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Renaissance

Novella (Remastered and Expanded Edition)

Review by Gary Hill

Novella is one of Renaissance's most revered releases. It's definitely a fan favorite. This new release includes a remastered version of the album (with two bonus tracks) on the first CD of the set. The other two discs include a concert recorded with a symphony orchestra. The whole thing is encased in a nice clamshell box with a booklet and poster. Annie Haslam and the rest of Renaissance deliver an exception performance from start to finish. The recording quality on the live discs is quite good, but there is a buzz that sounds like it was probably something picked up by the PA. It's not heard in the louder passages, but can be just a little annoying on some of the quite sections. Still, it's not enough to really deter the enjoyment of that set. Overall, this is just one great release. If you loved the original album, you will find this is even a greater value. It deserves a place in every Renaissance collection.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2019  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
CD One
               
Can You Hear Me?

Coming in with ambient, textural sounds, this gets just a bit creepy as the volume level increases. The cut fires out from there with some killer prog rock. It has some symphonic elements and some great shifts and turns as this introduction winds through. Eventually it works to the song proper, a folk rock styled arrangement that serves as the backdrop for the first vocals. It works through several movements in a fairly straight-forward way before moving into some intriguing musical explorations from there. Eventually it works back to the song proper. After the 11-minute mark, though, they bring some more symphonic elements to the mix. Haslam's voice returns over the top of an arrangement that is energized and driving, but also decidedly classical music based. The cut keeps evolving and growing in some great ways. It gets back toward the song proper before it's all over.

The Sisters
Seeming to connect to the previous number via some left-over textures, a chiming bell rises upward to herald this piece. Piano comes in to drive the melodic elements forward. The piano keeps building with some strings as backdrop before a chorale vocal performance joins. This piece is a much mellower number than the previous one was. It's no less thrilling or adventurous, though. There are even some hints of Flamenco music built into this. I love the acoustic guitar soloing, too. This is powerful in a more subtle way. That said, there are some intricate and complex musical passages and arrangements. Classical instrumentation adds much to the mix here.
Midas Man
I've always been a big fan of this song. The intricate acoustic guitar based arrangement that opens it is classic Renaissance. This works out into such a powerful cut. It has great hooks, complex arrangements and so much emotion. The vocal performances and instrumental ones are all so strong. This is really one of the shining moments in the Renaissance catalog. Given the competition, that says a lot.
The Captive Heart
This number is very folk oriented. It has both male and female vocals. It has some exceptional piano, too. It's mellower and a bit more understated than some of the rest are.
Touching Once (Is So Hard to Keep)
Classical music. folk, prog and more merge on this powerhouse number. It has a great balance of energized and a bit mellower sounds. There are some seriously soaring moments here. This is another cut that has both male and female vocals in the mix.  The faster break around the three-minute mark is a particularly strong passage. The vocal arrangement with its multiple layers as it comes out of that is classy, too. The powerhouse jam around the six-minute mark, though, blows that away. It's one of the best sections of music on the whole album. I love the driving bass work and building structure. The horn brings a great jazz-like sound, calling to mind Red-era King Crimson a bit, but also classic jazz arrangements. It's so powerful. They bring it back to the song proper beyond that and the cool sharp turn and jam at the end is an unusual, but very interesting, twist.
Bonus Tracks
             
Can You Hear Me? (Single Edit) (Previously Unreleased)

This is as described, but at over eight-minutes long, I can't imagine this as a single. The track works quite well in this edit. Still, it's five-minutes shorter than the album version.

Midas Man (Single Edit) (Previously Unreleased on CD)
Again representing truth in advertising, we get the single version of this one. This is more traditional single length at 3:32 - one second short of the stereotypical duration. They forego the extended introduction and get underway. This is a strong version, but then again, as strong as that song is, it's hard to go wrong.
CD Two
                 
Live at the Royal Albert Hall - 14th, October 1977
                       
Prologue

The show starts with an extended spoken introduction. Then the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brings things in as a symphonic classical piece. Melodies from the song can be heard on the arrangement. In fact, the whole cut is delivered with just the orchestra. It's a neat idea, but I really miss hearing the original version.

