Rick Wakeman Recommendations

by Steve Raiteri

    A while back, I took on a big music-reviewing project for the All-Music Guide: an extensive survey of the solo works of Rick Wakeman, the keyboard virtuoso best known for his work with Yes.  (The All-Music Guide, by the way is a huge database of musician biographies and album reviews available on the Internet.  If you've never looked at it, click the link and check it out!)

    My qualifications for undertaking this project were: 1) I've been a fan of rock music all my life, and a Yes fan for over 15 years; 2) I was able to convince the All-Music Guide editors that I could string a few words together coherently; and 3) I have a friend (hi Pete!) who owns almost all of Wakeman's albums, and was willing to let me borrow them.  I am not a keyboard player myself.

     Rick Wakeman is one of the best and most acclaimed keyboard players in rock history.  He was classically trained, and in his early years he was a pioneer in the use of electronic keyboards in rock music.  He's also been extremely prolific: in addition to his work as a member of the Strawbs, Yes, and Yes offshoot Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, he has a huge number of session credits, including work with David Bowie, Elton John, Black Sabbath, Al Stewart, and Lou Reed (click here for an incomplete list of Wakeman's guest appearances).  And he's released more solo albums than anyone this side of Frank Zappa.  The list below includes 70 titles, including a best-of anthology, a CD EP, and six albums Rick did in collaboration with his son Adam.

    I am a fan of a lot of progressive rock (Yes; King Crimson; Jethro Tull; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and the like), but I'm not actually a huge Wakeman nut.  Some of Wakeman's solo albums I enjoy quite a bit; others I don't.  I only own nine of them myself, actually.  If this makes you wonder why I would want to undertake such a big project; well, I thought that SOMEONE should.  If nothing else, I think I was able to strike a balance between two views that I've seen expressed on the Internet: lavish praise of everything Wakeman has done on the one hand, and trashing of everything since Myths and Legends of King Arthur on the other.

     I'm not going to reprint the reviews here -- those belong to the All-Music Guide in any case.  If you want to read them, click here to go to the All-Music Guide's Wakeman entry, and then choose titles from the list.  Many, but not all, of the reviews there are by me.  But here I'll give you a summary, categorizing the albums as I see them from best to least best.  Not all of my reviews have been posted by AMG, and some of Wakeman's albums had already been reviewed and/or rated by others there, so their info doesn't always match my feelings.

     Some notes: the categories below range from best to worst ("The Best", "The Next Best", etc.), but within categories, the albums are not listed in any particular best-to-worst order.  Instead, I listed them chronologically.  Albums credited to Wakeman With Wakeman (Rick and his son Adam, that is) are marked WWW; those credited to Rick and Adam when not using the WWW name are marked R&A.  I listened to everything that was available to me at the time, but since then, I have not kept up with all of Wakeman's most recent releases.  At the end is a list of Wakeman albums not reviewed.

    And, of course, everything is just in my humble opinion -- yours may differ.

    Comments?  You can e-mail me at sraiteri@yahoo.com.


THE BEST

- Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973)
- Journey to the Center of the Earth (1974) 
- Rhapsodies (1979)
- Heritage Suite (1993)
- Voyage (2cd best-of) (1996)
- Recollections: The Very Best of Rick Wakeman 1973-1979 (2000)

     Six Wives and Journey, Rick's first two solo albums, are generally acclaimed as among his best, and Voyage and Recollections are good samplers of Rick's A&M years, which were the most commercially successful of his solo career.  Six Wives, an instrumental suite, features several of Wakeman's Yes-mates.  Journey is my favorite Wakeman solo album; the opening fanfare is Rick at his most majestic, and "The Battle" contains my favorite bit of solo Wakeman music.

    But maybe I'd better mention something now: Journey features vocals, and Wakeman's choice of vocalists (here, Ashley Holt and Gary Pickford-Hopkins) is not to the taste of even some of his biggest fans.  I wouldn't advise giving up altogether on Wakeman's albums with vocals if those on Journey turn you off -- Journey is a live recording, with all of the rough spots in the singing left intact (and there are a couple of howlers).  Several of Wakeman's albums feature better vocal performances than this one.  But some listeners may want to stick with the primarily instrumental albums, such as Six Wives, White Rock, and Wakeman's several fine solo piano albums.  If you want to hear some of Wakeman's very best piano playing, get Heritage Suite, his tribute to the Isle of Man, his home.  It's wonderful.

