They had names like ELP and Yes, simple monikers which often hid a massive sonic landslide of musical invention. Formed out of a desire to push the very envelope of instrumentation and steeped in a "veddy British" love of all things pomp, circumstantial, and classical, the newly named "prog rock" ruled the charts in the days before disco, before punk declared every long hair with a penchant of an extended solo or concept album a "dinosaur." Today, these performances and performers are appreciated for how much skill and aural slight of hand was invested in their efforts - no more so than the inventive keyboardists who took a fledgling device known as a "synthesizer" and redefined the entire 33&1/3 experience. Such pioneers as Keith Emerson, Brian Eno, and Rick Wakeman used their place as part of seminal bands to bolster their profile while broadening the auditory countryside. With his new concert Blu-ray release, the former tamer of Tales from Topographical Oceans gets a chance to recreate one of his most famous individual efforts, and the results are as regal as the subject matter it's based upon.
It took 36 years to get permission to play at Hampton Court. When he first composed this multi-tracked paean to one of Britain's most beloved rulers, Rick Wakeman was hemmed in by two technological factors beyond his control. One - each song (celebrating a different bride of the UK's "eighth" Henry) could only be a certain length. Because a vinyl LP could only hold about 22 minutes of music per side, he had to hem in this composition goals for each. Two - a proposed tune for the King himself had to be scrapped when the main material ate up both sides of the standard long player. Unfinished and unrealized, it became one of the main reasons why, if he couldn't perform at Hampton Court Castle, he would never play the pieces live at all. That was 1973. Luckily, the 500 anniversary of Henry VIII in 2009 allowed cooler heads to prevail. Wakeman was allowed to revisit the opus and, for once, fill in all the blanks - including the long lost ode to the "Defender of the Faith." The result is this two hour plus trip into undeniable aural bliss.
As with many such performance pieces, the origins of the work are as fascinating - or sometimes, even more so - than the actual product itself. In this case, a 23 year old Wakeman was offered the chance at a solo career, his record-breaking efforts with Yes spawning the first of many waves in what would later be called "progressive rock". Inspired by a book on the reign of Henry VIII that he picked up at the airport, he was immediately taken with musical themes and melodies for each of the monarch's six wives. Before long, the instrumental opus (sans an important component) was laid before a group of eager studio executives. Their stone-faced response? "It will sound great once you lay the vocals in." (cue ironic "wah, wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaaaaaah" noise). Of course, the nimrods in '70s business suits were clueless about the audience's taste at the time. Six Wives would go on to sell millions of albums, and Wakeman would go on to follow up this success with two more wildly imaginative and popular albums (Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Legend of King Arthur).
Wives would remain an unfulfilled legacy for Wakeman however, his inability to adequately complete the piece dogging him until this 2009 spectacle. Take it from this old school prog nut, it was well worth the wait. Sure, Wakeman's muse suffers from the same frilly fill-up spacey stresses that make every other run seem like a Bach Toccata times ten. Fingers fly over the keys so quickly that you initially become disoriented. There are no traditional "songs" here, no 'verse/chorus/verse' hits you can hum along to. No, what Wakeman and his ilk were expert in was creating mood, a sense of time and place, an overall thematic resonance, and a true passion for the ability to "play" an instrument. In fact, all the participants here, from the ancient percussionist Ray Cooper to Wakeman's own son truly shine. Even actor Brian Blessed, brought in to bring a bit of roguish charm to the thankless job of introducing each composition, is clever in his devil may care, let's celebrate the bugger behavior.
But it's the music you will remember long after the flash has faded. Wakeman's Wives has a unique combination of conceits, an attempt to be both beholden to the classics while clearly aiming at the dark side of the moon mind expansion recreational pharmaceutical crowd of the time. Layer upon layer of sound is built, guitars meshing with chamber choirs, electronic "farts" fighting with a full blown orchestra to maintain Wakeman's vision. Standouts included the various versions of "Tudorock", the new piece for Henry (entitled "Defender of the Faith"), wonderful evocations of "Jane Seymour", "Katherine Parr", "Anne of Cleves", and the masterful "Anne Boleyn". Will there be some who hear this array of solos and explorative stretches and believe that Wakeman is mocking everything they love about rock music? Certainly. Will others find the whole thing as dated as the concept album ideal itself? You bet. Still, as an illustration of what one man can conjure up when given the time and opportunity to do so, The Six Wives of Henry VIII is amazing. It definitely deserves this imperial technological treatment.
As with most live events, it's the up close shots that reveal the most about the musicians. From complex guitar fingerings to nice overheard shots of Wakeman in full blown concentration mode, the 1080i, 1.78:1 AVC encode is excellent. There is a little flatness in the big stage sequences (while playing in front of an actual castle, the image appears to render the building like a fake backdrop) and the often intense colors of the stage lights can be blinding. Still, for something that frequently has the look and feel of three dimensions, this is an exceptional high definition transfer. Not quite reference quality, but not rubbish either.
Here is something of interest that this critic noticed while going through the various audio options present. For some reason, the standard PCM Stereo 2.0 mix seemed a half beat off with the action on the stage. While not consistent, there were indeed times when drum fills and keyboard riffs appeared a mere step behind the elements being heard on the soundtrack. To confirm this, the far superior DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track was compared and, sure enough, the motions matched perfectly. Maybe it was something in the disc manufacturing, or perhaps toning down the channels challenged the note to notation response. Whatever it is, the 5.1 choice was magnificent (though some sites are now arguing that it is not a true DTS HD Master Audio mix), full bodied and quite rich. There is great separation in the instruments and when everyone including the choir and orchestra get wound up, the results are resplendent.
While slim in the bonus features department, the main bit of added content here is excellent. Wakeman walks us through the making and eventual Hampton Court concert of the album in a friendly backstage featurette. We meet the band, watch them rehearse, and hear many anecdotes about why it took so long to bring this version of Wives to life. Similarly, the excellent insert booklet provides more background information, as well as some much needed liner notes regarding the various musicians and musical societies who appear here.
With millions of fans already in love with his keyboard bank brilliance, Rick Wakeman doesn't need many new converts. Oddly enough, something like the Blu-ray of the live Six Wives of Henry VIII might just be the item that inspires a whole new demographic to check out his outsized ideas. With its wonderful picture and vibrant sound, the technical tweak provided here definitely deserves a Highly Recommended rating. Even better, for those who've waited to hear what Wakeman really had in mind when the life of Henry Tudor and his many brides inspired his writing, this 2009 live concert is the only recorded evidence of the completely expanded piece. Over three decades ago, a young maverick musician with a desire to explore the farthest possibilities of his artform came up with a classic take of British history. Today, Rick Wakeman's Six Wives of Henry VIII: Live at Hampton Court Castle is destined to create a new English mythos all its own.