Review Summary: One of the rare instances that ambition and quality manage to coincide.
It’s impossible to deny Rick Wakeman’s significance in the field of progressive rock. One of the major forces that pushed Yes, one of prog’s most lauded ensembles, from mediocrity into greatness (after his departure from the band, one can argue that back into mediocrity they fell), he was one of the most important characters during the genesis of the genre. However, despite his importance, much of the general public is entirely oblivious to his extensive solo career, a shame, because within, one can find many, if not most, of his greatest opuses. The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
is one of them.
Arguably his greatest moment (at the very least, it’s his best solo release), The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
is a work as ambitious as it is fascinating. Every weapon in Wakeman’s large arsenal is used, and the songs find themselves filled with impossibly lush arrangements. Harpsichords, synths, organs, pianos, guitars, and atmospheric vocals converge to create sweeping, majestic compositions which, despite the incredible amount of simultaneous sounds, never turn into indiscernible walls of sound and always stay focused, and the pianist’s unique blend of classical and progressive music makes this album’s melodies some of the most rewarding in the genre.
What’s most interesting about The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
is arguably not the melodic content (although all of the melodies are exceptionally well-written), but the concept. The album strives to create character sketches of each of King Henry VIII’s six wives, as the title implies, but what truly makes this concept so fascinating is that these portraits are entirely instrumental. Not a single word is spoken throughout the album’s duration, and yet, by it’s end, the listener is able to completely understand Wakeman’s interpretation of each woman’s many-sided character.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of these character sketches is Wakeman’s manipulation of subtle details. Take for example Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Howard: the two women both display a playfulness and tenderness, but the former’s character is milder and tinged with a slight sense of mystery, while the latter’s is joyously triumphant and open. Such small differences make the two pieces sound radically different, thus showing the finer difference between the wives.
The tone of each piece differs from that of the next: whereas Jane Seymour is harsh, cold and domineering, Anne Of Cleves is mysterious, chaotic, and often historical, and Catherine Parr is graceful, yet also jovial and strong. The personalities of all of the five women discussed above are united in one composition: Anne Boleyn. The elegance, mystery, joy, disorder, and rigidity seen in the other pieces combine into one monumental, multifaceted composition that may just be the twentieth century’s greatest musical interpretation of a historical character.
Thus, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII
can easily be seen as progressive rock’s most interesting instrumental opus. Every single melody is finely crafted with the greatest care, and all of the useless, meandering fat so commonly associated with the genre (and with many of Wakeman’s weaker works) is trimmed, which makes this an essential release for all those interested in contemporary instrumental music.