Can You Understand

The band takes the stage as they bring this one into being. The sound here is good, but sometimes the keyboards sound a bit too high in the mix to me. We're taken to the acoustic guitar and vocal section with an arrangement that's pretty faithful to the studio take. There are some intriguing flavors on this live rendition. The orchestra shows up just a bit on this tune. The fast paced jam that emerges after the nine-and-a-half-minute mark is purely on fire. 

Carpet of the Sun
Another of my Renaissance favorites (I have so many, though), this comes in with acoustic guitars really painting some magical textures. The track works out from there in classic Renaissance style. The orchestra has a more involved presence on this one, and it adds to the vibe of the number.
Can You Hear Me?
This gets a pretty amazing live performance. Everything just gels so well, and the orchestra brings a lot to it. I love the sound of the acoustic guitar in this performance. The mellower section around the seven-and-a-half-minute mark seems a bit stark. I dig the bass sound on the track, though. That jam that emerges around 12 minutes in really gains a lot from the orchestra and is so cool.
Song of Scheherazade
This epic suite gets a strong live telling here. The orchestra plays a big part in this. The balance between rock band and orchestra works very well here. It moves as sort of fluid, give and take kind of thing, with each part taking a bigger portion of the pie as it fits. This is no "add the orchestra to the arrangement" haphazard thing, but a well constructed endeavor. That really pays off in the effectiveness. It doesn't hurt that the whole extended piece is very strong anyway. I really love the mellower, balladic movement around the ten-and-a-half-minute mark.
CD Three
                             
Live at the Royal Albert Hall - 14th, October 1977
                    
Running Hard

As described in the spoken introduction, this begins with piano. That instrument holds it for a time. In fact, the bass is the first instrument to join around the two-minute mark. It's more than 30-seconds more before the whole band enter the fray. The cut fires out with fast paced jamming that's so cool. This is a powerhouse number and gets a cool treatment here. There are great twists and turns along this road. The cut works so well in this live performance.

Midas Man
I love the sound of the guitars on this. The whole cut works very well here. It does suffer a bit early from the buzzing sound, though. The piano cuts through so nicely at times.
Mother Russia
Intricate textures serve as the introduction here. Then picked guitar rises up as the number turns toward something more dramatic. This works to some powerhouse symphonic prog building with a very insistent driving motif. It drops as that crescendoes to a strummed guitar movement that serves as the backdrop for the vocals. The bursts of symphonic prog that serve as punctuation really gain a lot from the orchestra. This whole thing gets so powerful as it keeps growing and moving forward.
Touching Once
This symphonic prog number works so well in this performance. In fact, I might like this even better than the studio rendition. It is some seriously soaring moments. The drop down movement around the four-minute mark seems to take on some new textures here, adding a layer of magic to it. The cut eventually makes its way to more powered up stuff, and the faster jam that emerges really soars here. As the horn rises up on this one it has a completely different flavor than it does on the studio rendition. It's a bit more crazed and rocking.
Ashes Are Burning
The other epic of the live performance (well, technically just about any of the songs would qualify as "epic" on a lot of sets, but here we are addressing LP-side length numbers), this comes in with a great arrangement. It grows outward with the classic symphonic prog texture that is Renaissance's trademark. This thing works through some impressive changes. The movement around the four-minute mark seems to gain some jazzy textures in this telling. It breaks into a drum solo from there that really continues that jazz thing and intensifies it. They gradually come out of that, at first tentatively. Then it grows out into another killer instrumental movement that has an intriguing almost start and stop approach. Eventually Haslam returns as the number keeps driving upward. Her performance has a sort of freeform, jamming kind of vibe to it. The track continues its exploration on the themes as it works onward. The bass gets a killer solo near the 12-and-a-half-minute mark. The solo is fairly extensive and really rocks. I suppose as a bass player, I appreciate bass solos more than the average person, but I to think most people would find something enjoy about it. Eventually they make their way back out into powerhouse symphonic prog music. At the end of that they drop way down and some keys rise up moving it along from there. The evolution continues as this drives onward. There is another drop back after the 20-minute mark. The vocals return over the top of just keyboards on this sedate section. As Haslam works through in non-lyrical ways the song keeps driving ever forward with increasing intensity and power. It works to a very powerful climax to end the show, and this set, in style.
 
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