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Renaissance - Ashes Are Burning CD (album) cover




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4.22 | 653 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Ashes Are Burning, Renaissance, 1973

The thing that makes Ashes Are Burning a very special album for me is that it's not perfect. The songs' structures seem careless, even crude, and two occasional elements of the sound (chief writer Michael Dunford's acoustic guitar and any time Annie Haslam's wonderful, creamy soprano finds itself sprawling over a male harmony that doesn't really match up) simply don't blend with the album as a whole. And yet, in spite of these inadequacies and crudities, Ashes Are Burning is a spellbinding, compelling album. The music shines through.

Quickly summing up the band: John Camp (stop sniggering at the back) is a jolting Squire-esque lead bassist with plenty of crunch and attack to cover the principal deficiency of keyboardist John Tout's classically inspired, cinematic piano and organ parts. Drummer Terrence Sullivan fills out the rhythm section very capably, if generally unremarkable, and Michael Dunford's sort of limp-folk acoustic is perhaps compensated for by his ability as a songwriter. But we couldn't forget singer Annie Haslam, whose clear soprano has a creamy, luxuriant quality; occasionally, it feels almost too rich, but even then, a real treat to hear. Once saw 'Everything fusion' as a very fitting description of their music, and given their use of an occasional orchestra, strict classical piano, a chugging rhythm section and folk-based writing and subject matters, I don't think I can better that.

And this sound is best off in the opening/closing pair of the album. Can You Understand features possibly my favourite instrumental intro ever, with a gorgeous little piano motif pulsing away under the jarring, jabbing attack of Camp's bass, with all its various elements soaring away and then falling back into a tight, powerful, rich and complex arrangement. Two and a half minutes of the best music ever made. Thereafter, we see variously a rather irrelevant ten-second choral segue; a plain folk tune rolling into a more Gypsy-flavoured chorus, which is then instrumentally developed without particularly striking uses of either Tout's odd-sounding piano or the ornamental orchestra, which then slides back into a more deeply arranged variant of the folk tune with a blaring orchestra and Tout and Camp walking around on the chords behind it and now back to that wonderful opening theme with its parts overrun by violins, cellos, brass. Strangely enough, the intellectually interesting aspects of the song (a sort of abcCBA structure, where the capitals are orchestral) don't seem especially well-realised... the band's creativity seems to have gone out for a smoke whenever a bridge was needed, it flows pretty poorly, and yet, the contradiction of the album is present here: it's just fantastic. The individual sections are a delight, Renaissance are easily the most convincing incorporators of a classical orchestra in rock music (perhaps it's writing for Tout's noticeably classical presence that gives the orchestra something to latch onto), and that instrumental opening is so powerful that even the clumsiest transitions barely slow the song's emotional drive.

Well, since we're still recovering from that one, the sweet ballad of Let It Grow (admittedly, clichéd lyrics, but Betty Thatcher's word choice fits the tune very well) is a sweet follow-up, starring a remarkably calm piano and an absolutely winning vocal from Haslam, who moulds a lovely melody into a nuanced, full, gripping part. Camp, Dunford and Sullivan wander along in the background, and only Sullivan's precise 'leave' (one of those cases where I'd love to know a drumming term) on the end of Haslam's melodies and band presence the cathartic, harmony-laden denouement feel particularly relevant. Very charming, though the instrumentation is often superfluous.

On The Frontier took a while to appreciate. Have to admit, I still find Dunford's acoustic a bit tinny on the intro, I don't think much of either the vocal arrangements (a sort of strange oil-and-water crossing of Haslam and Camp's (I think) vocals) or the lyrics. However, those seemingly essential elements don't really seem to matter that much; the band's instrumental strengths simply outshine it. Tout's lush piano (even his very stiff efforts at jazzing it up), Camp's ability to take up and then fill out all parts presented to him and Sullivan's solid sound and capacity for fills, and a very neat acoustic part on the end secure this as at least a positive impression.

But, altogether excellent, bright and bouncy, Carpet Of The Sun is a folk/pop tune substantiated by the fully-functional orchestra with a fluent harpsichord, an interesting drum part running along behind it, and, indeed. Haslam's vocal is gorgeous, delivering in a suitably uplifting format a suitably uplifting lyric. A song that smiles just about as broadly as this reviewer is comfortable with but which thankfully has very nice teeth. At The Harbour is a strange contestant for my favourite tune of the album; it doesn't boast, it's not particularly stressing anything, it's about the aftermath and not the event. Piano introduction, a persistent, clear acoustic melody, a mournful harmonium and Annie Haslam's beautiful, haunted vocal... it's really an emotional piece, brought out by Thatcher's ambiguous lyrics. Eliot's 'new art emotion' seems an appropriate description.

Ashes Are Burning is the second extended treat for us here, and the powerful closer that matches Can You Understand blow for blow. It's far more coherent in its mixture of folk, rock and classical than the opener... at least, everything patches together very well, the number of great melodies, on celeste, piano, organ and bass is just extraordinary, a number of styles are touched upon but Sullivan pulls everything together into the rock camp, Haslam's lead vocal over an organ-and-pedals about eight minutes in is amazing, pure, powerful, haunting and the driving conclusion with a gorgeous blues guitar solo (courtesy of Andy Powell) is divine.

So, there you have it, a sandwich with the bread on the inside? Nevertheless, an album with a few flaws, real flaws, flaws that really should matter, that is pulled through by the power of its melodies, the individuality of its performers and the willingness to try new things. Something any music lover should take a look at sooner or later, and an example a lot of bands could do with... it's personality, not mere accuracy and thought, that makes great albums.

Rating: Four Stars

Favourite Track: three contestants, of which Ashes Are Burning probably comes out as the winner.

TGM: Orb | 4/5 |


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