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4 stars The Florentine family originated north of Florence in the Murello region of Tuscany, gradually growing into a powerhouse of politics, religion, textiles, and banking, eventually producing four Popes of the Catholic Church. The family claimed to have funded the invention of both opera and the piano, helping in the construction of St-Peter's Basilica and wealthy donators to careers as illustrious as Boticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Galileo, among may others. Catherine de Medici would become Queen of France, famous for her rather ruthless persecution of the Calvinist Protestants or Huguenots. As much as I adore history, this is a music channel and therefore the relevance here is that we have a good old- fashioned source of progressive themes that can only encourage the musicians to further define their craft within a well-expressed storyline. Legendary keyboardist and arranger Clive Nolan (Pendragon, Arena, Caamora, ) and multi- instrumentalist Eric Bouillette (Nine Skies, Solace Supplice, ) are the main composers and players , with as befitting an opera, added input from a series of vocalists the incredible Laura Piazzai, Andy Sears of Twelfth Night , Elena Vladyuk and Mark Spencer. Scott Higham on drums, Isabella Campini on harp and bassist Bernard Hery complete the line-up.

This is a vocal heavy work with the focus clearly on the rambling and epic story, perhaps more ideally suited for a full stage performance with medieval costumes, full orchestra and band, crimson velvet curtains and generously tossed bouquets of flowers at the end. The CD comes with a 28-page libretto, so I guess that would be offered also during the ornate gigs at the Scala, the Royal Albert Hall or the Budapest Opera. As far as the music is concerned, the power moments are heavily orchestrated, shoved along by pulsating bass and powerful drums. The softer moments are sprinkled with one of my favorite (but not used enough) instruments, the elegant harpsichord, providing not only historical perspective but also incredible delicacy of sound. The impressive 'Duty of Love' is the first magical moment, as the piece evolves from a soft melody into a way more muscular arrangement as the drums pick up the slack, Laura has a voice that can shift into overdrive and things really start cooking. 'House of Dreams' keeps things rolling along, a female vocal duet, bombastic strings, delicate harpsichord, and a storyline that sharpens the hue on the main schemers. Cleverly contrasting sections give this arrangement immediate punch and one can settle into the history.

Why toil over choir mellotron when you can enlist the human expression to do so. On the male voiced 'The Tide Will Change', singer Clive Nolan spits his venom, a vituperative rant where torture, incarceration, humiliation, and exile is expressed in no uncertain terms, it really does 'cut you through the heart', as the mellotron howls away Even when he softens his tone, Rinaldo is still snarling and haughty. Modern day Richard Wagner influenced neo-prog ' More opulent choir work but in a much softer vein, Elena 's has a gentler voice and truly shines on 'Never Close Your Eyes', a shorter and interesting track, all serenity and calm. Perhaps the most overt sounding track is the luminescent 'Glass Throne', a harp and voice leading the way sounding gently medieval, before it kicks into a maelstrom of sounds as Laura steps on the power pedal with a harrowing performance, guitars, bass, drums, and keys flailing away, undeterred. The angst continues on the truculent 'Treachery', where all voices combine as in typical operatic ensemble Andy Sears' turn to take on the still angry Rinaldo, while Lucrezia (Elena) and Contessima (Laura) add their own two cents into the argument. Eric shoots off a wild guitar rant. Its all very theatrical, very overblown, as a rock opera should be but again, it would have a much larger and deeper impact in a live on-stage setting.

There is drop-dead beautiful main theme on 'Fall from Grace', which returns later slightly altered on the more raucous 'Legacy', a final standout track that has classic stamped all over it, as Laura really lets her lungs belt out the passion. These two tracks are my absolute favorites on this set list. This melody is so grandiose and heartfelt that it is easily worth the price of admission. 'Will I Ever Return?' has a superb Andy Sears vocal, within an adventurous arrangement with loads of Mellotron and a wicked Eric Bouillete electric guitar solo. 'Fortunes Reverse' and 'Return of the Medici' continues the plot within the same structure of contrasting atmospheres, from pastoral to bombastic, with loads of vocals. With the lyrics sheet in hand (aka the libretto) , this is superlative entertainment.

Absolutely enthralling work, my only problem is that I have never been fond of any rock opera on vinyl or CD, never went gaga over Wakeman's magnum opus (not for me, that would be the all-instrumental the 6 Wives of Henry VII debut) Voyage to the Center of the Earth, Zuffanti/Heward-Merlin or even Quadrophenia. I simply have trouble with too many vocals. So prog rock opera fans will drool all over their long-tailed tuxedos with 5 stars worth of thrown confetti but for me, this is a 4, easily 4.5 if I get to witness this in one of the afore mentioned Opera houses.

4 Tuscan tyrants

Report this review (#2845976)
Posted Friday, October 14, 2022 | Review Permalink
5 stars A double CD,beautifully produced,chronicling the Rise of the Medicis. The artwork and presentation is superb and worth you owning the CD rather than downloading.

