ISSUE 2014-447

Reviews in this issue:

Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble - Out There
Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble - Out There
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ELEC 2438
Year of Release: 2003/2014
Time: 50:57
Info: Rick Wakeman
Track List:
Out There (The Call (Part I), Fanfare of Time (Part I), The Call (Part II), Music of the Mind, Fanfare of Time (Part II) Incorporating... The Hidden Symphony, The Beginning of a Dream) (13:11), The Mission (6:29), To Be With You (6:23), Universe of Sound (7:43), Music of Love (6:47), The Cathedral of the Sky (10:25)
When it was first released back in 2003, I recall Rick Wakeman claiming that Out There was his most progressive album in years, a sentiment echoed by Esoteric in the press release for this reissue. To my ears mainstream heavy rock would be closer to the mark which is probably why I hardly played it first time around. As such this remastered edition is an ideal opportunity to reassess my original opinion. Backing Rick is the (then) current version of the English Rock Ensemble, namely Damian Wilson (vocals), Tony Fernandez (drums), Ant Glynne (guitars) and Lee Pomeroy (bass) with additional guitar from Fraser Thorneycroft-Smith. Conducting the English Chamber Choir is long-time Wakeman collaborator Guy Protheroe.

Out There is a concept album of sorts inspired by space exploration and dedicated to the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle who died tragically just months before its release. The bizarre cover image however by Italian artist Alina Bencini (Rick's then girlfriend) is closer to TV's Red Dwarf than anything ever launched by NASA.

Following an uncharacteristic (for Wakeman) ambient intro, the title piece Out There launches into a galloping hard-rock riff which dominates throughout the 13 minute playing time. Magnum, Threshold and even Iron Maiden seem to be the role models here with Glynne throwing in the obligatory shredding solo whilst Wakeman restricts himself to the familiar frantic Moog flights that one feels he could knockout in his sleep. The finale seems to be from another song altogether but it does at least have a certain majesty about it.

The Mission is agreeable enough (in a mainstream rock vein) thanks to Wilson's engaging vocal and RW's organ break although Thorneycroft-Smith's histrionic solo is strictly by-the numbers. The stately To Be With You does at least bring a change of mood and tempo although the synthetic percussive effects were already out of date in 2003. That aside, the massed ranks of the English Chamber Choir sound suitably haunting and combined with the atmospheric keyboards create a soundscape more akin to Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre than Wakeman. We're back in heavy metal territory for Universe of Sound dominated by a claustrophobic riff and Wakeman and Glynne's animated keyboard / guitar sparring which takes up most of the second half. Music of Love is equally relentless although marginally more inspiring thanks to Wilson's commanding vocal and the solid rhythm partnership. In fact Fernandez's drum sound is reassuringly crisp throughout the album (thanks to Wakeman's sharp production) whilst the ever reliable Pomeroy has toured more recently as part of Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited band.

Predictably (given the title) the 10-minute finale The Cathedral of the Sky opens with Rick's keyboard set to church-organ mode backed by a lead bass line and added gravitas courtesy of the EC choir. Inevitably around the 2-minute mark the rest of the band weigh-in and it feels like a long haul before the big (and clumsy) climax which subconsciously tries (and fails) to emulate Rick's own Journey to the Centre of the Earth from almost 30 years earlier.

Given the concept and style (not to mention the presence of Damian Wilson) then, Out There could readily be compared with Ayreon although sadly on this occasion Rick lacks Arjen Lucassen's melodic flair. For their part, the ERE put on a solid performance and certainly more convincing than the original line-up that appeared at the Royal Festival Hall way back in 1974 for the debut of Journey (yes I was there). Whilst Wakeman himself seems curiously subdued throughout a good deal of the album, for me Damian Wilson is the star of the show demonstrating his chameleon like ability to adapt to most any musical environment.

