- The Mystic and the Muse
Perhaps unlike some of you, my introduction to Renaissance’s discography wasn’t chronological; rather than starting from the beginning, my first exposure to the band was their 1975 album Scheherazade and Other Stories album, albeit many years later. The format of the album is engaging, starting out with several shorter, more accessible tracks, and climaxing with the massive beauty that is “Scheherezade” a piece that had me in awe of the classic British act due to their jaw dropping orchestrations, deft songwriting capabilities, and of course, the angelic voice of Annie Haslam. While for many, including myself, Scheherazade represents the pinnacle of Renaissance, their 2014 release, Symphony of Light, effectively reminded me of all the nice things that make these veteran symphonic rockers tick. Like their classic 70’s albums, Symphony of Light boils down to the knack Renaissance has for delivering solid art songs and epic symphonic rock pieces.
One thing that catches my attention about Renaissance is their keen ability to make songs that somehow call to mind something between pop rock, the classical art song tradition, and musical theater. “Air of Drama” is perhaps my favorite example of this, a track that would blend in perfectly on a stage musical production, particularly in the way that Annie and David trade vocal lines, calling their dialogue to the forefront, highlighting Haslam’s darker parts with the more optimistic sections led by David Keyes. Throw in Hart and Tesar hammering it out on the harpsichord, Mellotron flutes, and swelling according and we get a nice art song with strong theatrical overtones. The John Wetton fans will be pleased to hear his duet with Haslam on the pleasant piano ballad, “Blood Silver Like Moonlight,” and if you’re looking for a nice pop track with a huge, uplifting symphonic chorus, “Cry to the World” will certainly suit your fancy. And even though I generally run like the dickens when a ballad appears, I can’t help but feeling that “Tonight” absolutely nailed it with its romantic sway, pretty arrangements, and Broadway musical feel. And while Symphony of Light is mainly a re-release of last year’s Il Grandine Vento with new cover artwork and two extra tracks, it is certainly well worth it due to the presence of the new closer, “Renaissance Man.” A touching tribute to the late Michael Dunford, Renaissance’s very own chief mastermind, “Renaissance Man” sports lyrics of grateful praise to Dunford’s hard work, inspiration, and wide imagination. The dynamic of this song is absolutely lovely as the recurring piano theme walks the line between sadness and joy, while the ‘chorus’ spouts a majestic, symphonic swell before ending each time delicately with a major chord and gentle ritard before the return of the primary piano motif. Recognizing both the sadness in death and the hope in life, this track truly is a great tribute to Dunford’s legacy.
And while Renaissance shows great skill at bringing art music elements to their more ‘catchy’ tracks, I would bet that what truly has won over our little prog hearts is their more dramatic, symphonic prog pieces. Such is the case with “Symphony of Light,” “Grandine il vento,” and “The Mystic and the Muse” all tracks which reminded me of why I love this band. In terms of dramatic flavor, the intro to “Symphony of Light” couldn’t get any better with its surreal chord changes that undulate from dark to light alongside a solid dose of theatricality. Haslam’s voice certainly has aged well, still feeling expressive but now taking on a more haunting edge. The first two minutes had me grinning, but the song only gets better as a break with tolling church bells leads the way to a duo of synth and acoustic guitar that introduces perhaps what would be the main verse, exhibiting loads of tension in its repetitive motion. As the drumming kicks in we get a more optimistic section full of symphonic elements prior to the next verse. Over various instrumental twists and turns we get all the things we love in Renaissance, including their classic piano playing and huge orchestral arrangements that always exhibit just enough dynamic bombast without forgetting restraint. A bit more on the ‘symphonic rock-lite’ side of things, “Grandine” really hits the spot with introspective, surreal lyrics, and deep sense of mystery. From its delicate piano to the gentle sparkling of guitars, ambient keys, and upbeat, operatic sensibility, we see Renaissance delivering their specialty, this time in a more conventional form. Just as the band kicked it off huge with “Symphony of Light,” they make sure to give us an epic feast towards the end of the record in the form of “The Mystic and the Muse,” my personal favorite from the album. In my opinion this track is right up there with the classics of Renaissance’s catalog, a song featuring loads of feeling. Opening up like a horror film soundtrack, “The Mystic and the Muse” delivers dark, gothic chords under Haslam’s roaring and eerie bombast. When the drum kit gets in the groove I must admit that there was a lot of head bobbing going on in the room and I could feel that the band was really going to take us on a big, musical journey. Repeated descending piano riffs contrasting orchestral arrangements make for a very visual presentation as Annie holds some fascinating verse melodies that scream out mystery and wonder. Following a beautiful narrative refrain, Renaissance takes us on an a powerful tour of symphonic rock through several key changes before a brief breather that takes 500% advantage of carefully placed notes on the vocal line for grand effect on a quiet yet intense middle section. I must say that I was also pleased that the song eventually led us back to that killer refrain and beastly vampire chords, big drums, and soaring vocals that ooze coolness.
If what you’re looking for is something that deliver’s 21st century Renaissance with the marvelous feel of the 70’s era of the band, Symphony of Light should be right up your alley. Essentially, what you get a slew of good art rock alongside a couple of ambitious symphonic rock pieces that marvelously succeed in their efforts to bring dramatic music, theatricality, and strong songwriting to the table. All in all, Symphony of Light is a worthy memory of Dunford and the band’s sophisticated vision of what rock can be.
Check out Renaissance’s new album, tour, and more from the band at: