Kronomyth 1.0: LADIES MAN. Soon after joining Yes, Rick Wakeman was approached by A&M co-founder Jerry Moss to record a solo album. Wakeman, who had been toying with the idea of writing music based on the book The Private Life of Henry VIII, began sketching out pieces around the personalities of Henry and his six wives (the music for Henry himself was later scrapped). Thus began a love affair between English history and keyboard prog that continues to this day for Wakeman and his fans. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is possibly the single greatest keyboard prog album ever written. Every song plays out like a rollercoaster of emotion and adventure, infused with humor and humantiy and featuring an array of keyboards that are perfectly woven into complex, full-bodied arrangements. Every time I listen to this album, it brings me joy. Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and the rest of these storied ladies arrive like old friends. While the earlier “Cans And Brahms” (from Fragile) was a pleasant enough diversion, The Six Wives of Henry VIII fully reveals the genius of Rick Wakeman for the first time. Although it’s my favorite of the Yes solo records (Olias of Sunhillow is a close runner-up), Six Wives actually sounds more like a Yes/ELP hybrid. Wakeman and Emerson are both sonic architects/saboteurs who can create grand cathedrals of sound and dismantle them in an instant with humor. It’s a process that Wakeman repeats with breathtaking ease on Six Wives, so that, despite the sheer number of notes on this record, each has its proper place. Yes fans and the comparatively smaller number of Strawbs fans will no doubt pore over the musicians’ credits with interest. In the honorable mention department, Alan White is terrific on this album, and the cameos from Dave Cousins and Dave Wintour are also highlights. The album was released in a quadraphonic stereo mix that was later appended to the Deluxe Edition reissue.
Kronomyth 1.0: DWARVES OF SLEEP. It takes more than a great guitarist to make a great album, but a good album? Oh, Beginnings is that and a little more. As Howe was one of the principal architects of Yes, it’ll come as no surprise that the songs on Beginnings recall that band more than anything. In fact, Alan White, Bill Bruford and Patrick Moraz even lend a hand in the proceedings. The surprise is that Steve Howe sings. A lot. More than he should have, really. Suffice to say that his vocal range dwarfs in comparison to Jon Anderson, as the words “sleepy” and “bashful” come to mind in describing it. (It must be something about English prog guitarists, as Howe, Hackett, Hillage and Andy Latimer all sounded like they’d just quaffed half a bottle of Nyquil.) Despite some inspired passages, the songs on Beginnings suffer from the too-quick transition from one idea to another, which may be a carryover from the more-is-more aesthetic of Tales From Topographic Oceans. And so Beginnings is an album by a sleepy-voiced progressive rock guitarist that throws a lot of ideas at the wall hoping some will stick. A few do, none stickier than “Lost Symphony,” which might be the cutest Yes solo song this side of “Don’t Forget (Nostalgia).” Then there’s the pastoral classical piece (“Beginnings”) that reminds me of The Snow Goose, an instrumental featuring members of Gryphon (“The Nature of the Sea”) and a second dose of The Clap (“Ram”), all of it good and none of it featuring Steve Howe’s voice. Which isn’t to say that he’s an awful vocalist, but we Yes fans are a jaded lot after Jon Anderson, and Beginnings only offers the spacey lyrics without the celestial voice. If you enjoy music that works on a conceptual level, better to begin with Olias, Six Wives, Flash or Story of I. You’ll get around to Beginnings (and Fish Out of Water) eventually because of what they are: an alternate route through the land of legendary high adventure known as Yes.
