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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Rick Wakeman

Live at Hammersmith

Review by Gary Hill

This live album from 1985 captures Rick Wakeman and his band performing tracks from his Six Wives of Henry the VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur albums. The live sound here is solid, but I have always felt that those particular studio albums felt a bit flat. This recording shows a bit more punch, but still feels like the recording has a flat texture. The two musicians who stand out the most here are Wakeman himself, of course, and guitarist Rick Fenn. They both put in killer performances, while vocalist Gordon Neville is the weak point of the band. The rest of the group put in competent if not fiery showings. The end result here is a solid live album capturing one period of Wakeman's solo work. It has both strong and weak points, coming across as a good, but not great release.

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Track by Track Review
Arthur
After starting with percussion, Wakeman brings in the first musical them with his keys. The band work through this mode. It gets a bit playful at times, then drops to a more sparsely arranged rocking segment that makes up the verse. This doesn't wander for until a section based on the word "Fight" enters. Then a new fast paced jam ensues with many of the players getting a chance to show off a bit. This eventually gives way to the return of the original themes. It then works its way back through the to the past paced jam, this time giving way to a new section that moves eventually to near silence. This begins a slow building in a new slower verse mode. As it progresses Wakeman gets in a smoking solo. Then it moves back to the themes from the beginning. That serves as the conclusion to this 13 minute plus cut.
Three Wives
An almost funky section begins this nearly 17 minute compilation of pieces from Wakeman's Six Wives album. It then runs into a segment that he has often used in his solo on Yes tours. This eventually works through to more song structured elements, then giving way to a slower transitioning movement. As this ends the next segment bursts out, but only for a short jam. Next a series of changes takes the piece before a strong rock and roll segment, complete with a meaty bluesy guitar solo takes over. This eventually gives way to the mellower sounds of the net movement, this eventually transitioning back up before dropping back again. Then all-new rocking section emerges. This one is shows of elements of early rock and roll at times, while still showcasing the prog textures that Rick Wakeman is so famous for. This jam takes on a lot of changes and is very cool. More alterations lead to a new dramatic section based on a staccato rhythmic pattern. Then some new keyboard jamming emerges. This new instrumental excursion is quite strong. This resolves to a very powerful new melody. The band takes this into another new jam. This one is also quite strong and coherent. At times this closely resembles some of the themes from the previous cut. Wakeman lays down some very tasty keys here, but the vocals are a bit weak. Fortunately rather than being lyrical, they are more like an instrument playing. A killer noisy keyboard segment severs as a transition to a mellow and poignant Wakeman solo. This eventually changes direction moving in a playful piano solo. It then enhances into something akin to a Beethoven sonata. The classical modes continue as Wakeman keeps building new themes on his solo. Piano ends this without the accompaniment ever returning.
Journey
At almost 22 minutes, no one can call this short, but it is actually a series of excerpts from the Journey… CD. As such it is rather drastically reduced in length. Because this encompasses many moments of the studio album, it is very dynamic, moving through different song structures. Personally I think the vocal performances are the weakest portions here. Although I do enjoy the Journey to the Centre of the Earth album, I have always felt that Wakeman's choice of band members has had its shortcomings. While all the musicians are certainly adequate, it really feels as if the only two who played with a passion are Wakeman and guitarist Rick Fenn. Vocalist Gordon Neville is certainly the weakest link here. At his best he calls to mind Roger Daltrey, but more often than not his performance is sorely lacking in power and passion. Still, Wakeman shows his interest in song structure over star power in allowing all the band the spot at the spotlight throughout. Although there are some powerful segments here, if anything the punctuated format weakens the composition by making those sections too short. I would say that only the full album take on this can do it justice, but both Wakeman and Fenn put in very strong performances, and the arrangement definitely does have its moments. It's just a bit uneven and inconsistent. One extended jam is the highlight of the piece. This is basses on a driving bass pattern and features some of Wakeman's coolest jamming on show here. Fortunately they take their time with this part of the piece, then move it into a playful enterprise that borrows heavily from "The Hall of The Mountain King". Even the resolution out of this holds onto the previous strength. This serves as the outro and would have been extremely strong were it not for the vocals.
Merlin
Another cut from Wakeman's King Arthur disc, this starts slowly and dramatically, gradually building. The guitar on this intro, while understated is very intriguing. The cut moves into a slower, pretty segment that gives way to a fast paced segment that is one of hardest rocking parts of the album. Then Wakeman fires out with a frantic solo. This cut has quite a dynamic and fun arrangement. At less than 8 minutes it is both the shortest piece here and arguably the strongest. Wakeman is purely on fire here.
 
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