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Renaissance - Scheherazade And Other Stories CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.31 | 1076 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
5 stars Review 50, Scheherazade And Other Stories, Renaissance, 1974

StarStarStarStarStar StarStar

There are only rare occasions when an album captures my imagination on the very first listen then keeps it after weeks of listening. My first (and fairly recent) listen of Scheherazade And Other Stories was just such an occasion. The album is entirely enchanting, beautiful and dark, with a spacious depth that makes it consistently rewarding and enjoyable. Flawless musicianship throughout, a cohesive feel (probably created by the folk-based lyrics and dominant piano, even though they aren't that themed) and a great sense of individuality. Lastly, no opening paragraph would be worthy without a mention of the angelic voice of Annie Haslam. It's wonderful *heart *

The band's sound (at least on this album) should be noted. John Tout's keys are refreshingly piano-based, by which I'm not referring either to the Canterbury chordage parallel to a main theme or standard 'piano in a rock group' but lush full classical-styled piano pieces, jazzy breakouts and brilliant repeated motifs. In addition, he handles organ, Mellotron, synthy things and harpsichord aptly, using both the classic lush mellotron backing chord as well as more mobile organ. John Camp's bass is certainly styled after Chris Squire, but he is no less capable and original for that. High notes are touched on with regularity, and a careful control of note lengths and feel is on display throughout, and without an electric, the bass and keys get a much greater opportunity to shine.

Terence Sullivan's drums and percussion match up to the above elements, including both more usual drumming and odd percussion, used both to create a rhythm and weirder atmospheric ideas. Annie Haslam's vocals are simply perfect. Stunningly beautiful and high, but with the ability to put a much darker edge on the songs, well-used both in harmony and lead vocals. The multiple male vocal harmonies are also well used, and the brief lead male vocal on The Sultan is refreshing and alright, if accented in the Richard Sinclair style. A word for Michael Dunford, the main songwriter, is in order. Though his acoustics are not of the Fripp order and jaunting off at odd angles, they provide an extra layer for the song, a background and are a substantial fraction of the folk feel possessed by the album. Finally, Betty Thatcher's very folk lyrics are interesting, have a certain mystique and do create part of the album's feel. She's not Peter Hammill, but nonetheless I can listen to and enjoy the lyrics as well as the music. I'll touch upon the orchestra when we get to them. The compositions, though I'll list them in more detail later, are intricate and wonderful, and have a very individual sound.

Basically, if you don't have this album now, I suggest that you stop reading and head to your nearest online retailer of compact discs or vinyls and buy the album. It can speak for itself much more eloquently than I can speak on its behalf.

A Trip To The Fair opens the album. Its mood is haunting, confused, tense and claustrophobic, with an extended low-end based piano intro supplemented by flickering bass and percussion. Maddened laughter, ghost shrieks and shimmering keys add to the feel of entrapment and being surrounded. A haunting, even mocking glockenspiel introduces Annie Haslam's high, haunting and individual vocal, which seems to create (with additions from the piano, especially) a feeling of a sort of eye of the storm, lost within an empty and taunting fairground, surrounded by an accordion-esque organ theme, xylophone and various other implements. Even in the more uplifting moments (including an interesting jazzy burst replete with matching piano), the happiness feels illusory. Whispers and mass harmonies accompany various vocal sections for additional effect. The piece slowly winds down from this nightmare theme, creating a sort of taunting, mechanical clown feel with the obligatory 'it's the last verse, the drums crash a bit more' thing. A brilliant opener, with a very involving feel.

The Vultures Fly High is one of my all-time favourite songs. Incredibly catchy, with harpsichord and bass hooks and a gorgeous clean performance from Annie Haslam. Lyrically solid and simple, and supplemented by the edgy piano and percussion (Sullivan and Camp are stunning throughout this song). The use of keys effectively and densely in (what is basically) a shorter, pop-structured song is wonderful and all too rare, and the final fade doesn't leave me feeling like it needed any more space. Concise, mobile and perfect. Unmissable.

Another of Orb's all-time favourites follows this, the beautiful Ocean gypsy. The texture, liquid, the feel, majestic, the emotion, slightly tragic, perhaps nostalgic. Camp's bass takes much of the piece's basic movement, while rich piano and keys fit in less dominantly, but still very significant, creating the more 'world' rather than personal atmosphere. Drum-rolling without blunt crescendos features heavily. Annie's vocal is, as in the preceding pieces, pure pleasure for the ears, and the lyrical material matches it, contributing the piece's basic emotions and ideas. Dunford's acoustic is of more importance in this one, taking a couple of non-strummed notes and also contributing another significant layer to the texture (as he usually does). It fades out with the wonderful piano echo. A masterpiece of composition. Wonderful.

After three such bits of wow, we are treated to an ambitious side-long suite, based partly around Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Scheherazade' and with the accompaniment of a full orchestra. The end result is stunning. A very Arabian Nights feel pervades the entire piece, and the interesting lyrical content and complimentary material and occasional recurring motifs give the piece a more coherent feel.

Fanfare features a fairly 'typical' (I don't know how else to describe it. Not bad, but not really oddball), fast-paced orchestra backing over solid rock performances from Camp and Sullivan. The segment concludes softly, with the gradual development of tension in The Betrayal (featuring a beautiful oboe (I think)). The Sultan initiates the lyrical material, with a haunting set of keys, male lead vocals (no idea who?) reminiscent of Richard Sinclair, which are gorgeously supplemented by Annie, harp and cello flourishes and an odd form of double-drumming, with classical percussion contrasting to Sullivan's rock stuff. The Young Prince And Princess As Told By Scheherazade is perhaps a conclusion to the suite's first 'part', with lilting harmonies, tubular bells and wonderful flute melodies. A careful, clear piano solo rounds off this half, creating the idea of the story being told. The band comes in with Dunford strumming, bass and drums. This leads carefully onto an angelic vocal and a very stripped back piano-acoustic-oboe sound. An acoustic bass from John Camp features. Gradually more things are included until the piece shimmers out to leave birdsong.

The bird-song initiates a brief moment of pure orchestra, before the band again settle in to a lesser extent, with a bustling feel. The following Fugue For The Sultan is a dramatic, graduated opening for The Festival, which really is the crux of the piece. More angelic vocals, strumming, rather syrupy (but likable) lyrics relating the story in cliff notes format, and one of the best bass-drum grooves outside Close To The Edge that I've heard. Especially excellent percussion from Sullivan and a set of the hulking choral vocals (while it might be considered pompous outside of the context of the orchestral piece, it does fit here) lead us out in the finale.

(Apologies for such a disconnected description. I find it difficult to describe this piece. One of those ones I need a better musical knowledge to really relay the ideas behind)

Anyway, get the album. Absolute masterpiece. Five doses of musical anti-depressant. Very interesting, very original, aptly described as "everything fusion".

Favourite Track: The Vultures Fly High Rating: 5 Stars.

TGM: Orb | 5/5 |


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