Return to the Centre of the Earth is a studio album by the English keyboardist Rick Wakeman, released on 15 March 1999 on EMI Classics. The album is a sequel to his 1974 concept album Journey to the Centre of the Earth, itself based on the same-titled science fiction novel by Jules Verne. Wakeman wrote a new story of three unnamed travellers who attempt to follow the original journey two hundred years later, including the music which features guest performances from Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, Tony Mitchell, Trevor Rabin, Justin Hayward, and Katrina Leskanich. The story is narrated by Patrick Stewart. Recording was delayed after Wakeman was hospitalised with a life threatening case of double pneumonia and pleurisy, and needed time to recover.
Upon release, the album reached number 34 on the UK Albums Chart.
Release and reception
Birmingham Evening Mail (mixed)
The Boston Herald
On 9 February 1999, the album received a 300-guest launch party arranged by EMI at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. The album's release followed on 15 March. A promotional "radio edit" of the album was made with the songs edited to around four minutes, and distributed to radio stations to allow the album to gain airplay. It reached a peak of number 34 on the UK Albums Chart during its three-week stay on the chart. EMI set a goal of selling 300,000 copies of the album worldwide, but sales had only reached 195,000 copies two years after its release. Targets were met in each territory except the United States, where just 25,000 copies were sold which Wakeman felt disappointed about.
The album received mixed reviews from music critics. The Birmingham Evening Mail wrote the album is "twice as long and equally as ambitious" as the original and rates Stewart's "precise narration". The orchestra and choir "enter into the spirit of things with gusto", but the review concluded with "expect a punk rock backlash in the year 2001". A review in The Boston Herald by Kevin R. Convey gave the album 1-and-a-half stars out of five, saying Wakeman "hasn't lost his touch" and that the sequel "is every bit as pompous and bombastic as the original", which contained a "thoroughly silly script" for its narration and "risible" lyrics. Convey concluded: "Those who love Journey probably will enjoy this as well. Others may want to find more creative ways to give themselves a headache". In October 1999, a review from Shawn Perry for About.com praised Stewart's performance for his "infectious precision" in his narration and the album's opening of "lush orchestrations, slyly garnishing Stewert's poignant articulations throughout". Perry thought Wakeman's keyboards sound "seemingly shrouded ... certainly not as distinctive as Wakeman's sound can be", but welcomed "Buried Alive" as the point when the album "sonically surges forward" and for Osbourne's vocals and Wakeman's solo. From then on, Perry thought the album takes an "ethereal tone ... with no real central theme to convey" but considered Tyler's and Hayward's songs as highlights. Perry concluded that the album acts as a "self-fulfilling aspiration" for Wakeman, and thought the audience lack the patience to sit through the album.