    For excellent instrumental work, you may also want to consider Rhapsodies (though I can tell you that this recommendation will not meet with universal acceptance among Wakeman fans -- in fact, I can see the raised eyebrows now: "Rhapsodies?  What is this guy talking about?")  I enjoy Rhapsodies a lot.  I think it's gotten a bad rap in the past and I wanted to draw attention to it -- that's why I put it here.  Rhapsodies doesn't contain any long prog-rock suites (which are something I think Wakeman always did better with Yes than on his own), and it's not a concept album, so maybe it won't appeal to some hardcore prog-rock followers.  What it does contain is appealing music, concise tracks, and lots of good keyboard playing.  Some people have called it "cheesy" -- what I think it is is FUN.  The Japanese CD edition is long out of print -- hopefully someone will put it out on CD again.
 

THE NEXT BEST

- The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975)
- Criminal Record (1977)
- Country Airs (original version) (1986)
- Classic Tracks (1993)
- Simply Acoustic (aka The Piano Album) (1995)
- The Private Collection (1995)

     For the most part, these are almost as good as the ones above.  Myths and Legends (an album with vocals) features the great "Merlin the Magician" -- and to portray the powerful wizard with a playful honky-tonk piece strikes me as, just maybe, a stroke of genius.  Criminal Record has a lot going for it, including guest appearances by Chris Squire and Alan White.  Classic Tracks is Wakeman's best latter-day revisit to earlier material; it features an American neo-prog-sounding band that really adds something to the music, rather than just acting as sidemen.

    Simply Acoustic, another solo piano album, is a very enjoyable in-concert career retrospective. The Private Collection includes some good piano pieces and other vintage '70s recordings, all otherwise unavailable.  Country Airs, Rick's first solo piano album, is possibly the least of the albums in this section, but I enjoy it and find it quite pleasant -- in the original Coda Records version, that is.  I have some problems with the remake on President Records (see below).
 

GOOD

- White Rock (1977)
- G'ole (1983)
- Live at Hammersmith (1985)
- The Family Album (1987)
- Sea Airs (1989)
- Night Airs (1990)
- 2000 AD Into the Future (1991)
- Wakeman With Wakeman (WWW) (1993)
- Wakeman With Wakeman: The Official Bootleg (WWW) (1994)
- Seven Wonders of the World (1995)
- Cirque Surreal (1995)
- Romance of the Victorian Age (R&A) (1995)
- King Biscuit Flower Hour -- In Concert (1995 - recorded in 1975)
- Visions (1995)
- The New Gospels (1996)
- Tapestries (R&A) (1996)
- Themes (1998)
- Return to the Center of the Earth (1999)

    The albums listed here are all likely to please Wakeman fans -- they all feature fine keyboard playing and enjoyable music. White Rock and G'ole are soundtracks. Live at Hammersmith and the King Biscuit disc are live recordings of material from Six Wives, Journey, and Myths and Legends. Night Airs and Sea Airs are two more good solo piano albums. The Family Album and Visions are "New Age"-type albums, superior to some of Wakeman's other efforts in that vein (see below).  Wakeman went through something of a slump from about 1982-1992, if you ask me (note how many albums from that time I place below), but on the Wakeman With Wakeman discs, it sounds like working with his son Adam has re-invigorated him.  Those two albums are given over to rock keyboards; Romance of the Victorian Age and Tapestries are much more subdued affairs.

    The New Gospels is Rick's definitive version of his oratorio about the life of Jesus (the original version, The Gospels, is listed in the next section).  As Rick is a devout Christian, this is a work close to his heart (he has also done other religious albums, several of which I have not heard).  Cirque Surreal is a strong album done with a full rock band (and with some vocals by Chrissie Hammond, another Wakeman singer who does not meet with universal acceptance among fans). Return to the Center of the Earth, Wakeman's much-publicized sequel to the original Journey, features narration by the great Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard himself) and vocals by several guests, including Rick's friends Trevor Rabin and Ozzy Osbourne.  The album is worthwhile, and its sound is gorgeous, but the story and the songs, perhaps inevitably, don't match the original.
 

