Rick Wakeman’s Quadraphonic Arthurian Legend

Wakeman_Arthur_QuadRick Wakeman’s third album, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975), is a masterpiece of orchestral progressive rock. It’s also the first time Wakeman made a studio album sporting all of his gear, with complete orchestra, English Chamber Choir and ‘Nottingham Festival’ vocal group, given that prior release Journey to the Center of the Earth was recorded live, not in studio, and subsequent conceptual album No Earthly Connection skipped the complete orchestral treatment. Thus Arthur stands as a milestone in Rick’s early career, and is one of the greatest demonstrations of the potential of symphonic rock and the “concept” album ever recorded.   From the opening narrative “Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil, is the trueborn King of all Britain” to the closing refrain from singer Ashley Holt, “gone are the days of the Knights” on “The Last Battle”, the album fuels the imagination about these times, while sonically amazing us throughout.

Rick and The English Rock Ensemble Photo @Bob Elsdale

Rick’s playing on the record is fantastic – between the beautiful grand piano, amazing synth leads, and other keyboards, it stands the test of time as a favorite for many fans. Listen to Rick’s piano and harpsichord backing “Arthur”, to his Moog synth leads on “Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight” and “Merlin” and throughout, it’s a magic voyage. This would be the last record to include Gary Pickford Hopkins on vocals, and he hits some of his best leads and harmonies while accompanying Ashley, who stayed on as lead vocalist for the English Rock Ensemble. While some fans decried the melodramatic sound of these vocalists, it could be argued that their presentation was most fitting to Rick’s concept albums, resembling something plucked from the rock theater of the time – think Hair or Godspell and you’ve got the sound they achieved – to these ears amazing.

Engineered by Paul Tregurtha, Arthur always sounded amazing on record. Rick’s keys, including piano, harpsichord and moog synthesizers, were frequently heard alternating left to right and back in the field of sound to psychedelic effect, definitely making this a record to love on headphones, and one of the greatest uses of stereo sound at the time. The LP was even released in “quadraphonic” sound for the few audiophiles back in the 70’s who were set up with four speakers and the required gear.

Over the years there have been numerous re-releases of Arthur on CD, from bare bones sell-through to paper sleeve editions and beyond. The feature of this latest Universal Music release is the inclusion of quad mixes on a second DVD. The complete list of mixes:

96/24 MLP lossless remastered Stereo
96/24 MLP lossless 5.1 remastered Quad
DTS 96/24 5.1 remastered Quad
Dolby Digital 5.1 remastered Quad

While the quad versions may appeal to some, particularly those looking to recreate their experience with that format, I found a distracting lack of punch to the sound, and muddiness in the rear channels that spoiled the mix to these ears. In contrast, the MLP lossless Stereo mix is a crystal clear stereo presentation – absolutely stunning and the best I’ve found in the CD format. If you don’t have this music on CD, or your copy is one of the aged sell through versions, this release is a must have.

The set also contains a complete booklet with a new Wakeman interview that includes a teaser indicating we may again see the show staged on ice. In fact, no discussion of Arthur would be complete without recalling that the original concert was staged in London on ice, with 58-piece Orchestra, 48-piece Choir, and 19 ice skaters. Film of this show exists, and can be found on DVD at Gonzo Multimedia.

Wakeman’s King Arthur Live – Recorded live at The Empire Pool Wembley

Wakeman_Empire_PoolIt’s a wonder we have this film of Rick Wakeman presenting the King Arthur story on ice Wembley, then the Empire Pool. Fans will already know the story of how this show came to be, and it’s place in progressive rock history. That we may see it on video, with clear shots of Rick playing piano and other keyboards simultaneously, the stage surrounded by castle walls, and skaters representing the historical figures, is really unbelievable. Early on during one of the opening numbers, Anne Boleyn, for example, Rick takes a moog lead which develops into a monster solo – we see this in detail via bird’s eye view.

After the “ice has been broken” with a few tracks, Rick introduces the centerpiece simply: “this is King Arthur and the myths and legends of the round table.”   With that a voice rings out with to introduce Arthur, and Rick’s synth lead sounding as a trumpet heralding the future King is chilling – a simple but beguiling phrase that introduces the majestic framing melody of the whole piece. As the vocals to Arthur begin, we get the best shot on film of Ashley and Gary delivering their parts, and when they hit the segment “a churchyard in the wood, the sword and anvil stood, and Arthur drew the sword out of the stone” the orchestra, choir, bells and entirety of the band bring the accompaniment to wild crescendos.

With Guinevere, we get the first effective use of the ice, with a royally clad skater Pat Pauley playing the queen, and her court attending, the queen actually pulling off some athletic, flowing moves. By the time we get to Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight, everyone is tuned in and warmed up – we get skaters clad as horsemen atop steed, in an effective use of costuming. The use of skaters to illustrate the story is well done – not Olympic grade, but nicely presented and fun to see.

From one perspective, the whole Arthur show could be considered a folly, and indeed it’s been cited as an example of progressive rock excess, making a few lists, and possibly recalling a bit of Spinal Tap. But for those of us who were fascinated by the potential of rock theater, who loved Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis, and the very visual, poetic stories they told, this was the golden age of art in rock, and Rick stood firmly at the center of this movement, as a shining example of what was possible. This video captures it, and comes highly recommended.

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