Very much a 'rock opera' with superb orchestrations from Clive Nolan and wonderful female vocals of Laura and Elena.Laura has fantastic range,especially on Duty of Love and Legacy.I love the remix duet with Elena on CD2 on,what is my favourite,'Fall From Grace,' Add "legacy' to that as it is a fantastic rousing end to the album. I think an orchestral mix would be superb of this album,though I love the harpsichord and harp which feature strongly on the album.

Definitely one of the best of 2022 and well worth seeking out the CD special edition.

Report this review (#2869521)
Posted Wednesday, December 21, 2022 | Review Permalink
Prog Metal / Heavy Prog Team
4 stars [Originally published at The Progressive Aspect]

I think this has been the hardest review for me to finish. The album itself is well out of my usual comfort zone, and realistically the reason I took it on for review is because Eric Bouillette was so clearly proud and excited for its upcoming release. The likelihood was, I guess, that it might be the last of his music that he would be around to see the release of. So with Eric's passing, much of my reason and desire to write the review was gone. I had already let him know what I thought of the album. I had hoped to finish the review in time for him to read it. My review has languished half-finished since Eric's passing. I considered passing the album onto one of my colleagues, because I was unsure if I would ever be able to finish this review. But I feel I owe it to Eric to complete what I've started, and also to the rest of the talented artists who have contributed to Imaginærium's impressive debut.

As aforementioned, The Rise of Medici is outside my comfort zone. There are still some aspects of the album that I find hard to get on with, but what struck and astounded me from the very first listen was just how much I enjoyed listening to this album. And from that first listen, the earworms had already dug themselves deep into my brain. There are several melodies from the album that I will find myself aware of humming or singing along to at all times of every day. I'm not sure there has been a day since I first listened to the album that one of these melodies has not accompanied me at some point. That remains the most impressive aspect of The Rise of Medici, as I cannot recall a time (if ever) where an album has so worked itself under my skin.

Essentially, The Rise of Medici is a rock opera, which is enough to send shivers through the spine of many (including myself). It is all too easy for such a concept to fall into realms of great cheese and corn, more deserving of the term bombastic than most prog reviews that use the term are. While a certain degree of bombast tends to be expected, even welcomed, in the realm of prog, calling something bombastic in general usage is a criticism. It implies a theatricality more powerful and staged than is present. Style over substance. Pretentious and pompous twaddle. Grandiloquent and grandiose nonsense. And, honestly, there is definitely some bombast here - but it's simply overpowered by the majesty and gravitas with which it is delivered, and in almost every case, easily forgiven.

The vocal talent on this album is phenomenal, with great individual performances that are taken to the next level (and beyond) when they sing together. It is the vocals that provide most of the bombast - but listening to the interviews at the end of the bonus disc, Laura Piazzai is even more bombastic when she speaks than when she sings, so it would seem almost inevitable that the vocals are as expressive as they are. I have to say I prefer the vocals of Andy Sears and Elena Vladyuk, to those of Clive Nolan and Laura Piazzai, simply because they don't take their performances so far into theatricality. And, in fact, I really struggle with Clive Nolan's performance, as he is trying too hard (for my liking) to play the villain, and it becomes cartoonish. It is somewhat reminiscent (to me) of Jeremy Irons in The Lion King, but that worked because he WAS a cartoon villain. Clive Nolan's villainy just seems a little out of place - though no doubt it is perhaps the most rock operatic voice, and if this were performed in a theatre, maybe I'd think his vocals were wonderful? I don't mean to be as harsh here as I possibly come across. Clive Nolan has a really good voice. His stylistic choice on this album doesn't work for me, but I am sure a lot of people will love it!

It is interesting to hear the alternate versions of some songs on the bonus disc as they can sound startlingly different, and many of my problems with the album are addressed on the bonus disc - including the singing style of Clive Nolan! Even after many, many listens, I still cannot easily choose which versions of the songs I prefer. Normally a bonus disc gets one or two listens, and is rarely (if ever) listened to again - but I listen to the bonus disc as often as I do the original, and I can't see that ever changing. It's a real treat for those that do go for the limited edition, so if there are still copies of this available, I would urge you to purchase while you can. Much of the subtleties that are present on the album can be heard more clearly on the bonus disc, where they are less subject to being over-powered by, well, the bombast. The interviews are interesting, too, and enlightening, but I doubt I will listen to those again. However, they are definitely worth listening to.

One of the aspects I most love about The Rise of Medici is Eric Bouillette's violin playing, which is just gorgeous. It's almost omnipresent, but never overpowering or oppressive. The violin almost acts as yet another vocal harmony - one more voice in the impressive vocal line-up of this album. It's not the only instrument Eric Bouillette plays here, but it's the one that he plays to the greatest effect, and one that really heightens the "Renaissance rock" sound, feel and style of The Rise of Medici. The compositions and arrangements really do give a sense of time and place, without sounding clichéd. It's all too easy for a rock opera to fall into the realms of pastiche, and to become almost a parody of itself. The Rise of Medici never comes even close to that, and this is a strength of the album that really needs to be emphasised, in my opinion.

