Rick Wakeman – White Rock (1977; 2014 reissue)

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This is an example of how the source material, the inspiration, for music often couldn’t matter less. White Rock, after all, was composed for an imminently forgettable documentary on the 1976 Winter Games. And yet, we now know, that Rick Wakeman — then on his way back for another stint in Yes — was arguably at the top of his game as a genre-smashing, focus-group infuriating, explosively creative instrumentalist.

Recorded at Trident Studios in London, White Rock finds Wakeman in full flight, unencumbered by his former bandmates, by lyrical constructs, by the shapes and forms of hit records, by most any damned thing. His pioneering work on the synthesizer from this era, along with a few others, ultimately opened up new vistas for exploration well beyond the combining of rock and classic music — from new wave, to new age, to EDM. And yet White Rock has remained largely forgotten.

Perhaps it’s because Wakeman indulges in a blur of styles, sounding by turns impish (“Montezuma’s Revenge”) and slightly apoplectic (“Lax’x”), like a popstar (“The Shoot”) and a ruminative big-thinker (“Ice Run”). Or maybe it’s because, within these larger themes, smaller counterpoints emerge. There’s a gospel-inspired organ interlude, not to mention a flurry of space-age explosions, on “The Shoot.” Meanwhile, “Ice Run” eventually opens up into the kind of organ-trio sound that made Blue Note famous. There’s a balladic moment of contemplative beauty inside the gypsy jazz of “Revenge.”

Some might say the results don’t compare with the his contributions to Yes’ Going for the One, released in the summer of ’77 — or even his own contemporary solo pieces like Lisztomania. And admittedly, White Rock (maybe owing to the tepid reception for the documentary with which it was associated, maybe because of America’s lessened interest in the wintertime sports) tanked on the Billboard charts. But it was a Top 20 hit both in Wakeman’s native UK (where it reached No. 14) and in Norway (No. 12).

Let’s belatedly state for the record that they were on to something. This reissue, courtesy of Real Gone Music, A&M Records and Universal, makes that clear.

White Rock speaks to a moment when artists could feel around for the walls that surrounded their muse, and then determinedly attempt to kick them down. It’s an album of thwarted expectations, but very real discovery. They just don’t make them like this anymore.

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