A strident church organ heralds our first contact with Rick Wakeman’s planetary opus that carries us on an exciting journey into space that lands safely on Mars. The opening salvo called ‘Ascraeus Mons’ is one of eight compositions inspired by the many striking Martian features discovered by NASA during 50 years spent exploring the mysterious Red Planet.
Our cosmonaut of the keyboards is accompanied by a crew of bold young musicians who comprise the current version of the English Rock Ensemble. It’s a group that has embarked on many of Wakeman’s past musical adventures including the revival of his ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ in July 2019.
His latest recruits are Dave Colquhoun (guitars), Lee Pomeroy (bass) and Ash Soan (drums) and they are heard firing on all rocket boosters as they help Rick launch his compositions to greater heights of creativity.
Rick’s latest musical odyssey was inspired by his long held fascination with the exploits of NASA’s Mariner 9 orbiters and subsequent Rover missions. They were sent to explore, photograph and investigate the origins of the plains, canyons and mountains on Mars that have been discovered since the early 1970s.
Ascraeus Mons is a large shield volcano, 59,793 feet high and the tallest of three volcanoes in the Tharsis region of Mars, discovered by Mariner 9 in 1971.The musical mood is suitably adventurous with Ashley Soan’s drums setting up a marching beat that spurs on both Rick’s keyboards and Dave Colquhoun’s guitar. The menacing melody with its sombre descending chords and ghostly ‘vocals’ chorus pays homage to Ascraeus which would have been hailed as home to a God of the mountains, if Martians existed in ancient times.
‘Tharsus Tholus’ is equally mysterious but more restrained. Rick contrives a flute like effect to establish the melody while Lee Pomeroy’s stately bass pursues a chain of notes that resolve into a swirling eddy depicting the smoke that might once have vented from the mouth of this medium sized volcano. ‘Tholus ‘incidentally is Greek for a circular building with a conical roof. ‘Tharsis’ has its origins in the mythical land to be found at the extremity of the known world.
‘Arsia Mons’ is more upbeat and powerful as befits the most southerly of the three volcanoes to be found on the Tharsis Bulge at the equator. After all it is 12.4 miles high with a massive great caldera at the summit. Dave offers a splendidly sensitive acoustic guitar interlude and coda betwixt Rick’s stomping centre piece riffing alongside Pomeroy’s charging bass lines. A mysterious cloud was reported over the volcano’s summit in July 2020.
ROCK GODS OF MARS
Even bigger than Arsia Mons is the mighty ‘Olympus Mons’ which is Latin for ‘Mount Olympus’. This towering volcano, largest in the Solar System, is 13.6 miles high, two and a half times higher than Mount Everest. Thrill seekers would be ill advised to attempt trips to its summit, even with Sherpa guides. The drummer stokes up internal fire with a blazing intro and Rick plays exuberantly fast and furious choruses paying allegiance to the majesty of the gods that dwell therein.
High speed synth and organ runs and massive chords show his dazzling technique retains all its old magic. Ash Soan’s drumming here too is masterly and neatly locks in with Lee’s ever attentive bass. ‘Olympus’ comes to an abrupt halt. It’s as if the rocky throne has been suddenly vacated and the supplicant musicians summarily dismissed.
Undaunted, the English Rock Ensemble climb down the mountain and roam further afield. Now they cross ‘The North Plain’ a vast area of lowlands that cover one third of the planet and geologists suppose was once a depository for sediment and volcanic flows.
It feels decidedly spooky out on the musical ‘Plain’. Rick’s darkly mysterious notes and tolling bell tones somehow suggest our explorers are hopelessly lost in the desert clouds of red, red dust. But they gird up their space suits, pump oxygen into their helmets and boldly go ever onwards, perhaps seeking the sanctuary of a dome fit for colonists.
The complicated arrangement reaches a climax before returning to the eerie mood sustained by shimmering cymbals. A rising crescendo of sustained notes is contrasted by a blazing finale with Dave’s solo guitar taking off into heavy rock mode. You can well imagine the band performing ‘Northern Plain ‘live’ on stage in concert, with back projections, special effects and clouds of dry ice. Bring it on!
THE GRAND FINALE
Track 6 ‘Pavonis Mons’ leaps into a strutting beat with a merry, optimistic folk like theme , which suggests our Earthlings have been refreshed after a drop off at the Martian equivalent of a service station. ‘Pavonis Mons’ is Latin for Peacock mountain and it’s another shield volcano in the Tharsis region that straddles the equator and was discovered in 1971. Watch out for Rick’s exultant synth chorus before the slowed down ending when the peacock spreads its feathers with pride.
We all know where the South Pole is, until you happen to be a BBC TV ‘Egg Heads’ celebrity team contestant. ‘South Pole’ commences with a carefully controlled snare drum roll from chief engineer Soan, the crew member who keeps everyone on track in these uncharted territories. Actually they have been charted now – by NASA.
But this whole musical adventure does give you the strange feeling you are actually on the Red Planet with Major Rick and his handpicked team. His celebratory piano solo when they reach the Pole is a delight as is the haunting melody that pervades an hypnotic performance.
‘Valles Marineris’ at 10.02 minutes is the longest piece on a record that demands repeated plays and may yet prove one of the 21st century’s best selling Prog-Rock albums. The actual Valles Marineris is located on the equator on the east side of the Tharsis Bulge that stretches for nearly a quarter of the planet’s circumference. Its 2,500 miles long, 120 miles wide and 23,000 feet deep.
It clearly fills Rick and the band with awe as the drums’n’bass set up an insistent bolero rhythm from soon joined by Dave’s commanding guitar. As the piece moves toward a looser exposition of the various unfolding themes, there seems to be light on the horizon. There is hope for our Earthlings as they travel through the vastness of the Marineris some now believe is a tectonic crack in the Martian crust.
Geology aside, this is a brilliantly conceived composition that evolves like a symphony with suggestions of flutes and strings tastefully brought into the mix. There is a hint of Gustav Holst about the grand finale, but what better way to end our virtual voyage to the ‘Red Planet’?
If ever a rock band does eventually land on Mars, sets up their instruments and plays it should undoubtedly be the English Rock Ensemble, led by our man in the glittering cape… and space suit. CHRIS WELCH Earth 2020
Footnote: With thanks to Wikipedia for volcanic facts and figures.