One of my criticisms has nothing at all to do with the music, so much as the story, which doesn't quite match history at one point. Then again, this is a rock opera, and much like recent biopic films of musicians, is not designed to be entirely factual. Some literary licence is to be expected to make the story more powerful. In this regard, it's similar to the bombastic nature of the vocals ? a theatrical device that is more or less expected of a rock opera. And given that without the patronage of the Medici family, we would be unlikely to know opera (or even the piano) as it is now recognised, this seems appropriate, even if it rubs me the wrong way a little (just as I was by some contrary to fact details in the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic, which created a "better" story, at the expense of history).

Thus my only real grievance with the album are the lyrics to Will I Never Return?, implying that exile was a fate worse than death, and that Cosimo was not sure he would ever return. Cosimo was sentenced to death, and chose exile when it was offered. While there is no actual proof, it is presumed that Cosimo himself was instrumental in his narrow escape from execution, and certainly the involvement of his wife and "brothers in arms" (such as the monk Ambrose of Camaldoli) is recognised. Once it was a case of exile, rather than execution, that aforementioned patronage from the Medici family meant it was a case of when, rather than if, Cosimo would return to Florence. The Medici name drew strong loyalty, and Cosimo knew his patrons would follow his influence and money ? which indeed they did. Florence could not afford to let Venice, where Cosimo temporarily settled, continue to prosper at its expense, and inevitably invited the exiled Medici to return. Again, I have no real issue here, and I can totally understand the choice made with the lyrics. Like my ambivalence to Clive's style of singing on this album, my reservation here is purely individual and personal, and I'm sure most listeners won't be worried by it at all.

Any criticisms I have of The Rise of Medici, then, are trivial and subjective. For an album I wasn't sure I'd enjoy at all, I enjoy it immensely. It's not going to convert me into a rock opera fan - and it's still outside my comfort zone - but Imaginærium prove with this album that is it definitely sometimes worth looking beyond that comfort zone. The Rise of Medici is strong enough that I'm surprised to admit it might be one of my favourite releases of 2022. For those already more predisposed to listen to, and like, this sort of music, it should top your list! If The Rise of Medici is not at the top of several album of the year lists come December then it will only be because it has flown under the radar. I hope that this will not be the case, because this is an album that absolutely deserves to be heard.

Report this review (#2875862)
Posted Tuesday, January 17, 2023 | Review Permalink
4 stars Imaginaerium's debut opus The Rise of Medici is a modern symphonic prog rock music concept album that performs a service: bringing history into the present- lyrically and even instrumentally, with a complement of renaissance instruments plus occasional ringing church bells and chanting monks.

Italy-born powerhouse singer Laura Piazzai has politely fielded comparisons of Imaginaerium's music to Nightwish, suggesting a much more elegant approach has been taken than straight-up symphonic metal.

For one thing, there are four vocalists assuming specific character-roles, though Laura is the most dominant as Contessina. Clive Nolan, the lyricist, is also known as the longtime keyboardist of Neo-prog group Pendragon. He sings representing Rinaldo degli Albizzi, a longtime enemy of the Medici family. Also, the album is rich with broad approaches in how the songs are presented: utilizing different percussion, harp, choral, mandolin, acoustic guitars, as well as your customary metal guitar crunch, bass and drums- crashing cymbals and all.

If you're at all like I used to be and are turned off by operatic vocals amidst modern rock and metal, be reassured the style of singing on the album is thoroughly contemporary. One of the singers, Elena Vladyuk even has a Kate Bush-like voice, and the male singers sing with great character and spice. Oh, and it's all sung in English.

Sadly Imaginaerium's composer/guitarist Eric Bouillette, also a member of French prog band 9 Skies, passed away in the summer of 2022, causing a setback and blow to this new band. A regrouping took place and they are performing live.

Compositionally the album is rock solid, filled with distinct and strong melodies like Fall from Grace for example, which has all the hallmarks of an instantly classic melody. The calibre of musicianship throughout the album is high among the vocalists and instrumentalists alike.

There's no skimping here: The album is almost an hour, and the bonus CD has what I believe are radically alternate versions worth hearing and diving into, if not just as interesting as the main CD. The songs feature different and beautiful instrumentations and vocal duets, including more prominent use of the harp and other worthy experiments, plus interviews with the 3 core members Clive, Eric and Laura.... That's just speaking of the CDs. The album packaging is truly gorgeous and satisfying, setting a high bar that I wish all album releases could follow. Much thought went into the ear book design. Good thing too, as this is the kind of album that reading the lyrics adds much to the listener's experience. The history of the Medici's is brought to life with a tag-team of passionate singers.

Another bonus for male prog fans: When listening to The Rise of Medici your partner likely won't ask you to turn the volume down.

Report this review (#2968499)
Posted Monday, November 13, 2023 | Review Permalink

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