Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review of Rick Wakeman's "The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table"

I posted this review a couple of hours ago on the Sputnik Music site.

Review Summary: "Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true-born king of all Britain."

The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is the quintessential British legend. At least, that's how it's always seemed to this American, gazing across the pond. It has something for everyone: action, romance, magic, betrayal...and a tragic ending. It's a story about attempting to do something so great and noble that even in failure, the world becomes a better place just because of the effort. In America, supporters of the late President John F. Kennedy called his brief term in office "Camelot" because they believed in the ideals he stood for, even though his life was cut too short to actually accomplish many of them. Similarly, keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman's The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is, in some ways, the quintessential progressive rock album. It contains all of the pretensions and excess that later caused music fans to turn away from the prog rock genre. It is also magnificent.

Myths was Wakeman's third solo album, if you don't count 1971's Piano Vibrations (and I don't), and also his third concept album. It followed the instrumental work The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which put him on the map as a solo artist, and the hugely successful live album Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which made him such a big star that it became a joke among his Yes bandmates how much better Wakeman was treated by his label A&M Records than the rest of the band was treated by Atlantic. However, as interesting as the story of Henry VIII's wives might be, and as much fantastic and magical imagery there might be in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth novel, with Myths and Legends, Wakeman had the richest source material of his career.

Wakeman seemed to approach Myths in much the same way he did Journey. He kept the same two lead vocalists, Garry Pickford-Hopkins and Ashley Holt; used both an orchestra and a choir (trading in Journey's London Symphony Orchestra for the New World Orchestra, and keeping the English Chamber Choir for both); and replaced Journey's narrator David Hemmings with a narrator who sounds so much like him to me that it was years before I discovered it was actually Terry Taplin providing the narration for Myths. What he got for his troubles was an album that was highly commercially successful (reaching #2 in the UK and #21 in the U.S.), although not quite as successful as Journey (which had reached #1 in the UK and #2 in the U.S.). Artistically, though, I believe he exceeded both of his previous albums. At its best, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur is transcendent.

There are only seven songs on the album, and I'm mostly going to talk about three of them. Two of them are among the best songs the genre ever produced, but to fully appreciate them, you first have to be familiar with the other one.

The album begins with Taplin's declaration which I've quoted in the review summary above, "Whoso pulleth out this sword...". It then launches into the song "Arthur", which not only serves as the introduction to the story, but also establishes the main musical theme of the work which will be repeated in various forms later on. "Arthur" explains how the young squire Arthur was sent by his master, Sir Kay, to find a sword. He finds the sword Excalibur stuck in a stone, and pulls it out, unaware that by doing so, he has just become the King of Britain.

The music of "Arthur" is powerful and majestic. It establishes right from the beginning that the musical journey you're about to embark on is a grand one. My only criticism is this: it's a little too Gilligan's Island, lyrically, if not musically. What I mean by this is you can easily imagine it as the opening theme to some kind of wacky half-hour television comedy that will be repeated each week, just to remind you of the set-up of the story you're about to watch ("Just sit right back/And you'll hear a tale/A tale of a tiny king ..."). If Monty Python and the Holy Grail had been a weekly sitcom ... well, no, their theme song would have been much sillier, but I think you can see what I mean. "Arthur" is so obviously serving a function, that of setting up the rest of the album, that it detracts just a little from the song itself. 

The song "Guinevere" has no such problem. This track tells the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot, and it's exquisite. "Guinevere" begins with a short and beautiful piano piece that actually sounds like it would have fit perfectly in Six Wives. It then launches into a slow piano bit that is overlaid by a synthesized version of the eight notes from the album's grand theme first established in "Arthur". The song is slow, and a little sad ... the listener knows how things eventually work out for Guinevere and Lancelot, and the music reflects that. Still, it gives you a sense of Guinevere's great beauty ("Golden tresses shining in the air/Spread against the Jasper Sea"), and of Lancelot's passion for her ("All his love he gave her/Fought through quests to save her"). The song can definitely stand on its own merits. But that familiarity with the album's main musical theme just lends it that much more power.

The other truly great song from Myths and Legends is the last one, appropriately titled "The Last Battle". The circumstances under which it was written are worth relating. Wakeman, at age twenty-five, suffered a mild attack. As he recovered in the hospital, his doctor suggested he would need to retire from his musical career if he wanted to live. That night, while still in the hospital, Wakeman decided to ignore his doctor's advice and began writing "The Last Battle." It's no stretch of the imagination to guess that much of the power of the song comes from his own brush with mortality.

It begins with the lyrics "Gone are the days of the knights", and proceeds to tell you how Arthur's reign ended. The song is slow and somber, yet completely majestic. As the Saxons pour into Britain and overwhelm the remaining knights of the round table, Arthur and his son, the traitorous Mordred, see each other on the battlefield and fight to the death. The song mixes the "Gone are the days" theme with the album's main theme, and Taplin narrates the end of the story, beginning (in a moment that still gives me chills) "Sir Hector, Sir Bors, Sir Bladwain and Sir Berboris, the only surviving knights of the round table, ended their days, after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land." He goes on to explain that although the dream was over, many believed Arthur would return someday to save Britain "in the hour of its deadliest danger." He closes his story by recounting that in later years, Arthur's tomb was discovered by the monks of Glastonbury, with a simple inscription "Here lies King Arthur in his tomb, with Guinevere, his wife, in the Isle of Avalon." Pickford-Hopkins and Holt then sing their final "Gone are the days..." chorus, followed by a grand musical ending that includes a series of descending key changes, lofty, full-throated singing by the choir, and Wakeman's synthesizer imitation of the sound of birds crying, before the orchestra reaches a flamboyant finish. It's a stunning piece of music, grandiose but poignant.

The rest of the album is worthwhile also. "Merlyn the Magician" is probably the best known number from the album, but while parts of it are beautiful, there's a comical "Keystone Cops" sounding piece in the middle that taints the song for me. 

After Myths and Legends, Wakeman toned down his ambitions, possibly out of physical necessity given his health issues, or maybe for financial reasons, since both Journey and Myths and Legends cost him a fortune to make and take on tour. Regardless, none of his later solo work ever reached the Gold Album status of Six WivesJourney and Myths and Legends. Of these three albums, each a progressive rock masterpiece in its own way, I've always loved Myths and Legends best. He reached for the stars on this one, and to me, he largely succeeded.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars