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Renaissance's Best Effort
on August 23, 2001
Renaissance is a band that went through various permutations, the best known being the line up that featured Annie Haslam's soaring, pure vocals, John Tout's considerable piano prowess, Jon Camp's imaginative bass, Michael Dunford on guitar and Terence Sullivan on drums. This was the second, and longest-lasting lineup of the band. An earlier lineup had a completely different lineup (how/why they kept the same name is somewhat surprising considering the band had a 100% change in personnel). A later permutation had Tout and Sullivan replaced by two other musicians.
Anyway, the Haslam-led lineup had two phases in their musical styles -- an early, progressive-rock featuring long, complex arrangements of songs influenced by classical composers (particularly Prokofiev) and a later, more pop-oriented style.
"Song of Scheherazade and Other Stories" is probably the best of the band's progressive-rock years, and argued by many to be their best overall effort as well. It opens with "A Trip to the Fair", featuring typical Renaissance arrangement of piano and orchestral highlights and, of course, Annie Haslam's distinctive, beautifully strong singing voice. The album's second track, the short "The Vultures Fly High" shows the band making a (then) rare trip to pop arranging. The final track of the vinyl's side one is the poignant "Ocean Gypsy", featuring some of the best piano work John Tout turned in.
"Song of Scheherazade" took up the entire second side of the album, featuring a suite of songs which told the story of 1001 Arabian Nights in condensed form (if you can call a 24 or so minute effort "condensed"). This was certainly the highlight of the band's orchestral/classical arranging, featuring an opening fanfare, a soft romantic ballad ("The Young Prince and Princess"), a piano fugue, and upbeat finale ("The Festival"/"Finale"). From its opening to its ending, the suite presents a well-formed, cohesive movement that tells of the Sultan's betrayal by his wife and his subsequent dastardly daily wedding and execution, Scheherazade (the heroine of the story) becoming his wife and weaving a magic spell of stories for him which he cannot live without, and the sultan renouncing his ways to live with Scheherazade happily ever after. This is musical story-telling in the progressive-rock vein at its finest.
Not only was this probably Renaissance's best effort to that point, it also marked one of the last progressive-rock dominated albums they'd release. Their next studio release, "Novella", was fairly progressive-rock oriented but after that came "Song for All Seasons", on which the band started moving in a more pop/mainstream direction.
Progressive-rock lovers everywhere should get "Scheherazade" and even those whose taste for progressive-lock runs lean will probably appreciate "Ocean Gypsy" for the pure beauty of its melody and arranging, as well as the title track for its overall arrangement and story-telling.