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Renaissance - Ashes Are Burning CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.22 | 680 ratings

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4 stars Charming, but not compelling all the way through. Sumptuous but at times less than substantial. And altogether, tending more towards the staid than the spectacular. That sums up this album for me and much of Renaissance. And yet, I really like it!

I am all ears when musicians break new ground and set sail for unchartered waters. But I recognize that sometimes, music that is not any of these things can still enchant. What Renaissance project on this album is an appealing warmth and sincerity that can seem in short supply in prog. If more of their ilk had better appreciated these virtues, then perhaps even their singer could not have saved them from oblivion. As it is, much is forgiven because here at least is a band that really wants you to like their songs and attempts to please, for whatever that counts.

I am not altogether sure if Ashes Are Burning is the best introduction to Renaissance for a listener. But I am quite sure that the first few minutes of Can You Understand make for a rousing and winning initiation. After two and half minutes of excellent piano, the weaknesses of the band begin to come forth. The vocal melody that follows is pretty good but seems a bit incongruous in conjunction with the intro. The pace has suddenly changed from rocking to tranquil. By the time we get to the chorus, we seem to be in a different place from where we started for no particular reason. Reiterating the intro at the end doesn't help.

Nor do the vocals, yet. If this is the first time you are listening to Annie Haslam's voice, you would quite likely be impressed by its sheer purity and power right on this track. But that apart, she is not yet as confident as she can be and comes across, inadvertently I guess, as not putting as much into the song as she could.

This haunts the three folk-pop tracks to come. It is hard not to be impressed by her technique on say Let It Grow but on comparison with subsequent albums, it is clear her best was yet to come. At the moment, more conviction is desirable as well as more energy in places. Because Let it Grow, On the Frontier, Carpet of the Sun are all vocal oriented short tracks, they would have fared better with more authoritative singing from Annie. Carpet of the Sun became a concert staple and comparing the rendition here with live takes from the mid 70s confirms my view. As it is, these songs are charming but could possibly have been more memorable in different circumstances.

Things improve quite dramatically on At The Harbour. In terms of intonation, there are some hesitant moments for Annie but she nails the feeling on this occasion. It appears at least to me that the preceding tracks were easier to interpret and this is the one that could trip all but the best singers. Strange then that she sounds more commanding on this song and makes an impression that lingers for a long time in the mind. This track is further proof that from the get go, Renaissance should have employed guitars more than they did. Dunford's modest guitar playing on the track is yet more appealing than Tout's grand piano work.

At this point, the listener is left with a pleasing impression but yearning for more. Fortunately, the band have saved their best for the last. If I said Ashes Are Burning is one of my favourite tracks of this band, I would be stating the obvious. This is also the only one of their more linear long pieces that really work for me. I tend to prefer the ones where they infused some mystery in the proceedings but on this track, everything falls in place as if the stars had aligned expressly for this purpose. Even in the middle when things seem to get a bit repetitive, the music still has enough momentum to hold your attention. A simple but beautiful intro and a very effective pause after the interlude also go some distance in giving this track an organic warmth that few of their long pieces could attain. This is a track that came to define Annie's live act as such and even here, she finds more elbow room to belt out powerful notes and stun you with sheer voice quality. It is odd that a band that couldn't be less guitar oriented can also count among its achievements one of the most memorable guitar solos in prog rock. Where their tendency to re-iterate almost unto death could drag down their compositions in subsequent albums, on this track re-iteration very beautifully builds the atmosphere as things go from gloomy to jubilant as the symbolic phoenix takes wing again (very aptly depicted by Andy Powell's electric guitar solo).

In conclusion, an album that serves notice of some potential but ultimately leaves you wanting for more and with the feeling of an opportunity missed. As it turns out, it is not a feeling they completely pushed aside even at the height of their powers. A slightly weak four stars.

rogerthat | 4/5 |


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