Rick Wakeman’s “Return to the Centre of the Earth” was a return to greatness.
For all those who know me, I love progressive rock (now called “art” rock). Having grown up listening to classical music for much of my early, impressionable years, when rock music entered into my life it was natural for prog (as I like to call it) to take a front and center seat in my musical life.
I discovered the musician Rick Wakeman when I was introduced to the music of Yes. That band’s music was a perfect blend of virtuosic instrumental playing and singing. One of that band’s chief elements was the keyboard playing that dazzled me in ways I couldn’t begin to describe. Rick Wakeman was “it.”
During Rick’s “on again, off again” time with Yes he demonstrated how extremely prolific he was. Not only was the man a total maestro at the keyboards, but he was also a consummate composer. His time in Yes didn’t necessarily show that as his contributions to their songs as a writer was minimal, but that’s no wonder given that he had enormous opportunity to write his own material outside of the band, and sometimes his musical visions entered into the realm of being epic.
In 1974 he wrote and recorded a massive project called Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This was a monumental piece that pushed the envelope of recording technology; as the entire work was recorded live during a concert in London. That performance became one of his best selling albums in his career. Flash forward to 1991 and Rick had entertained the idea of producing a sequel album, but that idea sort of got initially squashed. However he revisited it in 1996 as various record companies were willing to fund and record this production. After plenty of hiccups, including a nasty one that nearly resulted in Rick’s death due to very poor health, the album was finally released on March 15, 1999.
Taken from the original source material by Jules Verne, Wakeman wrote a new story about three travelers attempting to embark on the same original journey that was taken 200 years earlier. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, they ended up on a different route to the center of the Earth, and ended up having entirely different adventures. After experiencing encounters with giant like cavemen, dinosaurs from different eras, as well as a harrowing chase from balls of fire, they finally reemerge to the surface 3,000 miles from where they began, thus ending their return to the center of the Earth.
When writing this Rick chose to take a somewhat more “operatic” approach to telling this story. With the classic opera form there is always the recitative that helps drive the story, and then some sort of proper singing piece, either an aria or ensemble (duet, trio, etc.) work. Those are the moments that are meant to purely relish in the beauty of the music, but do little to advance the plot. Return does much of the same thing. The work starts with a narration, provided by the always-wonderful sounding Patrick Stewart, describing what our travelers have decided to do after encountering a journal from the original traveler to the center of the Earth, a scholar named Professor Lidenbrook. From there the musical portion takes place in the form of an overture, although not a true one as we understand the word to mean. Usually with a proper overture, especially in musical theater and in some opera, it is used to describe musical ideas and melodies that are to be introduced throughout the work. With Return Rick merely uses it as a means to musically get us into the story, and is done in only the grandest, most sweeping ways that Rick is able to do. From there we receive more narration followed by music, as the entire piece alternates between the two. As Stewart drives the story along, the narration takes a pause to deliver either an instrumental piece or a vocal number to present a sort of commentary on where we are at the story. The song pieces aren’t exactly tied literally to the story, e.g. there is a narration where we learn that our travelers are caught in an underground earthquake, which then takes us to the album’s first solo song titled “Buried Alive” and sung by Ozzy Osbourne. Much later on our travelers, while finding respite from some of their exhausting adventures, close their eyes in prayer. This takes us to the ballad “Still Waters Run Deep,” which again has no true bearing to the story in any lyrical fashion. All of the pieces here could have easily been standalone songs, but the narration (written by Rick) finds a way of connecting them to create a complete story of this journey. Some of the other artists here include Bonnie Tyler, Tony Mitchell, fellow ex-Yes axe man Trevor Rabin, Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, and Katrina Leskanich. The music is fleshed out by Rick himself on a variety of keyboards, as well as a series of rock musicians Rick had never worked with before; Fraser Thorneycroft-Smith (guitar), Phil Williams (bass), and Simon Hanson (drums). Rick, probably in wanting to maintain a musical quality from his recording of Journey, recruited the services of the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir. In what can only be described as a Herculean effort, the entire orchestral score was written and arranged by Rick himself, which is a tribute to the education he received at the Royal College of Music. The choral arrangements were also done by Rick, with assistance from his oldest son, Adam (also a keyboard wiz, along with his younger brother Oliver, in his own right).
While this may not be the most cohesive work as concept albums, it is nonetheless a pure gem. It doesn’t have the type of through narrative such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Dreams in The Witch House, but what Rick has provided is still nothing less than absolutely amazing. He has created a piece that has all of the grandeur that prog loving enthusiasts seek after, but is also totally musically accessible. One does not have to be a fan of progressive rock, but if you enjoy listening to good quality music, with good quality playing, and if you like any of the artists who appear on this recording, then this is something that you will definitely want to add to your music library. Return has earned a permanent place in my iPhone’s music library and I listen to it regularly to this day.
Return to the Centre of the Earth receives 4.5 out of 5 batons!
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