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Renaissance - Grandine Il Vento [Aka: Symphony Of Light] CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

3.27 | 125 ratings

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2 stars The first track off Grandine il Vento that I listened to was The Mystic and The Muse. Fans who have kept track of the activities of the latest incarnation of Renaissance would be familiar with the EP titled The Mystic and the Muse which, of course, had the eponymous track among two others. While the other two tracks had evoked Annie Haslam's solo work for me (and I don't mean that in a glowing light, to be clear), The Mystic and The Muse was very promising. Dark and full of twists and dramatic dynamics, along with lots of vocalise delivered by Annie. Think the title track of A Song for All Seasons or Touching Once (Is So Hard To Keep). When I watched the impressive performance of said track in the 2011 concert video, I liked it even more but the other two tracks left me with mixed impressions and expectations from the (then) upcoming album. That is very much what Grandine il Vento delivers, except more of the Annie-solo kind of tracks in spades.

It was said in the run up to the album that the band had experimented with a lot of styles, including African music, and that it was one of their most exciting albums. There are indeed sounds and instruments on Grandine il Vento that you have never heard before...on a Renaissance album. Trouble is, if you have been even modestly in touch with developments in pop and rock music over the last three decades, you wouldn't find it particularly new, except for the reason that it's on a Renaissance album.

That is, a track like Porcelain evokes typical pleasant pop music (probably intended for the adult contemporary market) that incorporates (ostensibly) African percussion. But you don't really get a Renaissance-perspective of African influences.

Of course, what is a Renaissance-perspective, composition wise, is a question in itself. From the get go, Renaissance were after a sound - a rich, orchestral, but pleasant and inoffensive sound, evoking rock only modestly, if at all and often times dressing up pop songs in classical clothes. So, to be fair, Renaissance do attempt to capture the quintessential elements of that sound. Porcelain has soaring chorus singing for example. But we are not in the 70s anymore and Renaissance cannot afford an orchestra so keyboards are used as a substitute to recreate the effect. Unsurprisingly, it is only partially effective and also tends to make them sound rather like other contemporary bands. In a word, generic. In the 70s, with their peculiar mix of orchestral bombast with an un-electrified ensemble and a beautiful soprano voice, that was one thing Renaissance were not, at least from the point of view of sound.

Absent also is the energy and the involvement of the 70s. That is probably understandable, given the age of the two remaining original members (on this album), Annie Haslam and Michael Dunford. Think of the piano chords that introduce Things I Don't Understand or, well, the piano intro (again) of Can You Understand...or the 'pa pa pa' vocalise in Touching Once. Even while working with a soft sound and orientation, Renaissance did not lack at least a touch of vigour and vibrancy in the 70s....moments that still leap out of the speakers and grab the listener's attention just as he is about to feel lost in the orchestra-keyboard noodling. Strangely enough, Renaissance were very much able to bring back that energy in their 2011 performance of Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade and other Stories, but inspiration seems to have eluded them in the studio.

Could part of the reason also be the chief attraction of the band, namely Annie's vocals? Yes and no. There is nothing apparently remiss with Annie's singing here. Oh yes, there are a few pitch mistakes, some strained notes, some high notes sung in falsetto that she might have attacked more heftily earlier (all of these mostly on Symphony of Light and the title track). But she still sets a very high standard so it would be churlish of me to find technical flaws with her performances. Blood Silver Moonlight, where she duets with contemporary John Wetton, highlights for instance how well her voice has aged, sounding noticeably stronger and more supple than her illustrious collaborator.

Where there does seem to be a problem is the lyrics and how they constrain her ability to emote. It is admittedly a strange complaint to make as the lyrics are penned by Annie herself, unlike the 70s. But it is my considered opinion that the late Betty Thatcher's lyrics brought out the undertone of pain and melancholy in Annie's voice that is not always evident from her vivacious persona. Thatcher gave Annie great material to emote and in her bright, soft voice, it acquired a bittersweet tinge, sorrowful but uplifting at the same time. Annie's own lyrics don't appear to dig deep, at least from the listener's perspective though she has, I am sure, put in stuff there that she cares about a lot personally. This perhaps accentuates the impression of Annie finding it hard to really make an impact, as great as she sounds throughout the album.

Except, that is, on Mystic and the Muse, which gives her plenty of scope to showcase her range and dynamism in a virtuosic vocal masterclass. It is perhaps fortunate then that the band placed said track right at the end, which gives you a taste of Renaissance as per the 70s and leaves you longing for more (if ever there'll be another album). But you have to sit through two mini-epics that promise initially only to disappoint and, well, 5 other middling tracks that do no leave much of an impression (not on me, they didn't, at any rate).

In a later interview, Annie said she consciously sought to move away from the Thatcher vein of lyrics as she wanted the audience to feel positive and have a good time listening to their songs. Far be it for me to fault the thought. But for this not yet 30 young Ren fan, Renaissance going all happy and cheery at this stage of their career just sounds too mellow and passive to appeal to me. I hark back again to the energy they showed on the Song for all Seasons when they attempted a sunnier approach to music. Hard as Annie and the band try, they cannot disguise their age which however may have been more appealing (to me) in the form of evoking melancholy, reflecting and perhaps regretting with a chuckle or two thrown in.

At the time of writing the original review, I gave it 3 stars, preferring to be slightly optimistic given the signs of promise in the material. Having waited nearly a year for a re-look, I feel even that's a bit on the higher side. Grandine il Vento was received fondly by loyal Renaissance fans and understandably so because the band hadn't released studio material (excluding the Mystic EP) for over 10 years. But it is not recommended unless you are a fan and really not where you ought to begin your Renaissance journey from. 2 stars for an average effort lifted a bit at the end by the sparkling Mystic and the Muse.

rogerthat | 2/5 |


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