In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when British heavyweights like Pink Floyd and Traffic were chewing up American roots rock and spitting back at this continent, there arose in the mother country the “art rock” or progressive phenomena. For suburbanites and hillbillies (like this reviewer) prog rock provided a sense—however false—of something mythical and medieval; a connection to the arcane heart of Britain itself. It was cool to be the first—and probably only—kid in school to brandish a copy of The Myths & Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
In the early days of British prog there existed a trinity of accomplished keyboardists: Tony Banks (early Genesis), Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and Rick Wakeman (sometimes of Yes). Banks was the most refined and tasteful, his organ/mellotron interplay on the climax of both “Apocalypse in 9/8” and “The Musical Box” providing some of the breath-taking highlights of the genre. Emerson had the lion’s heart of a Beethoven, at times brilliant (“Abaddon’s Bolero”) though generally lacking restraint (“Tarkus”). And then there is Wakeman, whose fingers moved across the keys at mach three, punching out what seemed like a hundred notes per millisecond. Of the three, Wakeman’s style is the most difficult to ascertain; he left virtually no middle.
Recollections is a retrospective of Wakeman’s ‘70s solo efforts that were interspersed between stints with Yes and other notable cameos (for instance, Wakeman’s lavish piano adorns Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken”, and his organ undergirds Elton John’s deep cut “Razor Face”). From the get go, the listener is faced with the bewildering exhibition of speed in “Catherine of Aragon” from Six Wives of Henry VIII. Backed by Squire, Howe, and Bruford, the first three tracks are, at times, indistinguishable from lengthy Yes excursions.
Nevertheless, “Catherine Howard” remains one of Wakeman’s most exquisite and accessible prog pieces, its beautifully lyrical main theme inspiring a number of ballads later on (Wayne Watson’s “Home Free” borrows liberally from the tune).
Unfortunately this rapturous sonata is followed by a pair of ponderous tracks from the pompous and heartless Journey to the Centre of the Earth. “The Journey/Recollection” and “The Battle” might as well have come up from the pit. They epitomize the dilemma presented by this album: moments of gorgeous transcendence shadowed by self-absorbed noodling. “Arthur” (from the aforementioned Myths & Legends LP) with its valiant opening fanfare is an oasis in the otherwise desert land of prog excess. The general unevenness of this record underscores Wakeman’s position as a composer of programmic music. He utilizes non-musical subjects for inspiration, and in the effort to create imaginative landscapes oftens goes overboard, not leaving the listener’s own cognition room to operate. After listening to selections such as “The Prisoner” and “Statue of Justice” one feels unrefreshed and in desperate need of a cold lager. And yet, this same maddening musician can come right back and charm the stonework off Westminster with the delicate piano work of “The Palais”.
Recollections is a mixed bag. For the listener willing to be strapped into Wakeman’s time machine, the adventure has its rewarding moments. At times, though, the ride can be rattling.
// Notes from the Road
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