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Renaissance - Scheherazade And Other Stories CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.32 | 1174 ratings

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4 stars Renaissance is one of those progressive groups that is respected and admired by many the world over but flew under my radar even in their heyday mainly due to a dearth of airplay and/or publicity in my neck of the woods. So when I came across "Scheherazade and other stories" whilst perusing the bins of used vinyl at a local vendor of recycled books & records recently and found myself enticed by the bargain price tag glued on said album, I realized that my time had come to delve in to Renaissance. After all, prog bands that include females are as rare as Caucasians in Somalia and I find that the feminine touch in our beloved genre is way, way underrated.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout my mounting decades of existence on this mortal coil is the childlike suspense and anticipation I get to enjoy as I sit back and listen to a band's offerings for the first time. Whether the experience turns out to be good, so-so or downright pitiful it's still something I look forward to every time. In this case I was rather pleased with what I heard. For certain it reinforces my opinion that music-wise the 70s were the most unfettered and free decade ever. There were so many sides and facets of progressive rock (and music in general) presented to the buying public simply because there were so few boundaries and restrictions shackling the artists in that era. Sure, fads came and went and the record moguls tended to be bullies but there wasn't a strictly- enforced or pervasive definition of "normal" to be found. Otherwise an eclectic approach like this group's would've never seen the light of day. I hope some generation in the future finds a way to bring that unconstrained spirit back into vogue.

"Trip to the Fair" opens with beautiful, classical-style grand piano and it totally caught me off guard. I'm not sure what I was expecting to hear, exactly, but John Tout's virtuosity on the instrument is stunning. Soon Terence Sullivan's drums and Jon Camp's bass join in along with what sounds like operatic witch howls and cackles reverberating in the background. You'd expect this combo to sound like early ELP but they bear no resemblance to that fabled trio at all. They produce a unique atmosphere. The number fades down into a music-box air for a madrigal mood that eventually grows into a sort of calliope-driven thing. Annie Haslam's crystal-clear voice rings effortlessly as she floats above the music and she's a treat to hear. After the bridge the group dives into a fun, jazzy jam in where a set of vibes and the piano try to one-up each other. They build to a lofty crescendo before returning to base and indulging in a semi-psychedelic fade out. The only drag comes by way of the banal lyrics by poetess Betty Thatcher and the occasional condescending demeanor that Haslam delivers them in.

A tense, pulsating tempo gives "The Vultures Fly High" an aura of nervous urgency that is offset nicely by Annie's soothing voice that keeps it from becoming frantic. This short but brilliantly-executed, thinly-veiled hate song about blood-thirsty record executives, unscrupulous publishers and basically anyone in authority keeps the ball rolling along without a hitch. While the London Symphony Orchestra has been kept pretty much in check so far, they become part of the overall fabric starting with the entertaining "Ocean Gypsy." Here the band lays down a grandiose backdrop for Haslam's singing with the symphony adding terrific depth of field. Camp's deft bass work is exceptional throughout but when the musical interlude arrives led by Tout's piano (he paints colorfully with big, broad strokes) the whole tune blossoms exponentially and the massive chorale triumphantly places the cherry on top. It ends simply with a subtle verse and chorus but it still gets high marks for its sheer scope.

As admirable as those three tunes are, the album's namesake and showcase side-long epic is better and quite impressive. Divided into nine interwoven segments that all but the drummer had a hand in composing, "Song of Scheherazade" is an excellent exercise in blending orchestra with rock, a feat many have tried but few have succeeded in doing well. Tout's "Fanfare" sounds like something befitting an over-the-top stage entrance by Aladdin astride a flying carpet but it quickly morphs into "The Betrayal," an energetic meshing of the group and symphony that's tight and sprightly without cutting any prog corners. They then turn down the intensity a notch or two for "The Sultan," a melodic duet that features Annie and one of the guys singing about a vengeful monarch so despicable he makes Vlad the Impaler, in comparison, seem about as evil as the Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street. There's a nifty blend of Mellotron with the real string section going on here and the repeating "Scheherazade" chorus is very Moody Blues-ish in a cool way. Camp's "Love Theme" is next and it starts out as a gorgeous solo piano piece that, for some inane reason, is muted so low you can barely hear it but broadens considerably once the orchestra jumps in. "The Young Prince and the Young Princess as told by Scheherazade" follows and, as the descriptive title indicates, it's a recital in song of just one of the 1001 tales that our quick-thinking heroine rattles off for the sinister sultan in order to save her neck. The too-flowery words don't detract from the maturity of Haslam's vocal and the writing skills of guitarist Mick Dunford. They work great together.

The beginning of "Festival Preparations" drops down in volume so much that one has to strain one's eardrums to perceive it, then the symphony creeps in piece by piece to eventually bring the music back up to an audible level. "Fugue for the Sultan" is a delightful, piano-led instrumental where Tony Cox's fine orchestral score shines brightly as he employs invigorating dynamics to electrify the movement. "The Festival" starts with sweet, fluid flute that precedes yet another impressionable piano solo (I can't say enough about Tout's talent). Some light interplay with an oboe is next, leading to more of the tasteful cooperative mingling of the symphony with a rock attitude that so characterizes this album. They then step down to a not-so-simple acoustic guitar with vocal segment where we learn that Ms. S has so successfully charmed the chauvinistic slime bag with her fascinating stories that he's had a change of heart and has decided to stop murdering all the virgins of his realm the morning after he deflowers them. His poor subjects are so ecstatic that they stage a huge throw-down party in the streets and Scheherazade gets to marry the psychopathic sultan. Lucky her. The aptly named "Finale" delivers in spades as they bring into Abbey Road Studios what sounds like half of London to join in the magnificent, towering chorale propped up expertly by the full orchestra, capped off with a graceful ending.

If I didn't place such a high premium on inventive lyric content in prog music this might have attained masterpiece status. Alas, the outdated words weaken the impact because far too often they're of the vanilla "moon in June" variety and venture perilously close to nursery rhyme territory. There are times when it comes off like Annie is singing to pre-schoolers at naptime. (Not her fault, she didn't pen the lyrics.) Having said that, the group's music and performance is superb from beginning to end and more than makes up for that blemish. The classically-trained members of the orchestra weren't required to lower their high-brow standards for this project and it shows in the quality of their ensemble playing. A worthy addition to anyone's symphonic progressive rock collection. 3.9 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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