Set the controls for the Red Planet, the latest full-scale progressive rock album from legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman. This 2020 release includes eight new compositions from the former Yes keyboardist. Wakeman jokes about the idea of pushing the “prog fader” up to 11, saying “That could be a problem, as it’s already at 14!”
Wakeman produced The Red Planet with Erik Jordan, featuring a blend of analog and modern keyboards. He has revived the backing band name “the English Rock Ensemble” which had been used on several of his earlier records. The band includes guitarist Dave Colquhoun, drummer Ash Soan and bassist Lee Pomeroy. The latter recently toured with Wakeman as part of his iteration of Yes alongside Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin. Wakeman, Anderson and Rabin formed their own version of Yes in 2016, staging multiple tours, which included a 50th-anniversary set of shows that wrapped up in the fall of 2018.
The Red Planet is Wakeman’s first rock-oriented solo project since 2003 when he released “Out There.” Most recently he has released a trio of piano-based albums: 2017’s Piano Portraits, 2018’s Piano Odyssey and 2019’s Christmas Portraits.
The album was available to pre-order in multiple formats, including download, CD, vinyl and of most interest to hi-res surround enthusiast, the deluxe editions that was promoted to contain a bonus DVD that had been slated to contain a surround sound mix. Then the promotion order page dropped all reference to the surround mix only offering interviews and other extras on the DVD. However, during all of the delays for the DVD an up-mix 5.1 mix was created by audio engineer Simon Heyworthand and was finally issued in October, along with the interviews and extras. So, for those like myself who were patient, nearly six months after the original launch date, the strictly limited deluxe CD+DVD “pop-up” edition was completed when a second mailing containing the DVD was sent to the 2,000 worldwide recipients. As had been forewarned, this limited edition has already been sold out through the direct marketer, but it seems that copies are now available through some major retailers.
I admit that when I initially received my copy in June of 2020, I was disappointed that the deluxe edition only included a CD, with no DVD in sight. I learned after emailing customer service that a DVD would be mailed in the fall, and as noted above it finally arrived in November. I confirmed that it does contain a Dolby Digital 48kHz / 16-bit surround mix, along with an LPCM 48kHz / 16-bit stereo version. But why even bother with the stereo version? Technically the difference between the stereo DVD version and the CD version is literally unperceivable. More on that later!
Now, up-mixes really are not my thing, especially when this is a new release, and the multi-tracks were already loaded so recently. I guess it all came down to the equipment at the studio, which may not have been set up for a surround discrete mix. Yet, I must voice my displeasure, while noting fans are actually left with an up-mix that is generally immersive and nicely fills a room. Still, the coloration between the stereo and 5.1 mix is distinctly different and one may find the stereo version to be more impactful. What I really like about the surround version is the separation of keyboard parts with the lead generally up front and the arpeggiated chord structures pouring from the rear, along with elongated pads and even some rhythm guitar parts. Naturally bass and drums fall up front, and a lot of energy is focused on the center between the front channels. This layout is self-evident, as the very basics of up-mixes primarily focus on the difference between the front left and right channels, sending the unique signal to the rears, while leaving the common elements up front.
Musically the Red Planet is one of Wakeman’s strongest releases. The proggyness shines through in all the instrumental glory, a testament to his keyboard prowess and the musicianship of the other members in the band. Melodies are engaging with really nice hooks and blazing solos across the various tracks. The stereo mix sonically sounds particularly good, and the mix is very well balanced. Each part is resilient and carries the music extremely well, making the stereo mix my sonic choice. I actually did sense a difference between the CD and DVD stereo versions, and believe this could be attributed to different mastering. In fact, I favor the lossless DVD version over the CD.
The surround mix on the other hand, lacks the vivid clarity of the stereo version. I must attribute the use of Dolby Digital AC3 as the culprit. In my experience this codec has always been lack luster, with squashed dynamics and an overall flatter sound, both of which I hear on the 5.1 version. I do not think I have ever had to say this, but it really feels like the production team simply wanted to cut corners and costs associated with the surround mix, and the final result truly demonstrates that. For me it is below average, and yet I am still glad I have a copy to surround the sweet spot.
The deluxe edition is only recommended for must have it all collectors, and if it is no longer available at retailers, I would question the value through third party jack up the price sellers, as I know that would give me pause. Instead, prog enthusiasts should get the CD or 180g vinyl edition, and let it be known that you will not hear that from me very often, if ever again!
Initially release June 27, 2020.
CD + DVD special limited edition with interviews and other extras.