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 2.0: WHAT IN EARTH? You can pinpoint the exact moment where progressive rock jumps the icthyosaurus on this album. It occurs when Wakeman punctures his high-flying balloon of orchestra, choir and rock with narrator David Hemming’s reading of Verne’s actual text from the book. It’s not the only cringe-worthy moment on the album. For example, in trying to match the literary description of the novel, Garry Pickford-Hopkins is forced to sing “Silurian epoch hosts me as my grave / My final blow I wave / A life too late to save” and the English Chamber Choir is given the unenviable task of making “Crocodile teeth, lizard’s head, bloodshot eye stained ocean red” sound like high art rather than something a trio of witches might mumble over a potion. Where Six Wives was brilliantly stitched together, Journey shows shoddy workmanship in the arrangements; near the end of the work, Wakeman inexplicably nicks Grieg’s “In The Hall of the Mountain King” to move things along. Is staging a live musical adaptation of Jule Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” ambitious? Absolutely. Is it admirable? Sure. It is effective? Not at all. In fact, from a musical perspective, I see this as a monumental failure. A failure that sold millions of copies and topped the charts, so I doubt that Wakeman, his label or many of his fans see it that way. There are some salvageable moments, such as the rock songs encased in “The Battle” and the music following the creation of the Hansbach. If Wakeman had realized this work as a succession of songs rather than a continuous text, it could have been quite good. History, if it hasn’t lost its spectacles, will likely view this a quixotic venture from an idealistic age or the poster child for prog’s grandiloquence.
Kronomyth 3.0: HIT OR MYTH. Another extravagantly packaged concept album that continues Wakeman’s journey into English historical fiction, although you really wish he would stop taking Ashley Holt along on these adventures. The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table (of Ulm) was released days before Monty Python and the Holy Grail in what was clearly a springtime revival for Arthurian legend. Although some listeners preferred his last Journey, I’ve always thought this was the better album. Myths and Legends doesn’t get too bogged down in storytelling and does a much better job of integrating the choir and orchestra into the arrangements (for which, I suppose, Will Malone deserves a lot of the credit). The marriage of synthesizers and strings is still an unnatural alliance at times; in some ways, Wakeman was a victim of the limitations of electronic technology in the Seventies. (And in another, more meaningful way, I suppose we’re all victims.) What I enjoy most about Myths and Legends is that each of these songs are self-standing works. There are no narrative interruptions (in fact, I have no idea why Wakeman felt the need to introduce this album with a narrator, unless it was just to scare us), and every song has a principal theme that is strong enough to support six minutes (more or less) of music. There are a few missteps, like the bizarre hoedown in the middle of “Merlin The Magician” or the island infusion in “Sir Galahad,” but otherwise a lot of Myths could pass for Henry’s Missus. “The Last Battle” could even pass for vintage Yes in spots, with vocals that are clearly patterned after Jon Anderson’s wordless patter. Despite its pretentious packaging, including orchestra and choir in tow, Myths and Legends is surprisingly easy to swallow. African or European.
Kronomyth 3.5: THE REICH-Y HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Ken Russell’s gonzo Lisztomania is a polarizing film; you either love it or you hate it. I thought it was brilliant, but my tastes tend to lean toward the unconventional. The film starred Roger Daltrey and featured a musical score of famous Wagner and Liszt themes adapted and arranged by Rick Wakeman. In a move of inspired economy, Daltrey lends his golden voice to several songs in the film, and Wakeman makes a cameo on screen as a golden warrior. Both the film and the score are way over the top, but you need to approach them with a sense of humor and adventure. Unfortunately, critics can be a humorless lot sometimes. I think Lisztomania is a work of art, and Wakeman’s score artfully reproduces the grandiose styles of Liszt and Wagner in a contemporary rock setting. Is it as inspired as The Six Wives of Henry VIII? No, it isn’t. But Daltrey is a vast improvement over Ashley Holt, and Wakeman is working with some pretty impressive material here (Liszt, Wagner). I would rank “Dante Period” with the best of Wakeman’s instrumental bits, and the songs with Daltrey (“Love’s Dream,” “Peace At Last,” “Orpheus Song,” “Funerailles”) are as good as anything that appeared on the generally less maligned McVicar. The other vocal tracks, “Hell” (featuring Linda Lewis) and “Excelsior Song” (Paul Nicholas), are much stranger and intentionally less sentimental, dark where Liszt’s voice (Daltrey) is light, which is by design. If the film turned you off, then the soundtrack probably isn’t a sound investment. Both are in questionable taste (which most people could deduce from the giant penis on the album cover). Maybe your world already has too many freaks, frankensteins and goosestepping gestapo agents in it already, but mine doesn’t (at Liszt not yet, although I understand the powers that be are working on it).
