Robert Reed's latest album was released in two versions. First there is the digital album as available from his Bandcamp page and possibly other digital vendors. And there a physical release comprising three discs: the regular album on the first CD, a bonus CD, and a bonus DVD with the whole album in 5.1 mix, plus extra features.
Instead of a regular Duo Review of one of the versions, today we have one review of each version!
Robert Reed — The Ringmaster, Part One [digital album]
As many progressive rock fans may know, Robert Reed has spent some considerable time within the music industry, having first launched Cyan in 1984, The Fyreworks in 1995, and ultimately Magenta in 2001, which has proven to be the most popular band in which he has performed. His prodigious talents include being very adept at using all manor of keyboards, guitar, bass, programming, glockenspiel, mandolin, vibraphone, recorder, marimba, banjo, bodhran, bouzouki, timpani and tubular bells; to name but a few.
Having such a deep and inspiring imagination, Robert has more recently embarked on deploying these skills with a number of solo outings, beginning in 2014 when he released the first iteration of his solo work, named Sanctuary. This was followed up in 2016 with Sanctuary II and Sanctuary III in 2018. Owning five of his solo albums I can attest to them being of the highest calibre and containing some magnificent melodies and tunes that underpin the themes derived from a celtic origin.
One of the remarkable observations about Robert's music is that he has emulated the Mike Oldfield sound right down to the basics, including his use of tubular bells which are featured throughout much of his solo work. The guitar phrasing used here in the opening song, The Farewell - The First Guardians Of Everywhere is so indicative of how Mike Oldfield was able to construct so many remarkable segments within his debut album, Tubular Bells.
Robert has managed to achieve the same level of perfection with this song and which has all the hallmarks of a classic suite of themes that segue into the next section so seamlessly. This is the longest song on the album at over 16 minutes but due to the diverse level of creativity and musicianship on display, it never lingers too long and quickly invites the listener to indulge in even more magic, moments later.
The song, The Defeated Army reminds me of the classic track, Albatross by Fleetwood Mac, which was written way back in 1969. A wonderful song!
The wonderfully-lilting voice of Angharad Brinn is featured on A Touch Of Song and will have all the Enya fans groaning for more as it concludes far too quickly, being only 1:25 minutes long. Thankfully she reappears briefly again on Signs Of Sendlinger but sadly, that track is only slightly longer. I wish she had been featured for a little longer on the album as she has a most angelic voice that would easily be on a par with the likes of Loreena McKennitt.
The third-longest track, The Gatekeeper / The First Large Water, features some gorgeous flute and has a melody so serene, it will transport you to some ethereal location you could only dream of. It still includes the trademark Oldfield guitar sound which is no bad thing.
If the name, Tom Newman sounds familiar to some readers, he was the producer of Tubular Bells and has climbed on board for this project along with Simon Phillips on drums and fellow multi-instrumentalists Les Penning and Troy Donockley of Iona fame. Their contributions to this collaboration have made a major impact on the brilliance of this release, something I hope will help to achieve the recognition it deserves.
Of additional interest to some readers may be another similar artist whose CD was sent to me for review some years ago. The Spanish multi-instrumentalist Engel, (Miguel Angel de la Llave Jimenez) released his brilliant self-titled CD to the world in 2002, but it sadly failed to garner very much interest, despite it being remarkably good. If you ever manage to locate a copy of this, now rare CD, I urge you to take a punt on it as it will certainly exceed your expectations. This CD, for those lucky enough to either own it or at least have heard it, would be very similar to what you could expect to enjoy with The Ringmaster.
The more I play this album the more detail I discover within each song. This truly is a delightfully melodic and instantly likeable release that should appease those who may have been slightly disillusioned by some of Mike Oldfield's more recent work. This is another marvellous body of work that pays homage to Robert's major influence in music over many years and comes with my highest recommendations. I can't wait for part 2, which I understand is being released on 4 February 2022.
Robert Reed — The Ringmaster, Part One [2CD + DVD]
bonus disc: Glamarocko (2:19), Glencoe (3:58), The Ringmaster Part One (1-5) (Tom Newman mix) (20:47), The Ringmaster Part One (6-11) (Tom Newman alternative mix) (26:18)
DVD: Complete album mixed in 5.1 surround, promo videos and interview
Because of his involvement with Cyan, Chimpan A, Magenta, and Sanctuary, as well as his contribution to numerous other musical projects, Robert Reed needs no further introduction. He seems to be in a position nowadays where he can do whatever he wishes. The artistic and musical quality is always guaranteed, which is not always the case with his non-musical side projects. The information quality of some of the websites he's involved in (especially the Magenta-website) or the accuracy of the information on the booklets of his albums are sometimes below par.
But that certainly doesn't apply to the album we have at hand here. Reed has already been extremely creative and productive for quite some years at a row and that seems especially the case during these pandemic times. After a new Cyan album and the Tubular World album, he felt he was also up to something in the vein of the Sanctuary albums. But he also felt that he didn't want to make another album with two epic tracks of more than 20 minutes each.
In the interview that comes on the DVD in this package, he states that he had more than 100-minutes of new music and that he definitely wanted to divide these into real songs, with real song titles. So he decided to split the music over two separate albums, naming the albums The Ringmaster Part One and Part Two.
My version of Part One comes as a fine 2CD gate-fold package supplemented with a DVD. In the package we learn who the Ringmaster is and what his longings are, meanwhile becoming enchanted by the beautiful artwork by Anna Repp. Part Two will be released on 4 February 2022, also with this option of a 2CD/DVD set. There is also an option for an all-in-one (4CD/2DVD) box. Details are on Rob's own website and Bandcamp page.
