Wakeman, Rick - Christmas Variations,
I was somewhat surprised when this arrived just the week before Christmas, as not only was it pushing it to have it reviewed before Christmas (I obviously failed), but it was an album I already knew well and reviewed quite a while ago. Originally released in 2000, after it was suggested to Rick that it might be a nice idea to record an album of carols in a similar vein to the one he had recorded on hymns, what we have here is a reissue on digital, digipak CD and a 2LP coloured vinyl set in a gatefold jacket with new artwork, plus 2 additions to the original 10 tracks. These are “Silent Prayer” and a live performance of “Amazing Grace”, recorded at Lincoln Cathedral in 2018. I have no idea how many Wakeman albums and DVDs I own, but it is probably “lots”, as I have been a fan of his ever since I first encountered Yes, and in the last 20 or 30 years I have bought far more of his solo material than I have of theirs. One reason is of course he is massively prolific, but another is that no matter what style he is recording in, he is always a master. I have seen him with a full-on rock band, and another when it was just him and a piano, and I enjoyed them both immensely as his style and finesses is equally suited to both.
Rick mostly bases this album around the piano, plus lots of synths, but gone are the banks of sound he uses in his more bombastic moments and instead this is a tranquil album which has long been a favourite of mine at this time of year. It really is an album which can be enjoyed by anyone who loves music, and to my ears is far more interesting than the latest Christmas cover album. There is always a time and a place for Slade, but there are times when the ears need a rest and want something to relax to and enjoy. He has taken the well-known songs and then played around and inside the themes, ensuring they are the still same old friends we have all grown up with but now they have been spruced up and taken on quite a different light. This is not an album that will be played in shops with all the plastic razzmatazz where they attempt to persuade everyone that the true spirit of Christmas is how much you spend on gifts, but rather is a thoughtful and contemplative approach to the season. There has been a great deal of thought and care put into these variations, and I can "see" Rick with his eyes closed (as normal) falling deeper and deeper into the music, taking the simplicity and giving it more meaning and love. If I have to suffer carols at Christmas, then truly this is the only way to do it.