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Rick Wakeman - The Red Planet CD (album) cover

THE RED PLANET

Rick Wakeman

 

Symphonic Prog

3.86 | 151 ratings

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rdenney
5 stars TL;DR summary: it seems to me impossible to have a full understanding of symphonic prog over the decades without knowing at least some of the work of Rick Wakeman, and it's now impossible to have a full picture of Wakeman's instrumental prog breadth and depth without hearing Red Planet, several times at least. In my mind that makes it essential listening quite apart from whether I do or don't like the music. (But I do like the music.) Those who want extended, haunting melodies may not find them here, but the sounds and textures are an essential statement of what symphonic prog is to me.

The CD and LP include a lot of goofy and fun packaging theater, and outside of the music nobody can accuse Rick Wakeman of taking himself too seriously. But I for one am really glad to see a pure instrumental album--it has always seemed to me that Wakeman expresses his profundity in music far more effectively than in lyrics.

Track 1, Ascraeus Mons: The church organ opens with four bars of descending chords, in a driving 4, with drums coming in to intensify the drive, and a slow melody acting almost like a drone. This builds to a trumpet fanfare climax, and then starts over--a process that repeats several times. The point of it is a grand buildup, culminating in a final solid rock electric guitar solo. This is a good opener, but not why one should buy the album.

Track 2, Tharsis Tholus, follows the plan of many tracks, by opening with a short, simple melody in the flute effect repeated many times in different chords, and the feel is indeed reminiscent of No Earthly Connection as pointed out in another review. The extended chord progression is as important to what's happening as the melody. The music breaks into an interlude in 10/8 (maybe 11/8 or 13/8 or 17/8?I could not count it!), which reminds me of great pieces from the Yes repertoire in its ability to surprise the listener with sudden transitions that still somehow advance the plot. After the second of these, the music jumps to a driving 12/8 meter that builds in layers of keyboards to a soaring mini-moog solo that as clearly as anything on the album says "Rick Wakeman is here!" Noodling? Not hardly. Complexity increases, but it's not mere decoration, and each passing bar raises my heart rate. One Internet reviewer said the album lacked emotion. I beg to differ--it lacks an excess of sentimentality--but it's chock full of emotional power, befitting a mature musician playing for grown-up listeners. Another break, and the music jumps back to the mellower flute-sound opening. The piece ends with another break, this time transitioning to just the reverberation fading into the empty room. This piece is the one that sticks with me days later, and if this was the only good track on the album (it isn't), I would not feel cheated.

Track 3, Arsia Mons: An introduction spends a little over a minute sending a two-bar melody on a tour of chord changes like following a circle of fifths over a driving rock beat. Then it opens out into mellowed-out space music backing acoustic guitar. Then, it starts over, ending in an extended acoustic guitar solo that floats beautifully over a Fender Rhodes-sound piano counter-melody. The piece returns to the space-music backing, this time in front, enhanced by phase shifting and channel panning to transport us back to, oh, about 1975. And what a pleasant trip that is. But Arsia Mons is less about melody than feel.

Track 4, Olympus Mons, opens with a big drum break and the longest melody so far--two bars. This tune has changes--on the second theme we get a short Hammond solo, then back to the top. What gets into my brain in this recapitulation of the opening theme is the guitar, adding a stunning texture effect that I've never heard before, with enough stage separation in the mix to highlight it. A big Hammond-led third theme follows the recap, this time in a triple meter. It's all the way to the fourth variation, in a driving rock beat in four that we get the next classic Wakeman Mini-Moog solo, this time extending nearly two full minutes.

Track 5, The North Plain, starts misterioso with classic vintage space music and a loose, spare melody on piano (along with other effects) for a minute and a half until the drums, bass, guitar, and Hammond organ bring us back to hard-driving 70's rock. About three minutes in, we hear the Mini-Moog and the Mellotron, followed by space music with a funny 60's b-movie aliens-from-outer-space vibrato-filled organ interlude. But then the Hammond returns with force and seriousness of purpose. These Hammond sounds have the dry intensity of Rick's most percussive style--think the organ solo in Roundabout. No paint roller or Jon Lord flat-handed portamento here--more like Emerson. This is rock organ as percussion instrument with hard, driving articulations. Bring your acoustic suspension speakers! Is it space music or driving hard rock? In this one, the hard rock wins gloriously.

Track 6, Pavonis Mons, is about classic synthesizer sounds. The Moog leads the opening melody with answering melodies by a wooden flute sound pointing the way to more exploration of vintage synthesizer sounds. Piano makes an entrance here, and the Mellotron (strings and chorus sounds at least?maybe more) is distinctive in the orchestral tutti, as is the organ. And the bass drives consistently throughout and is never buried. But the synthesizers own this track more than most.

Track 7, the South Pole, starts on a much mellower and more cinematic note. The melody trades again between synthesizer and flute sounds, with a chorus backing, plus the ever-present bass and guitar. But the flute sound comes out on top. Then, the texture fades and we get an exquisitely extended (but still not long enough), gentle and tasteful piano solo. Flute sounds dominate the final repeat, but the track ends simply on a fading synth summary of the melody's essential elements.

Track 8, Valles Marineris, as has been said elsewhere, reminds us of Ravel's Bolero, which isn't about a dance, but about a theme that repeats many times with increasing orchestral texture and power until a surprise ending. But Valles doesn't build steadily from one end to the other, but rather in three sections. The time signature defies reverse engineering; large odd numbers are involved. At 50 seconds, drums enter with great complexity. A few seconds later, Lee Pomeroy's now-celebrated bass groove goes where no bass groove has gone before. At two minutes, the build culminates in an ascending scale in the guitars, ending the first build. The second build includes an amazing section where the Mellotron and drums set up a whole edifice of mood, ultimately leading to the piano restating the melody in pounding octaves. The piece takes a third trip through the build with still more texture, but the flute sounds are what stick with me this time.

While completely listenable the first time through, I think it took about ten times through before I could get a real sense of the music. But I did not tire of it in that time. This is, to me, a hallmark of great Symphonic prog--it holds up to repeated listenings just as well as, say, Shostakovich or Bach. Wakeman's best albums have that staying power, but perhaps the previous album of his that I can put on repeat and never be annoyed when it starts over is Criminal Record. This album isn't as aurally diverse as Criminal Record, but it's just as rewarding to listen to it often enough to commit it to memory. And in both cases, it takes a lot of repeats to get this in your head. It's worth the effort.

If I was trying to explain Rick Wakeman (or, indeed, instrumental symphonic prog) to some benighted soul who had never heard of him, and could demonstrate with just one album, Red Planet, among few others, would serve the purpose. It is indeed a masterpiece, though not perfect. Still, Five stars, because four just isn't enough.

rdenney | 5/5 |

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