To start an album with a track entitled The Farewell is peculiar. “I am the Ringmaster and I have, for the first time, taken one day off,” are the opening lines, spoken by Les Penning, Reed's long-time musical companion. Penning also wrote the lyrical story of the album, and contributed recorder and whistles to the music as well.
The spoken words are accompanied by soft piano, a nice choir, some acoustic and electric guitar and phenomenal uillean pipes, played by Troy Donockley, another well known musical friend. Most of the time I dislike spoken words in music but as an introduction to this album it works perfectly well, not the least because Penning's deep voice is extremely fitted for the purpose. Spoken words are fortunately almost absent during the rest of the album. Less good is that the opening track is far too short, the musical theme and the perfect combination of instruments should have continued for several more minutes.
The First Guardian Of Everywhere is the epic of the album and breathes Mike Oldfield in every note. The choir singing in the song, performed by Michaela Haslam and Heather Cairncross, is very reminiscent of Oldfield's QE2 period. The guitar playing combined with uillean pipes, reminded me immediately of the Voyager album. (I still cherish that one, although it differs so much from the rest of Oldfield's output.) The use of tubular bells is, not surprisingly, hinting towards that famous album, whilst Angharad Brinn's wordless singing is very much Ommadawn as is the use of the drums played by Simon Phillips.
Yet in spite of these very different styles of music, this song is very coherent and flows naturally from phase to phase. A really wonderful musical journey!
The Defeated Army is a very quiet piece with a principal melody played on the lower strings of the electric guitar, very much in the style of the Voyager album again. It is a beautiful and deceivingly simple piece of music with a very folky atmosphere. The flute coda segues into the very short A Touch Of Song with eternal vocals by Brinn and a beautiful, dreamy soundscape leading towards a majestic organ that starts Storytown.
Imagine the amalgamation of Rick Wakeman's church organ in Awaken and Oldfield's guitar, interspersed with some fine synth sounds and you have an idea of what this inspiring instrumental sounds like. A soft acoustic guitar then opens The Gatekeeper, without doubt the most beautiful track with its very subtle, melancholic acoustic guitar, recorder, harp-like keys, a fantastic hobo-melody played by Karla Powell (who also played on several Magenta live albums) and wordless vocals by Brinn. Think of the fabulous start of Ommadawn or the equally fabulous end section of Tubular Bells and you're close. But with its two minutes, it is of course far too short again!
This little gem segues fluently into The First Large Water featuring subtle drumming and a heavenly piano, before the distorted vocals in the vein of Oldfield's QE2 album start. The short middle section is a fantastic variation of instruments and themes, followed by a very fine electric guitar solo with that typical Oldfield sound. Splendid piece!
Mr Penning Standing Blue is a very mellow piece with Penning's recorder in the lead, followed by acoustic guitar, violin played by Steve Bingham and melancholic uillean pipes. It may sound like a lullaby at first but it develops subtly into a dreamy air that is so characteristic of Irish or Scottish folk.
A Sign Of Sendlinger is a slow piece with synths, recorder, acoustic guitar and beautiful vocals by Brinn singing a slow, melancholic melody. Unfortunately it is again far too short.
The closing pair, A Dream Of Home and Arcadia In Ruin, are very nice instrumental pieces with a very folky sound. Beautiful glockenspiel sounds are dominant in the first minute while the violin is very prominent in the latter. Both songs breathe medieval castles, with knights and their companies eating and drinking and amusing themselves, with the minstrels playing music around them.
On this new album Reed has collaborated with Tubular Bells producer Tom Newman again. Apart from co-producing the album, Newman also played the bodhrán and became, alongside Penning, a huge musical inspiration for Reed as he proved to arrange the music totally differently from Reed himself. That lead to the choice to include Newman's mix of the full album on the bonus disc.
Newman's mix is different in many places, most obviously in the very beginning (the aforementioned introductory lines are nowhere to be heard), as well as in the fade out of the album. On the original album the latter comes rather quickly, after a glorious last guitar solo and some nice flute playing, and is, because of its shortness, slightly disappointing. Newman took more time and played out the theme on organ for almost two minutes which I found more satisfying. But this alternative mix foremost demonstrates that good music can be arranged in many ways. Therefore, the inclusion of the complete album mix in this package is an asset.
The bonus disc also features two leftover tracks. Glamarocko is a rocky affair (as the title suggests) that doesn't match the overall atmosphere of the music at all. Glencoe starts with a mellow acoustic guitar with a very nice synth background, over which the electric guitar starts soloing before the pace suddenly changes and the song continues as a fine up-tempo instrumental. Both songs are fine pieces of instrumental music in their own right but don't fit that well as part of the major album.
I found this album richer in musical variation and more original than the (very fine!) Sanctuary albums. Reed takes the Oldfield inspiration several steps further, by adding more vocals, be it with or without lyrics, more instruments and more musical themes, which make the songs stronger. My only criticism is that several songs should definitely have been longer.
This very fine album comes in an attractive gatefold package with a bonus cd and dvd containing surround mixes, a short interview with Reed and two promo videos that are for very different reasons worth watching (see it yourself!). It's great value for your money and all of very high quality. I really can't say if splitting the Ringmaster song cycle over two separate albums is a sane decision; hopefully we at DPRP.net get the chance to review the Part Two album as well. If that is as strong as this first part, then Reed has produced another musical masterpiece.