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

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble – A Gallery of the Imagination

Since the turn of the century, Rick Wakeman has been re-invigorated by the interest generated from his various re-workings of old favourites, and he has embarked on a new creative period, including a couple of well-received albums accompanied by his house band, the English Rock Ensemble. Out There and The Red Planet, despite being 17 years apart, were related in respect of subject matter and conception, proving that he could still produce relevant and interesting original music. Now we have a A Gallery of the Imagination, which takes a very different approach by ignoring any prog expectations for epic story-telling and virtuoso noodling and delivers a variety pack of trademark Wakeman-esque songs, with a twist. More than one twist, even.

In 2003 the impetus for Out There came from touring and the result was less a solo work and more a band album. Rick’s keyboards are often sparring with the lead guitar driving a pace that tends to be a bit rushed throughout, causing the vocal tones to be stretched to the limits. Despite these criticisms, however, for me it sounds fresh, of the time, and with the huge benefit of not being the bastard offspring of a historic classic.

It was a long wait for more original ‘solo’ work until 2020’s The Red Planet. Interestingly, Out There’s closing track is centred around a pipe organ and choral arrangement, in the same way that the first track of The Red Planet is. Thematically there are many similarities but The Red Planet feels much more like an accompanied solo album, with the obvious main difference being that this is an instrumental work. These two albums work together nicely but with the tantalising possibility that a combination of the two would work even better.

Wouldn’t it be great if Rick could create an album that contains all the majestic elements of what Rick Wakeman is about, but that he writes and plays from the heart without trying too hard to be one thing or another? Wouldn’t it be great if he chose not to try to re-create another masterwork around a single theme? Wouldn’t it be great if he could produce something like ‘a gallery of the imagination’, so to speak? All the great artists who I cherish the most seem to have the knack of reading the room and creating what it is I am craving without me actually realising that was what I was craving for myself. This is one of those moments.

The first twist is that Rick has turned the story-telling aspect on its head. As Rick says, “I started thinking about how wonderful it would be if people could paint their own pictures when listening to the music”. So, the concept is laudable, how is the execution? I think it is fair to say that it contains all you need to know about why some people love the man whilst also illustrating the reasons why some people love him less.

In the same way that there is continuity across the previous albums, A Gallery if the Imagination starts with a jaunty uptempo instrumental number with clean melodies picked out across multiple keyboards, which feels like it could well have been written in the same timeline as songs from The Red Planet. It’s also a reminder that Rick has been able to pull these sorts of tunes out of a hat at will, and may well continue to do so for some time yet. However, we have been promised a smorgasbord and so next up is an under-stated song sung sympathetically by (and here is the second twist) female vocalist Hayley Sanderson. Man in the Moon harks back to the recurring theme of space but, except for an obligatory keyboard solo, it is light years away from the song structures that have preceded it and provides an immediate charge of curiosity for what will come next.

A Mirage in the Clouds is one of my favourite tracks. It is the older sister of the previous track, being related in form but executed with a bit more sophistication. The restraint of the band, including Rick, to focus on the raw elements of the melody and allow the listener to focus on the lyrics and superb vocal performance is admirable, and also notable is that the lyrics are subtle and both meaningful and ambiguous at the same time (the twists keep coming). This is certainly one that comes from the heart. These sentiments also ring true for The Creek, which is the first of the solo piano pieces that are included. It makes a simple statement but is left open to interpretation, being free from any over-embellishments. Rick has been prone to releasing whole albums like this in the past, but personally presenting a few key pieces at opportune moments seems a much better way of presenting them.

My Moonlight Dream wouldn’t be out of place in a musical theatre soundtrack. Some may say it is a touch too saccharine-coated, but theatricals have always been a part of Rick’s music and this song draws on that history unashamedly. The musical direction holds the song together beautifully and the band again hit the perfect balance. It is followed by the low-key, literally, Only When I Cry that features a haunting piano melody and another tender, heartfelt vocal performance. It is a truly unexpected turn of events to hear songs executed in this way, and I love it.

It wouldn’t be a true gallery of the imagination if there were not a few flights of fancy. Cuban Carnival is the first of these and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. It is a brief light-hearted, salsa-inspired interlude before the second unaccompanied piano piece. Just a Memory is a more expressive tune, perhaps alluding to the mix of emotions arising from memories, but has a similar feel to The Creek. Again, it is the restraint applied in the execution of the melody that makes all the difference. The Dinner Party follows and is the second of the uplifting instrumental keyboard mash-ups. It has a foot-tapping beat that underpins the feast of the various synth lines.

The second flight of fancy is a whimsical recollection of A Day Spent on the Pier. To be honest, it is more nursery rhyme than prog epic and it would not have been missed if it had been left in the can as a potential 7” b-side. Whereas the first half of the album was a clean sequence of intriguing and satisfying tracks, the second half has turned out to be a patchier affair, but the album as a whole is most definitely back on track with the closing songs. The Visitation and The Eyes of a Child are extremely personal statements imagined from either end of the age spectrum. (Final twist) I can’t recall being moved emotionally in this way, from such a personal standpoint, by Rick Wakeman before. I have been moved by his depictions of the physical world, but not until now by those of the meta-physical.

Rick Wakeman has always had more strings to his bow than his classic prog works. His discography has sometimes veered from one genre to the next with the result that there has been an overload of material and a tendency to lose momentum. This is the concept of an album for which I have been waiting a long time. Feel free to pick and choose, to like and to dislike, but always remember that music is not progressive unless you are prepared to enter the gallery of imagination.

01. Hidden Depths (4:24)
02. The Man in the Moon (5:00)
03. A Mirage in the Clouds (5:35)
04. The Creek (3:42)
05. My Moonlight Dream (6:54)
06. Only When I Cry (4:00)
07. Cuban Carnival (4:04)
08. Just A Memory (3:09)
09. The Dinner Party (3:49)
10. A Day Spent on the Pier (4:36)
11. The Visitation (4:49)
12. The Eyes of A Child (3:48)

Total Time – 53:50

Rick Wakeman – Keyboards
Lee Pomeroy – Bass
Ash Soan – Drums
Hayley Sanderson – Vocals

Record Label: Snapper Music | Madfish
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th February 2023

Rick Wakeman – Website | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube