Upon being told his Prog fans were hoping he’d shoved the Prog Fader up to 11, [Rick] Wakeman replied, “That could be a problem… as it’s already at 14!!!”
The man ain’t kidding. The Red Planet, Wakeman’s 18th or 122nd solo album (depending on how you count) features eight all-instrumental portraits of Martian landscapes, awash in growling Hammond organ licks and nimble Moog synthesizer solos. So far, so good, if typical — but what makes Wakeman’s latest effort a genuine delight is both the welcome variety of his new compositions and the stellar contributions of his supporting players.
The opening “Ascreaeus Mons” subtly shocks long-time listeners right away, kicking off with a sprightly pipe organ/harpsichord riff (usually the pipes don’t come out until a Wakeman album’s climax), then shifting to a genially chugging melody (doubled by choir on the repeat) for the B section. Through all these pieces, there’s an attractive new compositional freedom at work — texturally, dynamically, rhythmically. The chilled-out groove of “Tharsis Tholus” is lashed with sudden, lightning-fast jazz-fusion riffs; “Arsia Mons” features big, sweeping synth washes underpinned by acoustic guitar strumming; “Olympus Mons” actually swings at one point; the heavy Deep Purple-style Hammond riff of “The North Plain” is prefaced by thundering piano octaves over an exotic soundscape. Unexpected tone colors (the Rhodes electric piano underpinning “Pavonis Mons”) and structures (the massive bolero build of “Valles Marinens”) add to the fun; when Wakeman fires up his usual scales and arpeggios on the Moog, the solos take on a fresh aspect, because he’s playing over something completely different. Stir in the lyricism of his recent solo piano albums, referenced in the more reflective “South Pole,” and you’ve got a well-rounded self-portrait of the complete musician, fully on display.
But Wakeman also deserves credit for recruiting possibly his finest supporting cast ever. Guitarist Dave Colquhoun, bassist Lee Pomeroy (who worked live with Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman) and drummer Ash Soan are perfect for The Red Planet — constantly driving the compositions forward, laying down thick, powerful rhythm beds, playing both around and with what they’re given. And each of them get their chance to shine as virtuosos — check out Soan’s thundering toms on “Ascraeus Mons” and flashy hi-hat work on “Olympus Mons”, Pomeroy’s whacked-out tags on “Pavonis Mons” and mind-blowingly limber solo on “Valles Marinens”, and Coloquhoun’s stinging breaks and spring-loaded grooves throughout. Adding their parts on their own, with no instructions from Wakeman, his collaborators amply repay his trust by giving the album an extra spark that helps it soar.
Last year in an interview with Rolling Stone, Wakeman said that arthritis developing in his hands would probably put an end to his touring days relatively soon (though a solo piano tour of Britain is currently planned for later this year). He didn’t rule out further recordings, though — and if The Red Planet is any indication, he’s got a lot more good music in him. Certainly Wakeman’s new album is in the vein of his Six Wives of Henry VIII/Journey to the Center of the Earth/King Arthur glory days — but by digging deeper, writing smarter and grooving harder, Wakeman and his friends have given his classic style a ripe new maturity, polish and kick for the present. This one is well worth your time, attention and cash.
Special CD and LP editions of The Red Planet are available now through MusicGlue; the standard editions will be released worldwide on August 28th and are available for preorder through Burning Shed. Check out a series of 10 videos on “Recording the Red Planet” at Rick Wakeman’s website.
— Rick Krueger