Kronomyth 4.0: THE MASSY GATES OF PARADISE ARE THROWN WIDE OPEN, AND FORTH COME IN FRAGMENTS WILD SWEET ECHOES OF UNEARTHLY MELODIES. Rick Wakeman jumped the shark on Journey to the Center of the Earth. On No Earthly Connection, he jumps Stonehenge. Even by prog’s permissive standards, this is indulgent nonsense, purporting to be “based on a future, autobiographical look at music, the part it plays in our pre-earth, human and afterlife.” And yet, among Wakeman records, No Earthly Connection is a musically rich endeavor. It requires no small amount of faith, but in exchange you’ll be treated to a fantastic journey of sights, sounds and some surprisingly passable singing from Ashley Holt. Again, I’m reminded of the best parts of Journey (i.e., the songs) distilled and strung together into a proper album of music. The English Rock Ensemble had swelled to a solid supporting troupe, now featuring John Dunsterville on guitars, Roger Newell on bass and an actual horn section of sorts in Martyn Shields (trumpet) and Reg Brooks (trombone). Financial pressures would shrink the Ensemble with time, but on No Earthly Connection it might be said that Wakeman had his best support since Yes. The albums from Rick Wakeman through Criminal Record are ambitious and impressive, few moreso than No Earthly Connection. In fact, this may be The English Rock Ensemble’s finest moment, if you care. The array of keyboards from Wakeman also plays out nicely; no Birotronic mishaps here. Go in with an open mind and open ears, and you’ll make a connection with this album.
Snow easy feat to write engaging program music for a sports event, but if Wakeman could dispatch six wives, a king and the Earth’s core, how much trouble could a movie and some moguls give him? White Rock was conceived as a marriage of video and music to celebrate the 1976 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, a forerunner of the “natural” videos that Tangerine Dream and others would release in later years. The instrumental compositions from Wakeman are purportedly inspired by film footage of various events (“Ice Run,” “The Shoot”), which always struck me as a lame source of inspiration. But he doesn’t take the challenge at face value, instead writing the same sort of keyboard compositions that turned up on Six Wives and Criminal Record. The music isn’t as complex as those works, as Wakeman doesn’t have the English Rock Ensemble to support him (crickets). So he multitracks piano, Moog, mellotron, pipe organ (and more) into a modest tapestry of moods while Tony Fernandez provides percussion. The result is surprisingly solid, at various times sounding like the work of Keith Emerson (the opening “White Rock”), Yes (“The Shoot”), Camel (“Searching For Gold”) and of course Rick Wakeman. I couldn’t make a case for this record over the acknowledged masterworks (Wives, Journey, Myths), but White Rock belongs to Wakeman’s most fertile creative period and should not be shunned as incidental music to a film nobody remembers. In fact, best not to look at this as a soundtrack at all, since it functions very well as instrumental music independent of the film. Tellingly, Wakeman has revisited some of these compositions over the years, and fans should give White Rock the same warm reception when approaching his catalog.
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.
Cue in the crackling campfire. Thank you. And now for the tale of Rick Wakeman, who ran screaming from Yes like a man on fire. Burned out after rough passage on topographic oceans, Wakeman played the roving wraith, inhabiting English graveyards (Six Wives), subterranean worlds (Journey), old castles (Myths) and prisons (Criminal Record). He ate what was offered: soundtracks, commissions for live events, etc. Thus the works of Wakeman are a mixed bag, with the soundtracks settling on the bottom. I never had a burning desire to hear this soundtrack, since I’ve been burned before by other prog keyboardists (Emerson, Banks, Franke). But Wakeman, like Vangelis, seems to approach these things as he would an album of new music, making them more than mere asterisks in the starry sky of opi. In fact, the first half of the album (called The Wakeman Variations) features new tracks based on the original score, enjoyable as much as the music of White Rock. The second side is straight from the film, spooky synthesizer stuff that borrows (and builds on) John Carpenter’s score to the first Halloween. Tracks like “The Burning” and “Shear Terror” belong with the best horror movie music from the period. So what The Burning offers is half an album of the usual Wakemanic tonic (“Theme from the Burning,” “The Chase Continues”) and half an album of smart, creepy film score. In the middle and out of place are two film tracks with a Southern spin: “Doin’ It” and “Devil’s Creek Breakdown.” Ignore them. But the rest of The Burning is better than I imagined, important for fans and collectors because it showcases Wakeman’s facility for horror music and a new instrument that delivers some great sounds, Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 10 (two Prophet 5’s put together, as if you couldn’t do the math).
