...Two centuries forward from this discovery, three geologian explorers traversed land and sea before they reached the mass of volcanic tufa known as Iceland. Veiled in secrecy, their purpose: to emulate the journey that had been taken by their forefathers two hundred years previous.... (from "A Vision")

Return to the Centre of the Earth is a 1999 album by Rick Wakeman that adds a new chapter to his 1974 musical interpretation of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. While the storylines are very similar, Return has new music, new collaborators, and, best of all, narration by Patrick Stewart.

The premise of Return, and of its predecessor, are that intrepid explorers follow the route of the sixteenth century naturalist and alchemist Arne Saknussemm, from the mouth of a dormant volcano in Iceland, down through the bowels of the Earth, and into its fabled hollow center. Along the way, they encounter fierce (and not so fierce) creatures -- all long since presumed extinct -- and other fantastic sights and sounds. The only question beyond what amazing things they'll discover next is Will they make it home alive?

Wakeman's original work was a live concert at London's Royal Festival Hall in January of 1974. It was received with great public enthusiasm and critical acclaim, but Wakeman was so frazzled from writing the music, organizing the rock band, hiring the London Symphony and English Chamber Choir, and above all working with synthesizer technology of the 1970s, that he wound up having a mild heart attack after another performance at the Crystal Palace Bowl.

He wisely chose a more relaxed pace for Return; he kept the wonderful orchestration, narration, and guest performers, but recorded it in studio, rather than live. He also recorded the artists in various locations around the world rather than bringing them all together, and simply mixed them together afterwards. The result is a beautiful piece of work, and some of Wakeman's most inspired.

The first thing the listener is treated to is the rich voice of Patrick Stewart as the story's narrator, taking over the role played by David Hemmings in the original. This isn't a minor appearance, he plays a very central role in the album, and his voice is perfect for the part. It's impossible for me (and probably most people) to disassociate his voice from his role on Star Trek, but that's fine -- after all, Return is a Journey into space, just inner space rather than outer. Stewart does a wonderful job of narration, conveying the emotions and excitement of our heroes on their voyage into the depths. What's especially nice about the CD is that each narrative segment has its own track, so you can program your CD player to listen only to the narration.

However, there are several additional songs mixed in with the narration and orchestral tracks, most featuring excellent vocal talents. Wakeman's long-time friend Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) appears on one track, and Rick also brought in a few other surprise guests, including Yes' former guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin and another old friend, Ozzy Osbourne. The rock tracks are all pretty good, though Wakeman's lyrics aren't quite as good as the narrative prose he wrote. But with a Wakeman album, most people are listening to the keyboards anyway, and Rick doesn't disappoint. He uses a mixture of synthesizers and piano on this one, and he's in great form as usual. Instrumental tracks such as The Kill, Floodflames, and (my favorite) The Dance of a Thousand Lights are perfect examples of Wakeman's technical mastery. And Dance... is one of his lovelier compositions too.

Overall, Return to the Center of the Earth is a fun album, and it's a shame it wasn't as big a success for Rick Wakeman here in the United States as it apparently was in the rest of the world. Wakeman fans should pick up a copy as it's yet another overlooked solo record of his, and of course, Star Trek fans should have it for Jean-Luc's appearance alone.

The orchestra and choir were once again the London Symphony and the English Chamber Choir, respectively. Rick plays all the keyboards, which (for those interested) are:

Korg O1W ProX, Roland JD 800, Kurzweil K2500 R, Korg Trinity ProX, Korg X5DR, Technics WSA, Steinway & Sons Concert Grand, MiniMoog, Fatar SL-880, and G.E.M. PRO 2.

Rick's backing band are:

  • Fraser Thorneycroft-Smith, Guitars
  • Phil Williams, Bass guitar
  • Simon Hanson, Drums

The guest vocalists are: Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, Tony Mitchell, Trevor Rabin, Justin Hayward, and Katrina Leskanich.

And finally, the track list:

  1. A Vision (narration)
  2. The Return Overture
  3. Mother Earth (narration)
  4. Buried Alive (with Ozzy Osbourne)
  5. The Enigma (narration)
  6. Is Anybody There? (with Bonnie Tyler)
  7. The Ravine (narration)
  8. The Dance Of A Thousand Lights
  9. The Shepherd (narration)
  10. Mr. Slow (with Tony Mitchell)
  11. Bridge of Time (narration)
  12. Never is a Long, Long Time (with Trevor Rabin, vocals and guitar)
  13. Tales from the Lindenbrook Sea (narration)
  14. The Kill
  15. Timeless History (narration)
  16. Still Waters Run Deep (with Justin Hayward)
  17. Time Within Time (narration)
  18. Ride of Your Life (with Katrina Leskanich)
  19. Floating (narration)
  20. Floodflames
  21. The Volcano (narration)
  22. The End of the Return

The CD clocks in at nearly 77 minutes. As Wakeman says in the liner notes, it's over twice as long as the original. I think it is much, much more than twice as good.

The CD catalog number is EMI Classics CDC 7243 5 56763 2 0. Cover art was by Roger Dean. The album was recorded in Dolby Digital Surround Sound. It's still in print (thankfully) and shouldn't be hard to find.