OK

- Piano Vibrations (1971)
- The Burning (1982)
- Cost of Living (1983)
- Silent Nights (1985)
- The Gospels (aka The Word and the Gospels) (1987)
- A Suite of Gods (1988)
- Black Knights at the Court of King Ferdinand IV (1989)
- In the Beginning (1990)
- The Classical Connection I (1991)
- African Bach (1991)
- Aspirant Sunrise (1991)
- Aspirant Sunset (1991)
- Aspirant Sunshadows (1991)
- Rock'n'Roll Prophet Plus (1991)
- The Classical Connection II (1993)
- Light Up the Sky EP (WWW) (1994)
- Almost Live in Europe (1995)
- Fields of Green (1996)

    The albums in this group all feature some work that may well be of interest to Wakeman's more avid fans, but they also all include music that I find less appealing.  Piano Vibrations, the earliest release listed here, is not really a Wakeman album -- it's an "easy listening" collection put together by producer John Schroeder, which features session-man Wakeman on piano.  Through being listed in the discography in Dan Wooding's Wakeman biography The Caped Crusader, it's achieved a legendary status that it of course can't live up to. The Burning is a soundtrack, with some quite un-Wakeman-like music. A Suite of Gods is an experiment in using operatic vocals, which doesn't always come off -- though I might like it better if I were a fan of operatic vocals, which I'm not.  In the Beginning is a selection of Bible readings by Rick's wife Nina, backed with music by Rick.

    The two Classical Connection releases look promising, but the performances, if you ask me, could be better, and many of the pieces on them are in fact available in better performances on other Wakeman albums.  (Fans of early Wakeman may want to pick up the second one because it includes and outtake from the Six Wives sessions, featuring Chris Squire, Steve Howe, and Bill Bruford).  The Aspirant trilogy of New Age albums is just fine for what it is, but Wakeman has done better work under the "New Age" rubric (see above).  Rock'n'Roll Prophet Plus is a reissue of a 1982 Wakeman album (listed below), with four new recordings added.  The new pieces are much stronger than the original album, which features an "electro-pop" sound and some odd songs sung by Wakeman himself.

    The rest of these I just find somewhat lackluster, with a few high spots here and there (such as "Gone But Not Forgotten" on Cost of Living), but not enough for me to recommend them to new Wakeman listeners.
 

MY LEAST FAVORITES

- No Earthly Connection (1976)
- 1984 (1981)
- Rock'n'Roll Prophet (1982)
- Crimes of Passion (1986)
- Time Machine (1988)
- Zodiaque (1988)
- Phantom Power (1990)
- Softsword: King John and the Magna Charter (1991)
- Country Airs (re-recording) (1992)
- No Expense Spared (WWW) (1993)
- Live on the Test (1994 - recorded in 1976)
- Rick Wakeman's Greatest Hits (1994)

    These are, in my opinion, Wakeman's least successful works.  Most of them promise more than they deliver.  Some fans rate No Earthly Connection highly, but I think it's a muddle.  A quote from my All-Music Guide review of it: "It's notable that Wakeman, having broken with Yes over the obscurely metaphysical album Tales from Topographic Oceans, proceeded to make his own obscurely metaphysical album here." -- and, not surprisingly, it turns out Jon Anderson does it better.  1984 and Softsword are also disappointing concept albums.  The re-recording of Country Airs, done on an electronic piano (I think), loses the pastoral feel of the original in mile-a-minute playing.  Live on the Test is a vintage concert recording, but the repertoire, the band's performance, and the sound quality are all below par.

    The 2CD Rick Wakeman's Greatest Hits is not what the title says it is -- instead of collecting Wakeman's best work, it features new remakes of some of it.  Wakeman records a whole CD of instrumental versions of Yes classics, and a disc of his own solo work, with little variety in keyboard sounds.  The playing is fine, and the songs are of course very good, but the overall result is somewhat tiresome.

    The others listed here I just find mostly dull and uninteresting.  The exception is Phantom Power, which gets my vote as Wakeman's worst-ever album.  A wildly over-the-top soundtrack to a 1925 black-and-white film version of Phantom of the Opera, this one (which, by the way, features virtually no interesting keyboard playing) strikes me as totally ridiculous.  (Sorry, Rick.)
 

And, for reference,

ALBUMS NOT REVIEWED

- Lisztomania (1975)
- Prayers (1993)
- The Word and Music (1996)
- Orisons (1996)
- Can You Hear Me? (1996)
- Vignettes (R&A) (1996)
- Tribute (an album of Beatles covers) (1997)
- The Natural World Trilogy (1999)
- The Art in Music Trilogy (1999)
- White Rock II (1999)
- Stella Bianca alla corte de Re Ferdinando (1999)
- Preludes to a Century (2000)
- Chronicles of Man (2000)
- Christmas Variations (2000)
- Rick Wakeman Live in Concert 2000 (2000)


the most important Wakeman link on the Internet:

Rick Wakeman's Communication Centre -- Rick's official site, with news, a biography, and discographies of Rick's solo albums and session work.  (They also provided the images I used on this page, for which I am grateful.)  For other views on Wakeman's work, check out the many fan reviews included in the discography, and also the results of the "Favourite Album Poll".
 

 

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