Worried that Ramshackled is a boondoggle? Relax. Alan White’s first (and only) solo album garnered its share of criticism, both from critics (because it was associated with Yes) and Yes fans (because it didn’t sound enough like Yes). But remembering for the moment that White had only been with Yes a short while, his music naturally draws equally from past employers such as John Lennon, Gary Wright and Joe Cocker. It’s an eclectic mix, sampling soul, rock, jazz, classical and even a little reggae (on the pleasant trifle, “Silly Woman”). You could say the same about Steve Howe’s Beginnings or the side of music Carl Palmer contributed to ELP’s Works Volume One. Ramshackled isn’t as good as all that, with White ceding the songwriting to his old Griffin bandmates Ken Craddock, Colin Gibson and Pete Kirtley. (Not to be confused with the Gryphon that supported Howe on his first album.) If Ramshackled fails, it’s because the rest of Yes were talented musicians with a vision. White might just as well have gone fishing during Yes’ hiatus. Instead, he recorded this low-key album of songs, including a few (“Avakak,” “Song of Innocence”) that tap into Yes’ vibe. Ramshackled’s great sin may be that Yes fans, who were curious for a window into what made White tick, know as little about his muse now as they did before. The revealing science of percussion it isn’t, but approaching this with realistic expectations will go a long way toward appreciating Ramshackled for what it is: a solo album from a ‘70s session drummer who had only recently hitched up with Yes.
Kronomyth 2.0: THE SIX WIRES OF STEVEN THE GREAT. Steve’s second solo album follows the format of his first, minus the singing (hooray!), with rapid-fire ideas rendered in musical rapture. The attendant kronomyth is a nod to the notion that this and Wakeman’s Six Wives are analogous in their relation to their creator’s muse as their most musical expressions. The Steve Howe Album is also a remarkably good-humored record. The guitar lines in Yes often leapt with joy, and you can hear the source of that joy on this record: “Pennants,” “Cactus Boogie,” “Diary of a Man Who Vanished,” “The Continental.” You could also hear it on “The Clap,” which again gets a kind of reprise on “Meadow Rag,” much as “Ram” before it. While nothing on here is as insidiously tuneful as “Lost Symphony,” “All’s A Chord” is awfully close and marks the only occasion on TSHA when Steve sings. A cameo from Claire Hamill on “Look Over Your Shoulder” is a tasteful addition, inviting comparison to the work of Renaissance (due to a dearth of female prog singers and my general laziness in these matters). The album closes with not one but two classical pieces: “Double Rondo” and a reverent version of Vivaldi’s “Concerto In D (2nd Movement).” Steve pulls out all of the stops (and an impressive stringed arsenal) on The Steve Howe Album, making this record a real showcase for his talents as a player and composer. Beginnings may be the better place to begin simply because it was Steve’s first solo record, and a very good one at that, but this is the Steve Howe album to play for your friends, if only because you won’t have to defend his questionable singing.
Last episode I lichen’d this to the “ennervated” arrangements of Going For The One. That’s right; I not only used the word incorrectly, I spelled it wrong. So if you’re still sticking around to read this, you’ve only got yourself to blame. I keep coming back to this album because of its interesting chambers. The brooding “Judas Iscariot” complete with pipe organ and chorus, has all the heady manner of a major opus (like, say, the opening to The Phantom of the Opera musical, ahem). The furious “Statue of Liberty,” with its mad genius multitracking and complex counterpoint from Chris Squire, has all the earmarks of inspiration. The musical rollercoaster ride, “Chamber of Horrors,” too. Those three tracks, plus the participation of Squire and Alan White, render a favorable verdict for Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record. (Man, that is so lame.) Yes fans are bound to take note, but comparing this to a Going For The One or Tormato isn’t helpful. Wakeman indulged his classical fantasies on his own records, something he was reigned in from doing with Yes. True, he trotted out the church organ on “Parallels” and “Awaken,” both he didn’t write those songs. To date, Wakeman’s records provided a consistent, different experience than Yes: quasi-classical interpretations of historical or literary themes, full of fustian steam and despite occasional lapses of judgment (“The Breathalyser”) oftentimes very effective. Wakeman was merely a member of Yes, but he is the sun, moon and stars of his own works. Fans will probably move in chronological order through his catalog: wives, journey, myths, connection, criminal (lisztomania and white rock are usually asterisked as commissioned works). All five are worth hearing, worth owning, worth admiring if only for their creator’s unwillingness to blanch at his own excess, a true sign of the progressive spirit if ever there was. Fortunately, Wakeman has the chops and the vision to meet his creations midway, providing much entertaining music in the bargain.