Kronomyth 12.0: WAKEMAN SCORES AGAIN! This time for the film to the 1982 World Cup. With White Rock as its precedent, fans could expect a reasonably good time on G’ole! (NMEP: not my exclamation point). There are the usual multikeyboard concoctions (Korg, Prophet, piano), playful passages, a few dark corridors and, yes, bathetic baubles like “Latin Reel” more suited to a Sunday morning cartoon than prog rock proper. Honestly, you’d really have to hate the sight of Andrew Jackson’s poofy hairdo to blow $20 on the soundtrack to a film about a live sporting event that had already taken place. This is Wakeman on auto-pilot, with a pair of acoustic guitarists providing occasional support and faithful Tony Fernandez handling the drums. Of course, the man has logged in some serious flight time behind the keys, and could extemporize ably on the list of ingredients from a cereal box (red #5 island, wheat g’ole-uten). In a maligned genre, his soundtracks at least stand under their own power as new works, albeit often improvised and seldom packed for a proper Journey. On G’olé, Wakeman tosses off a dozen instrumentals usually lasting less than three minutes. Some are engaging (“Spanish Montage,” “Black Pearls”), some not (“No Possible”), none of it life-changing listening. If you own more than one soundtrack from Rick Wakeman (or Tangerine Dream or Pink Floyd), then you’ve drifted into that dangerous camp of fanatics who go looking through the garbage for a holy grail that isn’t there. Like the punchline to a joke, if you like their soundtracks you should try listening to their albums. Only then does it make sense to backtrack through commissioned pieces for obscure art films or direct-to-video horror flicks or (heaven forfend) the Babylon 5 series.
This thing has more aliases than Sean Combs: Almost Live In Europe (the original and, by far, most accurate of the titles), Rock & Pop Legend and the most heinous version (which is the one I got suckered into), The Best of Rick Wakeman. In their defense, they did use a lowercase “b” for “best,” perhaps a subconscious concession that, no, this isn’t really the best he has to offer. And it isn’t, by a long shot. What it is, is a live performance recorded in Europe (it doesn’t really matter where, since those countries change their names as often as Sean Combs—wait, have I used that already?) and featuring some overdubs. My guess is that Wakeman added an extra post-performance keyboard track on some of the songs, and it’s logical that Davy Paton added the guitar tracks after the fact as well. The selection is a little unusual, particularly the leadoff track: “Elizabethan Rock/Make Me A Woman.” This comes from The Time Machine, not exactly one of Wakeman’s most beloved records, so it may help us to carbon date this around 1988. The synth sounds here hardly evoke greatness, and Ashley Holt is his usual canary-killing self (i.e., his vocals tend to suck the air out of a room). However, I’ll give Holt this: even Adam didn’t have a pair of apples big enough to sing the lyric “Make Me A Woman” over and over in some stentorian monotone. (“Make him shut up!” the troll lamented). That unpleasantness out of the way, selections from Six Wives prove unsinkable in the “After Henry” medley, with one exception: sandwiched between them is “A Crying Heart,” which I’ve never heard before. Imagine the theme to “Love Boat” moored in “Margaritaville,” and you’re close. Really, I’m not trying to be funny; those are the two songs that come to mind. Not to pick on Ashley Holt all the time, but there are moments when I’m convinced his voice could drive rats from an abandoned cheese factory. “The Realisation/The Prisoner” is the only consistent ride on here, and (as way of atonement) I’ll note that Ashley sounds great here, almost Byronic (for those who enjoyed the late Heepster’s vocal acrobatics). The closing “King Arthur” suite is a little disappointing, having been served so much better on the King Biscuit disc (which is superior in all ways). I’ve seen Rick Wakeman live in the ‘90s (with his son, Adam), and he’s eminently capable of putting on a great show, but this one lacks the requisite electricity to spark even a fan’s interest.