Rick Wakeman, keyboardist extraordinaire, member of  Yes during their “classic” years and producer of some of the most iconic prog-rock instrumental albums ever released, is back and with Red Planet he is back with a vengeance.

 

It is 17 years since Wakeman’s last prog-rock album – Out There – and once again he is backed by The English Rock Ensemble. Allow me to introduce them. On guitar we have Dave Colquhoun a regular session-man who has worked with Ian Brown on many of his albums, as well as with his wife’s band The Fizz, his wife being Eurovision winner Jay Ashton of the Fizz with added Bucks.

 

Bass player Lee Pomeroy is well known to fans of It Bites; ELO; Yes; and Headspace (alongside Wakeman’s son Adam in that band). Finally, on drums we find Ash Soan formerly of Del Amitri and Squeeze, he has drummed, as a session man, on so many hits for so many artists it would take this entire reviews section to list them. So, we have the players, but what of the music?

 

‘Red Planet’ is a work in eight parts, all named for different geographical or geological areas and features on the planet Mars. The first four tracks are named for volcanoes, ‘Ascraeus Mons’, ’Tharsis Tholus’, ‘Arsia Mons’ and the mighty ‘Olympus Mons’ the highest mountain so far discovered in the Solar System, being two and half times the height of Everest and covering an area almost the size of the state of Arizona. That’s big and the music is big too. A rocky start to the track flows onto a gentle section before the tone changes and Wakeman’s intricate keyboards raise the tempo once again, backed by a throbbing bass line. This track is a layer cake of delights – that really is the best way to describe this album, as Wakeman and the band create layers of sound which can at one moment have a haunting refrain, be almost ethereal before changing tack and tempo. Seriously, to get the most out of this piece of work you need to take time, as in days of yore, and listen to it at one sitting.

 

So, we have had four volcanoes, next comes ‘The North Plain’, the music evoking a feeling of vastness and space, space rock on two levels here. Following that we have another volcano track ‘Pavonis Mons’ named for the middle of the three massive Tharsis volcanoes that sit on the Martian equator, (the other two being tracks one and three). This is quite a jolly. bouncy track giving a little light relief, the keyboards front and centre with a stompy backbeat that works well. ‘South Pole’ follows with a softer tone and a soothing melody before the final track, named for the 2500 mile long canyon system to the east of the Tharsis mountains ‘Valles Marineris’. This is a fitting climax to a truly wonderful piece of music, and Wakeman throws everything at it. Beautiful melody, tonal variations and emotion in spades. During the final 30 seconds, he just hints at – tips a wink – towards ‘Mars’ from The Planets Suite by Holtz, to let you know he isn’t the first composer to have been inspired by this iconic astral body. A fitting conclusion to a brilliant album which will have prog rockers and Wakeman fans hugging themselves with joy.

Rick Wakeman and The English Rock Ensemble – Red Planet is out now via Madfish Records