Esoteric have announced that this is the first in a series of Wakeman releases so let's hope the long neglected Criminal Record from 1977 is amongst them, a true progressive rock album and for me the caped crusader's finest.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10

Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble - Out of the Blue
Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble - Out of the Blue
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ECLEC 2451
Year of Release: 2001/2014
Time: 74:22
Info: Rick Wakeman
Track List:
Excerpts from Journey to the Centre of the Earth (16:43), Buried Alive (6:45), Jane Seymour (4:42), No Earthly Connection: I. Music Reincarnate, II. The Prisoner (11:49), Catherine Parr (9:45), The Visit / Return of the Phantom (8:07), Starship Trooper: I. Life Seeker, II Disillusion, III. Würm (16:30)
At the turn of the millennium Rick Wakeman reformed The English Rock Ensemble embarking on a busy touring schedule which included a trek around South America (always a popular destination for Yes members past and present). This resulted in the rather good (if poorly packaged) Live In Buenos Aires DVD recorded at the Teatro Gran Rex, Buenos Aires and the Out of the Blue CD recorded just 1 km to the north at the Teatro Coliseo on the 21st April 2001. Briefly billed as The New English Rock Ensemble, the band included son Adam (keyboards, backing vocals), Tony Fernandez (drums, percussion), Damian Wilson (vocals), Ant Glynne (guitars, backing vocals) and Lee Pomeroy (bass). During their time together this line-up would go on to record the studio album Out There (2003).

Out of the Blue has been re-mastered and repackaged with Esoteric's customary attention to detail and whilst the booklet omits the label's usual and enlightening liner notes it does include all the lyrics (rare for a live album) and even the track listing anomalies on the original release (e.g. Starship Trooper and Würm listed as separate tracks) have been corrected. A stellar ensemble to begin with, Wakeman and co. are in particularly fine form throughout no doubt fired up by an enthusiastic Argentinian crowd.

They kick-off in superb style with a lively arrangement of Journey to the Centre of the Earth turning the opening theme into a stirring symphonic march filled with glorious Moog flourishes. Even Buried Alive from the rather poor Return to the Centre of the Earth album (sung on that occasion by Ozzy Osbourne) has a grittier edge headed by Wilson's commanding vocal. Jane Seymour is a pretty faithful rendition of The Six Wives of Henry VIII original with majestic celestial organ from the maestro and whilst Catherine Parr will be more familiar to audiences the extended version here is as good as I can recall with sizzling keyboard fireworks from the two Waksman's driven by the punchy Fernandez / Pomeroy rhythm partnership.

Separating the two Six Wives instrumentals is a rare live outing for No Earthly Connection where the pairing of a truncated but still tuneful Music Reincarnate and The Prisoner allows Wilson to demonstrate his theatrical vocal dexterity bringing to mind Clive Nolan's recent rock-musical Alchemy. Even more obscure is the coupling of The Visit / Return of the Phantom based on songs from Wakeman's 1990 soundtrack Phantom Power. Although the whole band gives a suitably energetic performance with impressive soloing from the leads, thematically this is for me the weakest part of the set.

Rick may not have been present at the original recording of Starship Trooper but having performed it on and off for almost 30 years (at the time of this recording) he'd very much made this most famous of Yes epics his own. There's a particularly engaging Moog interlude around the 2½ mark not present to my knowledge on any other version and whilst purists may grumble that Disillusion is taken at a more frantic pace and Glynne's histrionic soloing takes one or two liberties there's no denying the sheer power generated here. Pomeroy for example gives Squire more than a run for his money.

