By early 1976, Rick Wakeman was feeling the pinch. Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table had both been huge successes, but the combined weight of both projects (allied to the live pageants that went with them – orchestras, ice rinks, castles and all) had cost a fortune to produce. It hardly came as a surprise, then, that his next album was a comparatively modest affair, at least by his own extravagant standards.
Recorded at the famous Château d’Hérouville outside Paris, just prior to Bowie and Iggy turning up to record The Idiot, No Earthly Connection is the black sheep in Wakeman’s 70s oeuvre. Gone was the symphonic pomp that had defined his most recent work, replaced instead by the more prosaic approach of the six-piece English Rock Ensemble. Also absent is the reliance on historical faction as a creative spur, Wakeman preferring to delve into the realm of abstract theory and inter-dimensional worlds, what he described on the sleeve as a “futuristic, autobiographical look at music, the part it plays in our pre-Earth, human and after life”. The music press, he noted drily, thought he’d gone mad.
- Rick Wakeman: I might be washing my hair on Rock Hall night
- Rick Wakeman Quiz
- Watch Rick Wakeman's piano performance of The Beatles' Help
- Rick Wakeman: "I was going to die unless I stopped smoking and drinking…"
In truth, No Earthly Connection offers a feast of elaborate and well-planned stylistic turns, dominated by the half-hour suite, Music Reincarnate. Part I: The Warning manages to compress most of them into mini-epic form, a series of connected pieces that range from monastic harmonies to busy horns and prog-funk grooves. There’s an engaging sense of fun at play too. Part II: The Maker is a largely tranquil interlude with waterfall effects, apparently the sound of the entire band pissing in a metal bathtub in the cellar.
Vocalist Ashley Holt fluctuates skilfully between an ominous bellow and a keening flutter. Wakeman, meanwhile, exerts his authority as an astonishing virtuoso on keyboard-heavy tunes such as The Prisoner and The Lost Cycle, the latter finally exploding in a torrent of brass. Though perhaps the best thing here is the thoroughly weird Part V: The Reaper, on which he conjures up banks of disquieting effects over an evil pulse. Not everyone welcomed his new musical directive, but No Earthly Connection is a crucial record in Wakeman’s canon. “It created more controversy than any other album I’ve made,” he remarked later. “It’s either loved or hated.”
This expanded reissue arrives with a live bonus disc from the Hammersmith Odeon in ’76, recorded for the BBC, plus extensive liner notes and a fresh interview with Wakeman by Prog editor, Jerry Ewing.
Seriously, what’s not to love?