Round Table Review
Robert Reed — The Ringmaster, Part Two [2CD + DVD]
Rather than opening my review with the usual cliché that this man needs no introduction and then providing a potted history just in case he does, I'm going to cut to the chase. Rob Reed, he of Magenta fame, is a Mike Oldfield fan as demonstrated on his previous releases reviewed by the DPRP. His latest offering, The Ringmaster, Part Two, maintains that influence, and despite the title, it's the latest instalment in Reed's Sanctuary series. It also follows hot on the heels of its predecessor, The Ringmaster, Part One naturally, which was unanimously praised by my colleagues in January.
Part Two follows the same format as Part One comprising two CDs and a DVD. The full album is on CD 1, bonus tracks are on CD 2 and for surround-sound enthusiasts, the DVD features a DTS remix plus videos. Although The Ringmaster, Part Two plays as one continuous piece, it's divided into individual titles to link with Reed's synopsis of the story in the CD liner notes.
Supporting the multi-instrumentalist Reed is the equally talented Troy Donockley who seems to be everywhere at the moment, as is prolific drummer Simon Phillips who played on four of Oldfield's albums, beginning with Crises in 1983. Completing the instrumental line-up is another Oldfield collaborator, Les Penning on recorders, whistles and narration, and Steve Bingham on violin. Singer Angharad Brinn featured on several of Reed's previous projects and backing vocals are courtesy of Synergy.
Having interviewed both Reed and Donockley in the past, I can confirm they are affable individuals, but how do they combine musically? The simple answer is, brilliantly. This is evident from the opening of Song Of Healing Light where low whistles, uilleann pipes, and later violin, have a haunting celtic flavour before tinkling piano, glockenspiel, chanted voices and searing guitar convey that unmistakable Oldfield sound. Reed's influences are not restricted to Tubular Bells, throughout the album he channels Oldfield's subsequent, and arguably more adventurous works.
The tuned percussion and chanted vocals recall Ommadawn and Incantations during Song Of Healing Light and Dancing Master while a keyboard patch simulates the signature trumpet sound from Hergest Ridge. The tuneful, foot-tapping The Talking Ducks on the other hand takes its lead from Oldfield's jaunty versions of Blue Peter and In Dulci Jubilo. During Sendlinger's Song, Reed adds a touch of Hank Marvin-style twangy guitar echo. But it's his uncanny ability to recreate Oldfield's timbres and phrasing both electrically and acoustically on tracks like Swan Feathered Girl, Landmarks, and The Last Guardians Of Everywhere that prove to be the most endearing.
Donockley comes into his own on Landmarks and the all too brief Forever, where, following Penning's spoken intro, the glorious wailing of his uilleann pipes stir both the heart and the soul. Sendlinger's Song, which would work as a standalone track, is a showpiece for Angharad's heavenly singing, especially when double-tracked at the end. Phillips' articulate drumming propels Song Of Healing Light and Swan Feathered Girl to their triumphant peaks while the 'ju, ju, ju' chant during In Sight of Home could easily be from the vocal cords of Jon Anderson; a reminder that Reed is also a Yes fan.
CD 2 is a mixed bag, beginning with an extended version of Swan Feathered Girl featuring an obtrusive, metronomic drum machine, although the acoustic guitar picking is a delight. The Ringmaster (Orchestral) brings a touch of symphonic keyboard bombast to the table, while Nairn's Jig is a variation of the mid-section of Song Of Healing Light where the percussive slaps and stop-start piano would have sat comfortably on Oldfield's Platinum album.
The highlight of CD 2 is the alternate mix of the album by Tubular Bells co-producer Tom Newman. Instruments and vocals are given a different treatment and tracks are rearranged to divide the work into two parts, presumably to simulate two sides of a vinyl LP. It certainly makes for an interesting comparison with the mix on CD 1. Clearly, Newman is a Spaghetti Western fan, because when The Hat takes a diversion into Ennio Morricone territory with trebly guitar, church organ, Spanish guitar and male choir, he adds Mariachi trumpet and the chiming watch motif from For A Few Dollars More.
Switch to the DVD, and the album can be enjoyed in glorious 5.1 surround sound as well as videos of Phillips recording his drum track while Reed mimes his various guitar parts. Reed also accompanies Angharad on piano performing Sendlinger's Song with Donockley playing whistle.
Fans of Reed's previous albums will not be disappointed by The Ringmaster, Part Two which follows in the fine tradition of his Sanctuary recordings. Anyone with a penchant for melodic progressive and celtic rock will also find much to enjoy here. Mike Oldfield aficionados that have yet to discover the work of Robert Reed, and were underwhelmed by Return To Ommadawn will be beaming with delight when they hear this.
Robert Reed's song cycle The Ringmaster, Part One was a splendid album full of delicate folk, new-age and prog tracks in the vein of Mike Oldfield. He announced that Part Two was to follow soon, and it was done just a few months later.
This second part was recorded during the same sessions as Part One, so the same musicians can be heard. I have to confess that it took me more time to appreciate this second part than I expected. Undoubtedly partly due to (too?) high expectations, but also to the intricacies of the music. "Haven't I heard this before?" "Is this indeed the same musical theme?" "Why does this track sound so familiar?" This kind of questions kept popping up. And of course the answer is often “Yes”, as this is the continuation of the same song cycle. But listening to the album more, revealed so many more differences and subtleties that it is also an album that can be valued in its own right.
This second part starts off with the longest track, Song Of Healing Light, musically following up on the last track of part one. This track is actually an amalgamation of short musical themes glued together. The vibraphone themes segues fluently into a guitar outburst and then some wordless vocals emerge followed by a more orchestral part. That could have been chaotic, but it is a cleverly compiled composition introducing the main musical themes of this second part; immaculately performed.
