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Renaissance

Scheherazade and Other Stories

Review by Gary Hill

Renaissance is a band that I never really followed closely, but always really enjoyed. In many ways I've always felt that they are a lot like Yes, but rather than focusing on the harder rocking styles, they were more interested in acoustic and organic sounds. Surely Annie Haslam's high soaring voice is in a similar register to Jon Anderson's and often the bass work seems very similar to Chris Squire's. This album from 1975 is considered by many to be their greatest work. It is without question their most ambitious. It is also arguably one of the best blendings of progressive rock and classical music ever. Recorded with both the band and members of the London Symphony Orchestra, this disc is still a fine example of progressive rock at a peak of originality and creativity. It still holds up well as an incredibly powerful musical release. It would be a great introduction for any progressive rock fan to this band. It doesn't get much better than this.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Trip To The Fair
A very dramatic and classically oriented piano solo starts this, and begins a powerful melody that is both dynamic and intricate to create the extended intro. As a new bouncing, pounding segment takes it the rest of the band join (with the piano still serving as the key instrument for a while) and they launch on a series of changes. As this powers up Haslam's vocals come across in non-lyrical elegance at points. There is also laughter at times as this one begins to intensify and work its way up in power and complexity. They continue on for a while moving through more progressive rock and classical type changes. It drops later to more mellow textures and the first lyrics come across over just a piano based song structure. This moves and carries forward with a slowly building structure. At points weird carnival music takes its place almost at the forefront. This gets ever so slightly dissonant from time to time. It shifts after while to a more melodic, rock oriented texture to carry it forward in a full band rendition. Then this gives way to a soaring fast paced progressive rock structure that is quite powerful. They shift this out into a smooth flowing jazz structure to carry on in instrumental explorations. This moves back out the more powerful prog rock movements with more non-lyrical vocals, then extrapolates out from there into another instrumental trek. The carnival like sounds return, then the cut shifts back to the verse. This again eventually gets a bit dissonant as the familiar themes play through once more then take it to the outro after some inspired instrumental work on those sounds. Choral vocals soar on the actual ending section.
Vultures Fly High
More "rock" oriented structures start this in a rather bouncing progression that feels a bit like a more adrenalized take on Genesis' "Harold The Barrel." As the vocals come in, the band move this on towards a powerful prog rock jam. This has a killer musical texture with the varying layers of sound working together to create a potent tapestry of sound. The band move this out into a jam that combines rather King Crimson like textures with that Genesis sound later. Then this turns a corner into a keyboard dominated movement that is both connected to the old one and very fresh and different. This leads back into the chorus that becomes the outro. At only a little over three minutes, this one seems short - especially after the 11 plus minute length of the opening track.
Ocean Gypsy
While not as long as the first piece on the CD, this one is over twice as long as the one that preceded it and over 7 minutes. This comes in with beautiful, but slightly sad sounding balladic textures. The vocals quickly come in over top to carry the verse and the piece forward. As this moves on layers of instrumentation fill out the arrangement and turn this into a lush and very powerful song. After running through in the more energized approach it drops back to the sedate to continue forth. The basic motif (while expanded on and reworked) follows through again with the mellower segment leading to the more powerful and fully arranged. It drops back to just Haslam's voice and the piano after this next full band segment. Then the piano carries through with an extended solo. Eventually, this ramps back up to the full progressive rock band treatment. This becomes an instrumental (save for non-lyrical vocals) excursion that becomes quite impassioned. It drops back eventually to the sedate again to restart the process. Once again they gradually move this upward into the expansive and potent full band treatment. They drop it back one last time to the more mellow to end it. This one is definitely a highlight of a disc that has no low points.
Song of Scheherazade
They definitely saved the best for last with this 24 and a half-minute nine-part epic. Dramatic symphonic classical elements start this in a mode that feels rather like a movie soundtrack - I picture a swords and sandals romp (which fits with the title). After this extended intro the band move this out into a total prog instrumental journey that is full of intriguing changes and multilayered textures and movements. This shifts out to fast paced jamming that moves through a number of interesting changes and still manages to maintain the textures of a movie theme. Eventually an ELP like progression takes it into still new ground and gets very powerful. They drop it back to a keyboard dominated section that is quite short and leads into near silence before this comes back highly dramatic with non-lyrical vocals. They start working this forward ever so slowly and organically. Vocals, male this time, start this up working overtop of these themes and Haslam soon joins alongside this. They turn it very lush and powerful as they work up the arrangement. Symphonic elements move alongside the rock band ones to create a potent mélange. Then they turn this back towards the more mellow, but still exceptionally powerful until piano gives way to a false ending. They start back up from here very slowly and quietly at first with a piano-dominated movement. After building for a while this gives way to a new instrumental excursion that is both lush and intense. This combines prog rock elements with the symphonic for great effect. This peaks then falls back. Just piano remains as the backdrop for the next vocal segment - this time Haslam is by herself. They bump up the arrangement ever so slowly to a more full treatment of these musical themes. This time after a crescendo it drops to full silence. Then the next movement comes in slowly and gradually with very gentle tones in atmospheric textures. This turns to a classically tinged space rock type sound. They begin pulling this up in dramatic and powerful ways in a full symphonic format. Then it explodes out into a fast paced prog jam, which again feels quite a bit like Emerson Lake and Palmer, but with a more developed symphonic sound. This is a very intriguing driving segment that also has touches of Yes. This then turns back to full classical music and moves forward from there ever so gradually. Eventually piano turns it into another round of classical wanderings that move forward, eventually picking up more symphony instruments as accompaniment. As they eventually power back up into the prog rock journeys the mode is incredibly classical in texture, like a rock symphony. This plays through, then crescendos and gives way to a more traditional Renaissance progression. It's quick tempoed, but still mellow and pretty. This eventually gets more involved and powerful, but the process of getting there is all in gradual ramping up - nothing changes quickly. As this reaches its apex it is incredibly powerful, then it moves out into a choir type arrangement that is even more dramatic. As it drops back to the verse type segment there are many more overlayers and this really feels a lot like a more symphonic take on Yes type arrangements. This is quite intense. There are moments as this switches again to just the classical mode where it reminds me of some of the arrangements the Beatles used when working with orchestral instruments. This symphonic methodology ends the piece and disc in a very satisfying way. When it's done you really feel like you have been on an incredible adventure.
 
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