The sleeve notes for Out of the Blue boast that no parts have been added or re-recorded which given that were true makes the performances even more praiseworthy. Whilst it may lack the spectacle of some other Wakeman live recordings (there's no grand piano, orchestra or choir) it is perhaps the best 'band' live album Rick's been involved with outside of Yes.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10

Rick Wakeman - Softsword
Rick Wakeman - Softsword
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: ECLEC 2452
Year of Release: 1991/2014
Time: 53:43
Info: Rick Wakeman
Track List:
Magna Charter (12:16), After Prayers (5:36), Battle Sonata (3:47), The Siege (5:14), Rochester Collage (2:51), The Story of Love (King John) (6:42), March of Time (3:55), Don't Fly Away (4:43), Isabella (3:29), Softsword (1:54), Hymn of Hope (3:16)
Since his 1971 debut album, Rick Wakeman's output has been nothing short of prolific with 1991 being a particularly busy period. At the start of the year and with Yes' Union tour looming, the blonde keyboardist recorded the album Softsword, one of several releases in 1991. Adapted from the themes he'd written for the South-East of England Rochester Dickens Festival, the lyrics are based on the story of the 13th Century King John and the Magna Carta. Despite the historical setting however it's a far cry from past extravaganzas like The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur. To realise the concept he enlisted the talents of Chrissie Hammond (vocals), David Paton (bass, guitars), Anabel Blakeney (gemshorn) and Stuart Sawney (percussion, programming).

At 12 plus minutes the opening Magna Charter is undoubtedly the showpiece track, introduced by a rousing overture before the voice of Chrissie Hammond enters at the two and half minute mark. The album's best asset, Chrissie has a rich, resonant voice ideal for rock with articulate acoustic guitar and bass support from David Paton. Perhaps better known in prog circles for his work with The Alan Parsons Project and Fish, Paton is as always the consummate professional. Letting the side down however are the splashy electronic drums and tinny digital piano and organ diluting any sense of drama otherwise created by Wakeman. Call me a traditionalist but there's no substitute for the full bodied sound of analogue instruments. All things considered however, a reasonably promising start to the album.

Chrissie is at her most sensitive and soulful during the mellow After Prayers. It's also to her credit that she can deliver lines like "But the man still fights for the right to be King of England" in the incongruous AOR setting of The Story of Love (King John) and maintain a degree of credibility. Likewise Don't Fly Away is an engaging pop-rock tune that would be pleasant enough in any other context but seems out of place here.

Despite some edgy guitar and organ, The Siege is let down by a plodding rhythm whilst the instrumentals Battle Sonata, Rochester Collage and Isabella are amongst Wakeman's weakest although the latter does at least conclude with the best synth solo the album has to offer. Similarly, March of Time is all pomp and no substance. Following the low-key title track Softsword played by Anabel Blakeney on gemshorn (sounding not unlike a pipe organ), the finale Hymn of Hope is dominated by Paton's Steve Howe flavoured guitar and a touch of celestial organ before the disappointingly abrupt ending.

Despite Wakeman's best intensions, Softsword (or Softsword – King John And The Magna Charter to give it its original title) is an album that doesn't quite match the ambitious scale of its subject matter. Rick's budgetary constraints are clearly evident although his choice of instrumentation and mainstream song writing style do not help. Musically it makes very few concessions to the story's medieval period setting. As it's been unavailable for some years however and has been re-mastered and sporting new artwork in a smart digipak sleeve it is I'm sure a must for Wakeman compilers.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10

DVD
Rick Wakeman - Live in Lugano
Rick Wakeman - Live in Lugano (DVD)
Country of Origin: UK
Format: DVD
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue #: EANTDVD1002
Year of Release: 2010/2014
Time: 89:21
Info: Rick Wakeman
Track List:
The King Arthur Suite (20:29), Gone but not Forgotten (4:46), Catherine Howard 2009 (9:26), Help / Eleanor Rigby (9:54), After the Ball (5:32), Merlin the Magician (7:44), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (24:27), The Jig (3:51)
So far Esoteric's trawl through Rick Wakeman's back catalogue has focused on his post 1990 releases with this DVD recorded in Lugano, Switzerland on the 2nd July 2009 being the most recent. It was previously issued in 2010 on the now sadly defunct Voiceprint label as Classical Wakeman Vol 1 - Live In Lugano, the first in a planned series of releases. This version has been remastered by Esoteric to stunning effect and includes a new booklet which it has to be said is far more informative than the average DVD offering, neatly packaged in a slim digipak style case.

