No Earthly Connection
Matched only by Keith Emerson in classic 70s prog rock keyboard wizardry, Rick Wakeman was/is one of the most prominent musicians of the last 50 years. He has not only played with Yes off and on over the past 35 years, but his epic solo albums from the 70s — The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Journey To The Center Of The Earth and Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Roundtable (which was performed live with ice skaters, often regarded as one of the biggest blunders in rock and roll concert history) took on a life on their own. The caped crusading Wakeman was so popular at the time that he tells one story of when Yes flew into some American airport in the mid 70s, with one limo waiting for the members of the band another limo waiting solely for him!
Recorded in France (supposedly for tax reasons) and released in 1976, No Earthly Connection is not as popular as the first three Wakeman releases. It certainly didn’t boast a live show as infamous as the Arthurian extravaganza on ice. Still, No Earthly Connection rates right up there, if for no other reason than this was an exceptionally creative period in the keyboardist’s career. Currently available only on CD as an expensive Japanese import, No Earthly Connection is certainly a lost gem for the ages.
Along with Wakeman and his dizzying array of keyboards (synths, organ, harpsichord, piano, etc.), the 'band' on No Earthly Connection, dubbed the English Rock Ensemble, consists of vocalist Ashley Holt, bassist Roger Newell, John Dunsterville on guitars and mandolin, drummer Tony Fernandez (one of the most underrated in all of rock), and the horns of both Martyn Shields (trumpet, French horn) and Reg Brooks (trombone). This album was more or less a return to form of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, where he employed members of Yes and other rock musicians, but chose not to use the orchestras of Journey To The Center Of The Earth and Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Roundtable.
The album opens with the startling Moog ascending arpeggio of the five-part “Music Reincarnate” suite. The first part (“The Warning”) begins with a low vocal as Wakeman's organ twirls around the laidback beat of Fernandez and the building horns. The remaining verses and bridge serve as a prelude, deftly explaining the spaceman's earthly connection. “The Maker” is an angelic paean between the spaceman and his maker; with spot-on piano work intertwined with a well arranged horn pattern. The sound of water trickling at the end was reportedly the recorded sound effect of someone relieving themselves! “The Spaceman” employs some exotic flavoring, lead by Wakeman and Duntersville. And it is here where we get the push and pull drama of Wakeman's odd little story of our spaceman.
“The Realisation” opens with Holt singing. “It's too late now to help yourself,” supported by a rolling organ and spiking horns. Holt screams this most dramatic piece to end side one of the vinyl record. “The Reaper” The fifth and final part of the “Music Reincarnate” suite, opens the second side (this was back in the day of 25-minute vinyl time restrictions). The spaceman is now defeated but not out as Wakeman and company unit behind Holt, reprising the themes to bring the spaceman back to life.
The album’s second song, “The Prisoner,” is led by Newell’s bass, which is extremely high in the mix throughout the album. Wakeman comes in on harpsichord, and duel ensues. This is more or less a read on the trials of the spaceman, with Holt leading the way and Newell, Dunsterville, Shields and Brooks adding some vocals behind him. This is a tune that requires complete attention to the lyrics and a deep love for progressive stuff. Otherwise, you won't get through this Threepenny Opera-like song unless you let go and give into it. “The Lost Cycle” ends the album, pulling out all the stops as Wakeman plays a flurry of keys (all listed on the album's liner notes). The lyrics describe the spaceman's full journey, but this song is less about the story than it is about Wakeman's superlative arranging and playing.
No Earthly Connection is deeply layered stuff even without Wakeman's reliance of an orchestra. The lyrics may come off as a bit trite; the story, of what there is, is nothing more than weak sci-fi, but the musicianship of The English Rock Ensemble and vocals of Ashley Holt make this album certainly worthy of inclusion on a list of classic lost gems.
~ Ralph Greco, Jr.