Return To The Centre Of The Earth

Rick Wakeman

EMI Classics Records, 1999

http://www.rwcc.com

REVIEW BY: Dan Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/07/1999

In 1973, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman recorded his first solo album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, a dazzling 35-minute demonstration of Wakeman's virtuostic flourish on the huge variety of electronic and acoustic keyboards at his disposal, as well as the Royal Academy of Music grad's substantial compositional skill. It was, along with Yes' contemporaneous release Close To The Edge, the high-water mark of Wakeman's career.

Wakeman and Yes stood at the head of the burgeoning art-rock movement, and, in typical form, set about shooting themselves in the foot the second the summit was reached - Yes with their overblown (but to Your Humble Narrator very underrated) Tales From Topographic Oceans, Wakeman with a series of records so odious in their pomposity that the very talented keyboardist's fantastic work was obscured by narration, ice-skating Arthurian knights (no lie!), and other drek that speeded the decline of progressive rock as a viable genre.

For the last five years, Wakeman (who in the interim found religion, gave up booze, and made about fifty solo albums) has promised one more colossal progressive rock masterpiece. Unfortunately, this album - Return To The Centre Of The Earth - follows more in the footsteps of his mid-70's kitsch-fests The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (indeed Return is a sequel to this 1974 record) than some of his more impressive instrumental output - Six Wives and 1977's Criminal Record LP.

Return To The Centre Of The Earth is a lengthy (nearly 77 minutes) concept album in the strictest sense of the world, telling the story of modern explorers retracing the footsteps of Arne Saknussen and the heroes of Jules Verne's classic novel. Featuring Patrick Stewart on narration and guest vocalists as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Trevor Rabin (ex-Yes), and Bonnie Tyler, Return is an expansive album dealing in a variety of musical styles, with varying degrees of success.

The good points: Wakeman is still an incredible performer, and frankly I cannot fault a single thing about his performance on this album. The orchestrations behind Stewart's narration are particularly good (an album full of instrumental composition in this vein by Wakeman would be very interesting indeed). "The Dance of a Thousand Lights" is a fantastic piano/orchestra piece, very restrained, dignified, and virtuostic.

The problem is that there's just not enough Wakeman on the album - too much of the very cluttered sonic landscape is taken up by screeching choirs, angular swoops of strings, and other less-than-satisfying noise that obscures Wakeman's performance. "Still Waters Run Deep" features a beautiful synthesizer lead underneath Hayward's vocal that is one of the easy highlights of the album.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Surprisingly, Wakeman's keyboard timbres are also very well-chosen on the album (his recent work with Yes on the Keys to Ascension project featured some really awful sounds) - his Moog solo on "Buried Alive" is quite good, and the lightning fast solos on "The Kill" and "Floodflames" are very effective.

The narration, while perhaps a little overdone in terms of how much text is read (approx. 23 minutes of the album is narration) is delivered well by Stewart, and the music behind it is gentle and soothing.

Nearly all the guest vocalists do a good job with their tunes - "Buried Alive" is a very neat track (with one major flaw--below) with Osbourne in fine voice (if undermixed). Tony Mitchell's "Mr. Slow" is the first really outstanding vocal song on the album - Mitchell's low lamenting voice is perfect for the wistful tune. "Still Waters Run Deep" is another really good song, with a good peformance by Hayward that is (perhaps predictably) reminscent of a Moody Blues ballad.

And now, for the negatives: If you strip the choir completely off this album, I think it gets a lot better. The choral delivery of some of Wakeman's lyrics renders them completely undecipherable and in some cases actually ruins the song - "Never Is A Long, Long Time" in particular.

"Buried Alive" also suffers tremendously from the screeching choir trying to race through complicated rock-oriented lyrics. More conventional "rock" backing vocalists - perhaps a trio of female singers similar to those used for the wordless vocals on Six Wives - would have provided for more distinct vocal delivery and taken some of the clutter out of the sonic landscape (to use a cliche) of Return To The Centre Of The Earth.

Which is my second complaint. With four-piece rock band plus choir plus full orchestra plus guest vocalists there just isn't enough noise to go around it seems. The orchestra seems overmixed at times, the choir is simply extraneous, and all this seems to be at the expense of the soloists - Wakeman is inaudible for much of the album (a pity) and even Fraser Thorneycroft-Smith's couple guitar solos are indistinct in the wall of sound.

The album just starts out so slow - not until "Buried Alive" is a catchy musical theme introduced, and "Dance Of A Thousand Lights" (some 24 minutes into the album) is the first standout track. The rest though (from "Mr Slow" on) is on the whole pretty good.

Bonnie Tyler and Katrina Leskanich sound quite out of place - "The Ride of Your Life" seems ridiculous in context - an upbeat song while our heroes are about to be shot through a volcanic chasm back to the surface of the Earth.

This is just indicative of the whole record, though - while ostensibly a concept album half the vocal songs have no obvious connection to the story at hand - particularly "Never," "Is Anybody There?," "Ride," etc.

In all fairness to Wakeman, the original plan for this album had included guest appearances by Robert Plant and David Bowie, among others, and a blockbuster live performance for TV to be staged on the 25th Anniversary of the release of the original Journey. Sadly, a life-threatening case of pleurisy put Wakeman in the hospital during key stages of the project, and an almost complete lack of promotion in the States from label EMI Classics has doomed any chances of commercial success Return could have enjoyed.

In summary, Return To The Centre Of The Earth is an album that shows so much promise - Wakeman's talent for melding the orchestra and band shines through on tracks like "Dance", "The Kill", and "Floodflames", as well as the narration cuts - but is ultimately disappointing due to the overuse of the choir and the undermixing of Wakeman's parts.

Rating: C

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© 1999 Dan Smith and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of EMI Classics Records, and is used for informational purposes only.