The concert was filmed in the open air on a summers evening in the heart of Lugano and very pleasant surroundings it is to. It was staged as part of the city's annual 'estival' in front of what appears to be a capacity audience of several thousand. A quick glance at the track-listing and it's clear that this is a crowd pleasing 'best of' concentrating on Rick's first three (early 70's) albums with a few favourites from more recent times and the almost obligatory Beatles standard thrown in for good measure. Under the watchful gaze of long-time collaborator and conductor Guy Protheroe, Wakeman performs on a Steinway grand piano accompanied by the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana and the Coro Clairière Del Conservatorio choir.

As he takes to the stage, Rick looks very dapper in his black shirt, jacket and trousers in contrast with the casually dressed orchestra who look like they've turned up for a rehearsal, albeit in matching tee-shirts. Unfortunately the choir are squeezed in at the back of the stage and given only minimal camera time. The polite response that greets each piece of music gives the impression that the audience are mostly locals on a night out rather than a partisan Wakeman crowd.

The King Arthur Suite provides a rousing start to proceedings with the orchestra superbly complimenting Rick's rhapsodic flourishes. The 1975 album was similarly orchestrated and whilst some may miss the keyboard rig for me the band's performance on the original was no great shakes, especially the signing. And although Wakeman's a fine composer and arranger, as a lyricist he has his limitations with reoccurring phrases like "as one" and "stood with pride" appearing in both King Arthur and Journey. No such concerns here however with the choir providing mostly wordless backing. The Guinevere sequence is particularly moving with superb use of woodwind and strings, contrasting with Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight which Rick infuses with the appropriate weight and drama.

From the pomp of King Arthur to the intimacy of Gone but not Forgotten, a heartfelt piece welcome in any Wakeman performance and perfect for this setting. Next up is an extended version of Catherine Howard, performed just two months earlier as part of The Six Wives of Henry VIII concert at Hampton Court Palace, London. It incorporates several themes not heard in the original where again strings and woodwind lend a romantic quality and a breath taking finale.

Eleanor Rigby has long been a regular live Wakeman favourite and here it's given a surprisingly powerful treatment (virtually unrecognisable in places) proceeded by an equally surprising and sensitive rendition of Help. Following a much deserved swig of water (Rick's hard drinking days are long behind him) an elegant After The Ball is followed by Merlin the Magician, a curious inclusion given that we've already had The King Arthur Suite. Even Yes fans not familiar with the original will instantly recognise the rousing bar-room piano finale, a regularly feature of Rick's solo spot during the band's shows.

The majesty of Journey to the Centre of the Earth provides a fitting conclusion to the main part of the set, albeit in truncated form. A revised string arrangement veers suspiciously close to John Barry's You Only Live Twice theme at times and whilst the Swiss orchestra might not be on the same scale as the legendary LSO (who performed on the original) they cover the keyboard and band parts with aplomb. Also, like King Arthur, it is pleasing to hear the memorable themes undiluted by vocals.

Following a brief absence from stage, Rick and Guy return for the token encore, a lively and fun version of The Jig from the mid-nineties album Cirque Surreal. And if Rick's final exit stage left seems abrupt it could be due to the constraints imposed by Swiss TV who were filming the show for live broadcast. Overall, both the picture and audio quality of this recording are very good although the sound balance is not as neutral as it could be with the drums being occasionally too loud whilst other sections of the orchestra could do with a bit more weight. The piano however is gratifyingly crystal clear which is just as well as Rick's fingers rarely leave the keys throughout the 90 minute set. The camera work is also first rate, restlessly gliding across the front of the stage at every opportunity and panning around Lugano's historic Piazza della Riforma to picturesque effect.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10

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Published Sunday 7 September 2014

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