind races). South Pole is a delightfully expansive and evocative piece containing some lovely mellotron flute, with the piece based on a southern plain and not, as one’s brain tries to insist, a frozen wasteland! What comes through here strongly is that, while Rick’s beloved sonic tricks, bubbling synths and fleet-fingered solos may sound familiar, they never sound over-used, precisely because this purely proggy musical terrain is sparingly mined by him: out of over a hundred albums he has recorded, there can be no more than half a dozen which are both instrumental and similarly arranged, so nothing has been overdone or overplayed.
When things come up which call to mind beloved recordings though, the effect is wonderfully heart-warming. Arsis Mons is one such example of this, with uptempo, aggressive sections which bring to mind the stirring, churning The Battle from Journey To The Center Of The Earth – though it doesn’t stay there, as things speed up dramatically before coming to an abrupt halt with a scrape of the guitar strings and going into a slow, reflective section, before the pattern is repeated. I must confess that this was one piece which puzzled me with its relation to the title, as one thing mountains are generally not renowned for is their abrupt change of pace! Special mention must go to the closing track, the ten-minute Valles Marineres, which brings a definite touch of the epic to proceedings with its repetitive, building rhythmic phrase. Originally conceived as a Bolero type composition intended for Rick’s Jon Anderson-Trevor Rabin team-up in ARW, it certainly carries echoes of Ravel’s famous piece, but there is far more to it than the build-up, and it stretches out to use all of the talents in the band to the full.
Praise must go to Dave Colquhoun throughout, actually, as his guitar work is impeccably restrained, and performed largely as textural contributions giving the music exactly what it needs without any desire to overplay. However, when required to, he proves himself able to produce a fiery guitar solo with surgical precision just where it can be the most effective. Overall, the band (dubbed as of old ‘The English Rock Ensemble’) are magnificent. If you happen to be one of those who has wavered over this release, wondering whether it can live up to those expectations, then don’t, and yes, it can. There is also a wealth of facts, photos and information about Mars and the history of the missions there in the accompanying booklet, which is an unexpected source of interest. If you happen to be one of those Pub Quiz enthusiasts who have long scored historical points based on knowledge of the Six Wives album, here’s some more of the same!
Essentially, at almost five decades since the first Wakeman solo album was released, this record has no right to sound as vibrant, fresh and downright exciting as it does. Thankfully, any reservations have been emphatically shattered. Joyous and unrestrained, this will be in many people’s Album Of The Year lists for sure.