What follows are eleven songs that segue nicely into each other, taking the listener to several pastoral moods. There are a few cheerful, folky tunes (Swan Feathered Girl, The Talking Ducks, Landmarks), a violin-based jig in In Sight Of Home, quiet narration over a beautiful piano background (Forever), another amalgamation of themes in The Hat, and beautiful up-tempo oboe, percussion and violin backing Angharad Brinn in the superbly sung romantic ballad Sendlinger's Song.
It struck me again how well-fitted Penning's narration is to the music, brought about by his sonorous voice that is well suited for these kinds of short texts.
The last track, Song Of Waiting Dreams, opens with a very gentle intro, highly reminiscent to the closing part of Hergest Ridge but soon evolves into a melancholic, moody piece with soft, chanting vocals, soft acoustic and electric guitar and a closing fade-out featuring the main Ringmaster theme. It is far from a grand finale but it is so beautiful!
Again the set comes with a bonus disc and a DVD, and as expected both are treasures. The bonus CD contains three fine bonus tracks of which two are reworkings of tracks on the main disc, while Nairns Jig is a new one.
I don't understand why the new track hasn't been incorporated into the song cycle, for it has the same folky and romantic mood.
The reworkings are very nice, especially the gorgeous orchestral version of some Ringmaster themes. But the real assets are the two Tom Newman remixes of the entire album, presented again as two epic tracks. Newman simply focuses on other parts, other instruments and other, sometimes considerably heavier arrangements. This is an enormous enrichment of the already fantastic music. There is sometimes more percussion, sometimes more trumpet-like synths, considerably more prominent bass, some heavy electric guitar riffing, some more orchestral parts, but it doesn't matter where the differences are exactly. The listener can just sit back and enjoy both versions as they do full justice to the beautiful and rich music. It is a great service to the public that Reed releases these stunning remixes.
The DVD contains the entire album in a 5.1 surround mix and also offers a drum session presented by Phillips and two promo videos. In the Part I package I especially liked the promos as they showed Reed in a Monty Python pastiche modus, taking it all not too seriously. In this package the two promo videos, The Swan Feathered Girl with just Reed and Phillips and Sendlinger's Song with Reed, Donockley and Philips playing and Angharad Brinn singing, don't offer a pastiche but just rather unpretentious yet highly enjoyable clips. To watch Reed play all those different instruments with natural ease remains amazing.
The sound production is absolutely awesome. All the music is extremely clearly recorded, well divided over the channels and beautifully performed. I couldn't think of any criticism on the production. The three-fold carton package is masterfully designed and offers all the information you need.
That brings me back to the question I posed at the start: has Reed succeeded in at least equalling the first part of his Ringmaster cycle? To me the answer can only be, “of course he did”. All this music must have been recorded in such a marvellous flow of creativity and inspiration that this second part could only have the same quality as its predecessor. I forecasted that with a second great part Reed would have managed to release a true masterpiece. He certainly has done, thus I can only give the highest grade possible.
Having previously enjoyed the first instalment of Robert Reed's latest musical opus, I was very keen to tackle the second instalment. Although I was not supplied with any DVD version previously, this time I have been sent the whole package including said DVD. And what a great package it is.
I should mention from the outset, that this review is being written while travelling through the extreme outback of Australia in my caravan. The internet and mobile phone reception are all but non-existent, and we also rely on solar power for our recharging needs. But considering we can be hundreds of miles from the nearest town (less than 50 people), it stands to reason.
Musically, there is so much to enjoy here as Robert's inventive mind has been refueled with even more creative juices than on the first outing. He wastes no time in getting things under way with Song Of The Healing Light which features the trademark Mike Oldfield sound that we have all come to appreciate. There can be no other maestro alive today that is able to emulate that signature sound so effortlessly and convincingly.
Swan Feathered Girl will remind some music one would hear from Cusco, although its pan flute emulation although the song is nowhere near as predictable, formulaic or simple as our South American comrades normally produce.
The Talking Ducks also features a very catchy underlying riff and is replete with pan flute / tin whistle tones that will please those who relate easily to the instrument.
Sendlinger's Song features some extremely melodic and haunting vocals of Angharad Brinn which brings this music to yet another soaring level. She really has the voice of an angel and is the perfect singer to be included on this outing.
One of the overwhelming features of this new version is the incredibly accessible and melodic structure of the songs. Whether they are augmented by the soft strumming of a mandolin, a more fiery riff from the guitar, a pan flute interlude or sections featuring all manner of delicately played keyboards, there is simply no end to the imagination and inventiveness on display.
This is music that allows the listener to fully immerse themselves within its clutching fingers and be surrounded by so many engaging sounds and rhythms. You simply need to question why other musicians and bands have not adopted a similar formula. It works so perfectly here.
Let's face it, we all like to be entertained, challenged and rewarded for tackling music that definitely falls beyond the scope of the top 40. Had this album been released in the 1970s to coincide with say, Tubular Bells, it would have been snapped up by eager fans who knew talent after a few spins. With today's musical market being so fractured and diverse, instant gratification is the name of the game for so many people who may not be aware of how important musical concepts such as this are. I find this to be a truly concerning aspect to much of today's music as so many people line up to willingly listen to what everyone else is told to listen to, despite the often less-than-decent quality of the music itself.
Thankfully, there are no such shortcomings on this brilliant release. Anyone onto progressive rock music should jump on board this incredibly likeable and accessible album; one that I am sure will be in high rotation for many weeks and months to follow.