“Different from any Christmas album you’ve ever heard,” claims Wakeman. It probably is – and in a good way.

Label: Nova Sales
Time: 10 Tracks / 54 mins

“Christmas is over!” I hear you cry. While I admit a delay in sourcing this re-issue, the truths of Christmas are relevant for every day of the year, and Wakeman’s instrumental work is always welcome. He himself writes in the liner notes that, “Carols were never meant to be just for Christmas, but neither was Jesus.”

The keyboard wizard claims that this release is, “Different from any Christmas album you’ve ever heard,” and it probably is.

Who else can take a classical training plus an inimitable style full of rippling arpeggios and put it to such popular use?

His material over the years has ranged from simple piano variations via whole-band prog epics to full-blown individual projects with orchestras and more (not least the Myths and Legends of King Arthur album – as a show on ice).

This one is a tasty blend. His piano often takes lead melodies and alternates with synth lead work, all against an array of soft keys that cushion the tunes and variations. Generally, the tunes are well-known, fairly up-front and clear, but “Christians Awake” has a lesser-used tune and feels more like background music.

The album takes the children’s carol “Away in a Manger” and gives it real depth and beauty. It is almost cinematic in places, in a Local Hero sort of way.

There are small disappointments. The synth on “Once in Royal David’s City” might have too much vibrato and sound a little twee to some. The album is also fairly mid-tempo throughout, and while that may help it to create a steady atmosphere, some of the end carols, such as “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” feel too slow and comfortable to portray that glory powerfully (surprising for a musician so familiar with overblown projects).

But Wakeman is an artist and he takes beautiful tunes like “Silent Night” and “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” and paints them in bright new colours.

He treads a well-balanced line. He majors on the melody without overdoing it, and makes his variations complementary without straying too far away from the theme. You can tell that he has a great respect for both the music and the events that the songs are all about. So there are no sleigh-bells, no Santa hats and no kitsch. It’s simply Rick Wakeman doing what he does well – and not only may our Christmases be better off for it, we might even want to revisit the songs in July.

Derek Walker