What on earth is that?
That's got to be older than me!
— Erik Jordan (Engineer/Co-Producer)
Can you smell burning?
— Rick W. & Erik J.
Retro's title and aim was announced last year and has already been available on the right side of the pond for a bit. Now we lefties get it, and it's a genuine analog keyboard fiesta! This is what we've been waiting for: Rick Wakeman doing what he does best, on an array of wholesome analog gear, a return to the brilliance of Six Wives Of Henry VIII, No Earthly Connection, White Rock and Criminal Record in no short order. It's not a bandless affair; the English Rock Ensemble's rhythm section — bassist Lee Pomeroy and drummer and longtime Wakeman accomplice Tony Fernandez — contribute, while one Dave Colquhoun supplies the guitar work. Vocal chores are handled by a very familiar name in Ashley Holt, and one less familiar in Rick's daughter, Jemma, who is blessed with a lovely voice and is all of 22 years old.
Formalities aside, let's get to the synths! Recorded over a period of ninety days, Retro's purpose should be glaringly obvious: NO digital models. NO "virtual analog" synths. NO sequencing or software. Let's not be afraid of a little white noise generator like the one found on Sequential Circuits' Prophet 5. Many or most of these units hadn't been fired up in decades; time was allowed, of course, for prepping and maintenance of the synths between takes — the inevitable malfunction would interrupt the recording schedule. A humorous reflection from Rick's liner notes:
"The most commonly heard phrase over the first few days was can you smell burning? as some of the instruments were "drying out" now power had been connected, or were indeed deciding on whether or not to internally combust. Smoke was a common sight! Thankfully there were no serious outcomes although the fire extinguisher was always close at hand."
Retro blasts off with a resonance-drenched Prophet 5 sweep before Ashley's debut. The vocalist performs in three instances on this eleven-minute track, at the beginning, towards the middle, and once more towards the end. In-between, Rick is laying down the gauntlet on his PolyMoog, Korg Mono/Poly, RMI Electra Piano and Mellotron M400. Ashley isn't the most popular of the vocalists Rick has worked with, but the man really sings his arse off on this track. A monster of an opener. Rick takes the vocal for "Mr. Lonely" and before you reach for the cotton balls, the lyrics are quite funny and he employs the vocoder. And those sounds! Jenna makes her first appearance, singing the backup. "One In The Eye" is the first of three instrumentals, so you know what's in store. Rick's fingers are nimble as ever, the man has lost none of this technique. Quite amazing! This could have appeared on White Rock. With his mastery of the keyboard, why Rick still adds vocals to his compositions still boggles many a mind, but the choice is his.
"Men In Suits" opens with a lush PolyMoog arpeggiation and Mellotron strings. Rick exploits the fat end of that PolyMoog patch and takes to the Electra as Ashley returns to the mic. A corker of a synthbass oogs and awgs as Rick steams things up with a slick MiniMoog solo. Lee deftly navigates the rests between the synthbass notes, and deserves a hand for complementing Rick's left-hand bass so efficiently.
"Leave The Blindfold" is a love-it-or-hate-affair, but it's short and Jemma's lilting vocal makes things pleasant. Time for another instrumental: "Waveform." For the first time, Rick's Hammond switches on. PolyMoog, MiniMoog, Mellotron and Hammond — a recipe for success, nirvana for analog purists. Both singers feature on "Retrospective," a smooth-surfaced number that packs a groove in its second half that's tough enough for a Dirty Harry or Death Wish installment.
"Homage To The Doctor" is described as the final track recorded for the album, but much more than a postscript, it is a tribute to the late Dr. Bob Moog. Running nine minutes, one can't help but wonder if a wordless tribute would be more appropriate. Still, sterling analog power flows throughout, so it's easy to brush off the parlor-esque vocal melody and focus on Rick's machinations. Double-entendre time: the ninth piece is christened "Can You Smell Burning?" and don't dare play it without renewing your fire insurance. The caped crusader shows why edges many of his contemporaries and sends the delegates of the third wave home with their tails between their legs. The man finally gets down on the Hammond, and with just the MiniMoog and Mellotron in addition, singes circuits aplenty with right-hand acrobatics few can match. One of Retro's best cuts, obviously. Unfortunately, this isn't a 2CD set (and Rick's stated there will certainly not be a follow-up after all the gear troubles that he and cohort Erik Jordan dealt with). "The Stalker" runs nearly nine minutes, and while consistent with the project's theme compositionally, Ashley's singing here seems unnecessarily dramatic — and, well, unnecessary. The lyrics aren't too hot, either. Everything else that's cooking is fabulous, so for this single instance the vocal topping doesn't inspire.
The Verdict: Retro will reconcile Rick's appeal with many who still care to bemoan his new age detours and pop-oriented works. Sound after juicy sound blows through, brilliantly recorded, positively huge in the mix. Merge the technology with organic virtuosity and we've a blueprint for a weapon that melts metal. Now, just for fun, a track-by-track breakdown of what Rick fired up:
"Just Another Day" — Sequential Circuits Prophet 5; Moog PolyMoog; Korg Mono/Poly, Lambda ES50, ES1; Mellotron M400; RMI electric piano
"Mr. Lonely" — PolyMoog, MiniMoog; Korg Vocoder, Mono/Poly
"One In The Eye" — Prophet 5; MiniMoog; Mellotron; RMI Electra Piano
"Men In Suits" — RMI; PolyMoog, Minimoog (solo); Trident (brass/string); ES50; Mellotron
"Leave The Blindfold" — PolyMoog; Prophet 5
"Waveform" — PolyMoog, MiniMoog; Hammond M102 Organ; Mellotron; ES1
"Retrospective" — PolyMoog, MiniMoog; Prophet 5; Mellotron
"Homage To The Doctor" — PolyMoog, MiniMoog; Prophet 5; Mellotron
"Can You Smell Burning?" — MiniMoog; M102; Mellotron
"The Stalker" — Trident, Mono/Poly, ES50; Moog Taurus Mk1 Pedals; Prophet 5; Mellotron
1. Just Another Day (11:14)
2. Mr. Lonely (3:47)
3. One In The Eye (5:32)
4. Men In Suits (8:05)
5. Leave The Blindfold (3:02)
6. Waveform (6:01)
7. Retrospective (6:35)
8. Homage To The Doctor (9:04)
9. Can You Smell Burning? (6:30)
10. The Stalker (8:45)
Total time – 69:01