Journey From the Center of the Earth

A year or so ago, I wrote about revisiting my Emerson Lake and Palmer records after years without listening to them–and marveled at how something I thought was so cool back in the day could sound so lame today. My teenage fascination with synthesizer-based prog rock also caused me to buy several albums by Rick Wakeman, keyboardist from Yes. I’ve listened to a few of these lately for the first time in a while, and they seem to have held up a little bit better.

Wakeman’s first hit album was The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1973. This is the most coherent of Wakeman’s 70s albums. It’s mostly a rock album with jazz touches, and little of the classically influenced stuff Wakeman would get into on later albums. It sounds pretty good even now, despite its age–all except for the track “Jane Seymour,” on which Wakeman mixes the majesty of a cathedral organ with the burble of primitive early-70s synthesizers. It’s the only place where he loses his head (insert rimshot here) and crosses over to true prog-rock excess.

In 1974, Wakeman mounted an elaborate live show based on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. He combined a small rock band with the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir, and it worked fairly well. Unlike Six Wives, Journey features vocals, which quickly reveal that Wakeman is a shaky lyricist, and the singers who share lead vocals aren’t that great either. Nevertheless, Journey is one of the better rock/classical fusions you can find from the 70s. (If that’s something you think you need, of course.) It works pretty well as drama, too, thanks largely to British actor David Hemmings, whose narration keeps the drama high, especially in the final minutes. According to the record company, Journey sold something like 12 million copies.

The next year, Wakeman released The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. (Oh, those prog-rock titles.) This was the first of his albums I ever heard, and it appealed to the Anglophile and Arthurian in my 15-year-old self as much as it did to the synthesizer geek. King Arthur works from the Journey template, combining rock band with orchestra. The songs are a series of character sketches and incidents from Arthurian legend. I adored this album from age 15 to about age 22–until I moved into a new apartment and left it in the sun one day. After a brief period of mourning, I forgot all about it for a few years, although I picked up a replacement copy at some point. When I listened to it again recently, I still dug it. The best part is the album’s finale, “The Last Battle,” which recaps the musical themes from the whole album in a blaze of glory, triumph, and majesty. As an example of mid 70s prog rock, you could scarcely do better–it’s got orchestra, choir, portentious lyrics, dramatic narration, and, of course, synthesizer burble. (The download is a big file, so be patient.)

Wakeman took King Arthur on the road–but as an ice show, which may have been the moment at which his career jumped the shark. Or maybe it was with the 1976 album No Earthly Connection. This was a stripped-down record with something Wakeman called the English Rock Ensemble–stripped down at the request of his record label, and on the advice of his doctors. (Wakeman had written much of King Arthur while recovering from a heart attack–at age 25.) It rocked more than either of its predecessors, but wasn’t nearly ornate enough for the prog-rock geek in me. Also, I knew that Wakeman’s lyrics were nothing to get excited about, but these seemed particularly lame. (Allmusic.com notes that Wakeman left Yes because he disliked the metaphysical direction of Tales From Topographical Oceans, yet he produced the same sort of metaphysical hoo-hah here.) After a few spins, the album was consigned to the purgatory section of my record library. I hadn’t listened to it in maybe 25 years–although it’s playing right now as I write this post, and I have to admit that it’s a bit better than I remember.

All of these albums (except Henry VIII) came in elaborate album packages. Journey and King Arthur had foldout covers with lots of photos and big, colorful books with lyrics and credits. No Earthly Connection came with a piece of shiny foil inside and instructions for rolling it into a tube, so you could get a reflected look at the album’s cover art. Wow, psychedelic, man. (I still have the foil.)

I only own the four Wakeman albums I mention here, although that isn’t because there haven’t been any others to buy. Allmusic’s discography lists an astounding 106 different albums, compilations, anthologies, and concert discs. But if you start with Six Wives and end with King Arthur, you’ll have what you need.

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