The penchant for filling rock with classically trained pianists during the early to mid-'70s was a phenomenon that listeners are unlikely ever to witness again, a byproduct of the pre-rock parent's insistence that the only worthwhile music was rooted in the past and any child's talents should be aimed in that direction alone. And that was no bad decision; what, after all, was progressive rock, other than the sound of so many youthful prodigies breaking the disciplines that bound them, and fusing their training with Elvis and Hendrix? Rick Wakeman certainly never lost his taste for the classics, as both his solo work and his spells with Yes have constantly illustrated. Almost Classical, however, is something else entirely -- a musical scrapbook of ideas and notions that take his chosen fusion to some grandiose new heights. The sound quality is not always as great as the music demands -- many of these tapes lay undisturbed in boxes and cupboards for years before he dug them out again. But still, it is hard not to thrill to the sheer honesty of these recordings, many of which were no more than demos, none of which were ever intended for public consumption. The set opens with "Sophie for Joy," a ten-minute improvisation dating from the 1983 Cost of Living sessions, which he played (and thankfully recorded) immediately after hearing that he was about to become a father. It's a tender piece of music but an exhilarating one, laden with excitement and anticipation, and never to be revisited. A 1975 demo for "Merlin the Magician" follows, together with the longstanding live favorite "The Nursery Rhyme Concerto." Longtime fans will also thrill to find "The Barber of Wigan" making its recorded debut, a hilarious mock opera that pairs Wakeman with the tenor Ramon Remedios. But the main attraction has to be "The Swiss Suite," a newly coined title for four pieces of music demoed by Wakeman in Switzerland around 1977-1978. Originally intended as the bones for a new album, "La Baumaz," "Les Monts de Corsier," "Lac Le Mans," and "Canton Doe Vaud" were not the only pieces to have been recorded, but they are all that survive and, even in this most rudimentary form, they suggest a project far removed from the pomp and circumstance of Wakeman's other solo releases -- a herald, in fact, for the music he would be releasing much later in life. A wonderful collection, Almost Classical shrugs away any stigma that might attend its origins, to stand as a vital release in its own right.
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AllMusic Review by Dave Thompson