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Rick Wakeman

The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Review by Rick Damigella

Who so pulleth out the sword from the stone is the trueborn king of all of Britain. While this greatest of tales of heroism and chivalry has been told numerous times in written and filmed form, only a handful of music based tellings have been done. One of the best known is this version, produced by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

This, the fourth album in the very prolific Wakeman’s solo discography, was originally released in 1975, between his early stints with Yes. This concept album detailing the Arthur legend is first and foremost a showcase for Wakeman’s talents on the ivories (both acoustic and analog-synth alike). Its subsequent tour was a performance staged on ice, which also iced Wakeman’s finances in the process. Despite that, a couple of real gems are to be found here.

The mix throughout the album, especially on Wakeman’s Mellotron, are a headset listener’s delight, with notes bouncing to and fro between your ears. Despite the science fiction tonal qualities the analog synths of the era produced, they do not feel wholly out of place in King Arthur’s time. Prog purists and Yes completists are already in the know on this album, but if adventurous young listeners want to hear a slice of a bygone era (both in music and in history) Rick Wakeman’s tale of King Arthur is an adventuresome listen.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Arthur
Introduced by actor Terry Taplin, this opening number clocking in over seven minutes starts out orchestrally and segues quickly into a mix of rock, spacey keys and Arthurian era instrumentation. Vocals throughout the album are handled by Ashley Hold and Gary Pickford Hopkins who trade off throughout this number, augmented by The English Chamber Choir. Portions of this piece have been used almost exclusively since 1979 as theme music for the BBC’s election night TV coverage.
Lady of the Lake
The only number shorter than five minutes is in fact not even a minute long. Choir singers under the direction of Choirmaster Guy Protheroe are the sole performers of this segue number into the next.
Guinevere:
Wakeman’s lone piano opens this beautiful number for merely a moment before fading into silence. This follows with a memorable Mellotron refrain that practically paints a mental picture of the queen of surpassing beauty. The vocals here are slightly thin in the mix and don’t hold up well under the rest of the performers. A great bass line from Roger Newell however shines through and helps propel the number effectively. At the four-minute mark, Wakeman goes off on an analog synth solo that effectively dates this album smack dab in the prog heyday of the 70’s, which is by no means a bad thing. I personally would love to see a Mellotron/Moog resurgence in the 21st century.
Siir Lancelot and the Black Knight
Orchestra and choir blare forth and are quickly joined by the rock band and a much improved vocal performance from the previous number. The most up-tempo number thus far on the album, it tells the tale of the most loyal of Arthur’s knights (yeah, except for that whole tryst with Guinevere, but we won’t dwell on that) in his battle against the dreaded Black Knight. You can almost picture the two dueling with their swords during the instrumental sections. Wakeman’s Mellotron noodling is amazing here. The instrumentation behind him is just as effective. Were this to be resurrected as a stage (instead of ice) performed musical, there would be very little rearranging that needed to be done to make this an effective piece in that form.
Merlin the Magician
If this album had a “hit” in the traditional sense, this would be the one, as this instrumental makes appearances on Wakeman’s various greatest hits volumes. The male voices of the choir open the piece with a dour tone, which sounds like monks of Arthurian England. There is a brief piano flourish and another pause of silence. Seconds later bass, key and guitar form a haunting, magical melody that dances between the left and right speakers like a will o’ the wisp on the moors. Only in 1975 could a bass line be so prominent in the mix of an album and truly help drive the number rather than being buried beneath the other instruments. Once again, Wakeman’s keys explode in their analog goodness, dueling against his acoustic piano refrain like a magician battling his evil doppelganger.
Sir Galahad
The voice choir is back to introduce this movement exactly as the previous, followed by the piano overture present throughout. This is soon followed by a bouncy riff that owes more than a little to the live performances of Emerson, Lake and Palmer in terms of style, though the guitar riffing of Jeffrey Crampton sets it apart and propels the track effectively. Again, this number suffers from thin sounding vocals, both in performance and mix.
The Last Battle
At nearly ten minutes long, this longest and final track on the album closes it appropriately. Softly opening with bells and vocals, the song is quickly accentuated by Wakeman’s sound as it builds up in intensity like knights readying themselves for battle. The combination of classical and rock orchestras is most effective here. Rick Wakeman’s synth solo through the middle portion is so good; you almost wish it were a shorter, stand-alone number itself. Terry Taplin is back as the number winds down, closing the performance with additional narration.
 
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