Renaissance – Grandine il Vento

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A new Renaissance album has to be approached with expectations.  If I rush in expecting something akin to their 1971-1978 heyday, then I’m only going to be disappointed.  If I set my expectations too low, then I’m not going to be fair.  So I approached this openly, as best I can characterize it.

The original band had a number of significant factors contributing to it that would be absent here: Jon Camp's melodic but aggressive bass, John Tout’s classically oriented piano leanings with an inner ear for what sounds right, and, not to be taken too lightly, Terrence Sullivan’s contributions on drums – always appropriate for the music, not more, not less.  Sadly, this lineup almost reformed several years ago, for which I would have paid Led Zeppelin dollars to witness. 

All is not lost, however.  The effort would be pointless without lead singer Annie Haslam, who set the band apart from any era’s progressive rock bands not only be her gender but by her vocal range.   Also, this CD features the return of Michael Dunford, whose compositional skills bring together the pieces amongst which Haslam’s voice are best heard.  Also featured is pianist/keyboardist Rave Tesar, Haslam’s musical partner for many years.

The best news is that the band clearly reaches to the 1975-1977 era for the root of much of the songs.  This is in contrast to the 2001 reunion Tuscany, which by song length and styling never reached beyond “pleasant music.” 

Grandine Il Vento opens with the best and worst of what follows on the CD.  “Symphony of Light,” lyrically an obtuse appreciation of Leonardo di Vinci, begins and ends with a sparsely accompanied operatic vocal, a sterile inclusion that gives no hint to the musical ambition within the frames.  What lies between is a complex, pace changing musical pursuit that takes the listener back to the sweet spot of their career.

And here I am trying to say I’ve lowered my expectations.  But here’s the question.  Am I being too selfish in asking that the band sound like they did almost 40 years ago, or do they sound best with the instruments and production values of that time?  I think both.

“Symphony of Light” is particularly frustrating in that it comes so close to what I want to hear, but someone decided that 1) the bass should exit the mixer only for conjugal visits and 2) modern keyboards would be appreciated by their faithful audience.  No, the bass should be heard, driving throughout each song, and keyboards should only provide color beyond the elegance of intricate piano... and usually very closely calling on orchestral instruments.   I don’t think that’s a secret recipe.  Those two factors are featured in every song that audiences want to hear, and they frustrate each song on this CD.

That said, it’s still an encouraging start.

“Waterfall,” featuring bird effects at the start and close, is a beautiful vocal piece, but falls within the “pleasant music” category.  It’s better positioned as a Haslam solo song, as it’s not representative of the band’s sound.

The title track, translated as “Hail the Wind,” is where the CD begins to earn appreciation.  Less the two failings noted above, this song has what I want to hear.   A musically adventurous song, charged vocals, and even very good lyrics.  A single snippet of Gregorian chants was a nice inclusion.  It might have made a nice motif.  It should be noted that this song excelled live, where the bass could be heard properly.  On record, it sounds like the band is holding back a bit, just a tad too much dead space.

“Porcelain” is a song in conflict.  It features a catchy keyboard melody that sounds like Tesar’s approach to accompanying Haslam’s voice, with musical sections inserted from Dunford to make it sound closer to the band’s sound.  The bass is doing some very Jon Camp-ish things if you listen closely.  It’s imminently listenable, but like Toto’s “Africa,” the lyrics don’t satisfy.

I should have mentioned in the concert review that Haslam was most alive when 1 on 1 with a young disable fan.  It was endearing, and “Cry to the World,” in retrospect, comes across as a more honest expression than the usual “life is cruel and the people in power suck” societal observations.  Ian Anderson’s flute makes this song worthy of repeated listens, but again it sounded even better live.

“Air of Drama” is a winner through and through.  Bassist David Keyes’ vocals blends perfectly with Haslam’s, and it compares favorably with the band’s best, straightforward songs (“Carpet of the Sun,” “Back Home Once Again,” “Northern Lights.”)  The band sounds alive and engaged throughout, and the lyrics and tune allow Haslam to sing nimbly.

John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia) is a guest vocalist on “Blood Silver Like Moonlight,” a duet accompanied only by Tesar’s excellent piano.  Like Keyes, he complements Haslam well, who sings beautifully throughout.

The closer, “The Mystic and the Muse,” while still victim to my two production objections, is a fitting finale.  The music recalls Scheherazade most pointedly, all members of the band are engaged making sonic candy, the lyrics are perfect, and the vocals are timeless Annie.  I wouldn’t have minded another 10 minutes of it...

All in all, this was much better than I had expected, and it gets better with repeated listenings, when “what is” can be better appreciated over “what isn’t.”  Ignoring their last reunion attempt, it is particularly pleasing to hear new music from Renaissance after all this time.

Recommended Songs: “Grandine il Vento,” “Air of Drama,” “Blood Silver Like Moonlight,” “The Mystic and the Muse”

3 of 5 STARS

3 comments :

  1. Great review, but no-one word about Michael Dunford passing away?

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  2. No, but I think anyone who reads this because they're interested are likely to know about Dunford, and the recording was complete by the time he passed. Sadly, without his guidance, I think this is their last hurrah, at least for anything sounding like their classic period.

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  3. Nice review. I reviewed it for progarchives and gave it exactly the same rating. It is interesting that this album probably has a wider variety of sounds than all their(mk ii) 70s albums put together and yet somewhere seems to lack that verve and adventure. And we are talking of Renaissance, not Gentle Giant or King Crimson! I think rather than their age in the physical sense, it has more to do with going trends in rock music. This ties in nicely with what the retro-prog crowd likes. But I won't complain, I am happy they got to make an album again in the first place. This is one terribly unlucky band.

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