The first thing to mention is how much The Red Planet was anticipated. I ordered my copy on March 8th, thinking that the limited edition vinyl was probably close to being sold out as the original release date was April 2nd. A flurry of emails on April 3rd, initially indicating that the digital download of the album was available and then clarifying that the release had been put back to an anticipated date of May 23rd due to ‘difficulties with the supply chain’ – presumably due to Covid-19. On May 8th I got an email informing me that the date had been put back again, to June 27th, and the LP finally crept in two days earlier. It’s hard not to be impressed with Music Glue’s efforts to keep its customers informed of the situation, but I’m really pleased I didn’t sign up for the ‘Vice Admiral’ Playback event at the National Space Centre which was to have taken place on April 4th, now scheduled for August 22nd.
The second thing to mention is the LP sleeve. We’d been promised instrumental prog with a 70’s feel but I had no idea the inside gatefold was going to feature a pop-up spaceman! A continuation of the Stand Up (Jethro Tull, 1969), One Live Badger (Badger, 1973) themes, Wakeman has gone all out to put us in the mood for 70’s prog.
Dedicated to all things Mars, The Red Planet represents another aspect of Wakeman’s fascination with space, having previously released No Earthly Connection (1976) and Out There (2003).
The double vinyl plays at 45 rpm and has two tracks on each side with each piece over five minutes long, placing the concept firmly into The Six Wives of Henry VIII territory. Opener Ascraeus Mons is an early indication that Wakeman is well on his way to fulfilling the stated aim of producing an instrumental prog album; it features a church organ sound making it reminiscent of Judas Iscariot (from Criminal Record, 1977). Unfortunately, the drumming is a little uninspired and stompy but there’s nice development with guitar making its introduction right at the end of the track.
Tharsis Tholus is the real deal, with angular guitar breaks interrupting some strong melodic lines referencing Wakeman’s time at the beginning of his career with Yes. The music involves the whole band so that it doesn’t simply sound like a star keyboard player supported by bass, drums and guitar, and the range of tones used – a nice Hammond sound, Mellotron, an archetypal Wakeman Moog solo (think The Myths and Legends of King Arthur) – make it an impressive track.
Arsia Mons includes some nice variation. Beginning with an up-tempo riff-driven introduction, this gives way to strummed acoustic guitar accompanied by Mellotron and Lee Pomeroy’s subtle but effective bass work. The introductory riff is reprised before giving way to a Spanish guitar section backed with psychedelic keyboards and ends with a cinematic synth wash.
South Pole embraces prog-electronica, with a sedate melody reminiscent of Vangelis or late 70’s Tangerine Dream but this develops into rhapsodic solo piano – Wakeman has a knack of knowing when to most effectively use piano within the context of a prog band and once again pulls it off here, until a slightly unsatisfactory rhythm break re-establishes the electronica.
The North Plain commences with an atmospheric introduction with distant, reverbed acoustic piano and sparse gong or bell like chimes before the band pick up a hard rock riff with excellent Hammond playing – a style intrinsic to keyboard-led early 70’s bands and a sound that was adopted by many of the first wave of progressivo italiano groups - before Wakeman indulges in a jazzy synth solo. More spacey, atmospheric electronica follows an angular break, before a reprisal of the hard rock riffing with organ. Dave Colquhoun is even allowed a brief guitar solo which though expressive, never strays into self-indulgence.
Pavonis Mons is the track with the least development of all the material on the album and consequently goes on a little too long. The rhythm pattern lacks invention though there are all too brief breaks that call to mind Six Wives or Criminal Record. The main synthesizer riff/ melody line with Mellotron backing is pleasant enough, but the highlight is another traditional Wakeman Moog solo.
Perhaps the most reminiscent of the arrangements on Six Wives is penultimate track Olympus Mons. Pacy and filled with variation, it exudes a vibe of 1973 and the contribution from the band, especially the bass, is first class.
Final track Valles Marineris is just over ten minute long. Taking the form of a bolero, the opening section is a bit like Holst with a twist where drums and bass mete out a tricky time signature with twittering synth followed by guitar and Mellotron laid over the top. While the rhythm continues a flute-like melody evolves into synth brass and back again. This marks the only point on the album where the choice of keyboard patches fails to please, but only until the introduction of bright analogue synthesizer. This reverts to the modern-sounding synth melody before piano makes a brief appearance and the album is resolved with the new-age-like melody.
Overall, the album is an impressive piece of work which fulfils Wakeman’s vision of a keyboard-heavy instrumental prog album along the lines of Six Wives; it’s good that there are no lyrics to worry about, one of his weak points and the reason I’m not over-fond of works like Journey to the Centre of the Earth. His choice of supporting musicians is to be applauded, as they form a well-balanced unit despite recording their parts in different studios – the well executed production and mixing by Erik Jordan and Toby Wood deserve a mention - although Ash Soan’s drum sound is not entirely to my taste; the album certainly sounds like classic prog. So how good is it on the Wakeman scale (bearing in mind I’m a huge fan of Six Wives)? On a single listen, when I was typing these notes, I’d suggest it doesn’t have the variation or development of themes compared to Six Wives, but it's easily on par with the criminally under-rated Criminal Record.
The Red Planet pop-up inner gatefold