On Record – Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble: The Red Planet (Snapper)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Red Planet marks a much-heralded return to progressive rock for Rick Wakeman. The prolific keyboard player and composer has been working on the album for a good while, having been captivated by the three missions currently in progress from Earth to Mars, not to mention some of the pictures received by NASA.

Wakeman, who has made three albums previously about the universe beyond Earth’s orbit, has enlisted the talents of three prodigious talents – guitarist Dave Colquhoun, bassist Lee Pomeroy and drummer Ash Soan. The English Rock Ensemble, as they are known, are given equal billing with the keyboard player.

What’s the music like?

Some of Wakeman’s strongest in years. There is a great deal of passion and imagination here, with Wakeman’s characteristically brilliant keyboard work more than matched by his protagonists and friends. It is important to recognise the connection of personalities, because as Rick told Arcana in an extensive interview, their creative spirit and comradeship were big elements of The Red Planet’s success.

The album works really well because of a really good balance between excess and restraint! The familiar strengths of progressive rock are exploited in prodigious drum fills, creative keyboard solos, twisted bass lines and epic guitar work, but each of the four musicians knows when to pull back and concentrate on evocative scene-setting. The latter quality means the likes of Arsia Mons and The North Plain, both portraits of their respective areas on Mars, are more descriptive and have the necessary light and shade.

As Wakeman admits, a lot of fun was had with the making of this album, and it comes through right from the off, and the imposing church organ of Ascraeus Mons. Meanwhile in the final and most extensive picture, Valles Marineris, the spirit of Holst is channeled through the oblique rhythms and stabbing counterpoint.

Between the two imposing outposts there is much good music. The descriptive Tharsis Tholus has attractive flute voicing, while Arsia Mons has one of the album’s most memorable riffs, not to mention superb drumming from Soan. Wakeman himself comes right to the fore on Olympus Mons, with some typically probing keyboard athletics near the end, while he leads with a soaring synthesizer on Pavonis Mons. Meanwhile a wonderfully gritty keyboard sound takes over on The North Plain, shaking off the mysterious, ghostly piano of its opening strains.

Does it all work?

Yes. Anyone with an interest in Wakeman or his on / off band Yes will recognise the keyboard style but will also applaud the attention to detail and relative restraint shown in the course of this hour-long triumph.

Is it recommended?

Yes, as a thoroughly enjoyable album. Anyone with an interest in progressive rock will want to hear it – but happily The Red Planet gives us the notion of getting away from our own habitat for a while, which I’m sure we’ve all fantasized about in the last few months!

Stream

Buy

You can buy The Red Planet from Rick Wakeman’s website here

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