Friday 17 March 2023

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble - A Gallery of the Imagination (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm calling this rock for the sake of something. It's certainly not progressive rock, even though it's by Rick Wakeman, who's done five different stints as the keyboard player in Yes. Some of his solos go there, but there's little prog otherwise, with the primary approach here being vocal pop/rock with a prominent keyboard backing. There's not a lot of guitar, with some notable exceptions, and Hayley Sanderson's voice rarely ventures into rock territory. She's somewhere in between jazz and musical theatre, but phrasing as if this is a pop album.

I like her voice, which is versatile and nuanced, but it's soft and sweet for most of this album. That isn't a bad thing and it works for this material, but it's less interesting to me than the music. What exceptions there are all stand out to me because she's doing something a little more. She's neatly dynamic on A Mirage in the Clouds, effortlessly ramping up to soaring levels from what's almost a whisper. She layers herself at one point on The Eye of the Child. She gets loose and Caribbean on Cuban Carnival. And, best of all, she goes much higher on The Visitation to become reminiscent of Kate Bush.

My favourite pieces here tend to be instrumental though. The best for me is Hidden Depths, which opens up the album. It gives lots of opportunity to Wakeman, of course, but also to guitarist Dave Colquhoun. Between them, they cover a lot of ground: sometimes light and airy, sometimes with a hint of menace, sometimes like an instrumental take on an AOR vocal song. After that, it's surely The Dinner Party for me, which has real sass to it. It's swing but done on piano with faux brass and some wacka wacka guitar. It's the most attention seeking song on the album, with The Creek and Just a Memory soft and introspective piano solos.

Of the vocal songs, I'd probably call out A Mirage in the Clouds as my favourite, because it gifts Lee Pomeroy with something notable to do with his bass. He and Ash Soan on drums do good work over the whole album but it's rarely about them, being alternately Wakeman's and Sanderson's album.

When it's instrumental, it's usually Wakeman who takes the fore, trying to persuade us that there are a dozen different instruments on his rack. He conjures up a lot of sounds, all the way to what is possibly supposed to be a theremin or a saw, but is probably just keyboards. He reserves plenty of opportunities for keyboard solos, but they're never long and they're never the point of the piece, the piano solo songs excepted. Beyond Hidden Depths, his best solos are probably on The Man in the Moon, Cuban Carnival and My Moonlight Dream, the former and latter the best moments for Colquhoun's guitar too.

Prog fans might want to check out The Eyes of a Child, because there's some prog in the backdrop when it gets going, Colquhoun has some neat guitar runs over a soothing base and the moments when Sanderson duets with herself are gorgeous. However, if that's not prog enough for you, and it may well not be, then nothing else is going to pique your interest. This was never intended to be a throwback to his seventies prog excesses. It's an attempt to paint pictures in music, something a piano teacher taught him back when he was a five year old kid starting out.

And that's really how this is best taken, as an introduction. Imagine yourself walking around your local art gallery. You're going to like a bunch of what's on the walls but not care particularly about them. Maybe you'll go back to one on the way out and spend some time with it, sink your eyes into it with some exploration in mind, read about the artist and check them out later online. There are no masterpieces here that prompt essays, just good work in a variety of styles that takes care of a lost afternoon. And, if you find something you like, then the artist is Rick Wakeman and you'll find him a deep, prolific and pioneering creator. Go explore his work.

No comments:

Post a Comment